Hurricane Watch: Is Isaac the Next Katrina?

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Aug 28, 2012 11:22:12 AM

and tagged Yesterday's News

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You could certainly think so from the headlines. On the front pages: the Financial Times (FT) leads with “Ghost of Katrina haunts Republicans as storm threatens Romney’s party,” the New York Times (NYT) has “As Storm Disrupts Plans, GOP Takes Up Tensions,” and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) opens with “Isaac Heads to New Orleans: Echoes of Katrina as GOP Gathers.” A couple of points to make here. First, a major hurricane rolling in will always be newsworthy. Second, gas prices are going up as the Gulf refinery complex shuts down, insurance companies start to get nervous, and people prepare for and/or flee the coming storm. Put all of this in conjunction with a presidential nominating convention right in the storm’s path— the storm is actually threatening reporters—and you get even more coverage. Combine that with a prior natural and political disaster . . . well, you get the picture. Expect to see more front-page coverage.

The other up-front meta-story for the day is the Apple-Samsung patent ruling, in which Samsung was ruled to have infringed on Apple’s patents. Because intellectual property is the key to the technology business, the ruling has been felt across the industry, as reported in the FT with “Tech stocks reel from Apple court victory” (p. 1) and in the NYT with “Samsung Case Puts Apple Closer to Fight With Google” (p. B1). This ruling will play out in the near term with inter-company battles intensifying, per the NYT headline. Longer term, it may play out in generally lower levels of innovation, as it becomes tougher to navigate through existing patents. Good for large companies, not good for society as a whole.

No other consistent front-page meta-stories. There are, however, two common stories running further back in the papers. The first is on the continuing Japan/China conflict. The FT’s “Japan envoy’s car attacked in China” (p. 2) explicitly draws the connection between the attack and the territorial tensions in the East China Sea. The WSJ also weighs in with two articles, “Japanese Envoy’s Car is Attacked in Beijing” and “Tokyo Governor Talks Tough on Isles,” both on page A9. This story is not going away any time soon.

The other common story is a bit more encouraging for the future. There are two seemingly unrelated stories—“Motorsport plugs into green future with Formula E electric car series” in the FT (p. 1) and “Running on Algae, Drawing Anger” in the NYT (p. B1)—that caught my attention. The FT article is about the first major electric car racing league; it’s significant because racing drove a tremendous amount of technical improvement in internal combustion autos and can be expected to do so in electrical autos. This is a technological accelerator that leverages advertising money from the league to subsidize research and development, and it could have big effects relatively quickly if successful. The second story is nominally about Republicans looking to cut defense department research on alternative fuels, but the real story is about how we now have artificial fuels that can drive planes and ships at a cost of $27 per gallon. That cost is high, but it will come down over time with improving technologies and increasing scale. Again, we have defense funding being leveraged to develop new technologies that will spill over into the commercial space. This is how microchips and the Internet developed, after all.

These are not the only technologies cooking, either. I mentioned an experimental tidal power station in an earlier post (“A Foggy Day, But Clearing Ahead,” August 10, 2012) and made the point then that, with so many different experiments under way and so many different resources driving the development, a tipping point could be coming sooner than we think. I would argue that both of today’s stories support my argument. For my money, I think algae-driven biofuels are the way to bet, but winning that bet is probably a decade out. Remember, though, a decade soon passes.

Have a great day!

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