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Hedge fund Element warns of deep economic blow from new virus strain

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Investors and policymakers are failing to grasp how deeply the new variant of coronavirus will damage the European economy, Element Capital, one of the world’s largest macro hedge funds, has warned.

Expectations for economic growth need to be cut as the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant spreads beyond UK borders, and lockdowns across the continent could extend months beyond current estimates, the fund’s head of markets Colin Teichholtz said in an interview.

“What you are seeing in the UK today you will see over much of continental Europe, and I don’t think markets [and] . . . policymakers are really grasping that,” Mr Teichholtz said. “Are policymakers getting this? Are people updating their economic forecasts for the second quarter to reflect a much worse outcome in terms of the economy being able to reopen? There is very little indication of that in forecasts.”

Element has emerged as one of the hedge fund success stories of the pandemic crisis, betting early that the BioNTech and Pfizer vaccine would be more effective than the broader market anticipated. The fund returned 18.8 per cent last year and has never reported a down year since billionaire Jeffrey Talpins launched the fund in 2005.

The pessimistic outlook from Mr Teichholtz stemmed from low vaccination rates across the EU, with countries such as Germany, France and Spain lagging behind the pace of inoculations in the US and UK.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned on Friday that the new variant might be more lethal and more infectious than the earlier wave of the virus.

European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde last week described new virus variants from the UK and South Africa as “not so positive” factors that “could require more stringent measures”. Still, Mr Teichholtz pointed to her assertion that the central bank’s forecasts for 3.9 per cent growth in 2021 remain “broadly valid”.

“That set of assumptions has to be off by at least a quarter and that’s another three months of people being stuck at home, people being furloughed, many companies . . . not being able to function,” he added.

He cautioned that lockdowns could last until June if policymakers did not take more aggressive measures across the continent to contain the virus soon.

The senior member of Element’s portfolio management team, who joined the firm from BlueMountain Capital in 2019, declined to comment on the fund’s positioning. Last August, Mr Talpins told clients the fund was wagering on a decline in European equities at the time and had taken a “significant short position”.

Mr Teichholtz said the brisk pace of vaccinations in the US would probably insulate the country from the same outbreak that he envisions in Europe. Stock markets in both regions have continued to advance this year, with the benchmark Euro Stoxx 600 marginally outpacing the S&P 500.

“I don’t think it is crazy for markets looking out over a longtime horizon to feel good . . . and certainly central banks have made clear at least for the foreseeable future they’ll keep policy very easy,” he said.

“That being said, I would say whatever your assumption is for global growth for the first half of 2021, you should probably move that assumption a little lower because of the impact likely in Europe.”

eric.platt@ft.com



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How Jennifer Granholm will reshape the US Department of Energy

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Two things to start: ExxonMobil appointed two new directors to its board, its latest effort to placate activist shareholders. And Texas’s largest power co-op Brazos Electric went bust yesterday, as the financial damage from the arctic storm continues to mount.

Oh, and after the hiatus caused by the pandemic, energy-related emissions are rising again, according to the International Energy Agency. They were higher in December than a year previously, the agency said.

Welcome to another Energy Source. Our main item today is on Jennifer Granholm, whom the US Senate last week confirmed as the country’s new energy secretary. Myles McCormick reports on her plan to revitalise her department and reorient it towards clean energy.

Thanks for reading. Please get in touch at energy.source@ft.com. You can sign up for the newsletter here. — Derek

Granholm looks to reboot the Department of Energy

From scuppering the Keystone XL pipeline to freezing the allocation of new drilling leases on public lands, Joe Biden’s plans to shake up the American energy system are well under way.

Next on the president’s agenda is an overhaul of the sprawling leviathan that is the US Department of Energy. And the woman that will lead that process is now in situ.

Jennifer Granholm, a former two-term governor of Michigan, took the reins of the $35bn a year government agency five days ago. And already it is clear there will be a shift in its focus — away from promoting fossil fuel exports and towards driving innovation in clean energy and climate technology.

This is what Granholm wrote in a blog post last Thursday, her first day on the job:

“President Biden has tasked the Department, his in-house solutions powerhouse, with delivering a cornerstone of his bold plan: the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For DoE, that means developing and deploying the technologies that will deliver a clean energy revolution.”

That will require a shift in priorities at the “in-house solutions powerhouse” — but one that analysts said Granholm was well suited to execute.

“She understands the economic benefits of transforming the agency into the Department of Clean Energy,” said Mitch Bernard, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Jennifer Granholm was sworn in as energy secretary on February 25 © Getty Images

What can the DoE actually do on climate?

American energy policy is divvied up among several government agencies, of which the Department of Energy is just one. Traditionally its primary responsibilities have been the US nuclear weapons programme, environmental clean-ups and scientific research and development through its oversight of the country’s national laboratories.

Despite the department’s name, Granholm’s ability to effect the Biden climate agenda is constrained. She does not have oversight of emissions targets (which fall to the Environmental Protection Agency) or oil and gas drilling licences (the Department of the Interior).

“I do think the DoE’s ability to advance climate goals is fairly limited,” Nader Sobhani, climate policy associate at the Niskanen Center, told ES.

But what it can do is reinvigorate the department’s R&D role.

“I think there will certainly be a shift in the programmatic focus of this DoE as compared to the previous administration, in that there will be a concerted effort to innovate, develop and deploy clean energy technologies that are critical to combating climate change,” said Sobhani.

That means driving forward research on carbon capture and storage, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, energy storage technology and zero-carbon fuels such as green hydrogen.

How will it set about doing this? The department has a few tools in its toolkit:

  • There are the 17 national laboratories, which are hotbeds for tech breakthroughs.

  • There are grant and loan programmes it can use to drive innovation and de-risk new technologies to coax in private sector investment. Granholm has already indicated she will restart a $40bn loan programme that was left untouched by the Trump administration.

  • Plus, it has regulatory authority to encourage energy efficiency in certain appliances and new transmission lines.

But all of this will require funding. While Congress ensured the agency was not financially gutted by the last administration, ramping up its R&D role will require more money. Biden has pledged $400bn over the next ten years for clean energy and innovation.

Granholm’s record on spending big — sometimes without the desired effect — has already sparked criticism from some quarters, with conservatives arguing her selection “should frighten every American taxpayer”.

Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco
Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco © Bloomberg

New leadership

Just as important as finance will be the shift in tone Granholm will bring.

While money kept flowing under the Trump administration, the agency lacked the strategic drive needed for clean tech innovation, said Emily Reichert, chief executive of Greentown Labs, North America’s biggest start-up incubator.

“When people look back on it, it was an absence of leadership — on innovation, on policy, on decisions, on strategy — that we needed to move forward faster,” she told ES.

The DoE’s role in convening experts from across the US has been central to driving the development of new technology. But as a divided country shifts rapidly towards a new approach to energy, that outreach role will be even more important.

That makes the appointment of Granholm key. A Michigan native, with years of experience dealing with the Detroit auto industry, she will be able to bring the climate change narrative to parts of the country that coastal liberals have often failed to reach.

“I think that Jennifer Granholm coming from a Midwestern perspective is a real game changer in terms of bringing the focus of this activity to the middle of the country, and recognising that the middle of the country can also get engaged in this developing the innovations around climate,” said Reichert.

But most importantly — four years after Donald Trump appointed an energy secretary who thought the department should be scrapped — Granholm’s championing of clean energy should get investors excited to spark the influx of funds needed for the “clean energy revolution” her boss has promised.

“The market signal it sends is that, one, the US is back in the game,” said Reichert. “And two, that climate related technology solutions around decarbonisation are a good place to invest your money, your time, your talents, and to move your assets.”

(Myles McCormick)

Data Drill

The energy transition could lower oil prices in the long term by $10 a barrel — by far the biggest threat to the net present value of oil companies, according to new research from Rystad Energy that assessed the resilience of 25 large operators. The consultancy quantified the risk to NPVs of stranded assets as less than 1 per cent, and that from rising CO2 costs at mostly below 10 per cent.

Oil sands and tight oil companies are most exposed to price risk because of high break-even costs. Oil sands would suffer most from higher CO2 costs. And ExxonMobil’s revenue risk is higher than its supermajor peers’, “primarily because its portfolio includes several large, capital-intensive projects”, including the Permian Basin assets and Guyanese shale.

Bar chart of Impact on net present value (%) showing The energy transition's corporate hit, quantified

Power Points

FT Energy Source Live

The FT Energy Source Live event will be taking place on 24 — 25 May 2021. Join industry CEOs, thought leaders, energy innovators, policymakers, investors and other key influencers to hear the latest thinking and insights on the future of US energy leadership and its global context. Find out more here.

Endnote

IHSMarkit’s CERAWeek, cancelled by the pandemic last year, is back on — and it has a new look.

Keynote speeches and panel discussions have moved from the Hilton’s plush ballrooms in downtown Houston to a slick new web interface. Many have been pre-recorded. Deals that came together in the hotel’s executive suites will have to wait. Journalists are missing the free lunches.

Still, the conference’s agenda boasts a who’s who of the energy industry, and increasingly beyond, as the sector grapples with the low-carbon energy transition — a topic that was scarcely mentioned just a couple years ago.

Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business, who has been picked to succeed Jeff Bezos as the company’s CEO later this year, had some advice that cut to the heart of the dilemma facing oil executives.

“If you want to be a company for a long period of time — which by the way turns out to be really hard to do — you have to be able to reinvent yourself, sometimes several times over,” said Jassy in a session with BP’s Bernard Looney, who pitched his company’s own transition away from oil.

“If something is going to happen, whether it’s good for you or not, if it is good for customers it is going to happen,” added Jassy. “So you have a couple of choices: you can howl at the wind and wish it away as a lot of companies do — big leading companies do — when there are new shifts technology, or you can embrace it.”

Energy Source is a twice-weekly energy newsletter from the Financial Times. It is written and edited by Derek Brower, Myles McCormick, Justin Jacobs and Emily Goldberg.



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Hedge fund manager Hohn pays himself $479m

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Billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Christopher Hohn has paid himself a dividend of $479m, one of the largest-ever annual personal payouts in the UK, after profits at his firm more than doubled last year.

Hohn, who is founder of Mayfair-based TCI Fund Management and one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists, made the payment to a company he controls during the year to February 2020, according to regulatory filings.

TCI, which manages more than $45bn in assets and tends to bet on rising rather than falling prices, has been a big winner from the bull market of recent years. During 2019 it made $8.4bn worth of profits for investors, according to LCH Investments, profiting from gains in stocks including Alphabet, Charter Communications and Canadian Pacific Railway.

TCI Fund Management’s profits for the year to February 2020 jumped 108 per cent to $670.9m. The $479m dividend was then paid to a separate firm TCI Fund Management (UK). Both companies are controlled by Hohn.

TCI declined to comment. The payment was first reported by The Guardian.

While the payout beats the £323m paid to Bet365 boss Denise Coates in 2018, much of it has been reinvested in TCI funds, filings show. It is also far from the biggest-ever hedge fund payday, being dwarfed by sums such as the $3.7bn earned by US manager John Paulson in 2007 thanks to bets on the subprime crisis.

In 2014, during testimony in his divorce battle with estranged wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn, Hohn described himself as “an unbelievable moneymaker”. A High Court judge later awarded Cooper-Hohn a $530m divorce payout.

Hohn, who grew up in Surrey and is the son of a Jamaican car mechanic, is known as one of Europe’s most aggressive activist investors. A backer of climate group Extinction Rebellion, he has been vocal in recent years in pushing companies to improve their climate policy, for instance threatening to sue coal-financing banks and warning his fund will vote against directors whose companies do not improve pollution disclosure.

In October Spanish airports operator Aena bowed to pressure from Hohn’s fund, becoming the first company in the world to give shareholders an annual vote on its climate policy.

Through his charity The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which in 2019 approved $386m of charitable payouts, he wrote to seven of the world’s biggest asset managers, urging them to put pressure on companies over climate policy.

Last year TCI was one of a number of funds looking to raise fresh assets from investors after suffering losses during the pandemic. It was also one of the big winners from betting against collapsed German payments group Wirecard, making as much as €193m in a week, according to data group Breakout Point.

Hohn’s fortune was estimated last year at £1.3bn by the Sunday Times Rich List.

laurence.fletcher@ft.com



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FCA first alerted to concerns over Neil Woodford’s business in 2015

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The Financial Conduct Authority was warned about problems within Neil Woodford’s investment business less than a year after it opened in 2014 but did not intervene for almost another two years, according to several people briefed on the process.

Woodford recently announced plans to relaunch his career at a time when the regulator faces pressure from politicians and campaigners critical of its oversight of the stockpicker’s failed business — and over how long it is taking to investigate his downfall.

The onetime star fund manager was forced to suspend his flagship £3.7bn investment fund in June 2019, trapping the savings of hundreds of thousands of investors in the biggest British investment scandal for a decade.

But concerns over its investment strategy were raised within the first year of its operation, when two of the company’s founding partners — chief operating officer Nick Hamilton and chief legal and compliance officer Gray Smith — resigned after falling out with Woodford and chief executive Craig Newman.

Given their senior roles in such a high-profile business, Smith and Gray were asked to discuss the reasons for their departures in exit interviews with the FCA in January 2015. The FCA did not act on the information they presented, according to those familiar with the regulator’s dealings with the company.

The four founders had clashed openly over the company’s compliance culture and the level of due diligence carried out on Woodford’s investments in private companies, according to former WIM staff members.

Hamilton and Smith were especially concerned with the amounts being committed to unlisted companies.

In response to FT questions over the exit interviews, the FCA said: “Where we receive information relating to concerns about firms or individuals we follow up and take action where appropriate. But we do not conduct our supervision of firms or individuals in public.”

Smith and Hamilton declined to comment. Several former staff at WIM said they were unable to talk publicly about their departure from the company.

A spokesman for Woodford said: “It is true that the FCA did not approach us after the interviews, and I am sure would have approached us had there been any concerns raised from the interviews.” 

The spotlight falls on the FCA at a tricky time for the regulator as it seeks to draw a line under a spate of industry controversies during the tenure of its previous chief executive Andrew Bailey, now governor of the Bank of England.

A recent review of its handling of the £236m collapse of mini-bond issuer London Capital & Finance found repeated failures by the watchdog to act on external warnings. “The FCA’s handling of information from third parties . . . was wholly deficient,” the review concluded. “This was an egregious example of the FCA’s failure to fulfil its statutory objectives”.

Bailey took over as head of the FCA in 2016, after the contract of his predecessor Martin Wheatley was not renewed, and led it during both the Woodford and LCF collapses.

In February he told MPs on the Treasury select committee that when he joined the FCA it had “no system for extracting information” from warnings or tip-offs. “I’m not hiding things that went wrong,” Bailey said. “There should have been a mechanism to alert supervision and enforcement.” 

Nikhil Rathi, the FCA’s current chief executive, and Charles Randell, its chairman, will be quizzed by the committee on Monday about its handling of LCF.

While giving evidence to parliament in June 2019, Bailey said the FCA’s first intervention with WIM was at the end of 2016 when the regulator spotted a conflict of interest in the business’s valuation process. By this point WIM managed almost £10bn and was the UK’s sixth best-selling fund manager.

The FCA has been dogged by questions over its oversight of WIM having approved the business to start trading just months after it found funds managed by Woodford at his former employer, Invesco Perpetual, exposed investors to higher levels of risk than they had been led to expect.

Invesco Perpetual was fined £18.6m for the breaches, which also involved several funds not managed by Woodford, in what was a record penalty imposed on a UK fund manager. 

Woodford is still approved by the FCA to act as an executive director of an investment company, having updated his status in December 2019.

Ten days ago Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee, called on the FCA to conclude its investigation into WIM’s implosion, saying: “As the FCA’s investigation still continues over 18 months after the fund was suspended, the reports of the new fund may understandably be of concern to investors who previously lost out.”

Owen Walker’s ‘Built on a Lie: The Rise and Fall of Neil Woodford and the Fate of Middle England’s Money’ will be published by Penguin on Thursday



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