Thursday, February 14, 2013

Could the new round of mega mergers spark an economic Earthquake?

United Airlines recently announced it's merging with U.S. Airways. Berkshire Hathaway and Brazil's 3G just announced they're purchasing Heinz for $23 billion dollars. This comes in an atmosphere in which shareholders are increasingly telling boards of big corporations to put their cash hoards to work or give it back to the stock holders.

Corporations around the world are sitting on trillions of dollars because the global economy doesn't seem to be offering worthy investments in the minds of many. However, like birds on a wire, when one or two key players decide it's time to go back to the lawn and forage, the rest soon follow en masse.

Warren Buffet has said he's ready for yet another big deal. He likes to keep about $20 billion on hand, which means, even after the investment in Heinz, Berkshire still has about $12-$13 billion to shop with. Apple is sitting on a mountain of over $120 billion in cash. Many investors have decided that putting enormous stockpiles of dollars into money markets in this interest rate environment is a waste of capital.

This could upset the government's apple cart. First, if companies start spending their excess capital instead of buying Treasuries with it, interest rates are going to go up, which means financing the debt gets even more expensive. It also means that money is going to find its way into the hands of people who actually have an idea what to do with it. There could be a rash of new start ups, which is great for the economy, maybe not so great for the government.

If investors start to get the idea that equities are a far superior play than government debt, interest rates go higher, faster.

Of course none of this takes place in a vacuum. The government will see some benefit in increased taxes, but will that outpace interest rate increases? Will the government try to put the brakes on growth, should it occur? Can they stop that train, once it's left the station?

We could be approaching the point where all that "kicking the can down the road" finally catches up with the government. The fact is, even a thriving economy can't fix their balance sheet without massive changes that nobody in Washington D.C. is willing to make.

But it's not all gloom and doom. We could conceivably have a financial disaster in the public sector along with massive growth in the private sector. Where it goes from there depends on how everyone reacts to such a dynamic. I'm not even going to try to predict that.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Maybe the Ravens weren't the only winner of Super Bowl XLVII

Congratulations to the Baltimore Ravens who fended off a tremendous comeback run by the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. The Ravens may not have been the only winners. The post half time delay brought about by a power outage may have been a victory, or at least an opportunity, for the fuel cell industry.

This is not the first time the power has gone out at an NFL game. It happened in December 2011 during a game in San Francisco. Aside from aggravating fans, such occurrences can have serious financial repercussions. What if someone in the stadium gets hurt stumbling around in the dark or because they were startled when the power went out? What if a lot of someone's get hurt? It can also cause people to change the channel. Remember at the time of the outage in this case, the game was looking like a blow out. It can also damage the brand of the NFL and the stadium sponsor. Bottom line; it hurts the bottom line. 

The energy consumption of such a large and profitable entertainment venue is not likely to decrease any time soon. Maintaining power probably just moved up a few notches on the priority list. Of course stadiums have emergency generators for some lighting, but not enough to keep the game going and hold the attention of the viewing audience. In the event of a power loss from one source, ideally you want to go directly to full power from another source. This is where fuel cells could come in. 

Why fuel cells? Well, because wind, solar, hydro, combustion and nuclear just aren't practical for a sports stadium. Why aren't they using them now? Because fuel cell technology still has some issues to deal with before they're practical; cost, service life and reliability among them. What a couple of embarrassing and perhaps costly events may do for the industry however, is to lower that cost barrier by making solving the problem a bit more valuable to the end user.

A stadium owner may not be willing to pay double for reliable, always on power, but they might go for 140% today, where it was only worth 120% yesterday. That means researchers and developers have a few more dollars to throw at the other issues. They don't have to bring the cost down as much to be competitive. Perhaps materials and systems that had been ruled out as too costly in the past can be ruled back in. 

The incentive can be tremendous. If a team of researchers thought they were about 4 years away from a viable commercial product, then a change in parameters leads them to believe they're maybe 18 months away instead, the urgency increases exponentially. If your team is getting close, other teams are getting close. First one there with a reliable, affordable product gets the first big payday. Once someone demonstrate that there's a market for existing technology in which actual profits can be made rather than just research grants to win, the competition and innovation takes off as well. 

Whether this event will trigger the above scenario, I don't know. I think it depends on how much the parties believe it cost them, if anything. It's not a question of whether or not they made boatloads of money. It's a question of whether they believe they left anything on the table, and how much.