October 1, 2011

MEGAN MCARDLE: Why the Solyndra Loan Wasn’t Like a VC Investment.

Now, maybe you think that there is some unpriced social return of these investments. But then this has nothing to do with VCs, portfolios, or risk; it’s a subsidy. And loan guarantees are not a very good way to structure that subsidy.

Here’s why: at the company level, there’s no difference between an optimal market outcome, and an optimal social outcome (from the DOE’s point of view); both investors and society benefit if more solar cells are sold. If the solar cells are unlikely to be sold to many people, than the loan guarantee is not a good idea–it will not foster much environmental benefit. If the solar cells are likely to be sold to many people, than the loan guarantee should not be needed; private investors should be easily found to back the manufacturing.

The loan guarantees may help make the product slightly cheaper, of course. But again, if the product is sufficiently likely to be popular, capital should be available in the marketplace at a fairly decent price; the difference in interest rates should not be the difference between success and failure unless the loan itself represents an unsustainably large portion of the company’s assets and income.

At any rate, it does not make sense to issue a massive loan guarantee in order to make a company’s solar panels slightly cheaper; that’s maybe a case for subsidizing solar panel installations, but it’s not a case for guaranteeing the loans of a particular solar panel manufacturer.

So no, this isn’t much like a VC. Or anything else that makes financial sense in the private sector. It’s like . . . the government giving money to companies that sound whizzy.

Actually, that’s the charitable explanation. A more cynical explanation is that the “sound whizzy” is just meant to be a distraction from what’s really no more than a payoff to political supporters.