The energy business is unstable. Investors and consumers are unhappy. Returns are too low and slow to arrive. Prices seem too high, especially in Europe. Market structures are under political scrutiny. A sector which has been producer led for as long as anyone can remember is ripe for change. One element of that will be forced by the geography of energy demand – most of the growth is now in Asia. But there will be other significant changes – not least when someone harnesses new technology to produce a completely new offer for consumers. Read more

On Wednesday the cabinets of the France and Germany will hold a joint meeting in Paris. The occasion is highly symbolic – both in the way in which normal state-to-state relationships have replaced war in Europe, and in the continued commitment of the neighbours to maintain their alliance whatever their short-term political and personal differences. But the discussion this week could also produce substantive results.

President François Hollande, to the surprise of French business as well as his German visitors, has proposed that the two countries should work to achieve deep co-operation on energy policy. He compares this to the Airbus project which in his words “saved us from becoming a branch plant of the US economy”. The initial reaction to the idea in Berlin has been lukewarm. There is a general fear that Mr Hollande will do everything possible to get Germany to fund French debts. One German told me last week that Mr Hollande should “get on his scooter and stick to what he does best”.

That is a very shortsighted view. Energy policy is going wrong because we are accustomed to thinking within narrow national lines. Each individual country has to achieve whatever is the target of the moment – a 30 per cent cut in emissions; a 20 per cent share for renewables and so on. This is a suboptimal approach. Individual countries can achieve their targets but the costs of working in an atomistic way can be enormous. One of the greatest advances of a complex society is that different people do different things. We do not all grow or kill our own food every day. The case is best spelt out in Robert Wright’s brilliant book NonzeroRead more

Forget the evidence, feel the populism. That seems to be the motto of the UK secretary of state for energy, who has written to regulators suggesting that British Gas and perhaps other gas suppliers should be broken up because their profits are too high. There is nothing like picking on an enemy no one loves. With their refusal to be completely transparent on costs and pricing, the utilities have made themselves sitting ducks.

Never mind that there has been no competition inquiry (rejected by the Government despite support from EDF, who rightly argued that one was needed to clear the air). Never mind that the figures quoted by Mr Davey have been in the public domain for months, without triggering action by Ofgem. Never mind that Ofgem is a highly professional public body that knows what it is doing. And most of all, never mind the consequences. Read more

Globalisation is incomplete. Markets are open, but in most sectors corporate ownership is still dominated by companies from one side of the Atlantic or the other. This is becoming anachronistic and is set to change.

Nowhere is this more true than in the oil and gas business, where the international market is dominated by what used to be called the Seven Sisters. The formation has changed. Mobil, Amoco and Gulf have gone but the group remains recognisably similar to what existed 80 years ago and still led by BP, Shell, Exxon, Total and Chevron. The only state company that has been truly successful and which can seriously be added to the list is Statoil. The rest of the state companies remain very much creatures of the nation state in which they were established. Read more

The package of announcements from Shell will send a shiver through the oil and gas industry. After years of resisting investor pressure for more immediate gratification, the company which more than any other regards itself as a social institution dedicated to the long term, has blinked. Capex is to be radically reduced. Costs are to be cut with a sharp knife. $15bn of assets are to be sold – enough in themselves to form a medium sized company. And the dividend is to be increased. There is a touch of theatricality in combining a profits warning with a dividend increase but the show satisfied the immediate audience. The shares rose. For the rest of the sector, Shell’s ability to deliver in this way poses a dangerous challenge.

Underperformance is endemic across the industry. Investment always needs to be increased, the rewards are always promised for tomorrow. Among investors are innumerable funds whose need for cash returns is urgent. Since the downturn of 2008 the market has clearly become more short term and less tolerant of those who live on promises of a golden future which is always just over the horizon. Under pressure Shell has been able to make the adjustment, demonstrating that it can quickly cut enough to deliver a material and sustainable dividend increase even when oil and gas prices are flat to falling. That is a real measure of strength, as is BP’s ability to absorb a loss of $50bn to pay the bill for Macondo. Very few companies in the world have that capacity. Read more

Later this week the management of Royal Dutch Shell will finally explain why it has issued a profits warning only 12 weeks after its last formal statement to the market. Investors are waiting for a full and detailed presentation on Thursday. Anything less will reinforce the impression that there is a governance problem which has left top management and directors out of touch with the operations of the business.

Profit warnings are serious things, which means this is quite different from the normal public relations tactic of shovelling all the problems on to the back of an outgoing chief executive, and giving his successor a low baseline from which performance can only improve. Surely a company as serious as Shell is not playing that game? Read more

The fact that the Arab spring did not produce a sudden transformation of the Middle East and north Africa into fully functioning pluralist secular democracies is hardly surprising. Expectations on that front were very naive. But the wave of change is beginning to transform something else – the border lines which were drawn a hundred years ago as the spoils of the Ottoman Empire were divided among the allies. The process will be long and painful but out of it will come new countries. Outsiders including investors may not be able to determine the outcome but they cannot ignore what is happening or simply cling to the past. New realities have to be recognised and Libya is as good a place to start as any. Read more

I am glad I don’t live in eastern Europe and I can quite understand why against a good deal of economic logic Algirdas Butkevičius, the Lithuanian prime minister, is pushing very hard to force his country into the eurozone. The reason is the reassertion of Russian power across the region. The advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore. Comecon is being recreated. Read more

In a provocative paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs just before Christmas Professor Colin Robinson, one of Britain’s most senior energy economists, says that the energy sector in the UK has been “effectively renationalised”. The language is strong and the case overstated. The claim is not true in any literal sense. Companies are not being taken over or expropriated by any Government agency. There has been no transfer of ownership. But behind the rhetoric is a real trend. There has been a transfer of effective control, the consequences of which are pushing large parts of the sector back under Government authority.

Professor Robinson’s paper focuses on the UK. But the trend is not restricted to Britain. In different ways a similar shift is taking place in Germany, Japan, and even to a limited extent in the US.

In what has always been a hybrid sector built on a mixture of public policy and private capital the balance of power is shifting year by year. In each of these countries and many others Government is now determining outcomes to a degree unseen since the wave of privatisation in the 1980s. Read more

Is energy policy made in Brussels ? The obvious answer would be no. The EU may have an energy commissioner but he has little real authority. Energy policy is still under the control of individual national governments and as a result there are 28 very different approaches and outcomes. France is supplied by nuclear power. Germany by contrast is phasing out nuclear in favour of renewables. Much of Eastern Europe still depends on coal. There is cross border trade, of course, but most countries have their own distinct energy market.

A series of announcements over the last few weeks, however, suggests that the European Commission which is in its last year in office wants to assert its authority over energy issues by indirect means, using environmental and competition policy to create a de facto Common Energy Policy. A Commission policy statement on energy will be published before the end of January. The issue promises to become more visible and part of the continuing debate about the balance of power between Brussels and the member states. Read more

Vladimir Putin has finished the year in style, consolidating Russian control in Ukraine and winning easy brownie points for the release of controversial prisoners including the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two female members of the punk band Pussy Riot. The Russian president has also, in a move easily missed in the middle of Christmas, extended Russia’s position in one of the world’s most interesting new oil and gas regions – the Levant basin in the eastern Mediterranean. Read more

You don’t have to believe that freezing consumer energy prices is good public policy to see that just three sentences in Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in September transformed the energy scene in the UK. The opposition leader’s comments sent a chill through the market, reducing the value of utility stocks and has left the coalition government struggling to respond to a completely unexpected outbreak of populism. The consequences of the speech, intended and unintended, run on and could yet force a change in energy policy across the EU. Read more

We all spend so much time looking at the dramatic changes on the supply side of the energy business that we risk overlooking the more gradual but equally important shifts on the demand side. To correct that its worth looking at some new work from the Transportation Research Institute picked up in the excellent Energy Collective blog.

The research shows that in the US – by far the world’s largest consumer of oil – transport sector demand is falling. This is not a temporary phenomenon driven by the economic downturn. This is a structural shift reflecting changes in life style and work patterns as well as gains in fuel efficiency. Read more

One of the more regrettable conclusions from 2013 is that the Arctic cannot and will not be preserved and kept pristine from the process of economic development. The resource base is too substantial, the opportunity too tempting. As in the Garden of Eden the apple cannot be left untouched. Development is starting and will continue. The next question is whether it can be managed properly. Read more

Let us start with two questions. Which of the following energy companies is planning to sell assets next year – Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Total, Statoil, ENI? Answer – all of them. Which of those companies is planning to cut capital expenditure in 2014? Answer – all of them, with the sole exception of Exxon which is planning a modest increase. If you extend the list of companies the answers are the same.

Taken together these answers reveal some interesting points about the oil and gas industry. Most companies now feel they have been over investing – either by doing too much or by allowing costs to rise out of control. Returns have not matched the growth in spending. Shareholders are restive. Asset sales are normal business – every big company builds up a tail of marginal, non-strategic assets. But the scale of current plans goes beyond that. The tail has gone and the assets for sale now are in most cases attractive commercial propositions. Read more

Just as the FT’s reports from Tehran show that there is a long way to go on one nuclear deal, so it also seems that negotiations on the £16bn plan to build new nuclear for the UK at Hinkley Point in Somerset are far from over.

When agreement between the UK Government and EDF on the strike price was announced six weeks ago the impression was given that the deal was done. This is not correct. Numerous details remain unresolved, opposition to the costs involved and the structure of the deal has mounted and, crucially, the financing has not been agreed. Full-scale construction work cannot begin until the funding is in place. The key lies with the Chinese. Read more

Few readers, even of the Financial Times, will feel much sympathy for executives in the international energy business who complain about their lot. Paid in the hundreds of thousands (at least), travelling around in executive jets and chauffeured cars, pampered by executive assistants and personal assistants – life surely can’t get much better.

But there is a real and serious problem that merits some attention. Many senior executives are exhausted and burnt out. Across the business world, there have recently been a number of high-profile cases of executives who have given up their jobs because of the stresses involved. António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, and Hector Sants, former head of compliance at Barclays, are the most prominent names. In the energy sector, companies and individuals shun publicity. But, in the past few weeks, I have heard of four cases of individuals who have in one way or another collapsed under the pressure of their jobs. One leading company is undertaking a thorough analysis of the psychological health of its top 50 people, and I would be surprised if others don’t follow. Read more

Ukraine, to coin a phrase, is a far way country of which we know little. Its geographic misfortune is to be the buffer state between western Europe and Russia. With all eyes on Iran, too little attention is being paid to the fact that Ukraine is being forced back under the control of the Kremlin.

This week’s events send a very negative signal to western investors who had hoped to develop Ukraine’s extensive shale gas resources both for local use and for export to other parts of eastern and central Europe. The assertion of Russian power over President Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov will also send a shiver across the other former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Some, like Poland and Romania, are safely within the EU. Many others are not, to say nothing of the major energy producers around the Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Read more

The US energy sector must be bitterly annoyed with President Obama. The deal with Iran agreed in Geneva over the weekend does not lift sanctions but it sends an unmistakeable signal that the door to doing business is opening again. Many many companies around the world will be flying in, most with the full support of their Governments. The only ones who won’t and can’t are American companies forced to respect to the letter every sentence of the sanctions legislation until it is repealed. Read more

Two years and one month after the death Muammar Gaddafi, the continuing power struggle in Libya is beginning to affect the oil market. So far the impact is slight, indicating the extent of OPEC’s spare capacity. The bigger risk will come if the instability spreads from Libya across North Africa or to other parts of the region. For investors, events in Libya are a reminder that any investments in the Middle East carry a large political risk. Read more