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Charles Donovan 1
                                                                                            IE Business School

Discussion Paper Series on Asset Pricing:
Renewable Energy in Growing Economies

This is the second in a series of three discussion papers. The first paper addressed two aspects of
project discount rates for renewable energy investments: zero beta and downside risk. Both
concepts push at the edges of mainstream investment evaluation, but are nonetheless firmly rooted
in the logic of portfolio theory and the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). As CAPM is a well
installed program in the minds of current and aspiring CFOs, we argued that the model would
become increasingly relevant to investors and policymakers in this emerging sector.

In this paper, we take the opposite approach by looking for a better way to describe how investors
arrive at their financial return expectations. We explore self-reported perceptions about risk from a
range of investors in India’s renewable energy market and consider the influence of strategic options
on investment hurdle rates.

1. Analysis on required return on equity

The slew of recent investments in India’s fledgling solar PV market challenge traditional notions of
market efficiency and investor rationality. Over the past year, the Government of India has secured
commitments from private sector investors to plow roughly $1 billion into new solar power
generation facilities. What’s surprising is how little financial incentive was ultimately needed to
induce this investment.

The first round of bidding in India’s National Solar Mission (NSM) yielded bids well below
expectations. Prices for delivering solar PV power to the electric grid went below 11 Rs/kWh
($0.24/kWh)1, leading many commentators to raise “an open question how and when these projects
will be realized” (European Commission, 2011). Yet in the second round, concluded in December
2011, bid prices were even lower. Accepted bids ranged from a low Rs 7.5 to a high of 9.5/kWh
($0.16 - $0.21/kWh). In just 12 months, developers shaved 20-30% off bid prices, despite more
stringent pre-bid qualification criteria and rising debt rates.

The auctions tell a fascinating story about not just falling PV panel prices, but also investment hurdle
rates. Taking into account ongoing reductions in solar PV equipment costs, it appears that firms
sanctioned investments at IRRs of between 10% and 12%2. Given the high cost of debt in India,
levered return on equity (ROE) for those same projects would be in the range of 11-15%. Both
levered and unlevered rates are well below what would be expected from “rational” investors.

The risk-free rate in India (10 year GOI bond) has been at least 8% during all of 2011. The equity risk
premium for solar PV investment would therefore be in the range of 2-4%, less than the premium
observed in well developed markets such as the US and far below the premium typically ascribed to
emerging markets. The comparisons are even more striking when considering the illiquidity of solar
PV project investments relative to other classes of risky assets.


1
    Rs45/USD
2
    I am grateful to Madhavan Nampoothiri, Managing Director of RESolve (India), for valuation expertise
Charles Donovan 2
                                                                                           IE Business School

Our past research on a proxy portfolio of 19 renewable energy companies indicated that a downside
risk-adjusted CAPM would predict that investors demand an unlevered ROE in the range of 15-
19%%. Various snapshots of ROE for Indian firms as a whole, such as analysis by The Economist in
Figure 1, show that average ROE has not been below 15% for the last decade. As the average firm in
the BSE 100 is less indebted than the typical solar PV project, it makes the industry-to-industry
comparison even more striking. The Government of India set auction reserve prices with the
intention of providing investors with a levered project ROE of approximately 22%3, a rate
presumably high enough to entice investors in to a seemingly risky, unproven sector.

Figure 1. Return on Equity as reported by The Economist (Nov 2011)




Compared to numerous metrics, India’s solar auctions appear to have landed investors at rates much
lower than would be expected from “rational” investors. The results are particularly confounding
given the conventional wisdom that firms typically set project hurdle rates above their cost of capital
to correct for over-optimism. Especially in the area of clean technology investing, there is a widely
held presumption that investors require a premium to invest in sectors without proven track
records. Without a reliable means of measuring objective risk, it is often presumed that the “gut
instincts” of investors lead them to set higher thresholds for project IRRs. In the words of one
prominent bank, “just because an area is unknown, there is a human tendency to assume that risks
in that area are higher than they really are.”4


2. Revisiting Risk and Return

We carried out our interviews in November 2011, just before winning bids were announced in from
the second NSM auction. The interviews were semi-structured conversations based around a series
of questions exploring organizational procedures for risk assessment, strategic logic, and individuals’



3
  Shrimali, G. (2011). The Solar Auctions in India: What Can We Learn from the Telecom Auctions?
Unpublished Manuscript. Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.
4
  International Finance Corporation (IFC), 2011. Public Private Partnerships: Accelerating the Growth of
Climate Related Private Equity Investment. World Bank Group: Washington, DC.
Charles Donovan 3
                                                                                       IE Business School

perceptions about market risk. Twenty-one individuals, each representing a unique company
participated. A summary of the participant profiles is shown below.



Figure 3. Participants by Job Title




                                      19%
                                                           43%   CEO/COO/CFO
                           19%                                   Managing Director

                                         19%                     Director
                                                                 Manager



                                             n=21



Figure 4. Participants by Type of Firm




                                                                 IPP
                                  19%
                                                       33%       Private Equity Firm

                           14%                                   Consulting Firm

                                 14%                 19%         Conglomorate

                                                                 Investment Bank

                                              n=21



Figure 5. Participants by Company Headquarters




                                  24%
                                                           38%
                                                                    US / EU
                                                                    India
                                       38%                          Other Asia




                                             n=21
Charles Donovan 4
                                                                                 IE Business School

The interviews explored various aspects of the firms’ investment decision-making processes and
investigated individuals’ beliefs about renewable energy technologies, markets and governmental
policies.

Several themes emerged from our conversations:

   a. Market Evolution. Nearly all interviewees touched upon an idea that the renewable energy
      market in India was “evolving” with respect to investment risk. Their collective emphasis on
      this idea raises new questions: Towards what is the market evolving? What evolutionary
      mechanism would best describe the current state of the market? Our sense from listening to
      investors was that an equilibrium state was still many years away. When we asked investors
      to describe the risk/return tradeoff in solar PV power project investing relative to other
      types of investment, we heard a wide range of opinions. Even from this small sample, we
      did not gain from participants a stable set of descriptions about the level of risk or return
      available from the market.           Risk/return expectations appeared widely dispersed.
      Additionally, we noted diversity in the way firms were approaching the task of asset pricing.
      Overall there seemed to us a lack of quantitative precision in setting risk-adjusted hurdle
      rates. Investment decision rules were commonly linked to achieving a levered IRR target
      set in isolation from project risk assessment.

   b. Expectations about High Growth. Despite recent setbacks in the headline growth rate,
      general confidence about India’s economy remains relatively high. When we asked
      investors about growth prospects for solar power, investors returned time and again to the
      linkage between economic growth and electric power demand. Many participants remarked
      that an “uncoupling” was occurring in market structure that would allow solar power to
      escape the ongoing turmoil of insolvency amongst state distribution companies. Looking
      towards prospects for further falls in PV module prices and escalating prices/availability of
      imported fossil fuels, many investors saw a scenario whereby solar power could enter a new
      phase of growth in off-grid, commercial/light industrial, and utility-scale markets. Many
      investors expect India to have an endless need for new sources of electric power. Amongst
      our sample there was a growing belief that imported coal and natural gas will not be
      available to meet that demand. Higher power prices and a bright future for solar seemed, to
      them, inevitable.

   c. Declining Policy Uncertainty. As in many markets, the single greatest risk issue was related
      to government policy. There was a generalized concern that the government could leave
      early investors stranded if/when new solar PV power installations become more affordable.
      Yet overall, we noted a feeling amongst most investors that policy uncertainty was resolving,
      rather than increasing. For project developers working in certain states such as Gujarat,
      there was a notable level of confidence about regulatory actors and their assurances to
      investors. In discussions of state/national policy risks, only rarely did they make references
      to past historical occurrences, expected probabilities, or quantitative ratings. We suspect
      that there is a collective belief in the market that policy uncertainty has crossed some peak,
      triggering anticipation that with additional time it will decline further. In the words of one
Charles Donovan 5
                                                                                     IE Business School

        investor, renewable energy policy-making had “turned a corner.” When pressed for details
        about the reduction in uncertainty, most participants did not mention specific events but
        rather a change in the general sentiment and pointed again to the “learning process.”



3. A rational explanation for irrationally low hurdle rates

Our focus on non-quantitative elements of the decision-making process was motivated by a
behavioral view of asset pricing that recognizes subjectivity in the risk assessment process. While it
seems self-evident to most corporate finance practitioners that individuals’ beliefs play a role in
investment decision-making, mainstream financial theory does not recognize a psychological
foundation of asset pricing. Where pricing anomalies as shown to exist, these are often dismissed as
short-run phenomenon attributable to irrational agents, or “noise traders”.

In the traditionalist view, the discount rate is derived from observed levels of objective risk. The
measured amount of risk determines the compensation required by investors in excess of a
“certainty-equivalent”, or risk-free, rate. In instances where risk is unquantifiable, firms invest under
conditions of uncertainty. Over time, uncertainty may be reduced as investors learn from new
information that allows them to make clearer forecasts of future states of the world. Learning
within the system promotes a gradual reduction in perceived uncertainty.

The standard view is well represented by the chart below, taken from a US Department of Energy
report, whereby the discount rate is a function of time and a measure of product commercialization
(e.g. cumulative sales).
Charles Donovan 6
                                                                                       IE Business School

Figure 6. Evolution of the Project Discount Rate5




In conditions of economic equilibrium, where by supply and demand relationships are stable the
                                                                                          stable,
cost of capital within an industry is seen to reduce gradually towards the certainty
                                                                           certainty-equivalent rate.
And while the ideas of dislocation discontinuities, and non-linearity are hardly new to economics –
                         islocations,
Joseph Schumpeter recognized these in the early 1930’s – it adds considerable complexity to
economic thinking. Perhaps for this reason, these concepts have hardly touched mainstream
                    .
corporate finance practices.

There is no shortage of academic and practitioner research advancing a more sophisticated view of
markets. Every hour of every day, investors make money from inefficient market pricing. Yet to
        .
date, nearly all of this work has been focused on behaviors within financial markets – the trading of
                  f
stocks, bonds, commodities and derivates. The new models have not been m
                                                 These                                   much help in
understanding the seemingly c     chaotic patterns of capital allocation within firm
                                                                                 firms. It seems the
“internal capital markets” of firm (i.e. capital budgeting) are too different from tradable securities
                               firms
exchanges to be of much use in explaining the apparent paradoxes of investment patterns
                                                                                    patterns.

No matter whether one’s focus is internal or external capital markets, a common question in both
                                               external
arises as to what extent economic actors behave rationally. In the behavioral school, rational agents
are people that do things which are, for them, sensible. This differs from the traditionalists’ sstrict
economic interpretation of rationality as the maximization of personal utility. Sensible people given
                                                                                 ensible people,
the situation presented to them make decisions in their best interest. The key difference is that
                            them,
“best interests” cannot always be represented in monetary terms. Not assigning a monetary value
                                                             terms.


5
 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2003. Bridging the Valley of Death: Transitioning from Public
to Private Sector Financing. NREL/MP
                              REL/MP-720-34036. May 2003.
Charles Donovan 7
                                                                                          IE Business School

to one’s preferences poses a tremendous challenge to economics based on individuals’ marginal
utilities.

Accepting that investment decision-makers are not always be rational does not mean that they can’t
be understood. As an alternative to rationality, we can pursue insights about in which ways there
are sensible. Adopting sensibility as our mental frame, our goal becomes understanding how
individual decision-makers approach the issue of investment risk. We want to know how they make
sense of risk and return. These are the psychological foundations of investment decision-making.

But we need not steer too far from traditional economics to find space for a sensible explanation of
low ROEs in solar PV project investments. Many observations of mispricing are more accurately
characterized as “near rational” than irrational, owning to the fact there is frequently wide latitude
for deviating from full optimization without incurring significant losses.6 We suggest that a key to
understanding differences in observed hurdle rates among investors is recognition that risk is not
perceived uniformly by investors.

Conventional wisdom is that regulatory risk typically leads firms to exploit their option to delay.7 By
waiting an extra time period, a firm can narrow the range of probabilities and reduce the chances of
making a negative NPV investment. But in many situations, such as those involving highly regulated
industries or involving rapidly advancing technology, uncertainty is endemic to the investment
decision. While uncertainty may be reduced, complete elimination of uncertainty will never occur.
In these cases, delay becomes counterproductive. In these situations, it may be more productive to
invest uncertainty is still high. For example, a recent study of the German power-generation
industry indicated that some firms accelerate investment decisions under regulatory uncertainty.
The sensible reasons are to secure competitive resources, to leverage complementary resources,
and to alleviate institutional pressures8. We see many of the same dynamics at work in the Indian
solar PV sector.

4. Real Options in Technology Investing and Their Impact on Investment

Learning within individual firms occurs with a set of collective thought about how to compete and
survive. Building the capability to compete and extract rents from new business areas is as
important as observing specific decision rules. We propose that firms respond in different ways to
the uncertainty presented to them. For some, uncertainty is reason to delay and or others a reason
to move faster. What matters most in determining waves of investment is not the absolute level of
uncertainty, but rather the amount of uncertainly relative previous levels9. Declining uncertainty can
be a powerful trigger an ecosystem-wide response to accumulate resources.



6
  Akerlof, G. and Yellen, J. 1987. Rational Models of Irrational Behaviour. The American Economic Review,
Vol. 77, No. 2, May 1987.
7
  Dixit A. and Pindyck, R. 1994. Investment Under Uncertainty.
8
  Hoffmann, V., Trautmann, T., and Hamprecht, J. 2009. Regulatory Uncertainty: A Reason to Postpone
Investments? Not Necessarily. Journal of Management Studies, 181, 2009.
9
  Pastor, L. and Veronesi, P. 2005. Rational IPO Waves. Journal of Finance, Volume 60, Issue 4, pages 1713–
1757, August 2005
Charles Donovan 8
                                                                                      IE Business School

Not all actors perceive such an opportunity in the same way. Some firms will be willing to pay a real
option premium to establish a new position, while others, given their resources at hand, prefer to
wait. This diversity in how firms respond to uncertainty becomes a source of heterogeneity in the
discount rate used to evaluate new investments.

In an emerging industry, the opportunity for accumulation of new skills and know-how will prompt
some investors to invest in prospects promising returns below the industry-average ROE. In
neoclassical economics there is one equilibrium discount rate. But viewed from the perspective of
the firm, it may be very sensible to adjust investment hurdle rates below expected return thresholds
in order to pursue new sources of sustainable economic rent.

And while it seems evident that the discount rate reduces over time as an industry matures, we
contend that the curve is not gradually sloping downward. Rather, the availability of real options
lead some firms to break from the pack. In instances where a sub-group of firms sensibly invest for
lower returns, the observed discount rate will be substantially lower than the equilibrium discount
rate. Adopting a strategic view of firm behavior, we could anticipate that in mature industries, the
dispersion of hurdle rates used by firms would be relatively low. Conversely, we should expect a
wide range of hurdle rates for industries, such as renewable power generation, characterized by
technological change and fluctuation perceptions of uncertainty.

Figure 7. Firm Hurdle Rates Relative to an Industry Average




                                                                           High Dispertion
                                                                           Low Dispertion




In a fast moving industry where opinions are still forming and new actors are entering, we maintain
that there will be a wide variety of factors to discourage (and encourage) learning investments.
These factors act upon on the project cost of capital. And while we the upward revisions of hurdle
rates by firms are well documented, there are logical reasons for downward revisions as well.

To the potential criticism that the evidence from India is nothing more than a short-term
phenomenon, we point out that the solar PV business has been in existence for more than 30 years,
the last 10 of those as a global, multi-billion dollar industry. Yet private sector hurdle rates continue
to deviate from purely rational expectations.
Charles Donovan 9
                                                                                           IE Business School

5. Implications for policymaking

A strategic view of firm behavior will lead to very different conclusions approach about optimal
renewable energy investment policy than one based on a static view of the industry cost of capital.
Heterogeneity in the discount rate would call into serious question many current regulatory
approaches to promoting investment. It seems that renewable energy policy has been clouded by
viewing environmental investments through the lens of pollution abatement. In an investment
landscape characterized by accelerating resource scarcity and high rates of growth in consumption,
conventional wisdom no longer holds. So what is the possibility that the Government of India has
gotten its policy mix of feed-in tariffs and auctions just right? Has is uncovered a magical recipe for
capturing the renewable power at the lowest cost for consumers?

While auctions carry with them a certain degree of additional risk, they are a powerful and under-
used tool for stimulating investment in renewable power. Auctions capitalize upon the fact that the
risk judgments of firms are not homogenous, nor are they static. Instead of relying upon the
expertise of government planners and outside experts, auctions allow prices to be set through a
competitive process amongst investors.

We are at the very beginning of a shift in how policymakers react to environmental investment
problems. Most policymaking still takes the view of technology choice from the point of view of
generic levelized costs. A better approach would be to acknowledging the risk factors associated
with each technology and the market structure created by policies. The effect will be to “re-order”
technology attractiveness10.

Traditional economic policy making assumes that the equilibrium discount rate is representative of
all investors. For that reason, two policy instruments providing the same amount of average
subsidy are expected to deliver similar outcomes. But with a proper consideration of investment risk
and the motives of the firm, we see strong preferences emerge for one instrument as compared to
another11. For example, if the volatility of expected cash flows from renewable energy certificates is
high, then investment risk will be higher relative to a project with a low expected cash flow variance.
A straightforward conclusion is that renewable energy investors facing feed-in tariffs will have lower
project hurdle rates than those gaining revenue subsidies from tradable certificate markets.

Yet the preferences of investment decision-makers are not just tied to objective risk measurements.
They are also influenced by subjective evaluations of investment risk. We believe options thinking,
despite the extensive math that has been proposed to value real options, is most often a qualitative
process. Only in very rare cases, can real option be valued precisely. Nonetheless, they appear to
weigh heavily in the minds of investment decision-makers.

Behavioral aspects of corporate finance practices have been poorly explored in the debate around
policy instrument choice. Every form of subsidy involves some form of future uncertainty:

10
   Gross, R. and Blyth, W. and Heptonstall, P. 2010. Risks, revenues and investment in electricity generation:
Why policy needs to look beyond costs. Energy Economics 32 (2010), 796–804.
11
   Wüstenhagen, R. and Menichetti, E. 2012. Strategic choices for renewable energy investment: Conceptual
framework and opportunities for further research. Energy Policy 40, January 2012, 1-10.
Charles Donovan 10
                                                                                     IE Business School

perceptions about the amount of long-term government support, the potential for retroactive policy
changes, and unforecastable supply and demand factors. And just as each type of subsidy carries
with it a different level of objective risk, so do certain policy and market conditions lead to differing
perceptions of risk. Hunches based on perceptions of risk usually can’t be quantified, but that
doesn’t stop them from being followed.

5. Looking Forward

To this point, we have been concerned with judgments that have are solely related to the potential
consequences of the investment decision. In the third and final discussion paper in this series, we
will dedicate more time to the topic of subjective assessments and explore the intrinsic motivations
of investors.

We welcome your feedback. Please send comments and questions to
solarinvestmentrisk@gmail.com

Discussion Paper No. 3 will be sent by the end of February 2012.

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JNNSM reverse auction : A rational explanation for irrationally low hurdle rates

  • 1. Charles Donovan 1 IE Business School Discussion Paper Series on Asset Pricing: Renewable Energy in Growing Economies This is the second in a series of three discussion papers. The first paper addressed two aspects of project discount rates for renewable energy investments: zero beta and downside risk. Both concepts push at the edges of mainstream investment evaluation, but are nonetheless firmly rooted in the logic of portfolio theory and the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). As CAPM is a well installed program in the minds of current and aspiring CFOs, we argued that the model would become increasingly relevant to investors and policymakers in this emerging sector. In this paper, we take the opposite approach by looking for a better way to describe how investors arrive at their financial return expectations. We explore self-reported perceptions about risk from a range of investors in India’s renewable energy market and consider the influence of strategic options on investment hurdle rates. 1. Analysis on required return on equity The slew of recent investments in India’s fledgling solar PV market challenge traditional notions of market efficiency and investor rationality. Over the past year, the Government of India has secured commitments from private sector investors to plow roughly $1 billion into new solar power generation facilities. What’s surprising is how little financial incentive was ultimately needed to induce this investment. The first round of bidding in India’s National Solar Mission (NSM) yielded bids well below expectations. Prices for delivering solar PV power to the electric grid went below 11 Rs/kWh ($0.24/kWh)1, leading many commentators to raise “an open question how and when these projects will be realized” (European Commission, 2011). Yet in the second round, concluded in December 2011, bid prices were even lower. Accepted bids ranged from a low Rs 7.5 to a high of 9.5/kWh ($0.16 - $0.21/kWh). In just 12 months, developers shaved 20-30% off bid prices, despite more stringent pre-bid qualification criteria and rising debt rates. The auctions tell a fascinating story about not just falling PV panel prices, but also investment hurdle rates. Taking into account ongoing reductions in solar PV equipment costs, it appears that firms sanctioned investments at IRRs of between 10% and 12%2. Given the high cost of debt in India, levered return on equity (ROE) for those same projects would be in the range of 11-15%. Both levered and unlevered rates are well below what would be expected from “rational” investors. The risk-free rate in India (10 year GOI bond) has been at least 8% during all of 2011. The equity risk premium for solar PV investment would therefore be in the range of 2-4%, less than the premium observed in well developed markets such as the US and far below the premium typically ascribed to emerging markets. The comparisons are even more striking when considering the illiquidity of solar PV project investments relative to other classes of risky assets. 1 Rs45/USD 2 I am grateful to Madhavan Nampoothiri, Managing Director of RESolve (India), for valuation expertise
  • 2. Charles Donovan 2 IE Business School Our past research on a proxy portfolio of 19 renewable energy companies indicated that a downside risk-adjusted CAPM would predict that investors demand an unlevered ROE in the range of 15- 19%%. Various snapshots of ROE for Indian firms as a whole, such as analysis by The Economist in Figure 1, show that average ROE has not been below 15% for the last decade. As the average firm in the BSE 100 is less indebted than the typical solar PV project, it makes the industry-to-industry comparison even more striking. The Government of India set auction reserve prices with the intention of providing investors with a levered project ROE of approximately 22%3, a rate presumably high enough to entice investors in to a seemingly risky, unproven sector. Figure 1. Return on Equity as reported by The Economist (Nov 2011) Compared to numerous metrics, India’s solar auctions appear to have landed investors at rates much lower than would be expected from “rational” investors. The results are particularly confounding given the conventional wisdom that firms typically set project hurdle rates above their cost of capital to correct for over-optimism. Especially in the area of clean technology investing, there is a widely held presumption that investors require a premium to invest in sectors without proven track records. Without a reliable means of measuring objective risk, it is often presumed that the “gut instincts” of investors lead them to set higher thresholds for project IRRs. In the words of one prominent bank, “just because an area is unknown, there is a human tendency to assume that risks in that area are higher than they really are.”4 2. Revisiting Risk and Return We carried out our interviews in November 2011, just before winning bids were announced in from the second NSM auction. The interviews were semi-structured conversations based around a series of questions exploring organizational procedures for risk assessment, strategic logic, and individuals’ 3 Shrimali, G. (2011). The Solar Auctions in India: What Can We Learn from the Telecom Auctions? Unpublished Manuscript. Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. 4 International Finance Corporation (IFC), 2011. Public Private Partnerships: Accelerating the Growth of Climate Related Private Equity Investment. World Bank Group: Washington, DC.
  • 3. Charles Donovan 3 IE Business School perceptions about market risk. Twenty-one individuals, each representing a unique company participated. A summary of the participant profiles is shown below. Figure 3. Participants by Job Title 19% 43% CEO/COO/CFO 19% Managing Director 19% Director Manager n=21 Figure 4. Participants by Type of Firm IPP 19% 33% Private Equity Firm 14% Consulting Firm 14% 19% Conglomorate Investment Bank n=21 Figure 5. Participants by Company Headquarters 24% 38% US / EU India 38% Other Asia n=21
  • 4. Charles Donovan 4 IE Business School The interviews explored various aspects of the firms’ investment decision-making processes and investigated individuals’ beliefs about renewable energy technologies, markets and governmental policies. Several themes emerged from our conversations: a. Market Evolution. Nearly all interviewees touched upon an idea that the renewable energy market in India was “evolving” with respect to investment risk. Their collective emphasis on this idea raises new questions: Towards what is the market evolving? What evolutionary mechanism would best describe the current state of the market? Our sense from listening to investors was that an equilibrium state was still many years away. When we asked investors to describe the risk/return tradeoff in solar PV power project investing relative to other types of investment, we heard a wide range of opinions. Even from this small sample, we did not gain from participants a stable set of descriptions about the level of risk or return available from the market. Risk/return expectations appeared widely dispersed. Additionally, we noted diversity in the way firms were approaching the task of asset pricing. Overall there seemed to us a lack of quantitative precision in setting risk-adjusted hurdle rates. Investment decision rules were commonly linked to achieving a levered IRR target set in isolation from project risk assessment. b. Expectations about High Growth. Despite recent setbacks in the headline growth rate, general confidence about India’s economy remains relatively high. When we asked investors about growth prospects for solar power, investors returned time and again to the linkage between economic growth and electric power demand. Many participants remarked that an “uncoupling” was occurring in market structure that would allow solar power to escape the ongoing turmoil of insolvency amongst state distribution companies. Looking towards prospects for further falls in PV module prices and escalating prices/availability of imported fossil fuels, many investors saw a scenario whereby solar power could enter a new phase of growth in off-grid, commercial/light industrial, and utility-scale markets. Many investors expect India to have an endless need for new sources of electric power. Amongst our sample there was a growing belief that imported coal and natural gas will not be available to meet that demand. Higher power prices and a bright future for solar seemed, to them, inevitable. c. Declining Policy Uncertainty. As in many markets, the single greatest risk issue was related to government policy. There was a generalized concern that the government could leave early investors stranded if/when new solar PV power installations become more affordable. Yet overall, we noted a feeling amongst most investors that policy uncertainty was resolving, rather than increasing. For project developers working in certain states such as Gujarat, there was a notable level of confidence about regulatory actors and their assurances to investors. In discussions of state/national policy risks, only rarely did they make references to past historical occurrences, expected probabilities, or quantitative ratings. We suspect that there is a collective belief in the market that policy uncertainty has crossed some peak, triggering anticipation that with additional time it will decline further. In the words of one
  • 5. Charles Donovan 5 IE Business School investor, renewable energy policy-making had “turned a corner.” When pressed for details about the reduction in uncertainty, most participants did not mention specific events but rather a change in the general sentiment and pointed again to the “learning process.” 3. A rational explanation for irrationally low hurdle rates Our focus on non-quantitative elements of the decision-making process was motivated by a behavioral view of asset pricing that recognizes subjectivity in the risk assessment process. While it seems self-evident to most corporate finance practitioners that individuals’ beliefs play a role in investment decision-making, mainstream financial theory does not recognize a psychological foundation of asset pricing. Where pricing anomalies as shown to exist, these are often dismissed as short-run phenomenon attributable to irrational agents, or “noise traders”. In the traditionalist view, the discount rate is derived from observed levels of objective risk. The measured amount of risk determines the compensation required by investors in excess of a “certainty-equivalent”, or risk-free, rate. In instances where risk is unquantifiable, firms invest under conditions of uncertainty. Over time, uncertainty may be reduced as investors learn from new information that allows them to make clearer forecasts of future states of the world. Learning within the system promotes a gradual reduction in perceived uncertainty. The standard view is well represented by the chart below, taken from a US Department of Energy report, whereby the discount rate is a function of time and a measure of product commercialization (e.g. cumulative sales).
  • 6. Charles Donovan 6 IE Business School Figure 6. Evolution of the Project Discount Rate5 In conditions of economic equilibrium, where by supply and demand relationships are stable the stable, cost of capital within an industry is seen to reduce gradually towards the certainty certainty-equivalent rate. And while the ideas of dislocation discontinuities, and non-linearity are hardly new to economics – islocations, Joseph Schumpeter recognized these in the early 1930’s – it adds considerable complexity to economic thinking. Perhaps for this reason, these concepts have hardly touched mainstream . corporate finance practices. There is no shortage of academic and practitioner research advancing a more sophisticated view of markets. Every hour of every day, investors make money from inefficient market pricing. Yet to . date, nearly all of this work has been focused on behaviors within financial markets – the trading of f stocks, bonds, commodities and derivates. The new models have not been m These much help in understanding the seemingly c chaotic patterns of capital allocation within firm firms. It seems the “internal capital markets” of firm (i.e. capital budgeting) are too different from tradable securities firms exchanges to be of much use in explaining the apparent paradoxes of investment patterns patterns. No matter whether one’s focus is internal or external capital markets, a common question in both external arises as to what extent economic actors behave rationally. In the behavioral school, rational agents are people that do things which are, for them, sensible. This differs from the traditionalists’ sstrict economic interpretation of rationality as the maximization of personal utility. Sensible people given ensible people, the situation presented to them make decisions in their best interest. The key difference is that them, “best interests” cannot always be represented in monetary terms. Not assigning a monetary value terms. 5 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2003. Bridging the Valley of Death: Transitioning from Public to Private Sector Financing. NREL/MP REL/MP-720-34036. May 2003.
  • 7. Charles Donovan 7 IE Business School to one’s preferences poses a tremendous challenge to economics based on individuals’ marginal utilities. Accepting that investment decision-makers are not always be rational does not mean that they can’t be understood. As an alternative to rationality, we can pursue insights about in which ways there are sensible. Adopting sensibility as our mental frame, our goal becomes understanding how individual decision-makers approach the issue of investment risk. We want to know how they make sense of risk and return. These are the psychological foundations of investment decision-making. But we need not steer too far from traditional economics to find space for a sensible explanation of low ROEs in solar PV project investments. Many observations of mispricing are more accurately characterized as “near rational” than irrational, owning to the fact there is frequently wide latitude for deviating from full optimization without incurring significant losses.6 We suggest that a key to understanding differences in observed hurdle rates among investors is recognition that risk is not perceived uniformly by investors. Conventional wisdom is that regulatory risk typically leads firms to exploit their option to delay.7 By waiting an extra time period, a firm can narrow the range of probabilities and reduce the chances of making a negative NPV investment. But in many situations, such as those involving highly regulated industries or involving rapidly advancing technology, uncertainty is endemic to the investment decision. While uncertainty may be reduced, complete elimination of uncertainty will never occur. In these cases, delay becomes counterproductive. In these situations, it may be more productive to invest uncertainty is still high. For example, a recent study of the German power-generation industry indicated that some firms accelerate investment decisions under regulatory uncertainty. The sensible reasons are to secure competitive resources, to leverage complementary resources, and to alleviate institutional pressures8. We see many of the same dynamics at work in the Indian solar PV sector. 4. Real Options in Technology Investing and Their Impact on Investment Learning within individual firms occurs with a set of collective thought about how to compete and survive. Building the capability to compete and extract rents from new business areas is as important as observing specific decision rules. We propose that firms respond in different ways to the uncertainty presented to them. For some, uncertainty is reason to delay and or others a reason to move faster. What matters most in determining waves of investment is not the absolute level of uncertainty, but rather the amount of uncertainly relative previous levels9. Declining uncertainty can be a powerful trigger an ecosystem-wide response to accumulate resources. 6 Akerlof, G. and Yellen, J. 1987. Rational Models of Irrational Behaviour. The American Economic Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, May 1987. 7 Dixit A. and Pindyck, R. 1994. Investment Under Uncertainty. 8 Hoffmann, V., Trautmann, T., and Hamprecht, J. 2009. Regulatory Uncertainty: A Reason to Postpone Investments? Not Necessarily. Journal of Management Studies, 181, 2009. 9 Pastor, L. and Veronesi, P. 2005. Rational IPO Waves. Journal of Finance, Volume 60, Issue 4, pages 1713– 1757, August 2005
  • 8. Charles Donovan 8 IE Business School Not all actors perceive such an opportunity in the same way. Some firms will be willing to pay a real option premium to establish a new position, while others, given their resources at hand, prefer to wait. This diversity in how firms respond to uncertainty becomes a source of heterogeneity in the discount rate used to evaluate new investments. In an emerging industry, the opportunity for accumulation of new skills and know-how will prompt some investors to invest in prospects promising returns below the industry-average ROE. In neoclassical economics there is one equilibrium discount rate. But viewed from the perspective of the firm, it may be very sensible to adjust investment hurdle rates below expected return thresholds in order to pursue new sources of sustainable economic rent. And while it seems evident that the discount rate reduces over time as an industry matures, we contend that the curve is not gradually sloping downward. Rather, the availability of real options lead some firms to break from the pack. In instances where a sub-group of firms sensibly invest for lower returns, the observed discount rate will be substantially lower than the equilibrium discount rate. Adopting a strategic view of firm behavior, we could anticipate that in mature industries, the dispersion of hurdle rates used by firms would be relatively low. Conversely, we should expect a wide range of hurdle rates for industries, such as renewable power generation, characterized by technological change and fluctuation perceptions of uncertainty. Figure 7. Firm Hurdle Rates Relative to an Industry Average High Dispertion Low Dispertion In a fast moving industry where opinions are still forming and new actors are entering, we maintain that there will be a wide variety of factors to discourage (and encourage) learning investments. These factors act upon on the project cost of capital. And while we the upward revisions of hurdle rates by firms are well documented, there are logical reasons for downward revisions as well. To the potential criticism that the evidence from India is nothing more than a short-term phenomenon, we point out that the solar PV business has been in existence for more than 30 years, the last 10 of those as a global, multi-billion dollar industry. Yet private sector hurdle rates continue to deviate from purely rational expectations.
  • 9. Charles Donovan 9 IE Business School 5. Implications for policymaking A strategic view of firm behavior will lead to very different conclusions approach about optimal renewable energy investment policy than one based on a static view of the industry cost of capital. Heterogeneity in the discount rate would call into serious question many current regulatory approaches to promoting investment. It seems that renewable energy policy has been clouded by viewing environmental investments through the lens of pollution abatement. In an investment landscape characterized by accelerating resource scarcity and high rates of growth in consumption, conventional wisdom no longer holds. So what is the possibility that the Government of India has gotten its policy mix of feed-in tariffs and auctions just right? Has is uncovered a magical recipe for capturing the renewable power at the lowest cost for consumers? While auctions carry with them a certain degree of additional risk, they are a powerful and under- used tool for stimulating investment in renewable power. Auctions capitalize upon the fact that the risk judgments of firms are not homogenous, nor are they static. Instead of relying upon the expertise of government planners and outside experts, auctions allow prices to be set through a competitive process amongst investors. We are at the very beginning of a shift in how policymakers react to environmental investment problems. Most policymaking still takes the view of technology choice from the point of view of generic levelized costs. A better approach would be to acknowledging the risk factors associated with each technology and the market structure created by policies. The effect will be to “re-order” technology attractiveness10. Traditional economic policy making assumes that the equilibrium discount rate is representative of all investors. For that reason, two policy instruments providing the same amount of average subsidy are expected to deliver similar outcomes. But with a proper consideration of investment risk and the motives of the firm, we see strong preferences emerge for one instrument as compared to another11. For example, if the volatility of expected cash flows from renewable energy certificates is high, then investment risk will be higher relative to a project with a low expected cash flow variance. A straightforward conclusion is that renewable energy investors facing feed-in tariffs will have lower project hurdle rates than those gaining revenue subsidies from tradable certificate markets. Yet the preferences of investment decision-makers are not just tied to objective risk measurements. They are also influenced by subjective evaluations of investment risk. We believe options thinking, despite the extensive math that has been proposed to value real options, is most often a qualitative process. Only in very rare cases, can real option be valued precisely. Nonetheless, they appear to weigh heavily in the minds of investment decision-makers. Behavioral aspects of corporate finance practices have been poorly explored in the debate around policy instrument choice. Every form of subsidy involves some form of future uncertainty: 10 Gross, R. and Blyth, W. and Heptonstall, P. 2010. Risks, revenues and investment in electricity generation: Why policy needs to look beyond costs. Energy Economics 32 (2010), 796–804. 11 Wüstenhagen, R. and Menichetti, E. 2012. Strategic choices for renewable energy investment: Conceptual framework and opportunities for further research. Energy Policy 40, January 2012, 1-10.
  • 10. Charles Donovan 10 IE Business School perceptions about the amount of long-term government support, the potential for retroactive policy changes, and unforecastable supply and demand factors. And just as each type of subsidy carries with it a different level of objective risk, so do certain policy and market conditions lead to differing perceptions of risk. Hunches based on perceptions of risk usually can’t be quantified, but that doesn’t stop them from being followed. 5. Looking Forward To this point, we have been concerned with judgments that have are solely related to the potential consequences of the investment decision. In the third and final discussion paper in this series, we will dedicate more time to the topic of subjective assessments and explore the intrinsic motivations of investors. We welcome your feedback. Please send comments and questions to solarinvestmentrisk@gmail.com Discussion Paper No. 3 will be sent by the end of February 2012.