The Big Money Behind Climate Change

Morgan Stanley Analyst Called for Reopening the Economy to Help Oil Prices

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, now recovering from the coronavirus, with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, left, at a House Financial Services Committee hearing April 10, 2019.


(Image: Photo by Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images.)

An executive with one of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks said during an April 22 conference call that the cure for low oil prices was “to begin to reopen the economy and increase consumption,” according to audio of the call obtained by The Young Turks.

Supporters of reopening did not address in the call whether they assumed any specific public health precautions. Epidemiologists have warned against allowing non-essential business to reopen without measures such as widespread testing and contact tracing.

One participant on the call who supported reopening the economy has a long record as a climate-change skeptic, and currently lobbies on behalf of a group with its own history of climate-change denial that is backed by the fossil-fuel industry.

Concerns about oil companies driving political decision-making have stoked public ire in the past. "No Blood For Oil," for instance, was a rallying cry against the Iraq War.

Trump on Tuesday told ABC News that “it’s possible” there will be some deaths due to reopening.

The April 22 call, hosted by Morgan Stanley, featured a panel of five top officials from the law firm Akin Gump, including former Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), former Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and two former Republican Hill staffers. Akin Gump is also one of Washington's most influential lobbying shops.

The discussion came less than a week after Pres. Trump issued guidelines for states to reopen. As of Monday, most states reportedly had begun to ease restrictions, despite the lack of a drop in the number of new deaths or new infections.

Smith, who sat on the House Energy Committee, raised the prospect of reopening during the call, which was focused on potential federal aid for the oil industry. Now a lobbyist for Akin Gump, Smith said, “We have to increase the demand, and that means get the economy back on its feet.”

His remarks were seconded by Morgan Stanley Executive Director Devin McDermott in the following exchange:

Lamar Smith (Akin Gump): The problem we have, the crisis isn’t just one of over-production, it’s one of under-demand and we’re never gonna really solve the crisis, any form of the crisis, I don’t think, until we both reduce the impact it’s going to have on health care and the economy both. We have to increase the demand, and that means get the economy back on its feet, and we have to look out for the energy industry, which is so essential to our national security and so essential to our economic well-being.

Devin McDermott (Morgan Stanley): That’s very helpful. We definitely agree with your last point there, the underlying issue here, with what’s going on in oil markets, is really a demand issue and the demand’s not there to consume the fuel that we’re producing, and to really fix that sustainably, we need to begin to reopen the economy and increase consumption. The shorter-term Band-Aids are fixes that we’ve seen so far, such as the OPEC supply cut, that ultimately are positive on the margins but don’t fix the underlying issue.

Earlier in the call, Donnelly said, “I think what everybody’s waiting to see is when can we reopen. And that question, I think, also revolves around — and Washington’s already focused on — the testing. How do we make sure that we have the testing in place to reopen?”

That was the only time testing was mentioned on the call. Although Pres. Trump falsely claimed early on that anyone could get a test, the White House still has no plan for widespread testing that might mitigate the contagion’s spread during an economic reboot.

An internal Morgan Stanley note for clients about the call did not mention testing or the prospect of reopening. The note and the call were first reported earlier this week by TYT. Neither company has disputed their authenticity.

On its website, Morgan Stanley says, “It’s unclear whether [reopening] will have a negative impact on the trajectory of the pandemic or if consumer spending will rebound.” The company urges investors, “Don’t Rush to a Reopening Investment Strategy.”

During the call, McDermott does not specify who he's referring to as "we" when he says "we definitely agree" with Smith's point about increasing demand by reopening the economy.

University of Maryland Carey School of Law Prof. Michael Greenberger, former head of trading and markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, told TYT, "It could very well be — if the right hand was talking to the left hand — that Morgan Stanley would not want this to happen.”

Greenberger said, “The real fear here is not that the demand is being reduced, but that the reliance on oil is being reduced by forcing the public to go to forms of alternative energy.”

He added, “These guys are sitting in a room fighting what history is presenting — that the demand for oil, even if we open up the country, is going down, and in this particular case, people are dying.”

Morgan Stanley is invested in an entire portfolio of oil-industry companies and in March was estimated to be carrying more than $3 billion in outstanding debt from oil and gas loans. Akin Gump counts oil interests including ExxonMobil and Chevron as clients, billing each $50,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Disclosure forms for Akin Gump and Morgan Stanley do not say whether they lobbied to reopen the economy, but lobbyists typically do not list such specific asks. Neither firm responded to TYT’s requests for comment.

An overwhelming majority of Americans still oppose reopening at least some businesses. One poll found that people worldwide prefer focusing on health concerns over reviving their economies.

Three states that reopened — Texas, Tennessee, and Florida — have reported spikes in coronavirus cases. A fourth, Mississippi, paused its reopening after a spike in cases there.

Smith on the call said that Trump “is doing well,” citing “his daily updates” and the fact that “he appointed the task force.” Trump has since stopped his daily updates and the White House is discussing disbanding the task force later this month.

In Congress from 1989 to 2019, Smith got more contributions from donors in oil and gas than any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

He also has a long history of elevating climate-change deniers, questioning climate science, and defending corporate emitters of greenhouse gases. During his time in Congress, Smith downplayed the severity of global warming, and though he acknowledged human causes he also pointed to natural cycles and sun spots.

Smith joined Akin Gump early last year. His clients for the firm include several with ties to the oil industry or other financial interests in reopening the economy.

One client, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has explicitly called for reopening. The TPPF has drawn controversy for its connections to climate-change denial.

In 2017, Trump appointed a TPPF senior fellow to lead a White House office on environmental and energy policy. His appointee, Kathleen Hartnett-White, told the Washington Post, “I am not at all persuaded” by climate-change science. “We’re not standing on a cliff.”

TPPF activities include explaining “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.” According to the Washington Post, oil executives help run the TPPF and its founding donors included the Koch Industries oil conglomerate.

Other Smith clients include the city of Laredo, TX; a maker of coronavirus-fighting robots; and a tech company involved in the cattle industry.

Smith’s firm has also been lobbying to curtail the legal rights of coronavirus victims. As TYT reported last week, Akin Gump disclosed lobbying on legal rights of consumers, employees, and whistleblowers related to the coronavirus.

Akin Gump lobbyists on that front included former Ryan Thompson — who also participated in the April 22 call and previously served as an aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) — and G. Hunter Bates, former chief of staff to Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Bates also disclosed lobbying alongside Smith for the TPPF.

TYT reported on Tuesday that Akin Gump’s call with Morgan Stanley included discussion of Democrats potentially agreeing to bail out fossil-fuel companies as part of a new coronavirus stimulus package.

During the call, Smith suggested using the national security implications of oil independence to woo wary Democrats to support a bailout. “I think if the national security argument catches hold as it should, that will justify and maybe persuade some hesitant members of Congress that the energy industry is in a different category and definitely needs to be helped, for the sake of the economy, which also means for the sake of jobs, as well.”

As TYT previously reported, the fracking industry — which is hurting the most — was actively engaged in reducing headcount even before the coronavirus struck.

TYT Investigative Reporter Ti-Hua Chang contributed to this report. Additional research by Dylan Digel.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

With additional research and reporting by TYT Investigates News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and Intern Jamia Zarzuela, and assistance from members of the TYT Army.

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