Streetwise Professor

December 19, 2014

Obama’s Press Conference: Bad Economics, Dissing a Friend, Embracing an Enemy

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:43 pm

Hard on the heels of Putin’s press conference, Obama held one of his own. Blessedly, it was shorter. That’s the only good thing I can say about it.

At least Putin’s pressers offer some entertainment, some of it intentional, some of it accidental. Obama’s appearances are as entertaining as a root canal performed to the accompaniment of fingernails on a blackboard.

I will limit myself to comments on two issues.

First, yet again Obama slagged on Keystone XL. And yet again, he delivered a disingenuous, economically ignorant attack on the pipeline:

“There is very little impact – nominal impact – on U.S. gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about,” Obama told reporters during an end-of-year press conference.

. . . .

“It’s good for the Canadian oil industry, but its not going to be a huge benefit to us consumers,” he said.

Obama stressed that the issue at hand for Keystone is “not American oil, it is Canadian oil.”

“That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks and it would save Canadian oil companies, and the Canadian oil industry enormous amounts of money if they could simply pipe it all the way down to the Gulf,” Obama said during his final press conference of 2014.

“It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers, it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers,” Obama said.

Where to begin?

  1. What the hell did the Canadians ever do to him? Does he hate them because they are members of the British Commonwealth? (And we know he loathes Britain.) It is truly astounding to see a president who is so solicitous of many thuggish regimes be so dismissive of a longtime friend and ally. Speaking about Keystone, Obama turns into an American Firster nativist, rather than his usual pose as Citoyen du Monde.
  2. Last time I checked, the oil would be refined-and value added to it-in American refineries.  That would benefit American oil companies, American workers, and the owners and employees of companies that supply the refineries. The money savings would be split between American and Canadian companies. But maybe because the refineries are located in Texas and Louisiana, which have repudiated Obama massively, that’s a bug not a feature. Or maybe Obama doesn’t understand that oil doesn’t magically transform itself into gasoline, diesel, etc.
  3. Or maybe Obama persists in the delusion that the oil will be exported, disregarding basic economics, common sense, and the analysis of his own State Department.
  4. There would be no impact on gas prices only if the supply of Canadian crude is completely inelastic: in this case, the quantity of oil produced and refined would be the same, regardless of how costly it is to transport it to market. If supply is somewhat elastic, lowering transportation costs increases output, which lowers product prices; moreover, holding output fixed, reducing transportation costs reduces the final product price. And perhaps most importantly, the alleged justification for stopping Keystone is the environmental damage Canadian heavy crude inflicts. But if supply is perfectly inelastic, there is no environmental benefit of raising transportation cost, because this will not affect the amount of oil produced, and hence will not affect the amount of CO2 it produces. (Not to mention that pipelines are a safer, more environmentally sound way of transporting this oil.) So if Obama is right about gas prices he is wrong about environmental benefits, and vice versa.

Unbelievable.

Come to think of it, I think that Obama’s real reason for opposing Keystone XL is that the Venezuelans would be the biggest losers. I am pretty sure he has much more of an affinity with Chavistas than Canucks.

Which brings me to the other issue: Cuba.

I am ambivalent about the embargo, or the lack of diplomatic recognition. I can argue either side. But there are many things about this initiative that make me uneasy.

For one thing, Cuba is in dire straits. This is where Venezuela comes in. The Bolivarian paradise has been carrying the Castros’ shambolic regime for years, but is now itself on the verge of economic collapse. Default is imminent, and at the current level of oil prices economic collapse is a real possibility. Venezuela is already cutting back support to the Cuban regime, and will cut it back further. Given that, the Castros are desperate, and Obama could have extracted a much better deal. A deal that would have given some benefit to the Cuban people, rather than bailing out the regime and allowing to continue its repression and depredations.

Obama’s rhetoric was also offensive, and at times historically ignorant. He characterized the embargo as a “failed policy.” Pretty rich for a serial failure to insult 9 previous presidents and 26 Congresses. He could have made an affirmative case for a new policy, and recognized the reasons for the previous policy, without such condescension.

Moreover, he made mention of the need to move beyond “the legacy of colonialism and communism.” Communism isn’t a legacy in Cuba: it is a daily reality. Insofar as colonialism is concerned, is Obama referring to Spain? Because he sure as hell can’t be referring to the US: Cuba was never an American colony. The Teller Amendment to the declaration of war against Spain in 1898 forbade the US from annexing Cuba. It was under US administration for four years, but achieved full independence in 1902. (Obama made the colonialism/communism remark in a discussion of Latin America generally, but this doesn’t really save him. Cuba is the only longstanding Communist country in Latin America; colonialism ended in Latin America in the 1820s; the US-via the Monroe Doctrine-kept out colonial powers in the 19th century; and colonialism is the least of Latin America’s problems, which tend to be very much home grown. In mentioning colonialism, Obama was just regurgitating a standard prog trope.)

Obama also engaged in his self-indulgent habit of making history all about him. He noted that Fidel Castro assumed power two years before Obama’s birth, and the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred soon before he was born. (Interesting that he uses the “I” word to refer to Bay of Pigs, but not Ukraine.) Who cares? What does this have to do with anything?  Does he have to bring himself into everything?

I’ve therefore decided that I will hereafter designate all dates by BO and AO: Before Obama and After Obama. Castro assumed power in 2BO. Bay of Pigs occurred in Year Zero. Obama elected in 47 AO.

The means by which Obama pursued this policy was also typically high handed, and failed to include or consult with anyone in Congress. And no, I don’t include corrupt tax scofflaw Charlie Rangel, who was photographed lounging like a beached whale in the Cuban sun after helping in the negotiations.

The means and the outcome of the Cuban opening also make me uneasy about deals with Iran.

I could go on, but I’ll close with one point. People have compared this to Nixon’s opening of China. Superficially, this is plausible. But there is a major difference.

Nixon could go to China because his stalwart anti-Communist credentials (which had won him the intense enmity of the left) made it credible that Nixon was acting in the interests of the US, rather than indulging his ideological preferences: if a McGovern or a Henry Wallace had attempted the same there would have been justifiable suspicions of their motives and the benefits to the US. In contrast, Che is worshipped has a hero rather than condemned as a psychopathic murderer in Obama’s political circles. His administration has taken a very benign approach to leftist Latin American regimes, including Venezuela and Nicaragua. This raises doubts about what his Cuba initiative will entail, and whether it will advance American interests or benefit the long-suffering and repressed Cuban people.

So to summarize Obama’s last press conference: he slammed a long-time ally and sucked up to a long-time enemy. Which pretty much summarizes his foreign policy, generally.

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December 15, 2014

Is This Prosecution a Spoof of a Real Manipulation Case?

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:05 pm

Michael Coscia, the defendant in the maiden criminal manipulation “spoofing” prosecution, is calling for dismissal of the case on the grounds that the relevant Frankendodd language is “hopelessly vague.”  This is the obvious argument for him to make. The defendants in the BP propane criminal case walked because Judge Miller decided that the anti-manipulation language of the Commodity Exchange Act was “unconstitutionally vague” as applied to the facts of the case. In some respects, the blame for this goes back to the horrible CFTC decision in the case in re Indiana Farm Bureau. In any event, spoofing does indeed sound like a pretty damn vague allegation. Given that, it will be quite interesting to see whether the DOJ fares better in a Chicago courtroom than it did here in Houston in 2009.

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Ruble Rocket to Russia

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:55 pm

What a wild day. The Ruble weakened dramatically from the open this morning (15 December), falling about 2.5 percent. Then the Russian Central Bank intervened, spending a rumored $1 billion to prop up the currency. This caused about an 86 pip rally, but this lasted for mere moments, and then the Ruble rocketed lower, reaching 64.24 by the end of the day. That’s down a mere 10.22 percent boys and girls. (The weird thing about currencies quoted like the Ruble is that up is down.)

Here’s the ugly picture. You can see the little bitty (and very temporary) impact of the intervention at a little after 8am.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 7.26.48 PM

In other words, the RCB blew $1 billion for a blip. A billion here, a billion there, and you’re talking real money. In so doing, the RCB gifted those evil speculators whom Vlad inveighed against about $65 million in a few short hours. Merry Christmas!

Ominously, this decline was not a response to a similar decline in the price of oil. Although oil ended down on the day, it was rallying on news from Libya at the time that the Ruble was plunging. What precipitated it? One leading candidate is Friday’s announcement that Ru626b in Rosneft bonds could be used as collateral at the RCB: this approval came much more rapidly than normal. Thus, in effect, the RCB was lending rubles to Rosneft, using bond investors as cutouts. Rosneft felt obliged to issue a press release saying that “not a single ruble, raised within the bond issue, will be used to buy foreign currencies.” Note the weasel phrase: obviously rubles are fungible, so the loan frees up other rubles for Rosneft to sell. Meaning that this smacks of an RCB bailout of Rosneft. This is bad enough, but it could also foreshadow similar actions for other beleaguered Russian companies.

Then, in the very early hours of the 16th, Moscow time, the RCB announced a whopping 650 basis point increase in the interest rate, from 10.5 percent to 17 percent.

The initial effect has been to bring the Ruble back under 60. There is reason to doubt that this will last. First, previous rate increases-though not as big as this-had only a temporary effect on the relentless decline in the currency. Moreover, the rate rise will be highly contractionary, and a weakening economy will put downward pressure on the Ruble. Further, people draw inferences from central bank actions: perhaps the RCB is signaling a very serious fundamental weakness or an impending bank run or its belief that many Russian corporates will be dumping rubles to raise dollars and Euros; any of these signals would mean that its intervention could have the perverse effect of fueling a further decline. In addition, the rate rise does nothing to eliminate the need of Russian firms to obtain dollars to repay maturing debts.

Even if the rate intervention works in the sense of stabilizing, or even reversing, the collapse in the currency, this will come at a cost. As I noted, the effect of the rate rise will be highly contractionary. The government had already been predicting a recession. That is now a certainty, and it is likely to be a severe one. Especially if oil continues doing the limbo.

The RCB action reminds me of a fox chewing off its snared leg. The best of some very bad options.

The situation is obviously volatile, with many things going on (including pronounced weakening in other emerging market currencies and stock markets as well as the oil situation). Moreover, it will no doubt engender a political response, which will feed back onto the markets. How it will affect the increasingly paranoid Putin is hard to know. A climbdown (if credible) in Ukraine would do wonders for the Ruble, but methinks Putin is more likely to double down than climb down.

One prediction is safe: the next days will be memorable. Deserving of some memorable music: Rocket to Russia, by the Ramones.

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December 11, 2014

The Height of Absurdity: The Operation of the Government Hinges on Blanche Lincoln’s Brainchild

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

There’s a whole lotta stupid in Frankendodd. A whole lot. The SEF Mandate is at the top of the list, but the “Swaps Pushout” isn’t far behind.

The Pushout was the brainchild of ex-Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. (NB: I understand the risks of using “brain” in the same sentence as “Blanche Lincoln”.) Blanche, she of the historic 21 point annihilation in the 2010 midterms.

In brief, the Pushout required federally insured banks to move-“push out”-some swaps dealing activities to separate subsidiaries that do not have access to federal deposit insurance. This does not apply to all swaps, mind you. Not even to the bulk of them (interest rate swaps, many CDS). But just to commodity derivatives (other than gold), equity derivatives, and un-cleared CDS.

I took particular interest in this because-again-it slammed commodity derivatives. It was one of several provisions (position limits being another prominent example) that explicitly targeted commodities. Apparently the belief is that commodity derivatives are uniquely risky and subject to abuse, which is just untrue.

Consider a dealer making a market in a commodity index swap. That swap is easily hedged in the futures markets. Ditto with a NYMEX lookalike gas or oil swap. Yes, maybe an unhedged commodity swap is riskier than your typical unhedged IRS, but so what? That’s not the way dealers typically trade (they typically run matched books, or nearly matched books), and capital requirements and other regulations mean that riskier positions incur additional costs that mitigate the incentive to take on excessive risks.

So commodity derivatives (or equity derivatives) don’t create exceptional risks that justify exceptional treatment. What’s more, creating stand-alone affiliates to handle this business entails additional costs. More people. Duplication of infrastructure. Additional capital. There are also scope economies (deriving in particular from capital efficiencies that arise from greater netting opportunities that arise from holding multiple, relatively uncorrelated, positions in a single book). Sacrificing those scope economies will lead to fewer commodity swaps dealers, which in turn makes hedging costlier and the market for these swaps less competitive.

In other words, like many parts of Frankendodd, the Pushout was all pain, no gain. And the pain, mind you, will be suffered not so much by the dealer banks, but by the firms in the real economy that use commodity derivatives to hedge their price risks.

That said, it never seemed to be that big a deal, given the relatively small scale of commodity derivatives and equity derivatives in comparison to IRS and other trades that banks were allowed to keep on the books of insured entities. Small beer compared to the rest of the havoc wreaked by the rampaging Frankendodd Monster.

But this obscure provision could be the one that brings on yet another government shutdown. The most hardcore lefties in the Senate (e.g., Elizabeth Warren) and the House (e.g., Maxine Waters) have drawn a line in the sand over the part of the “Cromnibus Bill” that would repeal the Pushout. If passed, “Cromnibus” would fund the government (except DHS) for the next year, thereby avoiding another shutdown.

But claiming that eliminating the Pushout would be an unconscionable capitulation to Wall Street, the lefties are going to the barricades, and threatening to bring DC to a grinding halt rather than let the Pushout bite the dust. This is not about substance, but symbolism. It is also about a defeated party carrying out a rearguard action on ground where its most rabid partisans can rally.

You cannot make up this stuff. Blanche Lincoln’s populist hobby horse, a desperate effort by a doomed politician, could be the pretext for yet another unproductive partisan confrontation that has virtually nothing to do with the more serious issues associated with funding the government for the next year. (If the Pushout hadn’t passed, would Lincoln have lost by 25 points or 15, rather than 21?) (I note that Gary Gensler worked very closely with Lincoln on Frankendodd: “During drafting sessions, Gensler sometimes sat at the table reserved for staff, advising its Democratic chairwoman, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.”)

Cromnibus raises very serious issues. The Swaps Pushout isn’t one of them. But rather than joining the debate on the real issues, or conceding their thumping at the polls, demagogic progs are screaming Swaps Pushout or Fight.

What a travesty.

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December 10, 2014

Regulators, Finally Getting a Clue

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

Global regulators are concerned, and apparently mystified, by the evaporation of liquidity in bond and stock markets:

Global financial regulators worry that banks are scaling back costly market making functions and that this could leave investors stranded, as well as squeezing funds to drive economic recovery, a senior official said on Tuesday.

. . . .

David Wright, secretary general of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), which groups market regulators like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Germany’s Bafin, said it was an issue that was being looked at.

“We have seen a ‘Houdini’ disappearance of market makers in general,” Wright added. “First of all we have got to establish the facts, look at the markets … and see if this is a big problem … It’s a new frontier-type issue. I think it’s partly caused by some regulation, but we need to know.”

Partly caused by regulation? What was your first clue, Mr. Wright?

Between the impending Volcker Rule and more stringent capital rules and limitations on off-exchange dealing in stocks, regulators have piled restriction on restriction on market making activities. And they are shocked that liquidity is drying up?

Reminds me of a guy standing with a gasoline can and a blowtorch, and wondering just how his house caught on fire.

The article focuses on Europe, but it’s an issue in the US too. And Canada:

The Bank of Canada warned that investors in the nation’s corporate bond market may be underestimating the difficulty of selling the securities in a market downturn, putting them at risk of greater losses.

Rising holdings of corporate bonds in mutual and exchange-traded funds could exacerbate price swings if the funds are forced to sell in a rout, the central bank said in its semi-annual Financial System Review. Some market participants also “believe” dealers are reducing market-making activity, or acting as the middleman between trades, which may make it harder to unwind large positions, the bank said.

“A potential deterioration of liquidity in Canadian corporate bond markets may not be fully priced in,” according to the report. “Market trends suggest that more sizable price swings might be observed in the future than previously, should investors seek to simultaneously unwind large positions.”

In the aftermath of the post-crisis regulatory bacchanalia, the regulators are finally coming to recognize the unintended consequences of their actions. They are starting to see-sometimes rather dimly, pace Mr. Wright-that regulations intended to make the system less risky are creating new risks.

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice before. It’s as relevant now, as it ever was.

 

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December 8, 2014

VVP: Not Getting His Kicks On Brent $66

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Music,Politics,Punk,Russia — The Professor @ 9:19 pm

Brent traded with a 66 handle for most of today. I am sure that Putin was not getting his kicks on Brent 66.

But no worries. It didn’t stay there long: it’s now trading at a 65 handle.

Going down, down, down, in a ring of fire.

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December 6, 2014

Hit the Road, State Street

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:51 pm

Following the lead of Bank of New York, State Street announced that it is exiting the swaps clearing business:

State Street (STT) Corp. is closing down its swaps business after clients said new regulations steered them away for using the products.

The bank will shutter its U.S. business for clearing swaps early next year and will shelve plans to start a similar operation in Europe, Anne McNally, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based company, said in an e-mail statement today.

State Street will instead focus on trading other types of derivatives, particularly more traditional exchange-traded futures, that have not been subject to broad new regulations imposed since the 2008 financial crisis.

“Due to market and regulatory factors, our clients have largely evolved their investment strategies towards the use of futures and away from” over-the-counter derivatives, McNally said in the statement.

From even before Frankendodd was passed, I predicted that the swap clearing firm business would be highly concentrated and dominated by the major dealers who had dominated the OTC market. Indeed, I argued that the regulatory overhead created by Frankendodd would actually tend to increase scale economies and make the clearing services business more concentrated and connected.

But Gensler, with the vocal support of BNY, State Street, and Ken Griffen of Citadel-and also MF Global-argued that there was a clearing cabal of dealer firms that was was creating unnecessary barriers to entry into clearing. BNY and State Street claimed that the dealers were forcing ICE Clear to require members to have excessively large amounts of capital, an this prevented them from becoming clearing members. Tear down those walls, and doughty entrants like BNY and State Street and Newedge and others would make the clearing business far more competitive.

This view was channeled in a NY Times story written by Louise Story almost exactly four years ago: I criticized Story’s story pretty harshly. Reflecting this view, the CFTC rules substantially eased the capital requirements and other requirements to become clearing members. Gensler, BNY, STT, etc., thought that this would lead to a much less concentrated, much more competitive clearing business.

But this was to misunderstand the economics of clearing, clearing firm scale and scope economies, and how the complicated regulatory structure CFTC put in place exacerbated these scale economies. Even futures clearing (which is substantially simpler than swaps clearing) has become much more concentrated over the years. Only the truly huge can survive.

BNY and State Street tried, and failed. They couldn’t overcome their inadequate scale even though they could offer complementary collateral management and custodial services. They were just too small.

State Street announced that it was going to focus on futures clearing, but even here it faces problems. It just lost its biggest customer (Pimco). Moreover, there are scope economies between futures clearing and swap clearing. State Street will be at a disadvantage relative to say Goldman, which can offer customers who trade both swaps and futures one stop shopping for clearing services at lower cost because of these scope economies.

So much for clearing mandates making the financial markets less concentrated and less interconnected: instead we (predictably and predicted) have a derivatives marketplace dominated by a small number of CCPs each dominated by a small number of large bank clearing members who are members of all major CCPs, which makes entire world clearing space concentrated and highly interconnected. That anybody thought the post-crisis regulations would reduce concentration and interconnections in swaps markets is illuminating. It demonstrates that those primarily responsible for implementing Frankendodd didn’t really understand the economics of what they were attempting to regulate, and as a result, they didn’t really know what they were doing.  They thought they were striking a blow against too big to fail and a collusive dealer oligopoly. They were wrong, and State Street’s abandonment of its swaps clearing effort is just further proof of how wrong they were.

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December 5, 2014

More on Putin’s Potemkin Village of an Annual Presidential Address

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Putin’s LSD flashback of a presidential speech continues to attract comment, most of it critical, bemused, or shocked. (Maybe the deviously clever CIA has drugged him!)

His remarks about the holiness of Crimea have sparked the most commentary. A common reaction is that it was a misstep, not because it was delusional, but because it affirmed Ukraine’s claim over Crimea because the sainted Vladimir the Great* was Grand Prince of Kiev:

“Prince Vladimir was Kievan, not Muscovite, and this probably only underlines the right of Kiev and not Moscow to Crimea,” Andrei Zubov, a Russian historian and political scientist, said in an interview.

This is a serious error, because it presumes that Putin believes that the Ukrainian government in Kiev is legitimate, and that Ukraine is an independent nation. He has made it abundantly clear that he believes nothing of the kind. He believes the exact opposite, in fact.

One historian quoted in the linked Bloomberg article indicates that Kiev is of greater significance to Russian Orthodox believers than Crimea. Exactly! Meaning that if Moscow has a sacred duty to claim Crimea, it has an even greater duty to liberate Holy Kiev from the godless Nazi American puppets.

In other words, Putin’s sanctification of Crimea has very dire implications for Kiev.

Of course the reason that Putin uses such hyperbole about Crimea is that it is all he has to show for his machinations of the last year. The price Russia has paid is high, and growing. Hence he must inflate the value of Crimea as well to make it all seem worthwhile.

The rather pathetic economic parts of the speech-which filled up almost half of it-also drew substantial criticism. Commenter Pat right points out that I did not mention one important part:

I propose using our reserves (above all, the National Welfare Fund) to implement a programme for recapitalisation of leading domestic banks, with funding to be provided under clearly specified conditions to be funnelled into the most significant projects in the real economy at affordable interest rates. Furthermore, banks will have to introduce project financing mechanisms.

The use of reserves means investing dollars and euros into “leading domestic banks,” which presumably means Sberbank and VTB, and perhaps some others.  As Pat notes, this is a stunning confession of vulnerability.

What will the banks use these dollars and euros for? They can’t fund their current forex needs due to sanctions. So presumably, the “leading banks” would use the dollars and euros received from the central bank to repay maturing forex liabilities. Thus, the forex assets on the RCB’s balance sheet (e.g., Treasury securities) would be replaced with dollar/euro loans to the banks. How are the banks going to pay these back? This may buy some time, but eventually Sberbank, VTB, and any others receiving the RCB funds will have to raise dollars and euros to pay back the loan, or the RCB will have to extend the loan, or the RCB is going to have to write down the loan in whole or in part. Given that the end of sanctions is nowhere in sight, the first alternative is unlikely. Meaning that the RCB will be replacing high quality dollar and euro assets with very risky dollar and euro assets. The likely outcome is a reduction in CB reserves.

The Central Banks is also spending money to try to prop up the Ruble (or is that the Rubble?) It intervened to stem the post-speech bloodbath on Wednesday, and supposedly spent $1 billion (on top of $700 million spent earlier in the week). It evidently intervened today as well; no reports yet on how much money it spent today.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Of course, there are other hands out, begging for funds from the reserves. Rosneft, for interest, and other large “national champions.” Again, this would involve the RCB exchanging high quality dollar assets for the liabilities of companies of marginal credit quality, and who can exert political pressure to get favorable pricing terms, and to stall repayment later.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

And of course there are pensions and other “social obligations”.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Is it any wonder then, why Russian CDS are trading at over 370 bp, wide of every other nation in the world except for Argentina, Venezuela, and Ukraine(!)? Great company, eh? To put things in perspective, Kazakhstan is trading at 15obp, Russia at about 370.

Russia’s government debt yields have gone stratospheric. The 10y is now trading at 11.76 percent. Russia, in other words, dreams of being Greece.

Russian_10y_yield_141205

And Putin has no clue as what to do.

Putin also praised Russian athletes, especially the victors at Sochi (no mention of the hockey team, though):

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi played an enormous role in promoting a healthy lifestyle. Once again, I’d like to congratulate our Olympians on their success.

This paean also fell flat, given another news story claiming that virtually all Russian athletes dope:

 As many as 99% of Russian athletes are guilty of doping, a German TV documentary has alleged.

The programme claims that Russian officials systematically accepted payment from athletes to supply banned substances and cover up tests.

The documentary, shown by Das Erste, also implicates the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in covering up the abuse.

The Russian Athletics Federation (RAF) says the allegations are “lies”.

However, both the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) have said they will look into the claims.

The IAAF said it had “noted a number of grave allegations” and revealed that an investigation into some of the claims was “already ongoing”.

The BBC has not independently verified the documentary’s allegations and is awaiting responses from athletes targeted in the programme.

In the documentary, broadcast on Wednesday, former discus thrower Yevgeniya Pecherina claimed that “most, the majority, 99%” of athletes selected to represent Russia use banned substances.

“You can get absolutely everything,” added the 25-year-old Russian. “Everything the athlete wants.”

Pecherina is currently serving a 10-year doping ban that is due to end in 2023. She had already been handed a two-year suspension in 2011.

The entire speech, in other words, would have done Potemkin proud.

* Methinks Putin wants to appropriate that title.

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December 4, 2014

The Hamster Wheel From Hell: Putin’s Presidential Speech Edition

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:58 pm

Putin gave his annual Presidential address today. It was the by now familiar combination of anti-American paranoia, historical fiction, hyper-nationalism, and economic idiocy.

The most notable thing about the speech is how much in Putins head the US is. Everything that ails Russia originates in the US. A sample:

Speaking of the sanctions, they are not just a knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the United States or its allies to our position regarding the events and the coup in Ukraine, or even the so-called Crimean Spring. I’m sure that if these events had never happened – I want to point this out specifically for you as politicians sitting in this auditorium – if none of that had ever happened, they would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, affect our country in some way, or even take advantage of it.

The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.

However, talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility, even when it was faced with domestic hardships, as in the 1990ies and early 2000ies.

We remember well how and who, almost openly, supported separatism back then and even outright terrorism in Russia, referred to murderers, whose hands were stained with blood, none other than rebels and organised high-level receptions for them. These “rebels” showed up in Chechnya again. I’m sure the local guys, the local law enforcement authorities, will take proper care of them. They are now working to eliminate another terrorist raid. Let’s support them.

Let me reiterate, we remember high-level receptions for terrorists dubbed as fighters for freedom and democracy. Back then, we realised that the more ground we give and the more excuses we make, the more our opponents become brazen and the more cynical and aggressive their demeanour becomes.

Despite our unprecedented openness back then and our willingness to cooperate in all, even the most sensitive issues, despite the fact that we considered – and all of you are aware of this and remember it – our former adversaries as close friends and even allies, the support for separatism in Russia from across the pond, including information, political and financial support and support provided by the special services – was absolutely obvious and left no doubt that they would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment. With all the tragic fallout for the people of Russia.

In Leninist terms, the US is Who, Russia is Whom.  The object, not the subject. Putin even blames the US for Chechen terrorism. The last paragraph is a great example of Putin’s historical distortions. In fact, the US was deathly afraid of a chaotic, Yugoslavia-like break up of a nation with thousands of nukes and massive stocks of chemical weapons: recall that Bush I even opposed the breakup of the USSR, let alone Russia.

The irony, of course, is that whereas Putin (and Russians generally) imagins that every American goes to bed at night and wakes every morning scheming to subjugate Russia and rob it of its riches, the truth is that 99+ percent of all Americans couldn’t care less about it. That’s a truth Putin and other Russians just can’t handle. So they construct this alternate reality in which the US is obsessed with Russia.

 

The cooperation on “the most sensitive issues” that Putin’s mentions involved mainly the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which involved the US spending billions of dollars in Russia to secure nukes. Moreover, the Russian Federation assumed the USSR’s Security Council seat (with its veto), and was admitted to international organizations such as the G-8 for which it was manifestly unqualified.

Putin’s historical revisionism did not stop there. He elevated Crimea to a central-indeed holy-place in Russian history:

All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.

The equation of Crimea to the Temple Mount is, well, original. It is bizarre that Putin makes the “Temple Mount” sacral for Muslims, and puts them ahead of Jews. Yes, al Aqsa mosque is on what the Jews (with abundant historical and archeological support) claim to be the site of their Temple, but Islam’s veneration of the site has nothing to do with it being the “Temple Mount”, and indeed, there is an active campaign to deny that this was the site of the Jewish temple.

A good rule for reading the speech is to play the opposite game: take what Putin says, and interpret it the opposite way. There are far too many cases of this to cover them all, so I’ll just mention a couple of the greatest hits:

  • “We will tell the truth to people abroad, so that everyone can see the real and not distorted and false image of Russia.” (That’s what RT does, for sure!)
  • “We will actively promote business and humanitarian relations, as well as scientific, education and cultural relations.” (Tell to the “foreign agent” NGOs, the British Counsel, etc.)
  • “We will do this even if some governments attempt to create a new iron curtain around Russia.”
  • “We will never enter the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and the search for enemies.” (My favorite, by far. Every word an inversion of the truth. This is the official Russian government translation. The New York Times quotes Putin as saying “paranoia” instead of “self-isolation, xenophobia.” Either way, pure gold.)
  • “The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiatives is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems.” (Look at the rising flight of Russians to points west, because the opportunity for self-fulfillment in Russia is minimal.)
  • “Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise – these are the same kind of fundamental conservative values as patriotism, and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country.” (Yeah. Russia. The land of private property and free enterprise.)
  • “Finally, it’s crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control.”

I could go on. And on. And on.

Some commentary I read said that Putin did not mention anti-corruption efforts, but this isn’t true. He did, but very obliquely:

A huge economic reserve is lying on the surface. It is enough to look at government-financed construction projects to see this. At a recent forum of the Russian Popular Front, examples were cited of funds being invested in grandiose buildings or the construction costs of same-type – I want to emphasise this point – facilities, differing several times over, even in neighbouring regions.

I believe that it is necessary to phase in a system of a single technical contracting authority, and centralise the preparation of standard projects, construction documentation and the choice of subcontractors. This will make it possible to overcome the existing disparity in construction costs and ensure significant saving of public funds spent on capital construction projects, between 10 percent and 20 percent. This practice should be extended to all civil construction projects financed from the federal budget. I instruct the Government to submit relevant proposals.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister and I discussed this topic. Of course, there are some pitfalls here, and knowing what they are, it is important to avoid them, move with caution, implement several pilot projects in several regions and see what happens.

However, leaving the situation as it is today is no longer an option. As I said earlier, construction costs of similar facilities in neighbouring regions differ many times over. What is this?

Diversion or embezzlement of budget funds allocated for federal defence contracts should be treated as a direct threat to national security and dealt with seriously and severely, as in the suppression of the financing of terrorism. I mention this for a reason.

I don’t think there is anything to hide or gloss over here. We have just held our traditional meeting in Sochi under the leadership of the Defence Ministry, combat arms and services commanders and leading defence company designers.

On certain positions, prices double, triple or quadruple, and in one case they grew 11 times. You realise that this has nothing to do with inflation or with anything, considering that practically 100 percent of funding is provided in advance.

In other words, state construction projections and defense contracting are rife with corruption. But Vlad has it under control. He has decreed more intensive oversight of contracting. That’s never been tried before, surely, and just as surely will work like a charm.

Putin acknowledged the fraught economic situation, including the Ruble’s decline. In that fine demagogic tradition, he rounded up the usual suspects: speculators:

Today we are faced with reduced foreign exchange proceeds and, as a consequence, with a weaker national currency, the ruble. As you are aware, the Bank of Russia has switched to a “floating” exchange rate, but this does not mean that the Bank of Russia has withdrawn from controlling the exchange rate, and that the ruble may now be the object of unchecked financial speculation.

I’d like to ask the Bank of Russia and the Government to carry out tough and concerted actions to discourage the so-called speculators from playing on fluctuations of the Russian currency. In this regard, I’d like to point out that the authorities know who these speculators are. We have the proper instruments of influence, and the time is ripe to use them.

At this point, Central Bank head Nabiullina was probably looking for sharp objects to jab into her carotid artery. The “proper instruments of influence”-presumably burning reserves to buy Rubles and hiking interest rates-will dent Russia’s reserves and hammer its already reeling economy.

Hilariously, the moment Putin mentioned the Ruble, it resumed its inexorable decline, going from 52.65 before he opened his mouth to 54.45 (more than 3 percent) by the end of the trading day.

Putin recognized the inflationary impact of the Ruble’s decline, but he has a solution! Controlling prices:

Of course, a weaker ruble increases the risk of a short-term surge in inflation. It’s imperative that we protect the interests of our people, first and foremost, those with low incomes, and the Government and the regions must ensure control over the situation on the food, medicine and other basic goods markets. I’m sure this can be done without any problem, and it must be done.

Yes. It can be done “without any problem,” just like it has been since Diocletian.

Putin also mentioned capital flight, and proposed a complete amnesty to those repatriating their money, no matter how dirty it is:

Of course, it is essential to explain to the people who will make these decisions what full amnesty means. It means that if a person legalises his holdings and property in Russia, he will receive firm legal guarantees that he will not be summoned to various agencies, including law enforcement agencies, that they will not “put the squeeze” on him, that he will not be asked about the sources of his capital and methods of its acquisition, that he will not be prosecuted or face administrative liability, and that he will not be questioned by the tax service or law enforcement agencies. Let’s do this now, but only once. Everyone who wants to come to Russia should be given this opportunity.

We all understand that the sources of assets are different, that they were earned or acquired in various ways. However, I am confident that we should finally close, turn the “offshore page” in the history of our economy and our country. It is very important and necessary to do this.

Somehow I doubt that anyone who spirited any ill-gotten gains-or even honestly-gotten gains-out of Russia will put much faith in those assurances, so don’t look for the money to start flowing east anytime soon.

The last half of the speech focused on economics, and presented a laundry list of goals without anything resembling even an outline of how to achieve them. Productivity growth, diversifying the economy, import substitution, high tech exports, and on and on and on. But unless Putin gets some ruby slippers or finds a genie who grants unlimited wishes, none of this is going to happen. This part of  the speech was just another spin of Putin’s Hamster Wheel From Hell.

Nothing in the speech should be a surprise. Putin has no economic ideas, and just repeats the same nostrums year after year after year. In foreign policy, he is doubling down on truculence and confrontation. In other words, stagnation at home and aggression abroad. The foreign adventures will rest on a crumbling economic foundation. Collapse is inevitable. The only problem is that Putin can wreak much havoc and inflict much harm before the inevitable occurs.

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November 27, 2014

Transparency Incoherent. Gazprom & Rosneft Paragons of Anti-Corruption? Ha!

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:54 am

The Soviet Constitution was full of guarantees of individual rights and democratic political processes. But of course it was honored far more in the violent breach than the promise.

This comes to mind when reading Transparency International’s most recent rankings, which put Rosneft above ExxonMobil and Gazprom on a par with Chevron. The main reason for the Russian companies’ high ranking is their formal, written anti-corruption rules.

This is so farcical that I am tempted to demand transparency from TI: How much money did you get from the Russians?

If you want to understand Gazprom’s transparency and the complete disconnect between its formal anti-corruption policy and its corrupt deeds, this Reuters report is a must read. It details how Gazprom entered into completely opaque deals with Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. In these deals, Gazprom sold to Firtash entities at very low prices, and Firtash then sold at huge markups to Ukrainian companies:

According to Russian customs documents detailing the trades, Gazprom sold more than 20 billion cubic meters of gas well below market prices to Firtash over the past four years – about four times more than the Russian government has publicly acknowledged. The price Firtash paid was so low, Reuters calculates, that companies he controlled made more than $3 billion on the arrangement.

There is a huge omission in the Reuters report: it doesn’t trace where the money went. Gazprom did not do this because it was inordinately fond of Dmitry Firtash. The $3 billion was certainly split between Firtash, and people connected to Gazprom. (One wonders if the initials of the person getting the biggest cut are VVP.)

This isn’t a slam on Reuters: I am sure that they tried to follow the money, but it proved impossible in the utterly dark world of Cypriot, Russian, and Ukrainian companies. Which demonstrates just how farcical the TI report is.

It’s not like no one knew that there were murky dealings between Gazprom and Firtash, even though Reuters has provided valuable detail. Enough was known to conclude that Gazprom’s formal anti-corruption policy was the corporate equivalent of the Soviet Constitution. Fine sounding words on paper bearing no relationship to reality whatsoever.

Update. Jake Barnes points out in the comments some other things that show how risible this list is. It ranks ENI number one: Italy is notorious for corruption at all levels, and for further confirmation see Nick’s comment about investigating corruption in Italy. Also, TI ranks Petrobras above Exxon, Shell, and Chevron. You know Petrobras. It’s the company that is eyes deep in a corruption scandal that threatens to blow up the entire Brazilian political class.

Siemens is also high on the list. Siemens paid the highest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act fine in history, and has been enmeshed in what has been called A World Wide Web of Corruption Just Google “Siemens corruption” and you’ll have hours of reading fun! It is involved in corruption in Brazil. And of course it is deeply enmeshed in Russia. Take that into account whenever you hear German execs, and especially Siemen’s execs, whinging about sanctions against Russia.

Which makes this truly hilarious. Siemens runs the International Anti-Corruption Academy:

Project Summary

The International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) is an international centre of excellence for a new and holistic approach to fighting corruption.

This, plus the TI report, makes it clear that hypocrisy and corruption go hand-in-hand.

The bottom line is quite clear: the Transparency International rankings are an utter travesty that bear no relationship to reality.

 

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