Will Hydrogen Make it Easier to Be Green?
Tony Roth: Chief Investment Officer
Dr. Riva Krut, Senior Fellow, Boston University Impact Measurement and Allocation Program
Tony Roth: This is Tony Roth, chief Investment officer of Wilmington Trust, and you are listening to Capital Considerations. Today we have a very interesting episode that focuses on a very specific potential solution to some of our problems within the context of climate change and specifically the application of hydrogen to our energy economy and how hydrogen can be used as an alternative to hydrocarbons in a very effective way.
To help us unravel this question and this puzzle of hydrogen, we have Dr. Riva Krut. Dr. Krut is an ESG and corporate sustainability expert with 30+ years of experience in establishing a leading sustainable development strategy, most recently as vice president and chief sustainability officer of Linde plc.
At the time of her retirement in 2021, she was responsible for implementing ESG policies, including setting sustainable development strategy targets and production reports.
Dr. Krut has also taken on leadership roles in industry organizations dedicated to ESG, including the Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board, and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. She's taught at many universities including Columbia, Yale, and NYU, and is currently a senior fellow at Boston University's Impact Measurement and Allocation program.
Dr. Krut, Riva, thank you so much for being here today.
Dr. Riva Krut: Lovely to be here, Tony.
Tony Roth: Just as a reminder, before we start, Wilmington Trust is non-partisan and we do not take a position one way or the other on the normative issues, if you will, surrounding climate change. We are focused on really the economic consequences of climate change and the need to, from that perspective, mitigate the impacts of greenhouse gases on the overall economy.
Let's just get right into it, Riva.
How can hydrogen help us? Why is hydrogen a very important solution within the overall toolkit for climate change?
Dr. Riva Krut: Most people had likely never thought about hydrogen until a few years ago.
Some people may have heard that hydrogen powers spacecraft when they launched, but other than that, it wasn't primetime news. And the reason is that most hydrogen then and now is used for traditional large-scale industry. It's B2B. It's used to help make ammonia for fertilizer and ultra-low sulfur diesel for the oil industry, or help improve energy efficiency for steel and cement.
These are activities generally that consumers don't think much about, although they do affect our everyday lives from eating to drinking and driving and living and working in buildings. But the optimism for hydrogen and the energy transition is because hydrogen can be used in multiple new ways and it's these new applications where we are seeing stories in the media these new applications more directly touch our lives.
So although I couldn't have imagined this five years ago, I can now imagine. But in the next five years, I could see many clean hydrogen applications. I could imagine seeing my granddaughter in a hydrogen fuel cell school bus. If I lived in Edmonton in Canada, I could imagine, or I can now, I can hop on a city hydrogen fuel cell bus if I lived in Norway and I wanted to take a zero emission ferry trip between Hjelmeland and Nesvik, I could get with my car, get on a ferry, and board a zero-emission hydrogen fuel ferry. If I lived in Bremen for in Germany, I could buy a ticket on a hydrogen fuel cell train. If I lived in Fife in Scotland, I could join a pilot to, in my home, have my natural gas source of energy blended with hydrogen for energy and heat. I could even own a hydrogen fuel cell car.
Tony Roth: Hydrogen cars, I know enough to know that they are also electric cars. But instead of charging a battery, you're essentially fueling the car with hydrogen, which is potential energy within the hydrogen, which then somehow is converted to electrical energy, and it doesn't take very long to fill a car with hydrogen. So why do we have these battery powered cars instead of just hydrogen?
Dr. Riva Krut: The hydrogen story for transportation is largely in the heavy-duty transport vehicles. So, buses, trains, the ferries, like I mentioned, the ferry in, in Germany, the buses in Edmonton and elsewhere trains and large trucks. But there is an interest in the auto manufacturing space to also bring regular passenger hydrogen fuel cell cars into the market. The reason for that is the auto industry is coming in for some pressure.
They contribute 15% to global hydrogen greenhouse gas emissions and they're seeing a need for a change. So, the big full portfolio car companies—Hyundai, for example was the first company to commercially launch a fuel cell vehicle, and their plan is by 2030 to have 500,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road.
And Toyota who came in with a little hydrogen car called the Mirad wasn't as very popular, but they've just announced that they're piloting a concept car called the Corolla Cross H2 concept. Corolla, the biggest selling passenger car in the U.S. It's a new prototype car with a 1.63-liter engine that runs on hydrogen.
Tony Roth: Why would we prefer hydrogen, whether it be big trucks and or, or, um, ferries or such? What, what's the advantage of hydrogen besides that, you can fill it up quickly compared to charging a battery. Why should we potentially be attracted to hydrogen versus regular battery electricity vehicles?
Dr. Riva Krut: You're right about the fueling. Fueling is much quicker, so you can do a 90 second fuel as opposed to the EVs, depending on the type of charger you have, it can sometimes take a long time.
You can get a better range. It potentially takes up less storage space in your car or truck. So, for the trucking industry and for any industry where space is what they're selling, cargo is what they're selling, not having a great big EV battery is important, and so the hydrogen fuel cell takes up less room.
Tony Roth: Is it also the case that hydrogen is in a sense more salutary for the environment because you're not pulling hundreds of pounds of minerals out of the earth in order to create the batteries or is that not the case?
Dr. Riva Krut: It is the case. For hydrogen you will use certainly less lithium, potentially other minerals as well.
In fact, Toyota is advertising that issue. Part of marketing the Corolla is that it uses fewer of these rare earth minerals that have become quite difficult to source and add expense to the car as well as obviously their environmental concerns and human rights concerns.
Tony Roth: I’ve heard Elon Musk, and we know that he has a perspective because he is the owner of the largest and most successful battery energy car company in the world, Tesla of course. But he's regarded to be a pretty smart guy and a good thinker, and he says hydrogen's no good because it's half as efficient as an energy battery car.
Which is to say that if hydrogen itself is a store of potential energy One way you can create the hydrogen is through solar panels. And the solar panels can be used to create hydrogen where they essentially split a water molecule and you end up with oxygen and hydrogen, you do something else with the oxygen, but the hydrogen you store it and then when you're ready to use it, you convert the hydrogen back into electricity within the fuel cell of the car and you power the car.
And that, that process is half as efficient as the process of storing the energy that comes out of the solar panel in a battery and then discharging the battery to move the vehicle. And that's why hydrogen's no good. What's your reaction to that narrative?
Dr. Riva Krut: You can have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and an electric vehicle and neither of them can be environmentally sound because it depends on the source of the fuel. So, for the hydrogen fuel cell, essentially the energy source needs to be created by what you said, which is electrolysis. So you split water to make hydrogen and water.
When the car runs, there's no emissions from that. In the case of a battery-powered electric vehicle, if I was running an electric vehicle here and I was simply powering it up in my house, into that battery, I would put whatever the fossil fuel mixture is or renewable energy is in my grid.
And so unless you are powering it up with a hundred percent renewable electricity, your electric vehicle isn't green. And for hydrogen, unless you are powering it with electrolysis, which has produced green hydrogen, the car isn't green either. So I think the source of the power in both cases is important. In relation to your technical question from Mr. Musk, the Corolla evades that issue, as I understand it, they've come up with a way of sorting that out. But not an engineer, can’t answer that.
Tony Roth: Many of the forms of renewable energy, whether it be solar or winds are episodic. So, in other words, they create the energy when the sun shines or when the wind blows. And one of the infrastructure requirements for those forms of energy are what I would describe as primary battery storage. So, not the battery in the vehicle, but you need a large battery to essentially store the energy while you're waiting for someone to consume it, if in fact it's being created during these high sun or wind periods. Hydrogen eliminates that need in a sense because hydrogen is the battery. You're not only saving the battery in the vehicle, which might be a secondary storage of energy in the vehicle, but you're also the primary storage in the case of the intermittent solar or wind electricity creation.
When you can't control when it's being created, you just convert it to hydrogen and it can last indefinitely in a tank or whatnot. And that is far more cost effective and beneficial for the environment to not have that primary battery.
Dr. Riva Krut: One of the new uses of hydrogen in the energy transition is its capacity to provide energy storage without degradation. And that is one of the important new uses of hydrogen because of exactly what you say.
So if you have a whole lot of intermittent renewable energy coming at you from wind and solar, you can capture that and convert it into hydrogen and then it doesn't degrade and you can store it. And then you can continue to create your intermittent sources of energy. So, the capacity of hydrogen in that way to provide energy storage is absolutely seen as key to the energy transition. It is one of the ways that new applications of hydrogen is going to be necessary for us to help abate greenhouse gas emissions.
Tony Roth: Riva when you and I first started speaking about having an episode on hydrogen, the war in Ukraine had just started and there was, as there should be today frankly, abiding concern. But there was very heightened concern around the availability of natural gas to power homes in Europe. And one of the ideas that came out of one of our first conversations, is that over the long term, how does Europe gain energy independence from Russian natural gas? You said to me, well, one of the potential ways is essentially the hydrogen furnace. In other words, everybody has today a natural gas furnace that burns natural gas in order to heat your home. An alternative could be a different kind of furnace that runs on hydrogen, and it's something we could even do here in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. Can you talk to us about the general concept of moving away from natural gas and towards hydrogen just to heat our own homes.
Dr. Riva Krut: That is an application. So green hydrogen can be fed into homes as an energy source.
As a transition, we are seeing some pilots being undertaken in Germany and in Scotland and in northern England, where, they're able to blend—you can blend natural gas and hydrogen. And so, what they're able to do is use the existing infrastructure of pipes to bring hydrogen into homes and test that.
And they can also go pure hydrogen. It's rather good because oftentimes the existing infrastructure isn't usable for some of these ideas and in this case, that's something that they can do. In Europe, the rising price of natural gas and because of Europe's seeking to decouple itself from dependence on Russian natural gas has certainly made some of this interesting but it's created some difficulties for other ways to green hydrogen. In Europe there's probably a, a stronger push to just go to green using renewable electric.
Tony Roth: One of the things that I found I find really interesting is that emphasis you're placing on the green hydrogen. If the creation of the hydrogen in the first place is not green, it's dirty, then even if at the point of consumption you have a non-greenhouse gas-emitting process, the overall process is not helping. One of the things I also learned, Reva, which I thought was fascinating, is that there are numerous industrial applications where the byproduct of of a long known process is hydrogen, and we may not think of that as green hydrogen.
But it's available hydrogen that would otherwise just be admitted into the atmosphere. So an example might be a steel smelting plant takes water molecules and it breaks them, not because the steel smelting plant needs hydrogen, but because it needs oxygen in order to smell the steel.
they've always just allowed the hydrogen to escape into the, atmosphere. Now they can actually defray their cost of smelting by capturing that hydrogen and then diverting it to any of these type types of uses, so that while the creation of the hydrogen in a sense is not green, in another sense, it is because otherwise it would just be freely released into the atmosphere.
Dr. Riva Krut: These gases are very interesting and it's absolutely the case that you have some of them being used as sources and some of them becoming byproducts. And in every case what good engineers do is they try to not have any waste. And so, you try to always find applications or markets for byproducts. That's essentially what the gas industry does. But I think that the issue with hydrogen, well, there's two issues. The issue of the sourcing of the hydrogen is really important because the media today is pushing out a message about green hydrogen, green ferries, green trains, green cars, green trucks. And that's true. We do have a lot of these applications where hydrogen is being produced from renewable electricity, but the facts of the matter are really important for us to get down here. Right now the world makes about 94 million tons of hydrogen a year.
Of that, 98% of that hydrogen is sourced in some way from fossil fuels. Now of the fossil fuels about 36% comes from what's called brown or black hydrogen. In other words, it's sourced from coal gasification or from naphtha as a byproduct. So coal gasification is mostly almost all hydrogen that is from coal is in China.
The naphtha byproduct occurs in a little more geographies, but the bulk of hydrogen, 62% of hydrogen, is made in a process called steam methane reforming. So, that means you take steam, which is water, and methane, which is natural gas, which is CH4.
And you put them together and you're trying to take out the H2. And what that means is that you have CO2 as a byproduct. In fact, the ratio of hydrogen and CO2 is for every unit of hydrogen that you produce in steam methane reforming, you make nine units of CO2. This is called gray, by the way.
So this is gray hydrogen from steam methane reforming, and then we have brown and black. Those account for 98% of hydrogen. So those 94 million tons of hydrogen that are made in the world generate about a 10:1 ratio of CO2. So about 900 million tons of CO2 every year in the world are caused by hydrogen production.
That's about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And so that's the challenge is how do we take this 98% of hydrogen that is mostly gray or brown or black and turn it into what's called blue hydrogen or green hydrogen. How do we decarbonize that hydrogen? Because not only do we need to decarbonize it, in order to get to net zero in 2050, we are being told that hydrogen has a role to play and that the amount of hydrogen being produced needs to grow 5x.
So we need to grow to 500 million tons of hydrogen, and we need to flip that 98% from being 98% fossil fuels at 94 million tons to 98% green and blue hydrogen, and 500 million tons. So it is a complete transformation that is going to be required in hydrogen.
Tony Roth: So before you—just remind us, Riva, what is the distinction between green and blue hydrogen?
Dr. Riva Krut: If you make hydrogen from steam methane reforming, so gray. You can capture the emissions and you can sequester them or you can reuse them. So if you sequester them, that's carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). If you capture and reuse them, and there's multiple applications of byproduct CO2 that is CCUS—carbon capture utilization and storage.
Those two applications right now, are a little bit more affordable for industry and they're essentially using the same technology as they have. They're using steam methane reforming, and they're devising ways to capture it efficiently and then to put the CO2 into the ground.
Tony Roth: That's blue hydrogen, in other words the primary method of creating the hydrogen is gray, but it's essentially acceptable from a climate standpoint because you're taking the carbon and you're sequestering it, or you're using it in a productive way. You're not letting it go into the atmosphere. So that's why it's labeled blue.
Dr. Riva Krut: It's labeled blue, which is also called clean hydrogen. But they’re two different applications. So if you sequester it, that is considered by scientists to be sequestered. You can sequester it geologically where it's not going to come out. And then it zeros out.
The emission was created and then it can be zeroed out. If it's reused, it can be zeroed out for the balance sheet of the producer. But it does mean that it's reused. And so, there's different terms and different incentives are created for that. And in the U.S. with the tax credits now for clean hydrogen, there are different tiers and permanent sequestration gets a higher incentive than something that’s not permanently sequestered like EOR, for example, enhanced oil recovery. If you're using it to push down into an oil well to pull out the crude oil, then you get slightly less on your incentive.
Tony Roth: And all those basically though, are the blue realm as opposed to green. Green hydrogen would also be clean, but it would be green instead of blue because it's being created directly through either solar or wind or something of that nature?
Dr. Riva Krut: Solar, wind, nuclear, hydro—yes. Renewable electricity splits water into H2O. Water, you can take out oxygen and make hydrogen. So that's the mechanism there, and that’s green hydrogen.
Tony Roth: The answer to the question is that we just need more solar farms. We need more wind farms, we need more nuclear, et cetera.
Those are all of the essential methods to create the hydrogen. And then once we have the hydrogen is it fairly easily transported in trucks so you don't need pipelines? What other infrastructure would be required?
Dr. Riva Krut: Well, it's not simple, is the basic problem. For this green energy transition, essentially what we're talking about is the electrification of everything. And what that means is that there is an enormous need for green molecules, for green electricity. And that green electricity is not always in convenient places. And it's expensive to move it. And it degrades as we were speaking about over distance and over time.
But mostly we can't produce enough of it for our needs. One of the issues here is to find enough green molecules for all our needs in the energy transition. And frankly, it's not clear to me that hydrogen is first in the line there. If someone is making a small solar farm to provide green electricity to homes, then that needs to be what it does.
So it's not a simple matter to just go and grab all the sources of green electricity and say, oh, we need them for hydrogen. There's many competing needs for that. So, it’s not simple to find the green sources of electricity. We are not making enough. It's very urgent. And frankly, I think that it's probably the biggest impediment to the greening of hydrogen.
Tony Roth: And if we had many different projects that were available to us, let's call them just intermediated or fragmented projects around the country, the world, that created green molecules and we used those to create hydrogen. What do we do with the hydrogen? Is the hydrogen easily transportable through a truck?
Is that how you move it around? Or do you need to have a pipeline? And the reason I ask, Riva, is because I've learned that with many of these projects, projects are viable except they can't be connected into the electricity grid in any type of easy way because the electricity grid is not proximate to where the project is.
The utility companies don't have the manpower and the resources to create the connections. It's not just like plugging something into a wall. It's quite complex, actually. But in the case of hydrogen, is that potentially an advantage, if you had the site that was able to create the green hydrogen, you don't have to plug into a grid. You just pop it into a truck and off you go. Or am I totally wrong there?
Dr. Riva Krut: The green electricity issue and greening up the grid is enormously complicated. All of us, I guess, are experiencing issues with that as we see the problems of essentially taking mega-power utility facilities and now they're having to get integrated with micro sources of renewable energy coming in from all over the place and plug them in.
And that's creating its own set of challenges. In the case of hydrogen, it has a different set of challenges. So, your vision of, oh, well, why don't we just find a great big open space and make a wind farm or a solar farm and make green electricity there? what's it going to take if it's not proximate to where we need it, what's it going to take to move it?
So that concept is in fact one of the large discussions about large-scale greening of hydrogen. Air Products, a couple years ago started a project that they call NEOM (N E O M), and they're working with Saudi Aramco and others in Saudi Arabia. And there's similar projects now being considered in Namibia and Morocco and in the outback of Australia.
And these are large pieces of land, which are essentially deserts or underutilized space. And the concept is, can you take advantage of the fact that they're in deserts or in warm areas, or windy and capture the wind and the solar? That’s becomes your renewable energy and convert that to hydrogen.
Now once it's converted to hydrogen it's then in the wrong place. And so now you're in Saudi Arabia or you're in Namibia and you want to get it to Singapore or you want to get it to Lisbon. What the proposal is is to convert the hydrogen H2 to ammonia, which is NH3 , which can be stored in a compressed and stored, and then to ship the ammonia in boats, in ships, to ports where it will essentially become a tradable commodity.
Then they have to be reconverted back to hydrogen. And so in that conversion, there is a 30% energy penalty there. And then that green hydrogen can be provided to different markets or the green ammonia can be used. Now, doing that is a big, big, big, big change for how hydrogen has typically been produced and what the hydrogen infrastructure is.
A large hydrogen production facility would be at the same place as the user. So at the oil refiner, for example, or the cement company and the big SMR, the big steam methane reformer, would be plonked into the same location. So as you said, proximate to where it's going to be used.
There would be a symbiotic relationships. So the hydrogen producer would be contracted to the coal refiner or the cement company for a long term, 30 years, to keep providing hydrogen for their needs. And it would simply be a pipeline. It would be right there on site, the same site, and the hydrogen would be used in the same place it was produced.
And any excess could be shipped as merchant hydrogen in tubes or in tankers. But for the most part, there was no global trade in hydrogen. Hydrogen wasn't a commodity. Hydrogen was just mass produced and used in the same place. Now you have the potential to create hydrogen in a different place, such as projects in Saudi Arabia or Namibia or, or elsewhere, and ship it.
Or you have the potential to create smaller quantities of hydrogen, a little bit like renewable electricity in other places. One of the potential applications of a small quantity of hydrogen that is green through electrolysis is if you have a hydrogen fueling station, for example, you don't need enormous amounts of hydrogen.
And so it's possible, not necessarily easy, but possible to make small quantitative hydrogen onsite or close to onsite by having your electrolyzer right there at the fueling station, which does the splitting for you. That means that once again, you brought the production close to where the use is.
And that's a beautiful thing. So that's not a large market, but that's certainly in places like California and other places where they're moving on hydrogen fielding stations, that's certainly something that can be.
Tony Roth: Is there a clear reason in your perception that, call it the traditional EV has been so predominant over a hydrogen fuel cell EV? Is it just the marketing of Elon Musk and Tesla took the lead and everyone else is following blindly in a sense, or not everybody, but many companies. Or is there some reason, good reason that the EV world is dominated by battery EVs rather than fuel cell EVs that would be powered by hydrogen.
And do you expect that to change for any reason going forward? Or do you expect the status quo to just continue to race down that path?
Dr. Riva Krut: The reason we have more EVs is it makes sense now for sedans, for passenger cars. When you talk about bigger cars, trucks, ferries and trains and so on. And ships. I think hydrogen makes sense. So there's a clear distinction in terms of the size of the vehicle. So let's leave heavy transport for a minute. Let's just talk about single-use, passenger vehicles. For them, EVs have dominated. Although EVs are not dominant for us, but we're talking about, you know, a very large number of electric vehicles starting to move into the market.
In the case of hydrogen vehicles for passenger cars, much fewer. And the reasons have been partly that there's no infrastructure. It's harder to get a hydrogen fuel cell station outside of very specific geographies. There were some safety concerns because hydrogen is flammable, obviously.
And so that's an issue. The new hydrogen Corolla that Toyota’s talking about attends to a lot of that and that and the Hyundai push that may actually start to push more hydrogen fuel cells into the passenger car space. I don't know. It hasn't until now. On the bigger cars, the trucks and so on, on the heavy-duty transportation, hydrogen is absolutely a more compelling story and is absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder or winning that particular battle for who’s going to win the greening of the heavy-duty transport.
Tony Roth: Is there a specific technological advancement that we need to see in order to enable a much more pervasive utilization of hydrogen in our green economy or set of advancements. What are you looking for from a technology standpoint to see happen? Or do we have the technology today and it's a question of policy will.
What do you think needs to happen in order for that, this space to continue to evolve in a healthy and hopefully geometric way?
Dr. Riva Krut: The big constraint, the big challenge, that we face in greening hydrogen is the availability of green electricity. I think from an investment point of view, green molecules, they're precious things and we need more of them. We need more than more of them. We need a massive amount to come on stream and to be made available.
Once that happens, it will start to bring down costs. In relation to government? You mentioned government and incentives. We have quite a staggering amount of government initiatives right now. About more than 40 governments have hydrogen roadmaps including the U.S., the EU, Korea, Japan. Hydrogen is seen as being crucial to how we meet our objective of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees. The constraint is on finding those molecules. The constraint is so bad that in Europe, the EU has an objective by 2030 to make 10 million tons of green hydrogen locally in Europe and to import 10 million tons of green hydrogen.
So the question came up, what is green hydrogen? And in their rules, the definition of green hydrogen means that you cannot use renewable energy that has been created for something else. You have to literally make that green energy only for the use to make the green hydrogen because it's so worried about hydrogen, green hydrogen, the need for green hydrogen, cannibalizing other needs for green electricity.
So I see that as a huge impediment to the creation of hydrogen. I think the technology is there with a little bit of incentive. Electrolyzers. Really important. We need to see more of them. They need to be taken to scale. Right now, they're too small and what the solution is to bundle them together. You know, you take hundred fuel cells and you just bundle them.
But taking it to scale is going to be dependent on getting the costs down and price incentives in the correct direction. I don't think that the technology isn't there. I think that the technology will come, the innovation will come and the incentives are moving. All of that is good.
Tony Roth: Well, thank you so much, Riva. This is a really a fascinating conversation and I think most of us are not aware of the role that hydrogen plays today in our lives and the potential for it to play a much expanded role in our lives.
I think the takeaway from today is keep your eye on hydrogen. Watch out for hydrogen. But maybe even more fundamentally understand how important it is that the economies of the world continue to build out the green molecule infrastructure, whether it be used to create direct electricity that's going to be consumed without being converted into some form of storage, whether it be battery or hydrogen.
Or whether it will be stored. That opportunity, that infrastructure around the primary creation of green molecules is a limiting factor in so much of our fight against global warming. And that's just a critical fact to keep focused on, but also continues to be a bigger part of the energy mix and the investment opportunity within the energy space. So with that I want to thank you again, Riva, for being here today.
Dr. Riva Krut: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Tony Roth: To our audience feel free to go to wilmingtontrust.com for a full roundup of our latest intellectual capital. Thank you all for joining.
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