Posts tagged ‘offsets’

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

My Annual Mockery of Arizona Budget Games

If it's June, it must be time for me to mock Arizona budget games.  To save re-writing the old post over and over, here is what I wrote several years ago.

In May of this year I got a form from the Arizona Department of Revenue that said my company was now large enough to make estimated sales tax pre-payments.  Some states do this when you are large enough - they don't like you holding their sales tax money a whole month until the reporting deadline, they want their cash in hand.  Its a pain, so I sighed, but we did it.  We prepaid estimated full-month June sales tax in mid-June as required, rather than in mid-July when the payment would normally be due.  Note that we still have to fill out all the sales tax reports in July, so paperwork is doubled, not to mention the extra work to reconcile between the estimate and actual results.

So this month, I was looking for the July pre-payment form.  I figured the July pre-payment must be due soon, so I called the Department of Revenue and asked where my form was.  They said there was no form for July.  The pre-payment is only one time.  I said, "its only for June?" and they said yes.  You can see the blank form online is hard-coded for June.

Then it dawned on me:  Arizona is on a June 30 fiscal year.  The entire point of this exercise is to pull July revenues into June to artificially inflate the prior fiscal year financials.  Wow - all those pious government workers artificially manipulating results just like an evil old corporation.  Because there is absolutely no other reason to do this for just one month.  The time value of money gained is dwarfed by the costs of changing your payment processing approach for just one month, and is certainly dwarfed if you consider the extra taxpayer effort required (which of course the government never does).

But it's even worse!  Because, in effect, this only worked one time -- the first time.  The first time they did this, they helped the fiscal year.  But now, pulling forward July this year just offsets losing the July revenues from last year.  So politicians have saddled us with a tax process that costs the government more money and the taxpayer more time and has no benefit beyond generating a slightly more positive press release about the budget for some politician several years ago (whatever year this was first implemented).

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.

Carbon Offset Scams

I have written before about carbon offset scams -- even well intentioned programs are unlikely to achieve their promised benefits because

  • The projects they fund are typically not incremental -- many likely would have proceeded without the offset funds, so that the benefits are effectively double counted.
  • I have never seen any of these programs submit themselves to 3rd party offset of their supposed CO2 reductions.  In most cases, these are faith-based programs where it is impolite to ask if the promised reductions actually occur.

Randal O'Toole has a good example of a program that makes all these mistakes, and compounds them with absurdly high administrative costs.  One is left to wonder whether the Oregon state-run program is actually reducing CO2 or simply making sure a number of government salaries get paid.

In 2006, Climate Trust spent about two-thirds of its funds on carbon offsets, while most of the rest went for payroll and professional fees. In 2007, the share going to carbon offsets declined to 64 percent. By 2008, as near as I can tell, none of Climate Trust's money went for carbon offsets. Instead, 73 percent of its $1.65 million budget went for salaries, fees, and other compensation. It also spent more than $120,000 on travel and conferences and $95,000 on rent and office expenses. In 2008, Climate Trust paid its executive director $154,000, not counting health insurance and other fringe benefits. At least one other staff member whose title was "director of offset programs" was paid more than $100,000 and a third one received $88,000.

Climate Bill Payoffs

I am again hearing rumblings that the climate bill may pass the House.  If so, it will be interesting to see what last minute bribes were added to make this happen.  The most recent bribe we know about is the commitment to pay farmers not to grow crops with the weak window dressing that this is somehow a carbon offset.

The logic behind this farm offset provision is actually hilarious, as it undermines years of BS arguments by corn ethanol supporters.  These ethanol supporters have argued, against the results of every study ever conducted outside of a state school in the corn belt, that the CO2 used in growing corn and processing it into ethanol is less than the CO2 absorbed by corn while growing.

But the argument of farmers in the recent climate bill is that farmers should be paid to do nothing (ie leave fields fallow) because this will reduce CO2 produced in growing the crops.  But this is only the case if such CO2 in the production phase is larger than the CO2 absorbed from the crop's growth.  So if Waxman-Markey passes, we will have expensive energy provisions based  on the assumption that Co2 used in crop production simultaneously both is and isn't greater than CO2 absorbed in growth.  Outstanding.

By the way, for those who still haven't figured out the power of the farm lobby, note that while farmers are paid not to do their business, no other class of individual or industry will recieve similar payments.

Waxman-Markey

Though I disagree with McArdle on the magnitude of potential warming, I think her assessment of Waxman-Markey is dead on:

But the real question, I think, is whether the low cost is a feature or a bug.  The only way a bill is going to have an impact is if it causes real financial pain to American households--enough to get them to change their behavior.  Waxman-Markey obviously is not going to do that.  And indeed, the projections of its effect on global warming are entirely negligible.

So the reason to get this mad about Waxman-Markey is either that you think it provides a framework for future action, or that you think it will persuade China and India to get on board.  The latter is, I think, entirely wishful thinking on the part of American environmentalists.  China is not going to let its citizens languish in subsistence farming because 30 years from now, some computer models say there will be some not-well-specified bad effects from high temperatures. Nor is India.  Global warming isn't even high on the list of environmental concerns they'll want to attack as they get rich; local air pollution is far more pressing.  Thinking that we're somehow going to lead them by example is like thinking that poor rural teens are going to buy electric cars because Ed Begley jr. has one.

No, I think the argument has to rest on the notion that Waxman-Markey gives us a framework to advance.  And it might.  But then again, Europe's much-vaunted system has had multiple spectacular failures, and the only reductions it has actually achieved seem to come largely from controversial offsets with large auditing problems.

OK, I Give Up. Maybe Environmentalism is a Religion

I have generally rejected comparisons of global warming activism to religion as unproductive.  But I give up.  Apparently global warming activists are digging into the Catholic playbook and stealing shamelessly.  Not satisfied with token acts of faith (e.g. sorting the recycling), indulgences (carbon offsets), and refusing to tolerate heresy, they have now adopted meat-free days of the week, switching only the day, from Friday to Monday.   I can see the Catholic bumper sticker now --  "the Catholic Church:  Fighting Global Warming Since the Year 858".

Linking Your Fate to Obama

When purchasing some Amtrak tickets earlier today, I encountered a link to an organization selling carbon offsets.  Does anyone else think, after looking at this organization's logo, that they have decided to hitch their wagon to Obama's coattails?  I guess there is an "O" in their name, but groups seldom adopt the fifth letter of a ten-letter word as their initial.

Don't miss some of my past criticisms of double and triple counting in the offset world here and here and here and here.

Offset Sellers Only Double-Dipping?

From Steven Malloy:

Congress
began investigating the carbon offset industry this week. The inquiry
could produce some "inconvenient truths" for Al Gore and the nascent
offset industry.

Carbon offsets ostensibly allow buyers to
expunge their consciences of the new eco-sin of using energy derived
from fossil fuels. Worried about the 8 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)
emitted each year by your SUV? Similar to the indulgences offered by
Pope Leo X in the 16th century, you can absolve yourself of sin by
purchasing $96 worth of CO2 offsets "“ typically offered at $12 per ton
of CO2 emitted "“ from offset brokers who, in turn, supposedly use your
cash to pay someone else to produce electricity with low or no CO2
emissions....

A
Capitol Hill staffer told me that the congressional inquiry would look
into the possibility of "double-dipping" in the offset industry.

Only double-dipping?  Earlier, I argued that the purveyors of offsets may be triple dipping:

  1. Their energy projects produce electricity, which they sell to
    consumers.  Since the
    electricity is often expensive, they sell it as "CO2-free"
    electricity.  This is possible in some sates -- for example in Texas,
    where Whole Foods made headlines by buying only CO2-free power.  So the
    carbon offset is in the bundle that they sell to
    electricity customers.  That is sale number one. 
  2. The company most assuredly seeks out and gets
    government subsidies.  These subsidies are based on the power being
    "CO2-free".  This is sale number two, in exchange for subsidies. 
  3. They still have to finance the initial construction of the plant, though.  Regular heartless
    investors require a, you know, return on capital.  So Terrapass
    finances their projects in part by selling these little certificates that you
    saw at the Oscars.  This is a way of financing their plants from people
    to whom they don't have to pay dividends or interest "”just the feel-good
    sense of abatement.  This is the third sale of the carbon credits.

Accounting for Offsets

Anybody who has been a part of a productive business (e.g. so this excludes almost all politicians and academics) will probably have experience with some type of profit improvement program.  Usually you are doing about a hundred things simultaneously to reduce costs.  When costs actually go down, you find yourself scratching you head - what actually made the difference.  Everyone will claim that their program or initiatives saved the company X amount of money, but when you add up all the X's, you get a number four or five times the actual improvement. 

Well, apparently the same dynamic occurs in carbon offsets:

An investigation by the Financial Times
suggests that many carbon offsets are illusory, and that there is
little assurance that purchasing carbon offsets does much of anything
to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Specifically, the report found:

-
Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless
credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

- Industrial companies profiting from doing very little "“ or from
gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they
have already benefited substantially.

- Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.

- A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.

Who in the world would have every predicted this?  Well, it turns out a lot of people did, including me.  For example, I suggested that companies like Terrapass are probably selling their CO2 offsets at least three times:

  1. Their energy projects produce electricity, which they sell to
    consumers.  Since the
    electricity is often expensive, they sell it as "CO2-free"
    electricity.  This is possible in some sates -- for example in Texas,
    where Whole Foods made headlines by buying only CO2-free power.  So the
    carbon offset is in the bundle that they sell to
    electricity customers.  That is sale number one. 
  2. The company most assuredly seeks out and gets
    government subsidies.  These subsidies are based on the power being
    "CO2-free".  This is sale number two, in exchange for subsidies. 
  3. They still have to finance the initial construction of the plant, though.  Regular heartless
    investors require a, you know, return on capital.  So Terrapass
    finances their projects in part by selling these little certificates that you
    saw at the Oscars.  This is a way of financing their plants from people
    to whom they don't have to pay dividends or interest "”just the feel-good
    sense of abatement.  This is the third sale of the carbon credits.

I also suggested that there is an incredible opportunity for outright fraud:

This type of thing is incredibly amenable to fraud.  If you sell more
than 100% of an investment, eventually the day of reckoning will come
when you can't pay everyone their shares (a la the Producers).  But if
people are investing in CO2 abatement -- you can sell the same ton over
and over and no one will ever know.

Finally I argued that many of the abatement numbers make no sense:

Something smells here, and it is not the cow-poop methane.  This 100,000 pound [CO2 Offset] coupon retails for $399.75 (5x79.95) on the TerraPass web site.
First, this rate implies that all 300 million Americans could offset
their CO2 emissions for about $100 billion a year, a ridiculously low
figure that would be great news if true. 

Lets look at solar, something I know because I live in Arizona and have looked at it a few times.  Here is the smallest, cheapest installation
I can find.  It produces 295 CO2-free Kw-hours in a month if you live
in Phoenix, less everywhere else.  That is enough to run one PC 24
hours a day -- and nothing else.  Or, it is enough to run about 10
75-watt light bulbs 12 hours a day -- and nothing else.  In other
words, it is way, way, way short of powering up a star's Beverly Hills
mansion, not to mention their car and private jet.  It would not run
one of the air conditioning units on my house.  And it costs $12,000!
Even with a 20 year life and a 0% discount rate, that still is more
than $399.75 a year.  For TerraPass's offset claim to be correct, they
have to have a technology that is one and probably two orders of
magnitude more efficient than solar in Arizona.

[update:  Al Gore's house 221,000 kwH last year.  Call it 18,400KwH
per month, that would require about 62 of these solar installations for
$744,000.  I don't think $399.75 is really offsetting it]

Coyote Warned You

Who would have ever predicted this...

BARNET, VT. -- Sara Demetry thought she had found a way to atone for her personal contribution to global warming.

The
psychotherapist clicked on a website that helped her calculate how much
heat-trapping carbon dioxide she and her fiance emitted each year,
mostly by driving and heating their home. Then she paid $150 to e-BlueHorizons.com, a company that promises to offset emissions.

But Demetry's
money did not make as much difference as she thought it would. While
half of it went to plant trees to absorb carbon dioxide, the other half
went to a Bethlehem, N.H., facility that destroys methane -- a gas that
contributes to global warming. The facility has been operating since
2001 -- years before the company began selling offsets -- and Demetry's money did not lead the company to destroy any more methane than it would have anyway.

Well, I predicted it:

I don't have any inside information on TerraPass, the company made
famous by providing the $399.75 certificates that offset all your
emissions for a year.  I do know that the numbers don't seem to add up,
as I wrote here and Protein Wisdom similarly wrote here.

However, I thought about their business model some (since I have been on a role with new business models) and it strikes me that it is brilliant.  Because I am almost positive that they are (legally) reselling the same carbon credits at least three times!...

  1. Their energy projects produce electricity, which they sell to
    consumers.  Since the
    electricity is often expensive, they sell it as "CO2-free"
    electricity.  This is possible in some sates -- for example in Texas,
    where Whole Foods made headlines by buying only CO2-free power.  So the
    carbon offset is in the bundle that they sell to
    electricity customers.  That is sale number one. 
  2. The company most assuredly seeks out and gets
    government subsidies.  These subsidies are based on the power being
    "CO2-free".  This is sale number two, in exchange for subsidies. 
  3. They still have to finance the initial construction of the plant, though.  Regular heartless
    investors require a, you know, return on capital.  So Terrapass
    finances their projects in part by selling these little certificates that you
    saw at the Oscars.  This is a way of financing their plants from people
    to whom they don't have to pay dividends or interest "”just the feel-good
    sense of abatement.  This is the third sale of the carbon credits.

My guess is that the majority of carbon offsets sold are for projects that would have gone ahead anyway, without the purchase of the offset (for example, planting trees or building power plants).  In this case, e-BlueHorizons is doing #3 after the plant was commissioned.   Caveat Emptor.  HT: Maggie's Farm

State of Arizona Channeling Enron

In May of this year I got a form from the Arizona Department of Revenue that said my company was now large enough to make estimated sales tax pre-payments.  Some states do this when you are large enough - they don't like you holding their sales tax money a whole month until the reporting deadline, they want their cash in hand.  It's a pain, so I sighed, but we did it.  We prepaid estimated full-month June sales tax in mid-June as required, rather than in mid-July when the payment would normally be due.  Note that we still have to fill out all the sales tax reports in July, so paperwork is doubled, not to mention the extra work to reconcile between the estimate and actual results.

So this month, I was looking for the July pre-payment form.  I figured the July pre-payment must be due soon, so I called the Department of Revenue and asked where my form was.  They said there was no form for July.  The pre-payment is only one time.  I said, "its only for June?" and they said yes.

Then it dawned on me:  Arizona is on a June 30 fiscal year.  The entire point of this exercise is to pull July revenues into June to artificially inflate the prior fiscal year financials.  Wow - all those pious government workers artificially manipulating results just like an evil old corporation.  Because there is absolutely no other reason to do this for just one month.  The time value of money gained is dwarfed by the costs of changing your payment processing approach for just one month, and is certainly dwarfed if you consider the extra taxpayer effort required (which of course the government never does).

But it's even worse!  Because, in effect, this only worked one time -- the first time.  The first time they did this, they helped the fiscal year.  But now, pulling forward July this year just offsets losing the July revenues from last year.  So politicians have saddled us with a tax process that costs the government more money and the taxpayer more time and has no benefit beyond generating a slightly more positive press release about the budget for some politician several
years ago (whatever year this was first implemented).