The Fossil Fuel Industry. A Good Bet for Banks?

Back in the first week of January, President Biden picked Sarah Bloom Raskin to be the Federal Reserve’s top banking regulator, a selection that keeps a Biden promise to improve diversity at the Fed. This week, in a letter published on January 27th, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is sending the Biden administration the message that it is taking an increasingly visible (and vocal) role in Raskin’s confirmation process.

One of the nation’s oldest and most prominent advocates for the business sector, the Chamber has historically maintained a solid distance from Senate confirmations, particularly when bank regulatory nominees are involved. The chamber’s stance on Raskin makes it clear that the organization sees how Raskin-led reform in banking policy could very well have significantly deleterious effects across the business community.

This relationship-gone-South between the US Chamber of Commerce and the Biden administration is not new news.  The break-up can be traced back, most publicly to this past September when it jumped on the anti-Omarova bandwagon with a letter to members of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee outlining Omarova’s shortcomings.. .the notion of “FedAccounts,” in particular. Omarova, of course, withdrew her nomination for leadership of the Office of the Controller of the Currency after considerable opposition from, to be fair, both sides of the aisle, as well as the banking industry.

Just recently, the US Chamber of Commerce penned another letter to the Senate Banking Committee, this one in part criticizing Raskin for advocating that federal regulators “transition financing away from the fossil fuel industry.” The letter went on to provide, frankly, more questions than answers and I found this question, in particular, thought provoking: “Is it the role of the Federal Reserve to direct capital away from certain industries that are politically disfavored or direct capital towards industries that are politically favored?”

A rhetorical question at best, right?  Another question: Is the chamber missing the point?  Ms. Raskin is not singling out the fossil fuel industry simply because it is “politically disfavored.” She’s singling it out because in her opinion — and, as she points out in her May 2020 NY Times Opinion piece, “Why Is the Fed Spending So Much Money on a Dying Industry?” — it’s a bad investment.

Let’s back up a bit. It wasn’t that long ago that Board Governor Lael Brainard told American Banker that the Federal Reserve will subject financial institutions to “scenario analysis” of their climate-related risks. “Scenario analysis,” she said, “should help with risk identification and management as firms account for the physical risk of global warming, such as severe weather events, and the transition risk that will come from changing consumer behaviors and government policies.”

At the time it seemed that the banking industry was warming up a bit to the idea of addressing the challenges posed by global warming.  In one of our 2021 blogs, we talked about how “climate change, and climate risk, present important implications (and opportunities) for banks who can get it right.” And, how according to Forbes, 73% of U.S. banks surveyed are already committed to managing climate risk and promoting the transition to a green economy. “This, they believe, “says the article, “will help them attract both talent and customers.”

So, what happened? Raskin makes the point that we simply cannot ignore “clear warning signs about the economic repercussions of the impending climate crisis by taking action that will lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment. Parts of the industry are awash in hundreds of billions in risky debt. Many fossil fuel companies spent the past decade recklessly expanding production even as they failed to turn a profit. Oil and gas companies now hold $744 billion in bonds and debt, much of it below investment grade or close to it. For taxpayers, shouldering these liabilities is a bad deal. Buying this bad debt is not likely to support the creation of jobs or even ensure that existing jobs survive.”

Should Raskin be thoroughly vetted? Absolutely. It seems, however, that this isn’t about political favor or disfavor. The question here isn’t the one the chamber is asking, that being, “is it the role of the Federal Reserve to direct capital away from certain industries that are politically disfavored or direct capital towards industries that are politically favored?” No, the real question is this: Is the fossil fuel industry a bad investment for banks... and Americans?  Well, we’ll all find out soon enough, won’t we?

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As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.



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