Ben Spacapan

Ben Spacapan

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Ben Spacapan
On November 27, 2017, Ben Spacapan commented on Selling Chinese Aircraft in a Protectionist US Climate :

I think your synopsis of the opportunity for COMAC is exactly correct. While COMAC’s long-term goals may be to compete with Boeing and Airbus in North American and European markets, that seems a long time away. The efficiency issues you raise will serve as a buffer to stop Western airlines from seriously investing in COMAC planes in this generation, the reliability represent a more serious brand risk for COMAC. American and European consumers are likely to scare easily in the face of any reliability concerns, so even selling to airlines which serve select cities in North America and Europe could be a mistake until reliability levels are equal or close to equal those of entrenched aircraft providers.

Further, COMAC, as a state-sponsored player, will be subject to the same trade concerns which have dogged the Boeing – Airbus – Bombardier relationship, but on a grander scale. The American, European, and Canadian manufacturers are headquarters in close strategic allies, but have still continually battled over trade concerns in national and international trade bodies. Chinese trade relationships were already a point of international contention before the recent isolationist trend, so it would seem to be next to impossible for COMAC to compete effectively with these carriers in one of their home markets without extensive trade disputes. Layer on the fact that COMAC is a state-owned entity, and almost by definition receives state subsidies equal to or in excess of those enjoyed by Western aircraft manufacturers, and it seems extremely unlikely that it will be able to compete for sales in the United States or Europe at any point in the near future.

Ben Spacapan

I was shocked to learn that WTO tariffs if Britain loses access to the common market could rise to 10% of the total price of vehicles, and that this would wipe out most if not all of the profitability in Nissan exports from Britain to the rest of Europe. However, I admit that I noticed comparatively very few non-European branded cars in London this summer, and I assume that many of those I did notice were foreign brands with UK manufacturing (like Nissan).

Given this situation, Nissan’s decision to build its new Qashqai and X-Trail SUV in Britain seem to be quite a gamble. While the new car lines likely send a strong political message to Britain that Nissan is invested for the long-term and reminds British politicians and the general public of Nissan’s significant manufacturing presence there, a negative result from Brexit would leave Nissan with extensive investment in a relatively much smaller market. Further, it would seem to be especially difficult for Nissan to onshore an even more complicated supply chain for next-generation vehicles to Britain at the same time as it does so with its other automotive lines. Additionally, I wonder what value Prime Minister May’s promise has to mitigate any effects of Brexit on Nissan given her party’s somewhat more precarious position following the most recent election. If a Labor Prime Minister, or even a different Conservative Prime Minister, is in office when Brexit enters into effect, will the British government still look favorably on Nissan?

Ben Spacapan
On November 27, 2017, Ben Spacapan commented on Pie in the Sky: can Africa help UPS in the Game of Drones? :

I completely agree that UPS should continue to invest in drone technology to make sure it remains part of the future of third party logistics (3PL). In an environment with increased drone usage in delivery by major online retailers, demand for 3PL logistics services generally may decline. In such a situation, cost-cutting initiatives will be all the more important, and drones can play a real role in making sure UPS retains or expands its share of the 3PL market. Further, you’re completely right that UPS should insert itself into the regulatory conversation. Coming drone regulation will have significant impact on how and where drones can operate, and may play a big role in determining whether it makes sense for UPS to launch its drone delivery program in the United States.

However, there is another issue with UPS’ planned expansion into drones whether in the US or elsewhere. While UPS’ initiatives in Africa show the power of drones in the developing world, drone expansion in places where UPS already has a large service will almost without doubt decrease the number of delivery drivers necessary to maintain service in established UPS coverage areas. According to Tech Crunch, UPS Vice President John Dodero said, “Our goal is not to replace UPS drivers…we just want to enhance their capabilities and make them more efficient.” [1] That doesn’t make any sense. If UPS increases the efficiency of each driver and doesn’t expand its coverage, there will either be fewer drivers or less work for each driver. Either way, I assume that drivers won’t be happy.

[1] Sarah Perez and Lora Kolodny, “UPS tests show delivery drones still need work,” Tech Crunch, February 21, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/21/ups-tests-show-delivery-drones-still-need-work/, accessed November 2017.

Ben Spacapan

Reviewing potential investments in traditional textbook publishers in North America, the effects of digitization on K-12 learning were evident. Digitization of textbooks, at least, appears to be the future, saving money and trees on printing and allowing students a more interactive learning experience. However, I still have several questions on the future of interactive digital education. First, the actual creation of the educational content remains a large portion of the cost of learning material. Will schools (or students) be able to cover the increased cost of materials when those development costs must be spread across a relatively smaller number of students in a more customized learning environment? Second, standardized tests are without doubt a measuring system with deep flaws, but they do offer the advantage of providing a basis on which to assess performance of one school or class versus another, providing a simple method for students, teachers, and schools to see how they are doing. In a more customized learning environment, how will any of these parties determine whether the methods that they use produce results? I agree that digitization is an exciting development in student learning with many benefits, but these issues will likely need to be solved before a more customized digital experience is adopted for students around the globe.

Ben Spacapan
On November 26, 2017, Ben Spacapan commented on Can Egypt Weather the Next Round of High Wheat Prices? :

Egypt’s reliance on wheat imports to feed its population is definitely a cause for concern, and climate change in an already arid part of the world is sure to exacerbate these issues. However, I wonder whether it is in the interest of the government, or Egyptians, to reduce the current wheat subsidy or shift to other products internally. While it certainly makes sense for Egypt to diversify its sources of wheat in order to reduce the chances of a shortage, the subsidy seems like one of the ways in which the Egyptian government can actually avoid the unrest of 2010 / 2011. If the Egyptian government increased its supply sources and locked in long-term wheat contracts in a low-price environment, it could mitigate much of the risk of another shortage without potentially destabilizing the country.

I agree that subsidies discourage further exploration of alternative food staples in Egypt, but unless Egypt invests in crops with lower water usage, aren’t water shortages fueled by damming and disputes upriver on the Nile (i.e., Sudan) an even greater cause for concern? In that scenario, it would seem that Egypt should solidify its relationships with a large number of foreign crop importers in order to protect against a scenario where Egypt lacks the water to farm its remaining arable land.

Ben Spacapan

Alaska Air’s initiative to become a sustainability leader among airlines is an admirable goal and particularly important from a social perspective given how much climate change will affect Alaska’s environment. However, because Alaska Air’s fleet is already quite young, I assume that continuing to invest in more efficient planes does not offer as much of a decrease in emissions across the Alaska Air fleet as for other airlines. Therefore, the investment in alternative fuels seems to have much more significant potential for Alaska Air to improve its emissions footprint.

Given that, how sustainable are alternative fuels for Alaska Airlines? According to the EIA, the energy content of ethanol is 33% less than gasoline, and fuel economy for E10 automotive fuel is 3% less than for gasoline.[1] For airlines, where fuel represents a large share of operating costs, the added weight from increased fuel volume necessary to make up for the decreased fuel economy will need to be covered with even more fuel, the increased costs could be significant. At what cost is ethanol fuel worth it for airlines, and are there more efficient, or less expensive, alternatives?

[1] “How much ethanol is in gasoline, and how does it affect fuel economy?,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 29, 2017, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=27&t=4, accessed November 2017.