Streetwise Professor

January 4, 2017

The Rosneft Deal: One Step Closer to Reality

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 4:51 pm

After-a thinking-a about it-a for almost a month-a, Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo has apparently decided to stump up €5.2 billion to fund the Rosneft-QIA-Glenocre transaction.

A few interesting aspects to this, beyond that it took so long to commit after Rosneft said it was a done deal in the first week of December.

First, by my arithmetic, the deal is still short about €1.9 billion short. Intesa is putting up €5.2 billion, QIA €2.8 billion, Glencore €.3 billion. That’s €8.3 billion. The deal is for €10.2 billion. So where’s the other money coming from?

Second, Intesa is saying they will lend now, and syndicate the loan later. That’s not unheard of, but it’s not typical. Not least because Intesa’s bargaining position is weak now: potential syndicate members will know that Intesa has to unload the risk, and be patient in the hope of getting better terms.

Third is this gem at the end: “The underwriting, to be syndicated, has strong protection in terms of collateral and guarantees.” So who is providing the guarantees? What is the substance of the guarantees?

We have Glencore’s statement about indemnity, and some basis to believe that Gazprombank is the provider. But does QIA have a guarantee as well?

In any event, the deal looks more real than it did last month. But there are still open questions.



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December 30, 2016

For Whom the (Trading) Bell Tolls

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,History — The Professor @ 7:40 pm

It tolls for the NYMEX floor, which went dark for the final time with the close of trading today. It follows all the other New York futures exchange floors which ICE closed in 2012. This leaves the CME and CBOE floors in Chicago, and the NYSE floor, all of which are shadows of shadows of their former selves.

Next week I will participate in a conference in Chicago. I’ll be talking about clearing, but one of the other speakers will discuss regulating latency arbitrage in the electronic markets that displaced the floors. In some ways, all the hyperventilating over latency arbitrages due to speed advantages measured in microseconds and milliseconds in computerized markets is amusing, because the floors were all about latency arbitrage. Latency arbitrage basically means that some traders have a time and space advantage, and that’s what the floors provided to those who traded there. Why else would traders pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a membership? Because that price capitalized the rent that the marginal trader obtained by being on the floor, and seeing prices and order flow before anybody off the floor did. That was the price of the time and space advantage of being on the floor.  It’s no different than co-location. Not in the least. It’s just meatware co-lo, rather than hardware co-lo.

In a paper written around 2001 or 2002, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, I presented a model predicting that electronic trading would largely annihilate time and space advantages, and that liquidity would improve as a result because it would reduce the cost of off-floor traders to offer liquidity. The latter implication has certainly been borne out. And although time and space differences still exist, I would argue that they pale in comparison to those that existed in the floor era. Ironically, however, complaints about fairness seem more heated and pronounced now than they did during the heyday of the floors.  Perhaps that’s because machines and quant geeks are less sympathetic figures than colorful floor traders. Perhaps it’s because being beaten by a sliver of a second is more infuriating than being pipped by many seconds by some guy screaming and waving on the CBT or NYMEX. Dunno for sure, but I do find the obsessing over HFT time and space advantages today to be somewhat amusing, given the differences that existed in the “good old days” of floor trading.

This is not to say that no one complained about the advantages of floor traders, and how they exploited them. I vividly recall a very famous trader (one of the most famous, actually) telling me that he welcomed electronic trading because he was “tired of being fucked by the floor.” (He had made his reputation, and his first many millions on the floor, by the way.) A few years later he bemoaned how unfair the electronic markets were, because HFT firms could react faster than he could.

It will always be so, regardless of the technology.

All that said, the passing of the floors does deserve a moment of silence–another irony, given their cacophony.

I first saw the NYMEX floor in 1992, when it was still at the World Trade Center, along with the floors of the other NY exchanges (COMEX; Coffee, Sugar & Cocoa; Cotton). That space was the location for the climax of the plot of the iconic futures market movie, Trading Places. Serendipitously, that was the movie that Izabella Kaminska of FT Alphaville featured in the most recent Alphachat movie review episode. I was a guest on the show, and discussed the economic, sociological, and anthropological aspects of the floor, as well as some of the broader social issues lurking behind the film’s comedy. You can listen here.


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December 25, 2016

A Christmas Miracle in Moscow?

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:27 pm

Putin gave his annual marathon address a few days ago. As usual, some of the things he said were quite sensible. Some things were more debatable. And some things were just codswallop:

Speaking at an annual press conference on Friday, Mr Putin said that “foreigners” had “transferred the money into the Russian budget in full.” The [Rosneft-Glencore-QIA] deal is worth Rbs700bn ($11.5bn).

This echoes a Sechin statement from 9 days ago:

Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the federal received all proceeds from privatization of a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, according to Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“Sechin told Putin that all funds from Rosneftegas were transferred to the budget,” Peskov said.

There is some ambiguity here: Putin could have been referring to “the foreigners'” equity stakes. But that would leave open the question of where the balance of the money came from, and there is no way that Russia has received the entire $11.5b from “foreign” sources. Note that the bank (Intesa Sanpaolo) that had been named–by Rosneft–as leading the funding for the purchase has said that it’s still thinking about it:

Intesa said earlier this week that its “potential involvement” in the deal was “still under evaluation.” Financial regulators in Rome are examining whether Intesa Sanpaolo’s financing of a €10.2bn investment in Russian oil group Rosneft complies with sanctions

No other foreign bank or banks have stepped up to provide funding.

Maybe Glencore and QIA would have made their equity investment without financing for the balance of the purchase price. But I doubt it. There is no way Rosneftgaz would have parted with ownership of the 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft without being paid in full. So where did the money come from? Either it came from Russian sources, or the deal is not done–both which would be contrary to what Putin asserts. And if it’s from Russian sources, that would give to lie to Sechin’s and Putin’s original claims that all the money would come from foreign sources.

So where did it come from (assuming that it came from anywhere at all)? Some possibilities:

  • Rosneftgaz. Note Sechin’s statement that “all funds from Rosneftegas were transferred.” Rosneftgaz owned (owns?) the shares. Perhaps it made a payment to the budget from its own funds, and retained ownership of shares in anticipation of selling them to the Glencore-QIA consortium at a later date. (This was the common belief as to how the “privatization” would occur prior to the announcement of the Glencore-QIA consortium.) But there is no way that Rosneftgaz transferred $11.5b received from foreigners.
  • Rosneft. It is interesting that on December 5 Rosneft announced plans to issue about $9b of bonds. Add that $9b to the amount allegedly being invested by the consortium, and you get pretty close to the purchase price for the 19.5 percent stake. (Coincidence?) The bonds haven’t been issued yet (apparently), but Rosneft could borrow from Russian banks in anticipation of repaying the loan with the proceeds from the bond issue. More speculatively, the Russian banks could have turned around and used a loan extended to Rosneft as collateral to a loan from the Central Bank of Russia, making the CBR the ultimate funding source. (John Helmer asserts that this is the case.)
  • Russian banks. Russian banks could have lent the money to the consortium. Alternatively, Russian banks could have lent to Rosneft, Rosneftgaz, or both.

But it is incontestable that either (a) the deal isn’t really done, or that (b) contrary to the statements trumpeted at the start of the deal, it was primarily funded by Russian banks, rather than western ones.

We now do have some idea of what an “appropriate Russian bank” is. (That was the mysterious phrase used in Glencore’s release to refer to a Russian bank providing an indemnity to Glencore.). RBC reports that Gazprombank is involved in the transaction. The Russian government operates under the fiction that Gazprombank is not a state bank. Putin had said that Russian state banks would not be involved, because that would not be a true privatization. The obvious inference is that an “appropriate” bank is a non-state one.

Even looking beyond whether Gazprombank is reasonably considered a non-state bank, (a) it was supposed to be indemnifying Glencore’s borrowing from western banks to fund the purchase, not providing the funding itself, and (b) on its own, it wouldn’t have the scratch to finance the entire purchase. Putting all this together, it means that either (a) the money is coming from other banks–which have to be Russian state banks (most likely Sberbank and VTB), or (b) the deal ain’t done.

It is interesting to note that neither Glencore nor QIA have made an announcement that the deal has closed. Indeed, they declined comment when asked about Putin’s statement. If the deal has closed, Glencore would have said something. Western banks funding the deal would have said something. The silence speaks volumes.

What accounts for the reticence of Intesa, and other western banks? Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Intesa was just fined $235 million for “anti-money laundering failures and violations of bank privacy laws.” The fine was levied by New York state regulators, not the Feds. Furthermore, lending to fund the transaction would not appear to violate sanctions, because it does not involve the purchase of new equity. However, Intesa and other western banks (and others have to get involved, because Intesa could not afford to finance it itself) know that there are many ways that the US government could express its displeasure at doing a deal that adhered to the letter of sanctions, but violated the spirit (as interpreted by the Treasury Department). The fine may have have gotten Intesa’s (and other banks’) minds right–and that may have been the point.

In sum, there is no way that $11.5b of western money has been transferred to the Russian budget to pay for a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft. Thus, Putin was telling a stretcher at his presser.

Or perhaps it was a Christmas miracle. Money magically appeared in Rosneftgaz’s kitty, which it then generously transferred to the Russian government budget, out of the goodness of its heart in the spirit of the season. That would make as much sense as the story Putin spun.

And speaking of Christmas miracles, I hope that all my loyal readers are favored with one as well. Have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

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December 16, 2016

Clearinghouse Resilience and Liquidity Black Holes

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:11 pm

About six weeks ago I wrote a post on the strains put on clearing by Brexit. This informative post by Clarus’ Tod Skarecky provides some very interesting detail about the mechanics of the LCH’s margining mechanism.

One way to summarize it is to say that the LCH was a liquidity black hole. Not only did it collect intra-day and end-of-day variation margin from losers that was paid out to winners only with a delay, it also collected Market Data Runs, which were effectively intra-day initial margin top-ups. A couple of perverse features. First, a position that initially had a loss that triggered an MDR outflow had to pay out, but if the market turned in its favor intra-day, it didn’t get that money back until the following day. Second, a firm that had a loss that triggered an MDR outflow had to pay out, and if the position incurred a loss on the day, it still had to pay variation margin, and didn’t receive the MDR back until the next day: that is, there was”double dipping.”

Tod puts his figure on the logic (crucially, the logic from LCH’s perspective): “Heck if I managed credit risk at a firm, I’d always choose to be paid now rather than later.” Definitely. That minimizes credit risk. But look at how much liquidity was sucked up in order to do this.

Variation margin is bad enough: despite the (laughable) claim of the BIS some years back, the fact that variation margin is recycled does not mean that it does not create liquidity strains. After all, (a) liquidity demand arises due in large part to differences in timing between the receipt of cash and the payment thereof, and the clearing mechanism (in which the CCP pays out VM some hours after it receives VM) creates such timing differences, and (b) even absent payment timing differences, the VM receivers would have to lend to the VM payers, which is problematic especially during stressed market conditions. But the LCH IM top up exacerbates the problem because the cash is stuck in the clearinghouse overnight, and therefore cannot possibly be recirculated. More liquidity becomes less accessible.

Again, this is understandable from LCH’s microprudential perspective: it reduces the likelihood that it will become insolvent or illiquid. But just because this is sensible from a microprudential perspective does not mean it is macroprudentially sensible. In fact, it is anything but sensible: it greatly adds to liquidity demand, particularly during periods of time when liquidity is likely to be scarce, and when liquidity freezes are a serious risk.

This is a perfect example of the “levee effect” I’ve written about for years: raising the levee around the LCH increases the chances of its survival, but just redirects the stresses to elsewhere in the system.

Note the irony here. Clearing mandates were sold on the idea that there were pervasive externalities in uncleared derivatives markets, due primarily to the potential for default cascades in these markets. But clearing (supersized by mandates, in particular) creates externalities too. Here LCH does things that are in its interest, but which impose costs on others. It has a contractual relationship with some of these (FCMs), so there is some potential that externalities involving these parties can be mitigated through negotiation and changing contracts. But there are myriad parties not in privity of contract with LCH, and which LCH may not even know of, who are impacted, perhaps severely, by a liquidity shock exacerbated by LCH’s self-preserving actions.

In other words, clearing mandates don’t internalize all externalities. They create them too. And given the severe dangers of liquidity crises, the liquidity externality that clearing creates is particularly troubling.

Outgoing CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad says, don’t worry, be happy!:

Brexit’s Impact on Clearing Activity

Let’s first look at the impact on clearing activity. It’s important to remember first that clearinghouses mark all products to market every day, and require that participants with market losses post margin every day, sometimes more than once a day. Margin payments must be paid promptly because for every payment made to the clearinghouse, the clearinghouse must make a payment to another participant who has gains. The clearinghouse always has a balanced or “matched” book.

Even though margins were increased in advance of the vote, the volatility resulted in very large margin calls on June 24.

Clearing members paid $27 billion dollars in variation margin across the five largest clearinghouses registered with the CFTC. This was $22 billion dollars greater than the previous 12-month average—over five times larger. The good news is no one missed a payment, no one defaulted.

Supervisory Stress Tests

The results after Brexit confirmed what we recently found in our own internal testing: resilience in the face of stressful conditions. Last month, CFTC staff released a report detailing the results of a series of stress tests we performed on the five largest clearinghouses under our jurisdiction, which are located in the U.S. and the UK. Our tests assessed the impact of stressful market scenarios across these clearinghouses as well as their clearing members, many of whom are affiliates of the world’s largest banks.

We developed a set of 11 extreme but plausible scenarios based on a number of factors, including historical price changes on dates when there was extreme volatility. By comparison, our assumed price shocks were several times larger than what happened after Brexit. We applied these scenarios to actual positions as of a specific date. And we looked at whether the pre-funded resources held by the clearinghouse—in particular, the initial margin and guaranty fund amounts paid by clearing members as well as the clearinghouse’s capital—were sufficient to cover any losses.

Still not getting it. The discussion of stress tests essentially repeats the same mantra as LCH: it is a decidedly microprudential treatment that focuses on credit risk, not liquidity risk. The discussion of margins is perfunctory, despite the fact that this is what gave market participants serious worries on Brexit Day. No discussion of what extraordinary efforts were required to ensure that all payments were made. No discussion of whether this would have been possible during a bigger–and unanticipated–price shock. No discussion of the liquidity externalities. No discussion of what would happen if operational difficulties (e.g., a technology problem in the payments system like the failure of FedWire on 10/19/87) interfered with the completion of payments. (More payments increases the likelihood that such an operational failure will jeopardize the ability of FCMs to complete them. And a failure to meet a call triggers a default.)

This “what? Me worry?” approach sounds so . . . 2006. And it is exactly this kind of complacency that makes me worry. The nature of the liquidity issue still has not penetrated many regulatory skulls.

This is most likely due to a severe case of target fixation. Clearing mandates were motivated by a desire to reduce credit risk, and all efforts have been focused on that. That is the target that regulators are fixated on, and in the pursuit of that target their field of vision has narrowed, with liquidity risk being largely outside it. It is obviously the target that CCPs are focused on. This is why I take little comfort in the belated efforts to make CCPs more resilient. The recipe for resilience is to demand MOAR LIQUIDITY. Which is also the recipe for a broader market crisis.

Analogous to the dangers of high powered incentives with multi-tasking when some activities can be measured more accurately than others, the mandate to reduce derivatives credit risk has led regulators and market participants–particularly market utilities like CCPs–to devote excessive effort to mitigating credit risk, even though it exacerbates liquidity risk.

I doubt the clearing portions of Title VII of Frankendodd will be eliminated altogether, but the incoming administration should seriously consider a major re-evaluation to determine how to address the serious liquidity issues that clearing mandates create.

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December 11, 2016

Exxon’s Russian Dealings Are No Reason to Fret About Tillerson. If Anything, the Reverse is True

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:16 pm

Current reports suggest that Trump will select ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Like many things Trump, this creates substantial uncertainty. For despite the fact that Tillerson has been a public figure for years, he has not been part of the foreign policy community, and hence his view on specific issues (China, the Middle East, and on and on), and his philosophical/ideological/doctrinal orientation are unknown.

As for the fact he has not been part of the FP community–good! It’s not as if it has covered itself in glory in the past couple of decades. Chin pullers moan that Tillerson’s appointment would represent the biggest discontinuity in US foreign policy in years. Again–good! We’re in a rut. Discontinuity has potential.

Others fret that as the mere CEO of one of the largest (if not the largest) corporations in the world, which invests in highly complex technology, operates in virtually every country on the globe, and which must navigate complex political issues in these myriad countries, is just not up to the job of managing the complexities of international diplomacy:

Some former officials said it was an open question whether Tillerson could make the transition from running Exxon, a vast company that explores for oil and gas on six continents, to the even greater complexity of being secretary of state.

“Negotiating a real estate deal or an oil contract with Saudi Arabia is not the same thing,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East specialist now at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.

“It’s not a complicated summit where you are trying to reconcile historical woundings, religious identities, sectarian tensions.”

“I’m not arguing that he can’t make this conversion. I just don’t think we know.”


Because ex-pols and career diplomats like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Warren Christopher, Cyrus Vance, James Baker, etc., are such towering geniuses that they are much better able to manage the complexities of foreign affairs.


In today’s hysteria over Russia, of course Exxon’s and Tillerson’s relationship with Russia and Putin has been the focus of much angst and criticism. He received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin! XOM was going to invest zillions in Russia but sanctions prevented that! Sanctions cost Exxon billions! He’ll go easy on Russia to help Exxon!

Tillerson ran an oil company. Oil companies look for oil. Russia has oil. Tillerson’s company looked for oil in Russia. Not that complicated.

Further, XOM was not nearly as dependent on Russia as other majors, such as BP or Shell. Consider the billion or so that Exxon had at risk in joint ventures with Rosneft, but which were scuppered by sanctions. Well, a billion is real money, it’s not nearly as big a deal for Exxon because, well, Exxon is so damn big. Even at the depressed values due to low oil prices, $1 billion is .25 percent of XOM’s market cap. The other numbers bandied about–$400-$500 billion in investments in the Arctic over decades–are highly speculative, and dependent on many contingencies. Indeed, the main source of these numbers is hype by Igor Sechin, and should be discounted accordingly.

But even going beyond that, oil exploration and development is a highly fraught and unpredictable endeavor, especially in harsh natural environments like the Arctic, and harsh political environments like Russia. Seemingly promising finds can turn out to be disappointing. Numerous technological hurdles must be overcome. Political difficulties must be surmounted. Take a look at the Shtokman saga to see how these things can bedevil big Arctic projects.

Most importantly, development economics depend on prices, and prices are highly volatile. The initial XOM-Rosneft deals were negotiated in 2011-2013 when oil prices were north of $100/bbl, and were expected to stay there for, well, pretty much forever. A mere year later, oil prices cratered, and now the conventional wisdom is that $100/bbl oil is not on the horizon, even the distant horizon. Even absent sanctions, there would have been a massive re-evaluation of the scale and scope of the Rosneft-XOM cooperation.

Look at Shell. The technological challenges and costs of the Arctic, plus low prices, have led it to pull the plug on its once vaunting ambitions there.

Here’s something else that should provide this perspective. One of Tillerson’s most important moves as CEO was the acquisition of shale operator XTO Energy, for which Exxon paid $31 billion. This dwarfs the commitment to Russia, and shows that Tillerson was investing bigger dollars  in a technology that actually reduced the need for access to Russian resources.

To some, any involvement in Russia inevitably makes one beholden to Putin. Consider this from one of the lead hysterics, Julia Ioffe:

What does that kind of friendship mean? Past experience suggests it is not a relationship of equals. It means that, at the drop of a hat, the Kremlin might discover serious environmental violations at your Sakhalin plant and drive you out of the country, as it did to Royal Dutch Shell, and then give the lucrative access to a better, domestic ally. It might decide to harass you with lawsuits to force you out, as it did to BP. And it might even throw you in jail, as it did to powerful Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov in order to take a small oil company, Bashneft, away from you and give it to Sechin. Putin would even arrest his largely popular economics minister, as he did on November 15, to help Sechin retain it.

The lesson of Putin’s 16-year tenure is a lesson that all businesspeople, foreign and domestic, have learned: to do business in Russia, you have to be on good, personal terms with Putin and Sechin. And you have to understand that those two gatekeepers to Russia’s riches are fickle and sadistic, and, as former KGB operatives, know little of real friendship. To do business in Russia—both for Exxon Mobil and for Tillerson’s own massive retirement fund whose fortunes would rise significantly if a Trump White House lifted sanctions—you have to dance to Putin’s tune, and take whatever favors and humiliations he sends your wayPutin may act a friend and pin state medals on your breast, but he is, ultimately, a cynic. And to play ball with him, you have to be a cynic, too. Forget your honor, your rule of law, your independent judiciary, your human rights, your international law, and focus on the gold coins he throws to your feet. And forget looking dignified as you gather them up.

Note that none–NONE–of Ioffe’s examples involve ExxonMobil. Consider Shell’s travails in Sakhalin. ExxonMobil had a project in Sakhalin as well–Sakhalin I. Gazprom tried for years–years–to muscle its way in on that the way it muscled in on Shell’s Sakhalin II. It failed miserably. XOM swatted them away. And note that Gazprom and the Russian government didn’t pull the crap with Exxon that they pulled with Shell, or with BP in Kovytka or with TNK-BP. That’s a very big dog that didn’t bark. You think the Russians were just being nice to Exxon? Hardly. They respond to strength, and knew better than to confront Exxon.

When Rosneft and Exxon were negotiating their deals in the 2011-2013 time frame, Sechin wanted an arrangement similar to that he extracted/extorted from BP: an XOM investment in Rosneft combined with a big Rosneft equity stake in XOM. This went nowhere. Instead, Exxon negotiated a set of joint ventures that limited its exposure and gave it a lot of optionality and off-ramps, thereby limiting its vulnerability to Russian extortion. As further protection, it also exchanged hostages, namely JVs in the GOM. (These were ironically terminated last week, due to bad economics and unfavorable exploration results, thereby demonstrating the tenuous nature of these kinds of ventures.) Sachin was the supplicant, and was rejected.

All of this reveals that ExxonMobil, and Tillerson personally, were quite aware of the nature of the Putin regime, and the dangers in dealing with it. He hardly needs instruction from Julia Ioffe on these things. Indeed, he has more schooling in these matters that pretty much anyone alive, and has far fewer scars to show for it than pretty much anybody else who has tried to deal in Russia (Bob Dudley, for instance). He has fewer scars because he had more power to fight back than even behemoths like BP. Because Exxon is the behemoth among behemoths.

XOM/Tillerson were clearly aware of the lack of property rights in Russia, and the vulnerability to expropriation. They were the industry leaders at structuring contracts to reduce their risk to this. Further, they had the economic heft to stand up to Russia and Putin: Exxon’s market cap is almost equal to the market cap of the entire Russian market. What’s more, Exxon used this economic heft to get good deals out of Russia. If anything, Russia needed Exxon more than Exxon needed Russia–something that BP or even Shell could not say.

In other words, Tillerson is a man who understands Russia well, is intimately aware of its dysfunctions, understands relative power, and is willing to negotiate from a position of strength in order to obtain positive outcomes that limit the risk of exposure to these dysfunctions.

This is a problem why, exactly? That sounds like the perfect skill set. I know those still in shock after losing an election want to blame Russia for all their misfortunes and are (insanely) seeking open confrontation. That’s idiocy. He will have the resources of the most powerful nation in the world at his disposal, and he will know that American power vastly exceeds Russia’s. Tillerson has taken Putin’s measure, knows the players, and knows how to deploy power to reach mutually beneficial outcomes. Sounds good to me.

Also, incentives matter. As CEO, Tillerson was accountable to shareholders, and his compensation largely aligned his incentives accordingly. He was not (directly) accountable to the US government or the American people, and therefore it is expected that he would sometimes make decisions that benefited Exxon but which were not necessarily aligned with American policy or even American interests. (Though no one has provided a compelling example of that.*)

As Secretary of State, however, his incentives will be far different, and his interests will be far less aligned (if aligned at all) with his former employer. However imperfectly, the incentive structure of democratic politics will lead him to make choices that will differ substantially from those he would have made as CEO of Exxon. I would note that there are many, many instances where what people do in office is very different from what they did or said previously. This is because they face very different incentives. To go out on a limb, I would not be surprised if Tillerson becomes a Strange New Respect winner.

I have no idea how Tillerson will perform as Secretary of State. But I am highly confident that his long experience in Russia does not represent a serious concern: in fact, I would venture that it is his greatest attribute.  He dealt with the Russians for years, and didn’t get run over, and indeed, negotiated some pretty favorable deals with them. That speaks volumes.

Further, I would note that Russia is obviously an important policy challenge, but as a declining power that faces some rather daunting geopolitical and economic handicaps, I do not consider it our primary policy threat. The political class’ recent obsession with Russia, to the exclusion of more important countries–China, most notably–reflects the narcissistic rage of a part of the political class that was thwarted in its ambitions, and which is casting about for a scapegoat. These people didn’t give a damn about Russia before last summer, and indeed, to the extent they mentioned it at all it was to scorn those (e.g., Romney) who raised alarms about it. These are not serious people and their hysterics should not be taken seriously. Fixating on Tillerson’s Russian experience and dealings will distract attention from inquiries about his policy thinking on more important issues.

*In the comments Tim Newman mentions ExxonMobil’s dealings with Kurdistan in defiance of US government policy. That’s a good example, though I do find American policy in this regard problematic. Another example that comes to mind is Tilleson’s decision to terminate drilling in Ukrainian waters around the time of the Crimean crisis.

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December 10, 2016

The Glencore/QIA/Rosneft Deal: A Little Clearer Than Mud

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 8:28 pm

Rosneft and Glencore have released some additional information on the three way involving these two firms and the Qatar Investment Authority. These releases answer some of the questions about the deal–and evidently there is now a deal–but not all of them.

The new information indicates that I got some things wrong and some things right in my snap take. What I got wrong was the amount of equity, and hence the amount of leverage in the deal. My original conclusion that the equity investment was €600 million was based on (a) the announcement that Glencore would invest €300 million, and (b) Sechin’s statement that Glencore and QIA would be “equal partners.” (Silly me for believing Igor!) As it turns out, the QIA will invest €2.5 billion, making the deal leveraged a mere 3.6 to 1.

Where I got it right was my surmise that there was a lot of financial engineering going on. We still don’t know the full extent of such machinations, but the Glencore statement gives a glimpse. The key tipoff is the fact that although the Glencore-QIA consortium is 50:50, Glencore is at great pains to emphasize that its “economic exposure” to Rosneft represents a mere .54 percent share of the Russian company, and that “Glencore will not have any economic exposure to its interests in the Shares.”

Well, if the consortium is buying 19.5 percent of Roseneft, and Glencore is 50 percent of the consortium, that’s a wee bit bigger than .54 percent, isn’t it? So there must be some structure or structures that effectively shift the risk to other parties.

The Glencore statement provides a hint of at least one of these structures. It describes this feature:

  • Limited liability structure fully ring-fenced and non-recourse to Glencore apart from its €300 million equity contribution and the provision of margin guarantees of up to €1.4 billion, for which Glencore has obtained full indemnification from appropriate Russian banks.

My interpretation of this is term is that the loan funding the bulk of the purchase includes a margining feature, as in a stock margin loan. That is, the borrower is obligated to put up additional cash if the collateral value of the shares declines. In this case, Glencore has apparently promised to pay up to €1.4 billion. But apparently Glencore has passed this risk to “appropriate Russian banks.” (What’s an “appropriate bank”, anyways?) That is, the Russian banks will stump up the cash in the event of a stock price decline. Sounds to me like the banks have written a put on Rosneft shares (which is one of the structures that I had originally guessed at).

Well, puts aren’t free. Neither of the documents indicates the price of the put, or who is paying the premium.

If Glencore’s downside is limited to €300 million, certainly it doesn’t have a claim to 50 percent of the upside. One possibility is that it is paying for the put by writing a call. If so, the deal basically embeds a swap between Glencore and “appropriate banks” via which the risk of Rosneft shares are essentially transferred to the banks (with Glencore being short the swap and the banks long). If so, this would be a backdoor way for the Russian banks to buy Rosneft shares. To a first approximation their exposure is on the order of 9 percent (19.5 x .5 minus a little to reflect Glencore’s exposure).

This interpretation would square with Glencore’s assertion that “Glencore will not have any economic exposure to its interests in the Shares.” That means neither upside nor downside exposure. Where did the upside exposure go? Most likely to the Russian banks.

The QIA has been totally silent on the deal. It has not issued a press release. (Its web page looks like it was designed by a 15 year old in 1999, and is remarkably uninformative. Go figure.) Therefore, it is unknown if Qatar also has posted “margin guarantees.” If so, it would make calling the debt “non-recourse” highly misleading. It’s not as if QIA could put the keys in the mail and walk away with no additional liability in the event of a large decline in the value of Rosneft stock. Such a margin guarantee feature would effectively make a good portion of the debt recourse, rather than non-recourse, and convert its position into a conventional leveraged equity purchase. (This is because the lenders would have a claim on QIA assets beyond the initial investment.)

Another way to look at this is to ask: where does the risk go? The candidates are: QIA, Glencore, Intesa Sanpaolo and other funding banks, Russian banks “providing financing and credit support,” and even Rosneft (there would be Enronesque ways of passing the risk of an SPV back to Rosneft). Even with the additional disclosure, we only have a limited understanding of where the risk is going. Glencore is insisting its downside risk is very limited: €300 million. Its upside potential is unclear, but it is highly likely that has been transferred elsewhere, mainly to pay for Glencore’s limiting its downside exposure. We know some of the downside exposure has gone to Russian banks. The exact division is unclear.

If I had to guess, I would surmise that the exposure of Intesa and other banks providing funding is limited: margin guarantees limit their risk to a stock price decline. Due to the indemnification, Intesa et al have a rather complex exposure to the credit of Russian banks and Glencore, where this credit exposure also depends on the price of Rosneft stock. Good luck modeling that correlation risk and (implicit) tranching!

As I noted earlier, my guess is that Qatar has a fairly standard leveraged long position in Rosneft.

The Russian banks have a long position too, through the indemnification feature, and likely through the way that is paid for (e.g., a call). If this is the case, and if the “appropriate banks” are state banks like VTB, that makes the privatization something of a sham, or at least only half of what Sechin and Putin are trumpeting, because Russian state entities would have an long equity exposure to Rosneft.

A couple of asides on how this story evolved–or should I say is evolving. First, Rosneft evidently made its initial announcement without clearing it with Glencore. I have been told that the first Glencore’s corporate affairs people heard of the news was when reporters contacted them. Glencore then made a rather bizarre statement, the first sentence of which was: “Glencore notes the announcement released by the Russian government regarding the privatization of shares in Rosneft.” (Emphasis added.) Notes the announcement. Doesn’t confirm the truth of it, just notes it. Glencore then proceeded to say that negotiations were still ongoing and that no deal was finalized, though it anticipated such a result. Methinks that Rosneft made the announcement to pressure Glencore into finalizing the transaction.

Second, just how the official announcement would read was a  matter of contention up to the last minute. Rosneft told several wire services that they would receive a briefing at 11PM Moscow time on Friday (!). But that was delayed hours, apparently because Glencore and Rosneft (and their lawyers) were fighting over how Glencore’s participation would be described. My conjecture is that Rosneft wanted it to appear that Glencore was a full equity participant, thereby putting its imprimatur on Rosneft as a great investment: this would also conceal the risk being passed onto Russian banks. Glencore, as we’ve already seen, is intent on conveying that its exposure to Rosneft is minimal. This would no doubt allay its creditors concerns–but it would also undermine Sechin’s narrative. Hence the battle. Reading the releases, it looks like Glencore won. The sense I get is that Glencore is signaling that it gained significant trading benefits (a big offtake agreement, and potential for future commercial ventures with Rosneft) without having to expose itself all that much to Rosneft’s embedded price, operational, and political risks.

Perhaps some additional details will come out. But I doubt much more will. If I’m right, Rosneft and the Russian banks have little interest in disclosing how much risk Glencore is passing along to them. Glencore will be happy as long as it is convinced its creditors and investors believe that it has little exposure to Rosneft but has gained significant commercial advantages. And QIA don’t need to tell nobody nothing.

So as it stands, things are clearer than mud, but not much. Like the Brazos River or somesuch.


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December 7, 2016

Ivan Glasenberg’s Shock and Awe: But There Has to Be More Than Meets the Eye

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 8:25 pm

Today saw a major surprise. I mean a major surprise. The Russian government announced that a consortium consisting of Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority had purchased a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft for €10.5 billion. (Glencore said the price was €10.2 billion.)

The major surprise was that outside investors were involved at all at this time. For weeks the story had been that Rosneft itself would buy back the shares from the Rosneftgaz holding company, and then sell them to a private investor at a later date. This looked like a sham privatization, which fit in with the idea that Igor Sechin was less than enamored with the idea of selling equity to outsiders.

Also a surprise was Glencore’s participation. Qatar’s name had been floated as a possible buyer, but not Glencore’s. And no wonder. The firm is just recovering from a near death experience, has been feverishly de-leveraging, and only a few days ago announced it would pay $1 billion in dividends next year. So it hardly looked like a firm that would have the cash to pay out of pocket, and was not a candidate to borrow a lot.

But it appears there is some financial engineering going on here. A Glencore-QIA joint venture will buy the Rosneft shares, and the two investors will put up a mere €300 million each in equity. The remainder will be financed (according to Putin) by one of “the largest European banks.” Furthermore, the debt is supposedly non-recourse to Glencore or QIA. This means that the loan is essentially secured by the Rosneft shares.

This would allow Glencore to keep the debt off its balance sheet, and skirt sanctions by not having an equity stake in Rosneft.

If those numbers are right, the deal will be leveraged 17.5-to-1. That reminds me of a real estate boom SPV–except that the underlying asset here is even riskier than subprime. Given the riskiness of the underlying asset (Rosneft shares) that gearing seems unsustainable to me. What bank would take that risk?: the bank owns all the downside, and the JV partners get all the upside.

You can bet that any bank wouldn’t let you buy Rosneft shares on that geared a margin loan–and a non-recourse one no less. So I am guessing that there is some other part of the deal that passes the equity price risk back to Glencore and QIA. For instance, a total return swap between the JV and its owners. Or a put (which would make it unnecessary for the JV to make payments to the investors in the event Rosneft stock rises in value, as would be the case in a TRS.) If that, or something like it, is going on here, this is a cute way to keep investment off Glencore’s balance sheet, and also may be a way to work around sanctions, because derivatives on Rosneft debt (e.g., CDS) and equity are not subject to the sanctions. I cannot believe that any bank would lend so heavily based only on the security of Rosneft stock. So there must be a part of the deal that hasn’t been disclosed yet. (This may also involve an arrangement between Qatar and Glencore that limits the latter’s exposure.) There is more here than meets the eye, at least from the initial reporting.

Speaking of sanctions, the fact that a European bank (who?–reportedly Intesa Sanpaolo) is stepping up suggests that they believe the structure is sanctions-proof. This may also be a Trump effect: banks may have less concern about aggressive sanctions interpretation and enforcement in a Trump administration.

If it is Intesa Sanpaolo–that’s also rather interesting. Italian banks aren’t exactly in great shape these days, and are particularly shaky in the aftermath of the rejection of the referendum on Sunday. It is one of Italy’s healthier banks, but like saying someone is one of the healthier patients in the oncology ward. (Its equity is about 7 percent of assets.) Normally a loan of this size would be syndicated to spread the risk. If it isn’t, the loan represents more than 20 percent of Intesa’s equity and almost a quarter of its market cap. That’s insane.

All the more reasons to think that the bank has to find a way to lay off the price risk in the deal. (All the ways I can think of would expose it to the credit risk of Glencore and QIA. The latter isn’t an issue . . . the former could be. All the more reason to consider the possibility of QIA providing some credit support in the deal even if it is formally non-recourse.)

Another interesting aspect to the deal. Trafigura has been an important bulwark for Rosneft in the last two plus years. It dramatically stepped up its pre-pay deals with Rosneft, thereby providing vital (though very short-term sanctions compliant) funding when the Russian company was cut off from the capital markets. Moreover, Trafigura’s participation was a linchpin in Rosneft’s acquisition of Indian refiner Essar. As a result of these deals, Trafigura had nudged out Glencore as Rosneft’s biggest Russian partner. Now Glencore owns a major equity stake, and as part of the deal gets a 220,000 barrel-per-day off-take agreement with Rosneft. This gives Glencore 11.5 million tons/year of oil. Trafigura has been doing about 20 million tons of crude and 20 million tons of product from Rosneft. (Glencore also has off-take volume stemming from a 2013 pre-pay deal.)

Perhaps Trafigura did not have an appetite or capacity for doing much more volume with Rosneft, but it must be disconcerting to see Glencore take such a large equity stake. That undoubtedly has implications for Rosneft’s future dealings.

This transaction says a lot about Ivan Glasenberg. Given the experience of the last two years, one could have understood if he had been risk averse. This shows that his legendary appetite for risk remains. (And the more of the equity risk that is passed back to Glencore through financial engineering, the bigger that appetite will be shown to be.) This was shock and awe.

This deal is a boon for Russia and Putin, who can really use the money, and outside money especially. I wonder if Sechin is all that pleased, though. As noted earlier, he has been dragging his feet on privatization. Earlier this year a Rosneft analysis said the company would only be able to raise $1-$2 billion: obviously this was intended to convince Putin that a privatization would be a giveaway that he should take a pass on. But I’m sticking with my earlier guess that going through with the privatization was the quid pro quo for Putin allowing Rosneft to buy Bashneft. And again, Vlad really needs the money.

One last thing to put this all in perspective. Yes, €10 billion seems like a lot, but that values Rosneft at around $55 billion. The company’s reserves are about 34.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). Its output is around 1.75 billion BOE per annum. For comparison, ExxonMobil is worth ~$350 billion. Its reserves are a third smaller than Rosneft’s: 24.8b BOE. Its output of 1.43 billion BOEPA is about 80 percent of Rosneft’s. So on a dollars per unit of reserves or output basis, XOM is about 8-9 times as valuable as Rosneft. That speaks volumes about Rosneft’s inefficiency, and the political risks that go along with the normal commercial risks inherent in an oil company. Keep that in mind when evaluating Putinism.


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December 3, 2016

The Trumpharrumphers’ Latest Freakout

Filed under: China,Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:30 pm

In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.

Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.

That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.

It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.

Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.

One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.

This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.

The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.

Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.

Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.

In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.

Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.

Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.

I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.

A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.

PS. This is fitting in many ways:

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December 2, 2016

Lucy Putin?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:53 pm

I was somewhat surprised that OPEC came to an agreement. I will be more surprised if they live up to it: that would be not just going against history, but against basic economics. The incentives to cheat are omnipresent (as the Saudi’s ex-Minister of Petroleum of Petroleum Naimi acknowledged in the aftermath of the announcement). Further, what is the enforcement mechanism? Retaliatory output increases/price cuts (i.e., price wars)? Moreover, given that many OPEC nations are facing acute budgetary strains, the present looms and the future looks very, very far away: consequently, getting some additional revenue today at the risk of losing some revenue a year or two from now when a price war breaks out looks pretty attractive.

The breathless TigerBeat-style reporting of the meeting states that Russia’s last-minute intervention rescued the deal. A few things to keep in mind. Russian oil output has surged in the last few months, meaning that its promise to cut 300,000 bbl/day basically puts its output back to where it was in March. This is in fact pretty much true of the OPEC members too: the deal very much as the feel of simply taking two steps back to reverse the two steps forward that major producers took in the past 9 months (and the two steps forward were no doubt driven in large part to improve bargaining positions in anticipation of the November OPEC meeting).

Moreover, the timing of the Russian commitment is rather hazy. Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia would cut “gradually.” That can mean almost anything, meaning that the Russians can say “the cuts are coming! Trust us! We said it would be ‘gradual!'” and that there will be no hard evidence to contradict them.

The most amusing part of this to me is that many are interpreting Putin’s personal involvement as proof that the Russians will indeed cut. “If Putin tells Russian oil companies to cut, they’ll ask ‘how deeply’?”


Call me cynical (yeah, I know), but I find this scenario far more plausible: Putin sweet-talked the Saudis and Iranians to overcome their differences to cut output in order to raise prices, all the while planning to sell as much as possible at the (now 10 percent) higher prices. Breezy promises cost nothing, and even if eventually OPEC members wise up to being duped, in the meantime Russia will be able to sell to capacity at these higher prices. Yes, the OPEC members will be less likely to believe him next time, but Putin’s time horizon is also very short, for a variety of reasons. He’s not getting any younger. And more immediately, the Russian recession is dragging into its third year, and budgetary pressures are mounting (especially since he is committed to maintaining a high level of military spending). The Russian Wealth Fund (one of its two sovereign wealth funds) has been declining inexorably: the rainy day fund is almost empty, and the skies still haven’t cleared. And the presidential election looms in 2018. For Putin, the future is now. The future consequences of making and breaking a promise are not of great importance in such circumstances. But more money in the door today is very, very important.

Russia isn’t like other OPEC producers, which have national oil companies that respond to government orders. Although government-controlled Rosneft is the biggest producer in Russia, there are others, and even Rosneft and Gazpromneft have more autonomy than, say, Saudi Aramco. Yes, Putin could, er, persuade them, but a far more effective (and credible) tool would be to adjust taxes (especially export taxes on both crude and fuels) to give Russia’s producers an incentive to cut output (and especially exports, which is what OPEC members really care about). A tax boost would be a very public signal–and reversing it would be too, making it harder to cheat/renege. (Harder, but not impossible. The government could give stealth tax cuts or rebates. This is Russia, after all.) But I have not seen the possibility of a tax rise even be discussed. That makes me all the more skeptical of Putin’s sincerity.

So my belief is that Putin is stepping into the role that Sechin played in 2009, that is, he is being Lucy beckoning Charlie Brown/OPEC with the football. And Charlie Brown is attempting a mighty boot. We know how that works out.

Even if Putin lives up to his pinky-swear to cut output, Russia has cut a much better deal than the Saudis. The promised Russian cut is about 60 percent of the Saudi cut, yet both get the same (roughly 10 percent) higher price, meaning that (roughly speaking) Russian revenues will rise 40 percent more than than Saudi revenues do–assuming that both adhere to the cuts. The disparity will be greater, to the extent that Russia cheats more than the Saudis.

Time will tell, but what I am predicting is that (a) Russia will not cut anything near 300kbbl/d, and (b) cheating by OPEC members will snowball, meaning that next November’s OPEC meeting will likely be another rancorous effort dedicated to repairing a badly tattered deal, rather than a celebration of the anniversary of a successful and enduring bargain.

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November 29, 2016

A Policy Inspired More by the Marx Brothers Than Marx

Filed under: China,Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:51 pm

As goes China, so go the commodity markets. The problem is that where China goes is largely driven by a bastardized form of central planning which in turn is driven by China’s baroque political economy. In past years, China’s rapid growth conferred on the government a reputation for wisdom and foresight that was largely undeserved, but now more people are waking up to the reality that Chinese policy engenders tremendous waste, and that the country would actually be richer–and have better prospects for the future–if its government tempered its dirigiste tendencies.

Case in point: Morgan Stanley’s Chief China Economist uses the ham-fisted intervention into the coal industry to illustrate the broader waste in the Chinese system:

These reforms entail the necessary reduction of excess capacity, particularly in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and industries where overproduction issues are often the most acute.

While economists agree that a reduction of excess capacity, particularly in heavy industry, is key to the nation’s efforts to get on a more sustainable growth trajectory, China’s supply side reforms bare little resemblance to the “trickle down” Reaganomics of the 1980s, which seized upon tax cuts and deregulation as a way to foster stronger growth.

In Morgan Stanley’s year-ahead economic outlook for the world’s second-largest economy, Chief China Economist Robin Xing uses the coal industry to detail two key ways in which supply-side reforms with Chinese characteristics have been ill-designed.

“The state-planned capacity cuts and the slow progress in market-oriented SOEs reform have come at the cost of economic efficiency,” laments the economist.

In a bid to shutter overproduction and address environmental concerns, Beijing moved to restrict the number of working days in the sector to 276 from 330 in February.

But in enacting these cuts, policymakers employed a one-size-fits-all approach.

“The production limit was implemented to all companies in the sector, which means good companies that are more profitable and less vulnerable to excess capacity are affected just as much as the bad ones with obsolete capacity and weak profitability,” writes Xing.

This is largely true, but begs the question of why China adopted this approach. The most likely explanation is that the real motive behind the cuts has little to do with “environmental concerns”, though those are a convenient excuse. Instead, forcing the most inefficient producers out of business–or allowing them to go out of business–would cause problems in the banking and (crucially) the shadow banking sectors because these firms are heavily leveraged. Allowing them to continue to produce, and propping up prices by forcing even relatively efficient firms to cut output, allows them to service their debts, thereby sparing the banks that have lent to them, and the various shadow banking products that hold their debt (often as a way of taking it off bank balance sheets).

If the goal was to reduce pollution, it would have been far more efficient to impose a tax on coal-related pollutants. But this tax would have fallen most heavily on the least efficient producers, and would caused many of them to fail and shut down. The fact that China has not pursued that policy is compelling evidence that pollution–as atrocious as it is–was not the primary driver behind the policy. Instead, it was a backdoor bailout of inefficient producers, and crucially, those who have lent to them.

Morgan Stanley further notes the inefficiency of the capital markets which favor state owned enterprises:

As such, this misallocation of production serves to amplify the already prevalent misallocation of credit stemming from state-owned firms’ favorable access to capital. That arguably undermines market forces that would otherwise help facilitate China’s economic rebalancing.

But this too is driven by politics: SOEs have favorable access to capital because they have favorable access to politicians.

The price shock resulting from the output cuts hit consuming firms in China hard, which has led to a lurching effort to mitigate the policy:

This month, Beijing was forced to reverse course to allow firms to meet the pick-up in demand — another case of state dictate, rather than price signals, driving economic activities.

“In this context, we think the more state-planned production control and capacity cuts cause distortions to the market and are unlikely to be sustainable,” concludes Xing.

“Beijing was forced to reverse course” because utilities consuming thermal coal and steel producers consuming coking coal pressured the government to relent.

The end result is a policy process that owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Marx. A cockamamie scheme to address one pressing problem causes problems elsewhere.

Methinks that Mr. Xing is rather too sanguine about the ability or willingness of the Chinese government to sustain such highly distorting policies. They have done so for years, and are showing no inclination to change their ways. Efficiency is sacrificed to achieve distributive and political objectives, and the bigger and more complex the Chinese economy the more difficult it is for the authorities to predict and control the effects of their policy objectives. But this just induces the government to resort to more authoritarian means, and attempt to exercise even more centralized power. This is costly, but these are costs the authorities are willing and able to bear. Inefficiency is the price of power, but it is a price that the authorities are willing to pay.

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