Capital Cycles and the Timing of Climate Change Policy

Patterns of capital investment by businesses can have a major impact on the success and cost-effectiveness of climate change policies. Due to the high cost of new capital, firms often are reluctant to retire old facilities and equipment. Thus, capital investment decisions made today are likely to have long-term implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Because businesses consider a range of factors when making capital stock decisions, policy-makers need to understand and focus on these factors in order to craft effective climate change policies.

The Pew Center commissioned this report to gain an understanding of the actual patterns of capital investment and retirement, or “capital cycles.” Authors Robert Lempert, Steven Popper, and Susan Resetar of RAND, with Stuart Hart of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill combine analysis of the literature on investment patterns with in-depth interviews of top decision-makers in leading U.S. firms. Their work provides important insights into the differing patterns of capital investment across firms and sectors, and what factors spur those investments.

The authors found that capital has no fixed cycle. In reality, external market conditions often drive a firm’s decision whether to invest or disinvest in large pieces of physical capital stock, and a firm often invests in new capital only to capture new markets. In the absence of policy or market incentives, expected equipment lifetimes and the availability of more efficient technologies are not significant drivers of capital stock decisions. With regular maintenance, capital stock often lasts decades longer than its rated lifetime, and the availability of new technology rarely influences the rate at which firms retire older, more polluting plants.

The authors suggest certain policies that can stimulate more rapid turnover of existing capital stock. These include putting in place early and consistent incentives that would assist in the retirement of old, inefficient capital stock; making certain that policies do not discourage capital retirement; and pursuing policies that shape long-term patterns of capital investment. For example, piecemeal regulatory treatment of pollutants rather than a comprehensive approach could lead to stranded investments in equipment (e.g., if new conventional air pollutant standards are put in place in advance of carbon dioxide controls at power plants). The authors also note that even a modest carbon price could stimulate investment in new capital equipment. Ultimately, any well-crafted policy to address climate change must consider and harness market factors and policies that drive capital investment patterns.

The authors and the Pew Center wish to acknowledge members of the Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council, as well as Byron Swift, Ev Ehrlich, Mark Bernstein, Debra Knopman, Alan Sanstad, and David Victor for their advice and comments on previous drafts of this report. We also thank the individuals who gave their time in interviews with the project team.

Executive Summary

One important source of climate-altering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the capital equipment that supports the world’s economic activity. Capital stock, such as electricity generation plants, factories, and transportation infrastructure, is expensive and once built can last for decades. Such capital also presents important and conflicting constraints on policy-makers attempting to reduce society’s GHG emissions. On the one hand, attempts to reduce emissions too quickly may create a drag on the economy if they force the premature retirement of capital. On the other hand, delaying reductions may raise the cost of future actions because the facilities built today can still be polluting decades from now.

This report aims to help policy-makers navigate between these conflicting tensions by providing an understanding of the actual patterns of capital investment and capital retirement and the key factors that affect these patterns. “Capital cycles” have been studied extensively in the empirical and theoretical literature. Nonetheless, the topic remains poorly understood in the debates over climate change policy. In part, there are few good summaries available of the voluminous and complex literature. In addition, the differing patterns of capital investment across firms and sectors can have important implications for climate change policy. Such heterogeneity is not well-captured by the existing theoretical and empirical literature.

This report begins with a brief overview of the existing theoretical and empirical literature on capital cycles. It then turns to its main focus—the results of a small number of in-depth interviews with key decisionmakers in some leading U.S. firms. In the course of the study, nine interviews, designed to illuminate the key factors that influence firms’ capital investment decisions, were conducted with firms in five economic sectors. The firms interviewed are mostly members of the Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC). Based on the information gathered during the interviews, this report closes with some observations regarding the implications for the timing of climate change policy.

This is a small study with limited scope. Nonetheless, several consistent and clear findings emerged from the firm interviews:

Capital has no fixed cycle. Despite the name, there is no fixed capital cycle. Rather, external market conditions are the most significant influence on a firm’s decision to invest in or decommission large pieces of physical capital stock. In particular, firms strive to invest in new capital only when necessary to capture new markets. Firms most commonly retire capital when there is no longer a market for the products they produce and when maintenance costs of older plants become too large.

Capital investments may have long-term implications. Today’s capital investment decisions can have implications that extend for decades. Capital stock is expensive, and firms often have little economic incentive to retire existing plants. The environmental performance of capital stock is not fixed over time and can improve as a firm makes minor and major upgrades. Nonetheless, there are limits to such upgrades, so that investment decisions made today may shape U.S. GHG emissions well into the 21st century.

Equipment lifetime and more efficient technology are not significant drivers in the absence of policy or market incentives. It is often assumed that the engineering and nominal service lifetimes of physical equipment are important determinants of the timing of capital investment. The phrase “capital cycle” derives at least in part from the notion that capital equipment in each sector has some fixed lifetime, which drives the industry’s capital investment decisions. This study finds that the physical lifetime of equipment does drive patterns of routine maintenance in different economic sectors, but it appears to be a less significant driver of plant retirement or for investment in new facilities. With regular maintenance, capital stock can often last decades longer than its rated lifetime.

In addition, discussions of climate change policy often highlight the potential of new technology to enable low-cost reductions in GHG emissions. This study finds that however beneficial such technology may be, it will likely have little influence on the rate at which firms retire older, more polluting plants in the absence of policies promoting technology or requiring emissions reductions. New process technology, that is, technology that improves the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of a factory or power plant, requires performance improvements of an exceptional magnitude to induce a firm to retire existing equipment whose capital costs have already been paid. Firms do adopt new process technology, but only when other factors, particularly changes in demand for their products or regulatory requirements and other government policies, drive them to invest in new capital stock.

Firms focus investment towards key corporate goals. Although manifested differently across firms and economic sectors, all the firms we interviewed followed the same basic decisionmaking process for capital investment. Each year a firm’s leadership allocates the funds available for capital investment—first to must-do investments, then to discretionary investments. The former are required to maintain equipment and to meet required health, safety, and environmental standards. The latter are prioritized according to their ability to address key corporate goals. In particular, firms’ capital investment is often driven by the desire to capture new markets. Uncertainty was a recurring theme in all our interviews. Capital investment decision processes are shaped by the desire to reduce the potential regret due to adverse or unforeseen events over the long lifetime of capital stock.

These results are based on interviews with a small number of firms and are by no means definitive. Nonetheless, they suggest that climate policy should combine modest, near-term efforts to reduce emissions and more aggressive efforts to shape capital investment decisions over the long term. In particular:

The long lifetime of much capital stock may slow the rate at which the United States can obtain significant GHG emission reductions. Firms are often reluctant to retire capital and attempts to force them to do so on a short-term timetable can be costly. Sporadic and unpredictable waves of capital investment make it more difficult for climate policy to guarantee low-cost achievement of fixed targets and timetables for GHG emissions reductions. Reductions may be more rapid during periods of significant capital turnover and less rapid otherwise.

Policy-makers should consider early and consistent incentives for firms to reduce GHGs. Incentives ranging from early action credits to emissions trading can take advantage of those rare times when firms make major investments in new capital. Relatively low-cost opportunities for GHG emissions reductions are often available during such periods of investment. This analysis suggests that introducing a relatively low carbon price could serve as a consistent incentive to reduce GHG emissions.

Policy-makers should avoid regulations and other rules that discourage capital retirement. The retirement of older facilities often provides the opportunity for low-cost deployment of new, emissions-reducing technologies. The grandfathering provisions of the Clean Air Act and other environmental regulations may delay the retirement of older plants by exempting them from the environmental regulations governing new plants. At the same time, regulations governing some pollutants may provide an opportunity to address GHGs simultaneously while these investments are being made.

Policy-makers should pursue policies that shape long-term patterns of capital investment. While policy may only make small perturbations in near-term decisions regarding the composition of U.S. capital stock, over the long term, policy may significantly shape the market forces and opportunities perceived by firms. Government-sponsored research and development on new, emissionsreducing technologies and policies such as a cap-and-trade program may have a profound effect on the direction of long-term investments in new capital stock. Overall, the dynamics of capital investment and retirement suggest that policy-makers can set ambitious long-term climate goals, but should allow firms a great deal of flexibility in the timing with which they will respond to them.