One Country’s Dream of EV-Driven Prosperity Helps Fuel a Coal Binge Instead - Kanebridge News
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One Country’s Dream of EV-Driven Prosperity Helps Fuel a Coal Binge Instead

Indonesia pitches its plan to leverage natural resources as a model for other developing nations

By JON EMONT
Mon, Feb 5, 2024 9:20amGrey Clock 4 min

A few years ago, Indonesia set out to turn its treasure trove of nickel into an electric-car manufacturing boom.

It imposed a sweeping ban on the export of raw nickel. That meant that companies wanting to tap the world’s largest source of the mineral—used in the most powerful type of EV batteries—would have to build smelters in Indonesia. Officials bet that factories to make EV batteries and entire electric cars would also follow, spawning end-to-end supply chains close to the mineral bounty.

The smelters came, and Indonesia’s nickel industry witnessed explosive growth. But powering it is a coal binge that is throwing off the country’s climate goals. And Indonesians are still waiting for EV makers to lay down production lines.

As President Joko Widodo prepares to leave office this year after a decade—the most he can serve—he is exhorting his potential successors to stick with the policy that is at the centre of his economic legacy. Indonesia holds presidential elections on Feb. 14, and a new leader will take charge in October.

Widodo has cast his plan, referred to in economist-speak as downstreaming, as the answer to the question of how Indonesia will become a rich nation. He says the country is reversing a 400-year pattern dating back to colonial times of being exploited for its natural resources and getting little in return. He has prodded other developing nations to follow its lead.

Last year, officials escorted delegations from mineral-rich Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel industrial parks to show them the scale of Indonesia’s achievements. New Chinese-built smelters dot the archipelago. The value of Indonesia’s nickel exports is up four times since 2019 to around $33 billion.

Not everyone believes the silver metal is a silver bullet.

Nickel smelters have led to a surge in coal use, with new coal plants coming up at a time when the world is trying to phase out the fossil fuel. A January report by Climate Rights International, a U.S. environmental group, said that a single nickel-focused industrial park located on eastern Indonesia’s Maluku islands will burn more coal than Spain or Brazil when it is fully operational.

“We are sacrificing the environment and society, while at the same time getting limited profits for the country,” Muhaimin Iskandar, a vice-presidential candidate in the coming election, said during a televised debate with his political opponents.

Other candidates have pledged to carry forward the president’s nickel policies, including the front-runner for president, Prabowo Subianto, who has said it is much better to export electric-vehicle batteries than raw nickel.

The “dirty nickel” reputation is threatening the very economic opportunities Indonesia covets. In October, nine U.S. senators signed a letter opposing a proposed free-trade agreement to source critical minerals from Indonesia, citing environmental and safety concerns. Without a free-trade deal, EV batteries with substantial quantities of Indonesia-processed nickel won’t be eligible for a major U.S. tax credit.

That makes the country’s nickel less attractive to Western EV makers, who are already battling questions from green groups about the environmental fallout of the country’s sprawling nickel operations.

In a sign of the growing unease, a deputy director for batteries and critical materials at the U.S. Energy Department, Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes, voiced concern in a LinkedIn post last month about what she called the grip of dirty Indonesian nickel on the market. Indonesia accounts for half the global nickel supply, up from a quarter in 2018.

The problems with nickel are also pushing EV makers to rework car batteries and go nickel-free. A lithium-iron-phosphate alternative is gaining traction, though it remains less powerful than batteries containing nickel.

Then there is the question of whether the policy is taking Indonesia toward Widodo’s goal of downstreaming—that is, a shift to higher-value manufacturing. Widodo has long said the endgame isn’t localising nickel processing but rather attracting EV and battery factories. Anything less, he says, could put Indonesia on the same track as some commodity-rich Latin American economies that have languished.

But so far, EV makers haven’t rushed into Indonesia. Tesla, which Widodo has assiduously courted, including on a 2022 trip to Texas to meet with founder Elon Musk, hasn’t shown any signs it plans to set up a factory in the country. No other Western automakers have built EV factories either, though General Motors has a stake in one China-based automaker producing electric cars in Indonesia. Some, like Ford, have made deals to tie up nickel supply.

Korean automaker Hyundai has since 2021 operated one of Indonesia’s only EV factories, focused on the domestic market. The unit can produce 150,000 vehicles a year, but made fewer than 9,500 in 2022 and 2023. Hyundai and Korea’s LG expect to begin producing battery cells at a plant in West Java this year.

Automakers generally look to set up battery and EV plants in the markets where people are already buying electric cars. That puts Indonesia, where few consumers have switched from combustion-engine vehicles, at a disadvantage. The country has a limited charging network and gasoline is heavily subsidised.

Indonesian policymakers who believe the country’s nickel bounty gives it leverage over carmakers are mistaken, said Tom Lembong, a former trade minister under Widodo. He pointed to the growth of nickel-free batteries as a warning against betting big on nickel.

Lembong, who is advising presidential candidate Anies Baswedan—whose ticket advocates focusing on promoting labor-intensive industries—said Indonesia has made limited progress moving up the value chain.

“The irony about this is they call it downstreaming, but we’re still very upstream,” he said.

Septian Hario Seto, a senior Indonesian official involved in nickel policymaking, acknowledged that EV battery and car factories have been slower to come than nickel smelters. The government has brought new regulations to address that, he said, such as one that makes it easier for EV makers to import cars into Indonesia on the condition they later build a factory.

Last month, Chinese EV giant BYD said it would begin car sales in Indonesia, and break ground on a manufacturing unit later this year.

Overall, Seto said the nickel policy has been successful, boosting economic growth in less-developed eastern regions where the nickel is found, and providing jobs and tax revenue. The government has taken steps to limit environmental degradation, such as by banning companies from jettisoning mining waste into the ocean, and will try to bring hydropower projects online as an alternative to coal, he said.

Cullen Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said there are two ways to assess Indonesia’s industrial policy.

“It’s been successful at driving foreign investment and building nickel processing capacity,” he said. “So far it hasn’t achieved the fully integrated mine-to-EV battery assembly to which it aspires.”



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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.