The Karma of Flaming Cronyism

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In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $539 million Department of Energy (DoE) loan awarded by the federal government to Fisker Automotive. Fisker, a newly formed crony capitalist firm, would use the money (together with private funding from the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose partners include green crony capitalist and former Vice President Al Gore) to produce hybrid electric vehicles in Biden's home state of Delaware. The investment would create 2,500 American jobs, by 2014 produce an annual 75,000–100,000 "highly efficient vehicles," and by 2016 "save hundreds of millions gallons of gasoline and offset millions of tons of carbon pollution."

With gasoline prices below $2 per gallon at the time, free enterprise could not be counted on to produce planet-saving electric vehicles (EVs) and establish the US as the world leader in EV technology. Capitalism can only be counted on to produce what consumers demand. Then-DoE Secretary Steven Chu believed that the demand for EVs would not materialize until gasoline prices reached nine or ten dollars per gallon. In the interim, only crony capitalism would do.

The Fisker loan was considered a vital, timely investment for America: in 2009, thanks to years of US outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing expertise that propped up its emerging crony capitalist economy, China had become the world’s leader in green technology spending. “We are putting Americans back to work,” exclaimed Chu, “and reigniting a new Industrial Revolution that is paramount for the economic success of this country.” The loan was "seed money," heralded Biden, "that would return back to the American consumer in billions and billions and billions of dollars in good new jobs."

Fisker Automotive was founded by crony capitalist Henrik Fisker, in fall 2007, only to be sued by Tesla Motors, in spring 2008, for stealing design concepts and trade secrets that Fisker allegedly used to develop the Karma — a heavily subsidized vehicle that would compete with the heavily subsidized Tesla Roadster.

The true brilliance of Elon Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius, lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors.

It was also in 2008 when fellow, and far superior, crony capitalist Elon Musk became CEO of Tesla. Barely one year later, Tesla received a $465 million DoE loan. Mr. Musk knows no other form of capitalism. According to the LA Times, he "has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars [Tesla], sell solar panels [SolarCity] and launch rockets into space [SpaceX]," with the help of a staggering $4.9 billion in taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Apparently, Musk will have nothing to do with any enterprise from which he cannot obtain "government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It [the $4.9 billion] also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars."

The true brilliance of Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius ("our generation's Thomas Edison"), lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors. While ordinary crony capitalists are content with bellying up to the government trough for tax breaks and loans to help build their businesses, Musk has the government build businesses for him. He's "so adept at landing incentives that states now compete to give him money."

New York State, for example, is building a $750 million manufacturing plant for SolarCity. With property tax gimmicks, investment tax credits, and cash grants, the entire deal constitutes a $2.5 billion windfall for Musk — courtesy of the taxpayers. Without their coerced support, crony SolarCity, indeed, the entire solar industry, could not survive. Yet in June, New York crony capitalists prevailed over the use of drastically cheaper energy, derived from free market fracking, by officially banning the technology (and denying billions and billions and billions of dollars in lower utility costs for New York residents), ostensibly because of safety concerns: natural gas might leak from wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale bonanza that the state sits on top of, causing flames to shoot out of water faucets.

Inspired by Musk's promises to lead the world into a future without gasoline (he pledged to make millions of electric vehicles by 2025), investors have bid up Tesla stock from $16 per share, when it was first publicly offered in 2010, to $260 per share today. With this runup, Tesla was able to raise more than enough private capital to repay its DoE loan — an event that the DoE declared as "living proof" that "Tesla and other U.S. manufacturers are in a strong position to compete for this growing global market.” Only in the world of green cronyism is debt repayment celebrated as success.

At least the Model S doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

Tesla, which sold 31,655 vehicles in 2014, is valued at $33.8 billion — more than half the value of Ford Motor Company, which sold 6.3 million vehicles during that year. And Ford made a profit, unlike Tesla, which has failed to do so since its inception in 2003. In 2014, Ford posted a profit of $6.3 billion; Tesla lost $294 million. Incredibly, even with its government side business of selling zero-emission-vehicle (ZEV) credits to its competitors, from which it made $217 million, Tesla still lost $294 million. But Musk promises profitability by 2020.

So confident is he of continued government largesse that he scoffs at competitors such as Toyota, which has developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, that sells for $10,000 less than Tesla's $71,000 Model S. Musk's response: “Fuel cells should be renamed ‘fool cells’” — demonstrating a wit as sharp as his automotive genius.

Nevertheless, no one has done more than Mr. Musk to advance EV development in the United States, and, by all accounts, the Model S is a flawless vehicle that has exceeded the expectations of elite Silicon Valley and Hollywood car buyers. It doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

The Karma — which was initially projected to ship in 2009 and to sell over 15,000 units built by 2500 American workers at a refurbished GM plant in Delaware — did not come to market until 2011. But, according to an ABC News investigation, by October of the year only 40 Karmas were produced, all of them assembled by 500 Finnish workers at a factory in rural Finland.

There was not a single US firm with the manufacturing expertise to produce the Karma. "We're not in the business of failing; we're in the business of winning," exclaimed Mr. Fisker. "That's why we went to Finland."

Less than a year later, Fisker Automotive failed — ceasing production in July 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in November 2013. Of the 2,450 Karmas that were eventually built, 1,600 were purchased by consumers, and 2,000 were recalled because of lithium-ion battery-related fire risks (including the possibility that, while parked and disconnected from a charging station, a Karma could mysteriously explode into flames, and burn to unrecognizable rubble).

Numerous reasons have been cited for Fisker's collapse: unrealistic sales goals, compressed launch timeline, insufficient funding, flaming rubble, etc. In the end, however, most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support. The most famous example is Solyndra (the recipient of a $535 million DoE loan), which went bankrupt selling solar panels for half of what it cost to make them. Then there is A123 Systems, Fisker's battery supplier and the recipient of a $249 million DoE grant. A123 sold batteries that cost the company $1.57 for each dollar of sales — leading to its bankruptcy in October 2012, and, in no small part, hastening Fisker's.

A123 might have charged Fisker twice as much, thereby returning a per unit profit of 43%. Why not? Couldn't Fisker absorb the cost increase? It was getting government money too, not to mention the $7,500 tax refund awarded to EV buyers. And, with the price of gasoline heading towards $4 a gallon, surely the demand for EVs was growing. Besides, anyone who could afford the $103,000 Karma might be willing to pay a little extra. Except that, on average, Fisker spent $660,000 for each vehicle produced. To make even a meager profit of, say 10%, Fisker would have had to charge $733,000 — a price that might have scared off early Karma buyers such as pop stars Justin Bieber and Al Gore.

Most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support.

The purpose of the DoE grant to A123 was to help America compete with China. "President Obama was determined not to let China run away with green energy technologies," said a Forbes article covering the bankruptcy auction, where A123 was unloaded for, one could say, a fire sale price. Guess who won the bidding (hint: it wasn't an American company). It was the Wanxiang Group, a Chinese conglomerate run by Lu Guanqiu, an auto-parts magnate with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Forbes characterized the business acumen of our green cronies as a triple irony:

The U.S. borrowed money from China to subsidize a battery company to compete with state-subsidized Chinese battery companies. The American company gets bought out by a Chinese company for about the same amount of money that the U.S. government gave it. The U.S. still has to pay the money back to China. The Chinese company buying the American company makes a lot of money by providing auto parts for the cars that Americans drive.

Perhaps of greater significance is the national security implication. The sale of A123 included US technology developed for advanced ultra-light lithium-ion phosphate batteries — technology that extends beyond powering EVs, to important applications for electricity generation and distribution, not to mention sensitive military applications. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton vehemently opposed such sales, asserting the need for "ensuring that technologies . . . critical to U.S. national security are not sold off and outsourced to foreign governments." Yet Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, did nothing to interfere with the sale.

The Fisker bankruptcy snuffed out the DoE plan of "reigniting a new Industrial Revolution," as well as Joe Biden's hopes of "billions and billions and billions of dollars" for American consumers. It was followed by a DoE announcement that, instead, American taxpayers would get a bill for $139 million, the amount that the government lost in the Fisker debacle. Fisker was sold, in another fire sale, not only to a Chinese company but to the same one that bought A123.

Today, just one year afterward, Mrs. Clinton is running for president and Mr. Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the race. Mr. Guanqiu is planning to resurrect the Karma with his new company, formed from the old Fisker and A123, businesses he picked up for a song: a measly $406 million. The amount is much less than the manufacturing assets and intellectual property he purchased. They represent a value that the DoE must have believed was significantly greater than the $778 million it invested in these companies. But that's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

Mr. Musk is now getting into the battery business, building the world’s largest battery factory, a gigafactory, he says. That is, he bamboozled the state of Nevada into a $1.3 billion incentive package to build it. What crony could turn down a deal projected to generate $100 billion? With capitalist fracking driving gasoline prices down to less than $2 a gal (when $9 gasoline is needed for EV's to be competitive), any capitalist sees folly. But crony capitalists see only the delusion of billions and billions and billions of dollars — that, and taxpayer-funded subsidies for fellow cronies.

That's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

And Mr. Fisker is planning to start another automotive venture. He is "intrigued with Millennials, their craving for new kinds of transportation and their fascination with all things digital." It would behoove him to rekindle his relationship with Al Gore, this time for marketing purposes. Who is better than Mr. Climate Change at pitching flimflam to Millennials? Whatever Mr. Fisker has in mind, he remains optimistic, believing that "the timing is right for something completely new."

But none of this is new. Under our current political system, the timing is always right for crony capitalism. And, unlike taxpayers, crony capitalists will profit from another completely new green auto company, even if it goes down in flames.

#39;s Thomas Edison




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Comments

Luther Jett

Sounds to me like Fisker's Karma has run over somebody's Dogma.

Johnimo

You can't make this stuff up because it's too bizarre. Thanks for another great article. Has there EVER been an administration with greater intellectual corruption than this one? The Nixon and Johnson administrations taken together didn't hold a candle to the current cronies. Those were administrations headed by unprincipled leaders, but this administration is broadly staffed and penetrated with hordes of the ethically blinded.

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