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Joe Biden constrained: how Wall Street positioned for divided US government



Investors approached the US presidential election with confidence that Democratic challenger Joe Biden would win, and win big. By the end of the week, they were cheering at the prospect of a more circumscribed Biden presidency shackled by a Republican Senate. 

Going into the week, the bet was on a “blue wave” of Democratic victories for the presidency and Senate. Many investors fastened on to a “reflation trade” — betting that a big fiscal spending spree would help stimulate economic growth and stir inflation, in turn hitting US government bonds.

But once again, 2020 wrongfooted investors. The forecast easy win for Mr Biden did not materialise. Democrats did not sweep comfortably into the Senate. And the blue wave trades quickly crashed on the shore. 

“I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and politics is really really difficult,” said Vadim Zlotnikov, president of Fidelity Institutional Asset Management. “It’s almost impossible to predict the outcome, and even if you can, you have no idea what the market reaction will be.” 


The “blue wave” trade neared its peak as investors sold US government debt. The 10-year Treasury yield rose to 0.87 per cent — the highest since June. The US stock market rose 1.2 per cent and the Vix volatility index declined, as some hedge funds bet that fears over post-election mayhem might be overdone. 

“There is a bit of relief about Biden being ahead in the polls,” said Emmanuel Cau, head of European equity strategy at Barclays.

Line chart of Betting market odds (%) showing Biden was clear favourite against Trump on election night


When results started to emerge, President Donald Trump’s unexpectedly strong early showing in a series of states raised the possibility that he might keep the White House after all, while the Democrats looked less likely to regain control of the Senate.

The Florida call for Mr Trump changed everything, said the head of Treasury trading at one hedge fund. “The bond market responded very, very aggressively,” he said.

Having soared to 0.94 per cent, 10-year Treasury yields tumbled back below 0.8 per cent — one of the biggest post-election bond rallies since 2000 — as investors dialled down expectations for a big debt-financed stimulus package. 

Column chart showing US government bond market responds to fading 'blue wave' expectations

Stocks were steadier in thin trading, but futures took a hit when Mr Trump late on Tuesday night prematurely claimed victory and baselessly claimed the election was “a major fraud on our nation”, raising the possibility of a messy transfer of power, one of Wall Street’s worst-case scenarios. 

Still, battle-hardened traders and investors, who dealt with chaotic scenes in markets in March all while working from home, took it in their stride. Trading volumes in most asset classes peaked around the time that Mr Trump won in Florida, and tailed off by dawn.


It became clearer that Mr Biden’s strength in mail-in ballots might still tip the scales in his favour, boosting expectations for a split between the White House and Senate.

“This is not the worst outcome from the market’s perspective,” said Sonal Desai, chief investment officer at Franklin Templeton’s fixed income group. “For some of the less market-friendly policy measures which had been espoused by the Democratic platform, there will at least be some restraint, and that will come from the Senate.”

The S&P 500 rose 2.2 per cent, its best one-day gain since June, with technology stocks dominating once again. 

Line chart of % change since evening of November 1 showing US stocks rally as investors parse election results


The stocks rally continued and broadened, despite president Trump fulminating against the swing towards his rival, and Republicans launching lawsuits to halt the count of mail-in ballots in states where the incumbent was leading.

However, many investors also took heart from the lack of severe unrest. As a result, the Vix volatility index sloped down on Thursday to its lowest level in a month

“Downside risks remain in a contested election outcome, but the key drivers for risk assets are still in place in our view,” said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer of UBS Global Wealth Management.

Line chart showing Wall Street volatility expectations soar in lead-up to election


By the end of the week, victory for Joe Biden looked increasingly likely after he took the lead in Pennsylvania, but the stocks rally cooled.

After gaining more than 7 per cent through the first four days of the week, the S&P 500 was flat on Friday, while the yield of the 10-year Treasury nudged back to 0.83 per cent.

The potential for a split between the presidency and Congress, which is still not assured, also weighed on the dollar. With a fiscal boost now likely to be later, and smaller, than it might have been under clear Democratic control, the US Federal Reserve is more likely to have to step up and provide dollar-denting monetary stimulus.

The dollar index, which tracks its value against a basket of peers, has fallen by the most this week since March. “More Fed easing is on the way,” said Salman Ahmed, global head of macro at Fidelity International. 

Line chart of Dollar index showing Election pushes dollar towards two-and-a-half-year low

Yet some analysts warned that markets may be underestimating the danger that president Trump’s final months in office could be turbulent.

“If you have a result that is very close and one of the candidates is unhappy and they ask for a recount, there is a legal and well-trodden path if they want to clarify [the outcome],” said Francesca Fornasari, head of currency solutions at Insight Investment. “If it becomes more long-lasting and adversarial and goes through the courts in what is not necessarily a well-trodden path, I suspect that will have more long-term repercussions.”

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A carbon registry leaves polluters with nowhere left to hide




The writer is the founder and executive chair of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a think-tank

No one yet knows which countries will extract the last barrel of oil, therm of gas or seam of coal. But the jostling has started. Every nation has reasons to believe it has the “right” to continue fossil fuel extraction, leaving others to deal with the climate crisis.

In the Middle East, oil producers can argue that the cost of extraction is low. In Canada, they market their human rights record. Norwegians trumpet the low-carbon intensity of their operations. And in the US under Donald Trump, they touted the virtues of “freedom gas” and called exports of liquefied natural gas “molecules of freedom”.

The dilemma for governments is that if one country stops producing fossil fuels domestically, others will step in to take market share. And so the obligation to contain emissions set out in the Paris Agreement risks being undermined by special pleading.

In the UK, the furore over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria the year that the country is hosting the UN’s climate summit is indicative of the contrary positions many countries hold. Facing one way the government says it is addressing climate change. But looking the other, it consents not just to continued extraction, but to support and subsidise the expansion of production.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

To keep warming under the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5C, countries need to decrease production of oil, gas and coal by 6 per cent a year for the next decade. Worryingly, they are instead planning increases of 2 per cent annually, the UN says. On this course, by 2030 production will be too high to keep temperature rises below 1.5C. The climate maths just doesn’t work.

One of the problems in attempting to track fossil-fuel production is the lack of transparency by both governments and corporations over how much CO2 is embedded in reserves likely to be developed. This makes it difficult to determine how to use the last of the world’s “carbon budget” before temperature thresholds such as 1.5C are exceeded.

Governments need a tool that establishes the extent to which business as usual overshoots their “allowance” of carbon. There needs to be a corrective because the cost competitiveness of renewable energy, and the risk of stranded energy assets, has not stopped governments heavily subsidising fossil fuels. During the pandemic, stimulus dollars have been dumped into the fossil-fuel sector regardless of its steady financial decline, staggering mounds of debt and falling job count. 

This is why my initiative and Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group, are developing a global registry of fossil fuels, a publicly available database of all reserves in the ground and in production. This will allow governments, investors, researchers and civil society organisations, including the public, to assess the amount of embedded CO2 in coal, oil and gas projects globally. It will be a standalone tool and can provide a model for a potential UN-hosted registry.

With it, producer nations will have nowhere left to hide. It will help counter the absence of mechanisms in the UN’s climate change convention to restrain national beggar-thy-neighbour expansion of fossil-fuel production.

No country, community or company can go it alone. But governments can draw from the lessons of nuclear non-proliferation. First, they must stop adding to the problem; exploration and expansion into new reserves must end. This must be accompanied by “global disarmament” — using up stockpiles and ceasing production. Finally, access to renewable energy and low-carbon solutions must be developed in comprehensive and equitable transition plans.

The choice is between phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking low-carbon solutions, or locking-in economic, health and climate catastrophe. A fossil-fuel registry will help governments and international organisations plan for the low-carbon world ahead.

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Hasty, imperfect ESG is not the path for business




The writer is a global economist. Her book ‘How Boards Work’ will be published in May

Good environmental, social and governance practices take a company from financial shareholder maximisation to multiple stakeholder optimisation: society, community, employees. But if done poorly, not only does ESG miss its sustainability goals, it can make things worse and let down the very stakeholders it should help.

To be sure, the ESG agenda should be pursued with determination. But there are a number of reasons why it threatens to create bad outcomes. The agenda is putting companies on the defensive. From boardrooms, I have seen organisations worry about meeting the demands of environmental and social justice activists, leading to risk aversion in allocating capital. Yet innovation is the most important tool to address many of the challenges of climate change, inequality and social discord.

Pursued by $45tn of investments, using the broadest classification, ESG is weighed down by inconsistent, blurry metrics. Investors and lobbyists use different evaluation standards and goals, which focus on varied issues such as CO2 emissions and diversity. Metrics also depend on business models.

Without a clear, unified compass, companies that measure themselves against today’s standards risk seeming off base once a more consistent regulator-led direction emerges (for example, from worker audits, the COP26 summit and the Paris Club lender nations).

ESG is not without cost and the best hope for long-term success lies with business leaders’ ability to stay attuned to its impact and unintended consequences. For example, while the case for diversity is incontrovertible, efforts at inclusion should account for the possible casualties of positive discrimination.

Furthermore, despite ESG advocates setting a strong and singular direction for governance, organisations have to maintain their operations and value while managing assets and people in a world where cultural and ethical values are far from universal. While laudable, a heightened focus on ethics (such as human rights, environmental concerns, gender and racial parity, data privacy and worker advocacy) places additional stress on global companies.

It is often asked if advocates appreciate that ESG is largely viewed from the west’s narrow and wealthy economic perspective. To be truly sustainable, ESG demands global solutions to global problems. Proposals need to be scalable, exportable and palatable to emerging countries like India and China, or no effort will truly move the needle.

Much of the agenda is too rigid, requires aggressive timelines and lacks the spirit of innovation to achieve long-term societal progress. Stakeholders’ interests differ, so ESG solutions must be nuanced, balanced and trade off speed of implementation against the breadth and depth of change.

Business leaders are aware of the need for greater focus and prioritisation of ESG. We also understand that deadlines can provide important levers for senior managers to spur their organisations into action. After all, in the face of pressure for a solution to the global pandemic, vaccines were produced in months instead of the usual 10 years.

I live at the crossroads of these tensions every day. Raised in Africa, I have lived in energy poverty, and seen how it continues to impede living standards globally. As a board member of a global energy company, I have seen much investment in the energy transition. Yet from my role with a university endowment, I have also been under pressure to divest from energy corporations. 

Business leaders must solve ESG concerns in ways that do not set corporations on a path to failure in the long term. They must have the boldness to adopt a flexible, measured and experimental agenda for lasting change. In this sense, they must push back against the politically led narrative that wants imperfect ESG changes at any cost.

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UAE’s Taqa seeks to shine with solar energy push




From a distance, the 3.4m panels making up the United Arab Emirates’ largest solar power plant look like a massive lake.

But Noor Abu Dhabi, nestled between camel farms and rolling sand dunes, is no mirage. The 1.2 gigawatt facility — the world’s largest single-site plant — produces enough electricity for around 90,000 homes. Owned by Taqa, an Abu Dhabi state-backed utility, with Japan’s Marubeni and China’s JinkoSolar, it will celebrate its second anniversary of operations this month.

Staff constantly scan for repairs so production can be maximised during daylight hours, while every evening more than 1,400 robotic cleaners wipe the dust from the banks of solar panels to boost efficiency.

Noor and another Taqa project — an even larger 2GW solar plant under construction in Al Dhafra, nearer the capital — are emblematic of the company’s ambitions to recast itself as a force in clean energy.

It has outlined a new sustainable strategy with a goal for renewables to form 30 per cent of its energy mix, compared with 5 per cent now, and plans to boost domestic power capacity from 18GW to 30GW by 2030. It will set itself a carbon emissions target later this year.

“We want to transform Taqa into a power and water low-carbon champion in and outside the United Arab Emirates,” said Jasim Husain Thabet, chief executive of the power provider, which is majority owned by government holding company ADQ and listed on the emirate’s bourse.

Renewable sources account for a small part of the UAE’s energy supply

Taqa’s push into renewables is a key element of the UAE’s ambition to have clean energy form half of its energy mix by 2050, with 44 per cent from sources such as wind and solar and 6 per cent from nuclear power.

Last year, the oil-rich emirate had 2.3GW of renewable energy capacity, or seven per cent of the power production mix, mainly from solar power, according to Rystad Energy, a research firm. It forecasts that the UAE is on track to reach its 44 per cent target by 2050.

Although many Gulf governments have targets to boost solar and wind power, the UAE has been out in front.

The Al Dhafra plant is expected to boast the world’s most competitive solar tariff when complete. The facility, a joint venture with UAE renewable pioneer Masdar, EDF and JinkoPower, plans to power 150,000 homes when it comes online next year, reducing the country’s carbon emissions by the equivalent of taking 720,000 cars off the road.

“This is about being a good citizen,” said Thabet. “But it is also attractive for global investors keen on environmental sustainability, it fits in with our main shareholder’s priorities and brings down financing costs.”

Yet Taqa’s sustainability pitch could fall flat with investors scrutinising environmental concerns.

Taqa has committed to capping production at its overseas oil and gas assets, which span fields in Canada, the North Sea and Iraqi Kurdistan. But although it has not ruled out selling the hydrocarbons assets that it bought during a spending spree in the 2000s, divestment is not imminent.

“If the right opportunity comes we will consider it, but right now our focus is on enhancing operations and reducing emissions,” Thabet said.

The UAE, a leading oil exporter and member of Opec, is also committed to increasing its crude oil capacity in the coming years. The country is working towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but still has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world.

But Mohammed Atif, area manager for the Middle East and Africa at DNV, a renewables advisory firm, said the UAE, like other major oil and gas producers such as Norway and the UK, are working for a more sustainable future. 

“Yes, the roots and history of the UAE are grounded in hydrocarbons, but they are aware of the challenge of climate change,” he said. “It is a transition, not a revolution, and that takes time.”

US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry: ‘There’s no reason why oil-producing countries cannot also be a key part of tackling the climate crisis’ © WAM/Handout via Reuters

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, visited the Noor plant while attending a regional climate change dialogue in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, saying such “incredible energy projects” would “set us on the right path” to achieving the Paris Agreement goals that aim to limit global warming.

“There’s no reason why oil-producing countries cannot also be a key part of tackling the climate crisis,” he said in a tweet. 

At the same time, Taqa is eyeing opportunities to expand in renewables beyond the UAE. Last year it merged with Abu Dhabi Power Corporation, creating an integrated utility company with ADQ owning 98.6 per cent.

The government is expected to increase the free float via a share offering, Thabet said, declining to provide further details.

With exclusive rights to participate in power projects in Abu Dhabi over the next decade, the company is now mulling how to leverage that guaranteed cash flow abroad.

Thabet said the company would focus on projects and investments that burnish its sustainable credentials. It wants to build 15GW of power capacity outside the UAE. The group currently produces 5GW internationally, including 2GW in Morocco.

“We believe in solar and [photovoltaic] projects, so we will focus on that — but if there is an opportunity outside the UAE, such as onshore or offshore wind, then we will explore that,” he said. Taqa would also consider investing in international renewables platforms to reach its targets, he added.

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