If you follow the lobbying records of American public companies closely, you know that the top five spenders are usually defense contractors or giant media companies. Northrop Grumman, Comcast, Google, United Technologies -- these are the names you recognize. These massive companies shell out piles of cash every year to curry favor with our representatives in Congress and at our federal agencies.
Well, in 2014 things changed. Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) joined the party, coming out of nowhere to rank first in lobbying expenditures among all publicly traded companies through the first two quarters of the year. Let's take a closer look.
Dow is No. 1!
Through the first six months of this year, Dow Chemical has spent a whopping $9.98 million on lobbying activities. Here is a look at the top ten publicly traded spenders for the full year of 2013 compared to the first two quarters of this year:
After spending more than $20 million lobbying last year and ranking first among all publicly traded companies, Northrop Grumman has dropped off the list entirely. Dow, on the other hand, only spent $10.7 million lobbying for all of last year, and it is suddenly on pace to blow past that number next quarter! Here's the company's lobbying history dating back to 2000:
Keep in mind though it looks like things have ticked downwards in 2014, it's only half over. Dow is about $720,000 away from spending more than it did all of last year.
So why the uptick in spending? Let's drill down in the company's lobbying disclosure filings to see if we can find out.
Dow's lobby hobby
If you're a Dow investor, or follow the natural gas industry at all, you might have guessed that liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports are behind the uptick in lobbying activity. Here's a look at the top three issues for Dow Chemical based on reports filed. Note, there is no specific dollar amount reported per issue, so the number of reports is all we have to go on when measuring importance:
There you have it, Dow is voicing its opinion not just on issues relating to LNG, but the permitting process in general, an issue that gained quite a bit of attention as the federal government was routinely criticized for taking too long to permit LNG export facilities.
Of course, it is impossible to tell from this data alone which angle Dow is pursuing when it lobbies on these issues -- that data is not required by the LDA filings. Thankfully we have statements from Dow unrelated to lobbying to clear things up for us (emphasis mine):
Dow is carefully reviewing today's decision by the Department of Energy (DOE) to approve the seventh application for the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG), this from the proposed Jordan Cove LNG facility. Dow and other manufacturers have consistently advocated for a measured and balanced approach to permit approvals. Today's announcement brings the total amount of export licenses approved to non-FTA countries to more than 9.2 bf/day, a level which many researchers and economists conclude could drive natural gas price increases, greatly affect consumer costs, and have repercussions throughout the U.S. economy.
The company's position is clear: LNG exports beyond a certain level are bad for business, and the economy at large, though this is a debate that may not be resolved anytime soon.
So Dow is probably lobbying to limit LNG exports. Does that really matter for investors?
Yes, it matters. First for potential returns, and second for potential shareholder action. Regarding returns, lobbying works, but it certainly doesn't work for every issue every time. Dow is spending big money lobbying, but there are dollars fighting for the other side as well. The important takeaway is to understand that if Dow has its way -- which so far doesn't seem to be the case -- the result is usually extremely lucrative.
For example, from 2009 to 2011 oil, gas, and coal companies spent $347 million on campaign contributions. Congress approved $20 billion in fossil fuel subsidies during that period, giving the group a return on investment of approximately 5,900%.
Clearly, that sort of result will have an impact on shareholders. But there is also a growing sense of unease about corporate lobbying and political contributions, as evidenced by the increasing number of shareholder resolutions to force companies to disclose much more information on those two types of spending.
As of right now, the level of disclosure remains impressively low. Dow Chemical, for example, has zero mentions of the word lobbying in its second quarter 10-Q, 2013's 10-K, its conference calls, and so on. While you can track down which bills Dow lobbies for and how much it spends per quarter, there is very little information available to determine much else.
Is this $9.8 million money well spent? It is a question investors should start asking Dow Chemical.