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Opinion: Caisse's investment in a cryptocurrency company at odds with its pledge to fight climate change – The Globe and Mail

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Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec announced last week that it is taking part in a US$400-million investment in Celsius Network, a New Jersey-based cryptocurrency-lending platform.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s first-ever investment in a cryptocurrency company is providing Canadians with a reality check on its climate commitments.

With the ink barely dry on its new climate change strategy, Canada’s second-largest pension fund manager announced last week that it is taking part in a US$400-million investment in Celsius Network, a New Jersey-based cryptocurrency-lending platform.

U.S. private-equity firm WestCap Group is the lead investor in that transaction. Nonetheless, the Caisse’s involvement is raising eyebrows. That’s because Canadian pension funds, which generally have conservative risk appetites, have largely eschewed significant investments in crypto companies. But this particular investment is also curious because it is inconsistent with the Caisse’s recent environmental evangelism.

To be clear, Celsius Network is not a cryptocurrency. Rather, the company facilitates cryptocurrency lending to retail and institutional investors.

Celsius Network, though, does earn some revenue from cryptocurrency mining. That’s the process through which computers create new digital coins by solving complex mathematical equations to verify transactions and record them on a public digital ledger.

Since cryptocurrency mining requires significant computing power, the process is energy intensive, results in greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change.

Although Celsius Network is not primarily a cryptocurrency miner, digital currencies are integral to its business model. That means Celsius Network (and by extension the Caisse as one of its investors) reaps benefits from other people’s mining.

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For its part, the Caisse is defending its investment in Celsius Network.

“Celsius is a lending platform – not a cryptocurrency – that provides access to fair, rewarding, and transparent financial services, with mining operations that account for a small portion of revenue and are based exclusively in North America, where it can primarily rely on renewable energy sources,” Alexandre Synnett, executive vice-president and chief technology officer at the Caisse, said in an e-mailed statement.

“More importantly, it is also a carbon-neutral business and we expect this to continue going forward,” he added.

The devil, of course, is in the details. For instance, the Caisse can’t guarantee that all cryptocurrency deposited and lent out on Celsius Network’s platform was created using renewable energy.

To illustrate this point, one only needs to consider the environmental impact of bitcoin, which is the world’s most popular cryptocurrency.

Although some proponents have previously claimed that a majority of bitcoin miners use renewable energy, a 2020 study from the University of Cambridge concluded that renewables comprise only 39 per cent of the total energy consumption for mining.

It’s also worth noting that until recently, the vast majority of bitcoin mining took place in China, which generates much of its power from coal. (China banned cryptocurrency mining and trading in May, prompting miners to seek out other jurisdictions. The United States is now the world’s largest bitcoin mining centre.)

This year, a Bank of America report suggested that purchasing a single bitcoin was akin to owning 60 gas-powered cars. Former Caisse chief executive Michael Sabia has also taken a dig at bitcoin, previously comparing it to a lottery ticket – although he did distinguish the cryptocurrency from its underlying blockchain technology.

The Caisse declined to say how it will provide its stakeholders with climate-related disclosures for its Celsius Network investment from here on out.

Other institutional investors are paying close attention to the Caisse’s debut investment in this space. That’s precisely why the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures should provide detailed guidance on divulging the nitty-gritty of crypto-related investments.

The Caisse’s investment in Celsius Network, however, is just the latest indication that there are limits to its commitment to fight climate change.

Although the pension fund manager plans to sell off its remaining oil-producing assets and establish a $10-billion fund to decarbonize other high-emitting industrial sectors, it won’t divest its investments in oil and gas pipelines.

So, oil-producing assets are unacceptable, but pipelines and an investment in a cryptocurrency company are A-okay? It takes mental gymnastics to reconcile these exceptions with the Caisse’s public pledge to protect the environment.

The Caisse should just admit that it’s a casual climate crusader that has every intention of cherry-picking its goals. It should also come clean about any other caveats in its new climate change plan.

This issue doesn’t just concern Quebeckers. The Caisse has $390-billion in assets, which means its investment decisions matter to the country as a whole.

We get it. It’s not easy being green. But please spare us the spin.

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Opinion: Ottawa must aim its fiscal powers at lagging business investment in the next phase of recovery – The Globe and Mail

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People navigate through Yorkdale Mall in search of Black Friday sales in Toronto on Nov. 26, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

In a prebudget consultation last winter, Bank of Nova Scotia chief economist Jean-François Perrault warned Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland that she was in danger of oversubsidizing labour at the expense of capital. Nine months further along an economic recovery that has become complicated by labour shortages, he’s stressing that point to her again.

“It’s certainly my view that [government policies] have favoured supporting the labour side versus the capital side in the pandemic. There’s no question,” he said in an interview this week.

“There needs to be something to turbo-charge Canadian investment.”

Mr. Perrault delivered that message to Ms. Freeland personally last week, as the Finance Minister met virtually with a panel of senior private-sector economists – the traditional consultation in advance of the government’s fall economic and fiscal update, promised for sometime in the next three weeks. This week’s third-quarter gross domestic product report from Statistics Canada underlines the point that the recovery is top-heavy on the consumer side, while business investment brings up the rear.

While real GDP (that is, excluding inflation) expanded at a brisk 5.4-per-cent annualized pace in the quarter, the main driver of that growth was household consumption, which surged nearly 18 per cent annualized. Business gross fixed capital formation, on the other hand, contracted nearly 18 per cent, its second consecutive quarterly decline. Since the start of the pandemic, household spending is up 2 per cent, in real terms; business investment in non-residential structures, machinery and equipment is down 11 per cent.

It’s not as if the private sector lacks the money. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce economist Benjamin Tal estimates that during the pandemic, the collective stockpile of corporate cash is about $175-billion higher than its prepandemic trend.

There are some encouraging indications – most notably, from the Bank of Canada’s fall Business Outlook Survey – that the private sector may be prepared to loosen its purse strings considerably. That quarterly report showed that capital spending intentions over the next 12 months are the highest in the 23-year history of the survey.

But the reality is that the government’s economic policies in the pandemic have done remarkably little to stimulate business investment, while delivering a great deal indeed to protect the labour market and support household incomes.

As the economy has recovered, that significantly tilted the scales in favour of hiring rather than capital spending. That may have contributed to the labour crunch many businesses and sectors are now experiencing.

“If we had somehow found a way to steer more dollars to encourage capital spending, as opposed to maintaining the labour force as it was, perhaps we wouldn’t have a million job vacancies now,” Mr. Perrault argued. “Perhaps firms would have taken the last 18 months to try and rethink, retool, invest, in a way that would make the expansion less labour-intensive.”

This certainly isn’t an issue unique to Canada. In a global economic outlook published Wednesday, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development worried that governments’ fiscal focus is still too much on emergency measures to lean against the impact of the pandemic, and not nearly enough on the building blocks for a strong recovery.

“We are more concerned by the use made of debt than its level,” OECD chief economist Laurence Boone wrote in the report. “It is time to refocus fiscal support on productive investment that will boost growth, including investment in education and physical infrastructure.”

For Canada, though, the solution must go beyond a refocusing of public spending over the next few years. It needs to include incentives to light a fire under business investment that was, frankly, a problem long before the pandemic came along. Crisis policies may have merely encouraged a long-standing tendency in our private sector to favour investments in labour over capital.

In the five years prior to the pandemic, total employment in this country rose 8 per cent. Over the same period, non-residential business investment, excluding inflation, fell 15 per cent.

Mr. Perrault suggested that the optimistic investment outlook in the Bank of Canada’s business survey masks the bigger picture: that Canada remains an underperformer relative to our global peers, even in this recovery.

“Canadian investment is probably going to rise less than a lot of our competitors this year; investment is rising everywhere,” he said. “The temptation is going to be to say things are improving … [but] if our relative investment continues to decline, then our competitiveness hurts, our productivity hurts.”

In a report this week, National Bank of Canada chief economist Stéfane Marion noted the country’s private non-residential capital stock – basically, all the physical structures, machinery and equipment owned by the private sector – actually declined last year, for the first time on record. While the pandemic was undoubtedly a contributing factor, growth has been generally trending downward for more than a decade.

“Whatever the cause of this lack of private investment, we must turn it around,” Mr. Marion said.

“Canada, as a small, open economy … must do a better job of growing its capital stock to take advantage of a highly successful immigration policy, and harness the productive power of a growing work force of highly skilled people.”

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Oil rises as investors focus on OPEC+ decision amid growing Omicron fears

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Oil prices rose on Thursday, recouping the previous day’s losses, as investors adjusted positions ahead of an OPEC+ decision over supply policy, but gains were capped amid fears the Omicron coronavirus variant will hurt fuel demand.

Brent crude futures rose 85 cents, or 1.2%, to $69.72 by 0402 GMT, having eased 0.5% in the previous session.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures gained 85 cents, or 1.3%, to $66.42 a barrel, after a 0.9% drop on Wednesday.

“Investors unwound their positions ahead of the OPEC+ decision as oil prices have declined so fast and so much over the past week,” said Tsuyoshi Ueno, senior economist at NLI Research Institute.

Global oil prices have lost more than $10 a barrel since last Thursday, when news of Omicron shook investors.

“Market will be watching closely the producer group’s decision as well as comments from some of key members after the meeting to suggest their future policy,” Ueno said.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, together known as OPEC+, will likely decide on Thursday whether to release more oil into the market as previously planned or restrain supply.

Since August, the group has been adding an additional 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) of output to global supply each month, as it gradually winds down record cuts agreed in 2020.

The new variant, though, has complicated the decision-making process, with some observers speculating OPEC+ could pause those additions in January in an attempt to slow supply growth.

“Oil prices climbed as some investors anticipate that OPEC+ will decide to maintain the current supply levels in January to cushion any damage on demand from the Omicron spread,” said Toshitaka Tazawa, an analyst at Fujitomi Securities Co Ltd.

Fears over the impact of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus rose after the first case was reported in the United States, and Japan’s central bank has warned of economic pain as countries respond with tighter containment measures.

U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk said President Joe Biden’s administration could adjust the timing of its planned release of strategic crude oil stockpiles if global energy prices drop substantially.

Gains in oil markets on Thursday were capped as the U.S. weekly inventory data showed U.S. crude stocks fell less than expected last week, while gasoline and distillate inventories rose much more than expected as demand weakened. [EIA/S]

Crude inventories fell by 910,000 barrels in the week to Nov. 26, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said, compared with analyst expectations in a Reuters poll for a drop of 1.2 million barrels.

(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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Toronto market hits 7-week low on Omicron uncertainty

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Canada‘s main stock index fell on Wednesday to its lowest level in over seven weeks as the United States reported its first case of the Omicron variant that investors fear could impede economic recovery, with the index giving back its earlier gains.

The Toronto Stock Exchange’s S&P/TSX composite index ended down 195.39 points, or 0.95%, at 20,464.60, its lowest closing level since Oct. 12.

Wall Street also closed lower as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the country had detected its first case of the new COVID-19 variant, which is rapidly becoming dominant in South Africa less than four weeks after being detected there and has spread to other countries.

It might take longer than expected for supply chain disruptions to abate, “especially if we have renewed shutdowns in Asia,” said Kevin Headland, senior investment strategist, Manulife Investment Management.

Still, Headland does not expect the new variant to lead to an economic recession or a bear market for stocks in 2022, saying: “Reaction to headline news provides opportunities for those that have a longer-term timeframe to add in the equity markets.”

The TSX will add to its recent record high over the coming year as the domestic economic recovery helps underpin corporate earnings, but gains are expected to slow from 2020’s breakneck pace, a Reuters poll found.

The technology sector fell 2.7%, while energy ended 1.9% lower as oil was unable to sustain an earlier rally. U.S. crude oil futures settled 0.9% lower at $65.57 a barrel

The materials group, which includes precious and base metals miners and fertilizer companies, lost 2.2%.

Financials were a bright spot, advancing 0.4%, helped by gains for Bank of Nova Scotia as some analysts raised their target price on the stock.

Bombardier Inc was among the biggest decliners. Its shares sank 10.4%.

 

(Reporting by Fergal Smith; Additional reporting by Amal S in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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