Streetwise Professor

September 20, 2014

Pour Encourager Les Autres, Or Just Another Day in Putinistan

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:24 pm

Earlier this week, Russian authorities arrested billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, 64 percent owner of the Sistema conglomerates, whose holdings include the mobile operator MTS, retail interests, and . . . the independent oil company Bashneft.

Yevtushenkov was put under house arrest for alleged money laundering related to the acquisition of Bashneft. The company has its roots in the Republic of Bashkortostan, and its privatization was a dodgy affair, even by Russian standards. The company ended up under control of the son of the president of the republic, Murtaza Rakhimov. The son-Ural-is now a fugitive in the west.

But all of this is old news. The company was privatized in 2003, and Sistema acquired it in 2009. Litigation over the privatization has been going on since. So why now? Something new must have resulted in the green-lighting of the escalation of an investigation of old news.

As is always the case with Russia, there are numerous competing hypotheses, and the outcome is probably overdetermined. A leading explanation is that Sechin covets Bashneft, and made Yevtushenkov an offer he couldn’t refuse . . . which he promptly did, leading to his current predicament.

Just exactly what that predicament is is obscure, again in a typically Russian way. After a couple of days in which Yevtushenkov was supposedly unable to communicate with anyone by phone or use the internet, Sistema claimed in a press release that the house arrest had been lifted, and Yevtushenkov supposedly spoke to a journalist by phone. But the Investigative Committee denied that the house arrest had been lifted.

Sistema lawyers filed an appeal of the Investigative Committee’s actions agains the company (though apparently not Yevtushenkov) with the Prosecutor General’s Office. This is interesting-and again typically Russian-because the Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office are sworn enemies answering to different clans within the siloviki. So maybe there is a bulldogs under the carpet clan war component to this as well.

Sistema’s stock price cratered by 35 percent on news of the arrest, and the affair has sent huge shock waves through the Russian business community. Khodorkovsky flashbacks are epidemic, and many are making dire warnings about how this will accelerate capital flight, further demolish Russia’s investment climate, and worsen the already fraught economic conditions.

Which is probably all true. And Putin is perfectly aware of this, yet has permitted this to escalate nonetheless. Either because he’s especially fond of Sechin, or believes that Rosneft’s condition is sufficiently dire in the aftermath of sanctions that it needs a fillip in the form of the acquisition of a relatively progressive, technologically advanced oil producer at a knock-down price, or because he has another, more political agenda. (Note, that once Rosneft acquires it, it will cease to become a progressive, technologically advanced oil producer.) Or all the above. Plus other things.

Don’t discount the political agenda. One of the alleged purposes of the sanctions is to create an uprising of the oligarchs against Putin and the siloviki. In his paranoia, Putin almost certainly believes that’s true: he, and most of those around him, believe that the US is hell-bent on regime change in Russia.

Putin is therefore likely to interpret any disagreement by an oligarch as a challenge to his power. He may not even believe that Yevtushenkov is challenging him politically, but is afraid that a refusal to knuckle under to Sechin can be interpreted by others as an act of insubordination, which would encourage further acts of destabilizing independence unless it is punished ruthlessly. Thus, Yevtushenkov has to pay the price, pour encourager les autres.

The FT quotes many in Russia, some on the record, some anonymously, who claim that this is an indication of how sanctions are actually having the perverse effect of empowering the siloviki and destroying those who would be “friends of the West.” I think the cause and effect is mixed up here. The sanctions are the result of Crimea and Donbas, which could only happen because Putin and the siloviki reigned supreme. Putin attacked each precisely because he and the siloviki were unchecked within Russia: the “liberal” elements in the Russian elite, such as they were, had been kicked to the curb long ago. One can date the definitive decline of the moderate, economy-oriented elements in the elite to Putin’s decision to resume the presidency. Since then the trajectory of repression, revanchism, paranoia, and statism within Russia has been unmistakable. At most, sanctions have accelerated what was an unmistakable and inexorable trend.

I still shake my head at the silly commentaries that were so common at the time of the Putin restoration to the effect that he would have to-have to!-reform and adopt moderate policies in order to rejuvenate Russia’s sputtering economy. Talk about projection and mirror imaging. Nothing of the sort was ever in prospect.

Even overlooking the fact that aging leopards don’t change their spots, Putin’s mental model of the economy does not associate moderate liberal or “neoliberal” actions with economic progress. He is a statist enamored of national champions controlled from the center.  He also distrusts biznessmen outside of his control who could get uppity and pose a political challenge: why do you think that one of his first priorities upon assuming the presidency the first time was to liquidate the oligarchs as a class, and why would you think that he would countenance their renaissance? Thus, both economic and political reasons compelled Putin to move in the exact opposite direction that fuzzy headed, mirror-gazing commentators recommended in 2012-2013. That was happening before the sanctions, and would have continued even if sanctions had never been imposed.

Those of a dialectical turn of mind, or who believe in “the worse, the better”*, might find reasons to welcome any acceleration of the perfection of Putinism, and therefore welcome any tailwinds provided by sanctions. The sooner this happens, the more rapidly the internal contradictions of his economic and political models will become manifest, and lead to his demise. Not that what will replace Putin and Putinism are likely to be anything that would bring a smile to Adam Smith’s face. The Who-meet the new boss, same as the old boss-is likely to be the best guide to a post-Putin Russia. If we ever get there.

That is, the Yevtushenkov affair is just another day in Putinistan. A continuation, not a change in course. If you’re surprised, it only means that you haven’t been paying attention or were too busy projecting.

*This phrase is widely attributed to Lenin, but there is no definitive citation. The concept is found in a novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky which allegedly influenced Lenin.

 

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September 15, 2014

Russia to OPEC: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. OPEC: Believe Me, We Have

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:00 pm

This is so amusing, because it is so typical:

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak will meet OPEC officials on Tuesday in Vienna, his spokeswoman said, as oil’s price fall piled pressure on Moscow’s budget.

The annual meeting had been planned long before oil fell below the $100 per barrel level critical for Russia’s oil sales which account for 40 percent of state budget revenues.

Russia suffered from a decline of oil production and prices this year and has cut its outlook for oil output as core western Siberian fields become more depleted.

The spokeswoman said that Novak and the officials from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had not planned to discuss the prices of oil, which hit 26-month low for Brent crude on Monday.

However, a government source said the measures to prop up the prices have long been discussed at the ministry.

“The talk of closer cooperation with OPEC on prices have long been there,” he said.

So far, Russia, the world’s top producer of conventional oil, has ruled out coordinated action with OPEC to halt the price decline.

Yeah. Novak is scurrying to Vienna, but he’s not going to talk prices. Sure. Tell me another one, but not so funny as I just busted a gut reading that and can’t take too much more.

Putin, Inc. is no doubt in a mild-to-moderate panic at present because Brent has breached $100, and Urals is below that, in the low $90s. Russia needs Urals in the $104 range to meet budget targets, and that’s not counting Crimea or especially a war that doesn’t officially exist but which costs real money to fight.

So off Novak runs to Vienna, in an attempt to get OPEC to prop up the price. Not that Russia will do anything to help, mind you. It’s MO has long been to demand, beg, cajole OPEC to cut output to support prices, while Russia produces to capacity. That’s what Russia did in 2009 when prices cratered into the $30s. OPEC was not amused then, and they won’t be amused now.

If anything, geopolitical considerations, namely Russia’s support of Assad and cooperation with Iran, will make the Saudis in particular even less generously inclined towards Russia.

Meaning that Novak’s mission to Vienna will accomplish nothing, except to provide an entertaining example of Russian all take, no give negotiating style.

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September 10, 2014

SEFs: The Damn Dogs Won’t Eat It!

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:37 pm

There’s an old joke about a pet food manufacturer that mounts an all out marketing campaign for its new brand of dog food. It pulls out all the stops. Celebrity endorsements. Super Bowl Ad. You name it. But sales tank. The CEO calls the head of marketing onto the carpet and demands an explanation for the appalling sales. The marketing guy  answers: “It’s those damn dogs. They just won’t eat the stuff.”

That joke came to mind when reading about the CFTC’s frustration at the failure of SEFs to get traction. Most market  participants avoid using central limit order books (CLOBs), and prefer to trade by voice or Requests for Quotes (RFQs):

“The biggest surprise for me is the lack of interest from the buyside for [central limit order books or CLOB],” Michael O’Brien, director of global trading at Eaton Vance, said at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association conference in New York. “The best way to break up the dual market structure and boost transparency is through using a CLOB and I’m surprised at how slow progress has been.”

About two dozen Sefs have been established in the past year, but already some of these venues are struggling to register a presence. Instead, incumbent market players who have always dominated the swaps market are winning under the new regulatory regime, with the bulk of trading being done through Bloomberg, Tradeweb and interdealer brokers including IcapBGC and Tradition.

“It’s still very early,” Mr Massad told the FT. “The fact that we’re getting a decent volume of trading is encouraging but we are also looking at various issues to see how we can facilitate more trading and transparency.”

Regulators are less concerned about having a specific numbers of Sefs since the market is still sorting out which firms can serve their clients the best under the new regulatory system. What officials are watching closely is the continued use of RFQ systems rather than the transparent central order booking structure.

Not to say I told you so, but I told you so. I knew the dogs, and I knew they wouldn’t like the food.

This is why I labeled the SEF mandate as The Worst of Dodd Frank. It was a solution in search of a non-existent problem. It took a one-sized fits all approach, predicated on the view that centralized order driven markets are the best way to execute all transactions. It obsessed on pre-trade and post-trade price transparency, and totally overlooked the importance of counterparty transparency.

There is a diversity of trading mechanisms in virtually every financial market. Some types of trades and traders are economically executed in anonymous, centralized auction markets with pre- and post-trade price transparency. Other types of trades and traders-namely, big wholesale trades involving those trading to hedge or to rebalance portfolios, rather than to take advantage of information advantages-are most efficiently negotiated and executed face-to-face, with little (or delayed) post-trade price disclosure. This is why upstairs block markets always existed in stocks, and why dark pools exist now. It is one reason why OTC derivatives markets operated side-by-side with futures markets offering similar products.

As I noted at the time, sophisticated buy siders in derivatives markets had the opportunity to trade in futures markets but chose to trade OTC. Moreover, the buy side was very resistant to the SEF mandate despite the fact that they were the supposed beneficiaries of a more transparent (in some dimensions!) and more competitive (allegedly) trading mechanism. The Frankendodd crowd argued that SEFs would break a cabal of dealers that exploited their customers and profited from the opacity of the market.

But the customers weren’t buying it. So you had to believe that either they knew what they were talking about, or were the victims of Stockholm Syndrome leaping to the defense of the dealers that held them captive.

My mantra was a diversity of mechanisms for a diversity of trades and traders.  Frankendodd attempts to create a monoculture and impose a standardized market structure for all participants. It says to the buy side: here’s your dinner, and you’ll like it, dammit! It’s good for you!

But the buy side knows what it likes, and is pushing away the bowl.

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September 9, 2014

The Euros Get Tough on Google, But Run and Hide From Gazprom

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

The European Commission’s competition commissioner has scuppered a proposed settlement with Google. The Commission has already taken many pounds of flesh from Microsoft and Intel over the past year, so now it is looking to add some Google cuts to the meat locker.

What about the EU’s case against Gazprom, you ask? <Crickets.>

I’m not a big Google or Microsoft fan, but the accusations leveled against them (and Intel) are highly speculative. Gazprom’s exercise of market power, and its protection of that market power, is almost textbook. The egregious price discrimination, and its use of contractual terms (no re-sale) to support that discrimination, is a blatant example. So on the merits, the Gazprom case should proceed and the Google case should be settled, and on anything but onerous terms.

But the craven Euros quake before Gazprom. Indeed, they seem to be even less willing to confront the company now that Putin is on the war path.

They have a better case against Gazprom, and that case could be a political lever in what is an existential battle over European security: Putin and the Russians have ranted and raved about the case when the Euros did press it some, which indicates that it hits the company, and hence Russia, where it hurts.  But rather than hitting this pressure point, the Euros bury the case and go kick Google instead.

Don’t think that Putin doesn’t notice. And know that it is exactly this kind of cowardice that emboldens him.

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Igor Might Cash In, But Only Because the Future Is Bleak

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:44 pm

It looks like Igor may get his money:

Allocation of over $40 billion from Russia’s National Welfare Foundation for Rosneft oil giantcould be reasonable, as the investment will be repaid, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview to the Vedomosti newspaper, released Monday.

“This number only seems so impressive, but this is not [supposed to be repaid] within a year,” Medvedev said, answering a reporter’s question on whether Rosneft’s request for $40 billion is feasible.

“The company needs to keep up production, since Rosneft is a major contributor to the budget. In this regard, we have to help them by maintaining the investment level,” Medvedev explained, adding that the government is considering specific ways of aiding Rosneft.

Now, this is Medvedev speaking, so take it for what it’s worth. But it’s my impression that lately Dmitri’s designated role is ventriloquist’s dummy, and if you looked closely you can probably see Putin’s lips moving. This is at least a trial balloon, and perhaps it is laying the groundwork for an official announcement. It is sufficiently controversial within the Russian government that Putin probably does not want to act precipitously and is putting Medvedev out there to see if the proposal attracts too much fire.

This statement likely reflects a couple of realities. First, Sechin’s influence with Putin. The second is the effect of sanctions. Although the EU and US sanctions have not been as draconian as they might be, the FUD factor has worked. Western capital markets and banks are largely shut to Russian companies, especially those subject to sanctions (like Rosneft). Rosneft has maturing debt to refinance, and as Medvedev says, it needs to invest to maintain production.

Output dropped 1.3 percent in August, as the productivity of western Siberian fields continues to drop as they age.

In another indication of the stress that it is facing, Rosneft (and thus Putin/Russia) actually agreed to let China invest in Russian oil fields on terms never extended to a western firm. The Chinese can bring capital, but not the expertise and technology that Rosneft needs to develop the challenging resources on which has staked its future. And the Chinese usually drive a hard bargain. So even with state money, Rosneft will struggle to achieve anything like the lofty ambitions that Sechin has laid out.

The state money will buy some time for Rosneft. Presumably Putin and Sechin are hoping that the state money will get them through the sanctions, which they likely anticipate will fade away in the near-to-medium term. But the FUD factor will continue to limit Rosneft’s access to western capital and western technology. Yes, energy firms and banks will come back if and when sanctions go away, but on terms that will be far less favorable than had been available pre-Ukraine. Putin’s unpredictability has dramatically raised the political risks of investing in Russia, especially in the energy sector.  Future capital will come with strings, and will be reluctant to invest in long term projects that could fall victim to Putin’s next adventure.

In other words, if Putin indeed permits Rosneft to dip deeply into the National Welfare Fund, it will be an acknowledgement that Russia has burned its bridges with western finance and technology.

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September 8, 2014

Cleaning Up After the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus

A lot of CFTC news lately. Much of it involves the agency, under new chairman Timothy Massad, dealing with the consequences of Frankendodd and the overzealous efforts of his predecessor Gary Gensler to implement it.

One of Massad’s priorities relates to clearinghouses (CCPs):

CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad said in a Sept. 5 interview that his agency will bolster examinations of clearinghouses, which process trillions of dollars in transactions and are potentially vulnerable to market shocks or cyber attacks. The agency is working with the Federal Reserve on the effort, he said.

New rules requiring banks and other firms to use clearinghouses owned by LCH.Clearnet Group Ltd., CME Group Inc. (CME) and Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE) have been “a great thing” and have helped regulators “monitor and mitigate risks, but it doesn’t eliminate risk,” according to Massad.

“We’ve got to be very focused on the health of clearinghouses,” he said.

It’s nice to see that the CFTC, as well as prudential regulators, recognize that CCPs are of vital systemic importance. But as I’ve said many times, on four continents: In a complex, interconnected financial system, making CCPs less likely to default  does not necessarily increase the safety of the financial system. Making one part of the system safer does not make the system safer. It can prevent one Armageddon scenario, but increase the likelihood of others.

Gensler babbled repeatedly about the clearing mandate reducing the interconnectedness of the financial system. In fact, it just reconfigures the interconnections. The very measures that are intended to ensure CCPs get paid what they are owed even in periods of crisis can redirect crushing stresses to other vulnerable parts of the financial system. CCPs may end up standing, surrounded by the rubble of the rest of the financial system.

CCPs are deeply enmeshed in a complex web of credit and payment relationships. Mechanisms intended to reduce CCP credit exposure-multilateral netting, high initial margins, rigorous variation margining-feed back into other parts of that web.

There are so many interconnected parts. Today Risk ran an article about how LCH relies heavily on two settlement banks, JPM and Citi. Although LCH will not confirm it, it appears that these two banks process  about 85 percent of the payments between clearing members and LCH. This process involves the extension of intraday credit. This creates exposures for these two big SIFIs, and makes the LCH’s viability dependent on the health of these two banks: if one of them went down, this could cause extreme difficulties for LCH and for the clearing members. That is, OTC derivatives clearing adds a new way in which the financial system’s health and stability depend on the health of big banks, and creates new risks that can jeopardize the health of the big banks.

So much for eliminating interconnectedness, Gary. It’s just been moved around, and not necessarily in a good way.

Again, mitigating systemic risk requires taking a systemic perspective. The fallacy of composition is a major danger, and a very alluring one. The idea that the system gets safer when you make a major part of it safer is just plain wrong. The system is more than just the sum of its parts. Moreover, it can actually be the case that making one part of the system stronger, but more rigid, as clearing arguably does, makes the system more vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Or at least creates new ways that it can fail.

Another issue on Massad’s plate is addressing the conflict between his agency and Europe on giving regulatory approval to each other’s CCPs. It looks like this issue will not get resolved by the drop dead date in December. This will result in substantially higher costs (primarily in the form of higher capital requirements and higher margins), the fragmentation of OTC derivatives markets, and greater counterparty concentration (as US firms avoid European CCPs and vice versa).

The CFTC is also trying to fix its fundamentally flawed position limit proposal, and particularly the defective, overly restrictive, and at times clueless hedging exemptions. Mencken defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The CFTC’s hedging exemption, as currently constituted, reflects a sort of financial Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be speculating.” To avoid this dread possibility, the exemptions are so narrow that they eliminate some very reasonable risk management strategies, such as using gas forwards to hedge electricity price exposures.

This has caused an uproar among end users, including firms like Cargill that have been hedging since the end of the freaking Civil War. Perhaps their survival suggests they might know something about the subject.

In the “be careful what you ask for” category, the CFTC is wrestling with a very predictable consequence of one of its decisions. In an attempt to wall off the US from major shocks originating overseas, the Gensler CFTC adopted rules that would have subjected foreign firms dealing with foreign affiliates of US banks to US regulations if the parents provided guarantees for those affiliates. Foreign firms definitely didn’t want to be subjected to the tender mercies of the CFTC and Frankendodd regs. So to maintain this business, the parents stripped away the guarantees.

Problem solved, right? The elimination of the guarantee would eliminate a major potential channel of contagion between the dodgy furriners and the US financial system, right? That was the point, right?

Apparently not. The CFTC has major agida over this:

Timothy Massad, the new CFTC chairman, said in an interview he is concerned aboutrecent moves by several large Wall Street firms to sidestep CFTC oversight by changing the terms of some swap agreements made by foreign affiliates.

“The concern has always been that activity that takes place abroad can result in the importation of risk into the U.S.,” Mr. Massad said. He said there is a concern that a U.S. bank’s foreign losses would ultimately find their way to U.S. shores, infecting the parent company in possibly destabilizing ways.

. . . .

The moves mean any liability for those swaps lies solely with the offshore operation, which the banks have said will protect the U.S. parent from contagion. Yet without that tie to the U.S. parent, the contracts won’t fall under U.S. jurisdiction and so won’t be subject to strict rules set by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-overhaul law, including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms [i.e., the SEF mandate].

By de-guaranteeing, the US banks have eliminated the most direct channel of contagion from over there to over here. But apparently the CFTC is worried that unless its regulations are followed overseas, there will be other, albeit more indirect, backdoors into the US.

In essence, then, the CFTC believes its regulations are by far superior to those in Europe and elsewhere, and that unless its regulations are implemented everywhere, the US is at risk.

Not too arrogant, eh?

A few observations should make you question this arrogance, and in a  big way.

First, note that the most likely effect of the CFTC getting its way of exporting its regulations into any transaction and any entity involving any affiliate of a US financial institution is that foreign entities will just avoid dealing with any such affiliate. This will balkanize the global derivatives market: ‘mericans will deal with ‘mericans, and Euros with Euros, and never the twain shall meet. This will likely result in greater counterparty concentration. Such developments would create systemic vulnerabilities, and even though the direct counterparty credit channel could not bring that risk back to US banks, the myriad other connections between foreign banks and American ones would.

Second, note the last sentence of the quoted paragraph: “including requirements that contracts historically traded over the telephone be traded publicly on U.S. electronic platforms.” So apparently attempts to avoid the SEF mandate infuriate the CFTC. But the SEF mandate has nothing to do with systemic risk. For this reason, and others, I named this mandate “The Worst of Frankendodd.” But so intent is the CFTC on pursuing this systemically irrelevant unicorn that it is questioning moves by US banks that actually reduce their exposure to problems in foreign markets.

Timothy Massad has the unwelcome task of cleaning up after the elephant parade at the Dodd, Frank & Gensler Circus. Clearing mandates, coordinating with overseas regulators, position limits, and the elimination of affiliate guarantees are only some of the things that he has to clean up. I hope he’s got a big shovel and a lot of patience.

 

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September 4, 2014

Three Dubious Pieces on Russia

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:36 pm

The Ukraine situation continues to churn away. The situation on the ground is difficult to follow, but there is a consensus coalescing about Putin’s strategy. In a nutshell, the view is that he is aiming at a frozen conflict. He is telling Ukraine: “If I can’t have you, no one will.” He is pressuring Ukraine in the hope of forcing it to forego any connections, especially defense/security connections, with the West, and to give Russia de facto control over Ukraine’s foreign policy. And since this involves trade and energy policies, it also gives Russia de facto control over a considerable portion of Ukraine’s economy.

I’ve been of the view for some time that this is Putin’s goal.

Even though a consensus is coalescing, there is a raft of bad commentary out there. Among the worst is this piece by Simon Shuster. He argues that it is unwise for the West to provide weapons to Ukraine, because this would embolden Poroshenko to continue his attack on the separatists, rather than enter into negotiations.

Where to begin? The first major problem is the implicit assumption that it is appropriate for Ukraine to negotiate with rebels who are puppets of a foreign power over the control and governance of sovereign Ukrainian territory, especially given the precedent this would set for Putin. If this works in Donets, why not Kharkiv? Why not Odessa? And beyond Ukraine too: the Baltics most notably.

The “we need to get Ukraine to negotiate the terms of its surrender” is basically the Putin position.

The second major problem is Shuster’s claim that the weapons that the West would provide would be used to complete an offensive operation against the rebel puppets. But the arms that have been discussed include almost exclusively defensive weapons, notably anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, along with training that could be focused on executing defensive operations. Such weapons would dramatically raise the cost the Russians would incur to invade more deeply into Ukraine. This could deter Putin from continuing and expanding his offensive.

Expanding Ukraine’s offensive capabilities would require supplying them with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and combat aircraft. Even if they had more such equipment, it is doubtful that Ukraine has adequate manpower to increase substantially its offensive capability. Defense requires less manpower and less training than offense.

From both Ukraine’s and the West’s perspective, permitting Ukraine to defend its sovereignty unconditionally, rather than negotiate it away, is paramount. Providing defensive weaponry would advance this goal.

Another dubious piece of commentary, this one from a normally reliable writer, relates to France’s decision finally to do the right thing, and suspend (though not cancel) the sales of the Mistral class helo carriers to Russia. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky opposes the suspension, because Kremlin hawks (and hawkish buffoons, like Rogzin) have opposed the purchase of foreign vessels from the get go.

This argument is based on the premise that the purpose of canceling the sale is to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But that’s not the real reason to oppose the sale. The real reason is that the Mistrals would dramatically increase Russia’s power projection capabilities, and pose a severe threat to Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics.

Although one role of sanctions is to punish, another is to diminish capabilities. This second reason is the real reason why it is imperative to stop the sale. Russia with Mistrals is more dangerous than it is without them.

And don’t think that the Russian military doesn’t realize this. This gives me serious reason to doubt Bershidsky’s reasoning.

A third example doesn’t relate to Ukraine, but to the hack on JP Morgan computers. The hack has been traced back to Russia, but there is no definitive evidence of Russian government involvement. This Bloomberg piece notes the hesitancy to pin the hack on the Russian government:

JPMorgan’s security team continues to investigate the possibility that the hackers may have been aided or at least condoned by the Russian government, possibly as retaliation for U.S.-imposed sanctions, said a second person involved in the probe.

Others trying to piece together what happened, including outside specialists hired by the bank, say they have seen nothing to suggest the Russian government directed or aided the JPMorgan attack. Instead, they said that the hackers may have been opportunistic, expecting to be shielded because of the tensions between Russia and the U.S.

Some investigators speculated the cybercriminals were hired by the Russian government in the past and may have used malware and other tactics also shared with Russian government agents.

We live in the era of Little Green Men with no identifiable connection with the Russian government carrying out operations that advance the Russian government’s interests. The entire Russian operation in Ukraine, starting with Crimea, has been based on maskirovka and plausible deniability and using cutouts and proxies, or Russian personnel disguised as cutouts and proxies. Why should things be any different in the JPM hack? It’s not like the Russian government is going to advertise its involvement in such an activity. But the parallels are so close that the prudent inference is that this s a Russian government operation.

The exact purpose of this operation cannot be discerned. Warning? Reconnaissance? An attack discovered before it could be fully executed? But especially in the current environment, it would be foolish in the extreme to conclude that it is anything but a hostile act directed by the Russian security forces, even if it was carried out through by shadowy figures not operating in an official capacity. That’s what the Russians do.

 

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August 26, 2014

Merkel to Ukraine: Here’s Your Hat. What’s Your Hurry?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation,Russia — The Professor @ 8:50 pm

To compound Merkel’s obsequiousness to Putin, and her pushing Ukraine into his embrace, she broadly hinted that Ukraine should join Putin’s pet project, The Eurasian Union. Since Putin has made it clear that membership in the Eurasian Union and the Real EU are mutually exclusive, this is tantamount to turning Europe’s back on Ukraine and leaving it to Putin’s tender mercies.

Merkel’s remarks make it clear that her primary motive for abandoning Ukraine to Putin is to keep good relations with Russia, and to avoid riling Vlad:

“And if Ukraine says we are going to the Eurasian Union now, the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision,” Merkel added.

“I want to find a way, as many others do, which does not damage Russia. We [Germany] want to have good trade relations with Russia as well. We want reasonable relations with Russia. We are depending on one another and there are so many other conflicts in the world where we should work together, so I hope we can make progress”

Nauseating. Like my grandfather said about a hostess trying to hint to  a guest who had overstayed his welcome that he leave: “Here’s your hat, Bob. Why are you in such a hurry to leave?”

For his part, during the Eurasian Union summit in Minsk, Putin made it clear that Ukraine had to choose between one EU or the other, and if it chose wrong, Russia would punish it. This is the fate that Merkel is willing to consign Ukraine to, so that Siemens can continue to sell to Russia, and Adidas can provide all the track suits that the gopniks desire:

In his public comments, Mr. Putin highlighted the dangers he said Russia faces if Ukraine pursues closer ties to the West. Since the onset of the crisis, Mr. Putin has accused the West of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs and trying to spoil its relations with Moscow.

Mr. Putin said that a trade agreement between Kiev and Europe will flood the Ukrainian market with European goods, which may then find their way into Russia. “In this situation Russia cannot stand idle. And we will be prompted…to take retaliatory measures, to protect our market,” Mr. Putin said.

The interesting thing about this is just what it betrays about what Putin thinks about Russian competitiveness. Yes, Russia is so great. Russia is so strong. Russia is a beacon to the world. But it can’t produce things its own people and businesses want.

Note the phrase: “take retaliatory measures, to protect our market.” Remind me again: didn’t Russia join the WTO? Apparently Putin is unclear on the concept.

Further note whom Putin is protecting Russian markets against: Europe. Apparently Angela is unclear on some concepts too.

Putin and many (most?) other Russians inveigh about Russophobia. When he says things like that, it’s hard to think of a bigger Russophobe than Putin. He evidently does believe that Russians are inferior, and in need of protection.

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August 19, 2014

A Couple of Quick Russia Hits: Putin’s Natural State & Selling E. Europe Down the (Don) River

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

Back when I started to blog about Russia in 2006-2007, I often pointed out that Russia under Putin was an archaic “natural state” rather than a modern one. The idea of the natural state was set out in work by North, Wallis and Weingast. In essence, it is a state with a distributed and diffuse potential for violence that is prone to break down into internecine conflict between armed factions. The only way this is avoided is to bribe the various factions with rents and privileges granted by the state (to give them a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than grasping for total control), and to keep them in an unsteady equipoise by pitting each against the other.

An article in the Moscow Times provides a very good description that brings home that point. This description of Putin’s version of the natural state cannot be bettered:

Putin’s staffing policies are based on the principle of ”loyalty in return for corruption.” Bureaucrats in the government, law enforcement and military are practically granted the right to steal and forbidden just one thing: criticism of the president.

The greatest enabler of Putin’s natural state is Germany, and most notably its appalling foreign minister, Steinmeier.

This piece by Dustin Duhez lays out in detail the intellectual underpinnings of Steinmeir’s beliefs and strategy. It is a very disturbing, but worthwhile read. In a nutshell: Steinmeier’s overriding objective is to maintain strong relations (especially commercial relations) with Russia, and is willing to sacrifice everyone between the Oder and the Don to do so. In other words, he is willing to sell eastern Europe down the river: the Don River, specifically.

Keep this in mind when watching Merkel’s visit to Kiev. At best she is equivocal and conflicted. At worst she is objectively pro-Putin.

Neither of these articles should be missed. One gives a good analysis of what makes Putinism tick. The other shows how the most powerful state in Europe works overtime to keep it oiled and wound.

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August 18, 2014

Wage Asymmetric Warfare: Unleash the SPR!

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:25 pm

The decline in the price of oil-Brent is down almost to $100/bbl, and Urals-Med is below that level-puts pressure on an already stressed Russian economy. And it especially puts pressure on a stressed Russian government budget, which balances at about $110+. What’s more, Russia is looking to replace private western funding with state support for its banks, and some corporations: recall my post yesterday which described how Sechin is panting after tens of billions of government money to replace western creditors. Further, Putin has made all sorts of promises, including lavish spending on the military and on infrastructure (e.g., a hugely expensive bridge over the Kerch Strait to Crimea). All of these add to the strains on the Russian budget.

Some of this is due to a weakening of the Russian economy for independent factors. Some of it is due to the sanctions.

The effectiveness of the sanctions could be enhanced by putting even further pressures on the Russian government. The most direct means of doing so would be through the price of oil, and short of persuading the Saudis to do a reprise of their 1986 act of flooding the market with oil, the best way to do that would be to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Especially given the burst in US domestic oil production, the already weak case for maintaining a large reserve is even weaker. Moreover, since much of the oil in the SPR is Brent, and thus could presumably be exported, this would be a way of mitigating the distortions associated with the existing crude export ban.

The number of barrels that would actually flow to the market would presumably be somewhat lower than the amount released from the SPR, because some of the public storage would be replaced by private storage. (As I argued in 2011, this effect depends on market expectations regarding how the SPR would be used.) But the direction of the price effect is clear, and the price impact would not be trivial.

Putin is waging asymmetric war in Ukraine. (Though it is becoming less asymmetric, and more conventional, by the day.) Sanctions are an asymmetric form of warfare. A release of the SPR would be another asymmetric move that would impact Russia directly, and indirectly by enhancing the financial strains produced by the sanctions. There’s no substantive economic case for retaining the SPR at its current levels. Seems like an obvious move. Will Obama make it?

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