The Obama administration is attempting to persuade U.S. corporations about the benefits of investing in renewable energy, in an effort to help the industry after a government grant program expired.Yes, crony capitalism at its best. Team Obama sings a populist tune for its cheerleaders on the political left. Most of the time, someone needs to stand up for the "99%" against the big, bad "1%". But, ahem, there are some exceptions. A big exception involves the much touted "green jobs agenda." Guess what? The "green jobs agenda" can really use some help from the Corporate 1%.
The Energy Department-led effort includes a planned March 13 meeting at which senior financial-firm executives and Energy Secretary Steven Chu would speak, documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal show. The 79 invitees include some of the largest companies in the U.S., from Exxon Mobil Corp. to Walt Disney Co., according to the documents.
The existing tax subsidy regime for renewable energy development is dysfunctional. Team Obama needs cash from big U.S. businesses with big U.S. tax bills. Without cash from the Corporate 1%, renewable energy development will continue to limp along. Hopefully, the "most transparent administration" in history will release a transcript of the March 13 meeting. But we can be assured that the real "action" will occur behind the scenes. Crony capitalism at its best.
 Back in August 2011, I wrote a series of posts describing the relationship between tax subsidies and renewable energy development. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The political left wants to subsidize renewable energy through federal spending. The political right favors the magic of "tax expenditures" over direct outlays. Together, they devised a laughably flawed regime that provides tax credits for certain types of renewable energy.
Why is the regime laughably flawed? A quick summary of my August posts. I'm focused on wind and solar development, although the same principles apply in other contexts.
Congress wants more development of wind and solar projects. But generating electricity from wind and solar resources costs more than generating electricity from coal and natural gas ("bad" fossil fuels). Because wind and solar are "uneconomic," no rational actor would develop wind or solar projects without some kind of subsidy regime. Put another way, a rational consumer would not choose to purchase expensive, unsubsidized electricity from wind and solar projects.
There are various ways to subsidize energy development. For example, Congress could have passed a direct subsidy for electricity produced by wind and solar projects. The direct subsidy would have been, say, 1.0 cent per kilowatt hours of electricity produced by a "qualified" energy facility for a given number of years. The entire program could have been administered by the Energy Department ... which is, after all, responsible for our national energy policy. Under a direct subsidy regime, a wind or solar project would merit development if (a) sales of electricity to utilities or other unrelated customers, plus (b) the 1.0 cent/KwH subsidy from the Energy Department, exceeded the cost of debt and equity required to finance development. Nice and easy.
Instead of a direct subsidy, Congress enacted a complicated tax subsidy. Actually, a series of slightly different, complicated tax subsidies. For wind, Congress enacted a "production tax credit" or "PTC." For solar, Congress enacted an "investment tax credit" or "ITC." In addition, wind and solar property qualifies for accelerated tax depreciation. Suffice to say, a taxpayer must have positive income tax liability to use PTCs, ITCs and accelerated depreciation. (Unless extended, the PTC regime will expire on December 31, 2012, adding more complexity and uncertainty into the mix.)
Importantly, a taxpayer with positive tax liability cannot simply "purchase" tax credits. On the flip side, a developer without tax liability cannot "sell" tax credits or excess depreciation. Instead, taxpayers with cash and tax liability must invest cash (so-called "tax equity") into qualifying wind and solar projects.
In exchange for its financing commitment, a tax equity investor receives tax credits, accelerated depreciation and some cash until the project satisfies an agreed IRR "hurdle." After the IRR hurdle is satisfied, somewhere down the road, the tax equity or common equity/sponsor exercises a put or call to close the transaction. Under the put/call arrangement, the common equity/sponsor purchases the tax equity investor's position based on its residual value.
 And that's why the regime is laughably flawed. It is complex and impenetrable for most taxpayers and most tax advisors. Plus, the commitment of cash to a renewable energy development project is absolutely "non-core" to most corporate treasurers and CFOs. Meanwhile, administering the subsidy regime falls into the lap of the IRS. Why not administer energy subsidies through the Energy Department?
In practice, there are only 15-20 active participants in the tax equity market. The market is dominated by large national banks, some regional banks, and a few other taxpayers in the financial services business (GE; insurance companies).
Before the financial meltdown in 2008, tax equity yields ranged from 6-8% on an after-tax basis (10-12% on a pre-tax basis). Then the financial system flirted with Armageddon. All of a sudden, market facilitators (the banks and insurance companies and GE) began running tax losses. Without taxable income, facilitators didn't need tax credits, so the market effectively froze up. This didn't bode well for Team Obama's "green jobs agenda." So the administration's Congressional allies quietly created a program to bail out the developers. During 2010 and 2011, qualifying projects could elect to receive Treasury grants (so-called "1603 grants") in lieu of tax credits. The 1603 grant program permitted the industry to survive the turbulence of the Great Recession.
Time flies, and we're in 2012. The Treasury grant program has expired, and Congress recently declined to renew it. Renewable energy development again hinges on 15-20 banks and insurance companies. Because there is a massive supply/demand imbalance (more renewable energy developers than tax equity), tax equity yields have skyrocketed. Yields for reputable developers have jumped from the 6% range to the 12% range. Yields for marginal developers are in the 15-20% range.
 Now we come full circle. The tax equity market is dysfunctional, and would make an interesting study for an economics PhD dissertation. Plenty of corporate taxpayers outside the financial services business (think retail, domestic services) have (a) large U.S. tax bills, and (b) stockpiles of cash earning 1% or less in ultra-secure investments. But tax equity yields are running 12-20% after-tax.
As evidenced by Team Obama's pending meet-and-greet, many of those large corporate taxpayers are probably put off by the complexity of the tax subsidy regime. But many of them routinely invest in other tax credit schemes, including low-income housing tax credits. Team Obama loves to demonize big business and large corporate taxpayers. Can it persuade those "big bad corporations" to commit cash in support of Obama's "green jobs agenda"?
In the world of crony capitalism, anything can happen. It's always a good time when you're rolling in the Corporate 1%.