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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Who lost Solyndra?

For the second time this summer, I found myself watching a C-SPAN congressional hearing on a major issue of economic policy. This time, the hearing was about the $535 million Federally guaranteed-loan to the now-bankrupt Solyndra, this time before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The hearing was called by the (obviously hostile) GOP majority to compel testimony by two Obama administration representatives: Jonathan Silver (head of the loan guarantee program for the Department of Energy) and Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Silver, a former McKinsey consultant and private equity manager, didn't want to be bossed around by mere representatives with 1/10th or 1/100th of his net worth, but eventually settled down. Zients — with far narrower legal exposure — was much more cooperative and even a little more sympathetic to fiduciary concerns.

Some aspects of what happened were clear and undisputed:
  • January 2009. The final decision of the DOE (under Bush) is to reject the loan without prejudice
  • February 2009. After the stimulus bill passed, Obama's new DOE secretary wants to push through funding
  • March 2099. The DOE offer a conditional loan commitment to Solyndra
  • September 2009. The DOE approves the loan to Solyndra
  • September 4, 2009 — Vice President Biden announces approval of the $535 million loan guarantee to allow Solyndra to build Fab 2.
  • August 31, 2011: Solyndra declares bankruptcy, laying off 1100 employees
Before the hearing, the Washington Post published leaked e-mails that the approval was rushed so that Biden could make the announcement, although the Democrat majority argued it was quoted out of context. In one memo, a government analysts said the economic models forecast that Solyndra would go broke without additional funding.

The level of questioning by both sides was disappointing. Perhaps it is because both sides are populated lawyers who (mostly) are clueless about economics. Perhaps it’s because I know something about the industry and have been to Fab 2.

The arguments boiled town to a handful of issues, with the two sides were broken records. Republicans were trying to find out who lost taxpayer money and fight against “picking winners and losers.” Democrats (including Silver) tried to argue it was equally Bush's fault (even though Bush never approved the guarantee) and were obsessed with national "competitiveness" of keeping up with Chinese subisides for their solar companies.

In the most quoted statistics of the day, Silver stated that US global market share in PV fell from 40% in 1995 to 6% today (2010) versus 6% for China in 2005 and 54% today.

The two sides argued about whether the government renegotiated the terms of the loan (in violation of Federal law) or allowed Solyndra a workout. (Either way, the government’s interest became subordinated to a new round of private lenders — making it unlikely that the US will see the 20¢/dollar that it would have recieved with a liquidation).

While Solyndra was burning cash at the time of the loan guarantee, Silver (correctly) noted that this was not atypical for a high-growth company. (The point was echoed by far less knowledgeable allies on the committee). But as one of the representatives pointed out, the appropriate risk profile for private equity is different than that for taxpayer dollars.

Both Obama’s friends and foes see this an increasingly embarrassing scandal for the president. Republican moderate (and former CBS news producer) Peggy Noonan wrote
[One thing I’ve admired about Obama] has been a relative absence of deep political scandal. It's been good not to have a Watergate, a Whitewater. But there are signs this week that could change with the Solyndra loan scandal. The White House apparently tried to rush almost half a billion dollars of taxpayer loans to a solar panel manufacturer that later went belly up and took a thousand jobs with it. The reason for the rush: The awarding of the loan would make good PR. This looks bad, and if it's true, heads should quickly roll. It's one thing to be branded as "out of your depth but not corrupt," quite another when it's "out of your depth and corrupt." That is much worse.
Meanwhile, on Thursday night Jon Stewart of Comedy Central told Obama’s enemies “That Custom-Tailored Obama Scandal You Ordered Is Finally Here.”

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As ABC quoted Stewart:
“You know, stories about incompetence in government are only going to get you so far though. For this to truly become weapons-grade political fodder, you’re going to need incompetence with more than just a whiff of sinister cronyism,” Stewart said.
If this week’s hearing is any indication, we are unlikely to have any substantive discussion of the issues raised by the Solyndra default. Unlike Watergate, there was no bipartisan approach akin to “what did he know and when did he know it.”

The debate is a crucial one for the future of the American renewable energy industry. One side asks: can (and should) the government pick winners among American firms? The other asks: can the US industry survive without cheap government financing?

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