Will Water Be Bigger Than Oil? Why Water Is Energy, Not An Asset Class

Courtesy of The Financial Times, an interesting report that water will become an even bigger commodity than oil in the years ahead, sparking massive geopolitical investment, audacious infrastructure schemes, and tensions along the way:

In a 37-page note on Thursday, the bank’s global strategists recommend investors play the urbanisation trend by buying into water companies (these ones to be specific), arguing that the concentration of the world’s population and increasing standards of life will drive up demand for the liquid commodity.

Even Willem Buiter, a man most often seen railing at the vagaries of central banks, gets stuck in, with a 4,000-word essay on the subject. Which means we could now discuss whether the Citigroup economist thinks water is a public good (he says it’s private), whether it’s excludable (i.e. lends itself to property rights — he says it does), whether it’s a merit good as defined by Richard Musgrave back in the 1950s (it’s not) and whether, since it is essential to life, it should be free (to which his answer is a curt ‘no’).

But instead, we’ll just skip to the bit where Buiter says water is the next big thing:

I expect to see in the near future a massive expansion of investment in the water sector, including the production of fresh, clean water from other sources (desalination, purification), storage, shipping and transportation of water. I expect to see pipeline networks that will exceed the capacity of those for oil and gas today.

I see fleets of water tankers (single-hulled!) and storage facilities that will dwarf those we currently have for oil, natural gas and LNG. I see new canal systems dug for water transportation, similar in ambition and scale to those currently in progress in China, linking the Yangtze River in the South to the Yellow River in the arid north.

I also hope and expect that these new canal ventures will be designed and implemented with a greater awareness of the environmental and social impact of such mega-projects. India will have to engage in investment on a scale comparable to that seen today in China to produce clean water in the best locations and transport it to where the household, industrial and agricultural users are.

Water as an Asset Class

I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments — puts, calls, swaps — both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.

There was a strong rebuttal, however, that water is energy, not an asset class:

On Thursday, the highly esteemed Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup,declared boldly in a research note that water would soon become the next big thing when it comes to commodity asset classes.

As he envisioned:

I see fleets of water tankers (single-hulled!) and storage facilities that will dwarf those we currently have for oil, natural gas and LNG. I see new canal systems dug for water transportation, similar in ambition and scale to those currently in progress in China, linking the Yangtze River in the South to the Yellow River in the arid north.
But Reuters’ resident commodities guru, John Kemp, remains unconvinced.

While he acknowledges that trading firms have long dreamed about global markets in water — a dream that Enron momentarilly tried to propel into reality by buying a water utility in south-west England — there’s a reason why that dream died quickly, along with Enron. (And possibly also why Tank Girl bombed at the cinema.)

The reason: it’s hard to make a convincing argument that H2O really is a global commodity, let alone a tradable and investable asset.

As the columnist warned in a note on Friday (our emphasis):

Futurology is inherently dangerous. Forecasters predict continuation of existing trends and miss the disruptive technologies and turning points that remake the world.

Disruptive technologies and turning points are impossible to predict precisely because they are so unexpected and revolutionary. No one can know what the world will look like in 10 years let alone 25-30 years. Go back 25 or 30 years to 1981 or 1986 and the Soviet Union was still a superpower, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were still fighting the unions, Paul Volcker was struggling to tame inflation, and the widespread take up of the internet was still 10-15 years into the future.

But it is a fair bet water will never be traded around the world in tankers and on futures exchanges. There will never an integrated global spot market in water let alone complex derivatives.

It does not have the right characteristics to be a global commodity let alone asset. For any plausible water price, the value-to-volume ratio would be too low to support an integrated global supply system.

There will not be an integrated global supply system for the same reason there is no global market in bread but there is in oil, copper and gold. It is not worth transporting loaves around the world by boat, plane and truck. Moreover, most of the value in water lies not in the commodity itself but the value added to it by various processes and services. The world has so much water it will never be in short supply at a global scale. There are literally oceans of the stuff as well as enormous amounts of brackish water underground. The value-added lies in extracting it, treating it to make it drinkable, extracting salt from sea water, transporting it to the place where it can be used conveniently, and disposing of dirty water to prevent the spread of disease.
So, because the ‘value’ in water is an add on, water can never really be treated as a commodity in its truest sense, says Kemp. Ultimately, there is not much extractable value in the water itself.

If there is money to be made it’s by providing water services, the same way it is attractive to provide power and gas transmission services.

Water is a ‘good’, not an asset.

That said, he says Buiter does make a fair case when he suggests that you can apply property rights to the resource. Its use by one person does after all preclude the use by another. It’s also fair, he says, to dispose of the argument that water is some kind of moral or merit good that should be provided free to all, especially with so much inefficient use (take golf courses for example).

Nevertheless, one major stumbling block remains: it still takes energy to make water usable.

As Kemp notes:

At global scale, water is really an embedded form of energy (an “energy vector”) as some commentors on Thursday’s FT Alphaville blog explained. The commodity is not the water but the energy.

Which means there may be a future in investing in boring old water services and infrastructure companies, but dreams of water markets will and always will remain just dreams (at least, for as long as fossil fuels dominate).

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 31st, 2011 at 9:26 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”