Brown Bank: More Jimmy Buffett than Warren Buffett
In the general pandemonium surrounding the unveiling of the carbon tax package last week, it was easy to overlook the dodgy little purchase incentive that came as part of the bundle. Shrink-wrapped to the side of the carbon tax box was something called the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).
Behind the feel good name, this new bureaucracy is little more than a $10 billion, off-the-books venture capital fund, underwritten by the taxpayers and created for the sole purpose of providing generous loans and guarantees to highly speculative startups in the renewable energy sector.
This shonky “Gillard Bank” will involve an unelected board, chosen by Julia Gillard and Bob Brown, picking winners with minimal public scrutiny, no apparent requirement for cost benefit analyses and no apparent tender processes with objective criteria to ensure value for money. In all probability the CEFC will direct funds to projects that conventional financiers wouldn’t touch because they would be deemed too risky. While the actual policy documents are silent on where the $10 billion will come from, Government sources have suggested the money will come from the issue of billions of dollars in government bonds.
If nothing else, this newfound fondness for the finance game goes to the heart of a long-running hypocrisy. During the Global Financial Crisis, Labor Members and Greens Senators were lining up to take pot shots at “greedy” corporate types from abroad who had grown fat off the back of dodgy loans to high risk customers.
Fast forward two years and suddenly the same people are perfectly happy to throw huge sums of money at the kind of companies most conventional financiers wouldn’t even let through the door. In this brave new watermelon world it appears that it’s perfectly OK to make highly speculative investments with other people’s money as long as the companies you’re investing in are part of an industry that is deemed to be “good.”
And then there’s the duplicity. As the carbon sell got underway last week, Treasurer Wayne Swan told the ABC’s Madonna King that the carbon tax would not impact the Government’s ability to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13. What he forgot to mention is that the only reason that’s possible is because the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is funded “off-budget”.
Basically that means the Government can spend the money without having to account for it in the federal budget. It comes on top of another $18.2 billion of “off-budget” money they’ve already ploughed into the NBN. Without this neat accounting trick, Labor’s claims of future surpluses would be blown to smithereens.
The ability to hide almost $30 billion of spending “off-budget” is based on the highly dubious proposition that these projects will generate a commercial return to taxpayers. This in turn relies on the frankly heroic assumption that this Government is better at recognising value for money than the free market. Keep in mind we’re talking about people who saw good value in buying digital set top boxes at three times their market price and who couldn’t even give away roof insulation without making a multi billion dollar mess of it.
Based on the Government’s track record, it’s only a matter of time before this latest piece of economic absurdity explodes in a shower of rorting, blowouts, waste and cronyism.
Even if the Corporation does end up being funded by government securities, in practice it will make next to no difference. The Government still has to pay the annual dividend, and at some point, the face value of the bond. It’s anyone’s guess as to where that money will come from if the entity the securities are bankrolling isn’t turning a profit or, more likely, has collapsed altogether. As such, it’s wildly optimistic to think taxpayers aren’t going to be left severely exposed.
But despite the obvious flaws in its design, and the abysmal policy implementation credentials of its creators, perhaps the most bizarre thing about the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is that it is completely and utterly redundant. The Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund and the Emerging Renewables program both do almost exactly the same thing the CEFC is supposed to do.
The difference with those programs is that there is no pretence that there will be a return to taxpayers and therefore the operating costs are accounted for in the budget. Of course, those two projects have operating budgets significantly more modest than that of their off-the-books sibling. Regardless, when we already have two overlapping programs devoted to subsidising the renewable energy sector, it takes a naïve observer to believe that this one won’t be used as a slush fund for the Greens’ pet projects, as opposed to those that achieve value for money outcomes for taxpayers.
Speaking of which, it will be fascinating to see if any of the renewable energy firms starring in those taxpayer funded ads currently saturating prime-time are on the receiving end of any CEFC largesse.
Either way, even if the Corporation does try to direct funds to the most viable companies, the fact remains that at this point in time picking winners in the renewable energy sector is a mug’s game. The industry is simply too volatile for investors to have any sort of certainty.
The Prime Minister herself admitted as much while launching the Emerging Renewables project last year. At the time Ms Gillard said there was a “high level of risk attached to future revenue streams which may be delayed for many years into the future.” Does that sound like an industry you’d like to invest borrowed money in?
Unfortunately, unless Ms Gillard issues herself with one of her proposed licences to punt, there doesn’t appear to be much chance to stop her throwing our money at roughies. Personally I’d feel safer putting my hard earned on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation being another Labor fiasco.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…