Streetwise Professor

May 29, 2015

Big Trouble in Big China?

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 2:16 pm

The Chinese stock market and the Chinese economy are perplexing. The latter seems to be slowing rather dramatically, and there is widespread belief that the growth rate is, or soon will be, far below the 7 percent level the government is touting. Nonetheless, the stock market has been skyrocketing, with some periodic selloffs as occurred yesterday.

The government is allegedly intent on transitioning from the investment- and export-driven growth model towards a more consumption-oriented one: Fixed investment as a fraction of GDP is at stratospheric levels, and consumption as a fraction of GDP is extremely low. Its ability to navigate this transition, due to the inherent difficulties of trying to manage a huge economy as well as the political economy factors that tend  to impede change, is open to serious doubt. There is always the possibility that the government will respond to any growth slowdown the way it has in the past, through massive stimulus.

Further, the strength of the Chinese banking sector is always open to question. If the government (and the central bank) are concerned about it, that would also tend to bias them towards loosening credit.

Local governments are connected to all these issues. Local governments, through so-called Local Government Funding Vehicles, fund a substantial fraction (about 20 percent) of Chinese investment. These entities have exhibited signs of financial distress, as indicted by high yields. This reflects the dodgy quality of many of the investments these vehicles funded. This is a problem for Chinese banks, which have a large exposure the LTFVs.

The Chinese government recently provided a very strong indication that it is indeed deeply concerned. It announced a set of measures that look for all the  world to be a financial shell game intended to move local government risk onto the balance sheet of the People’s Bank of China and simultaneously create credit.

As originally announced, the banks were expected to swap LGFV debt for municipal bonds carrying a lower interest rate. The banks were obviously unenthusiastic about this, and the takeup was minimal. So the PBOC made it plain that this was not voluntary: banks were expected to buy the lower interest munis. To induce them to do so, the PBOC said that it would permit the banks to post these securities as collateral at the central bank, and use the proceeds of the collateralized borrowing to extend new loans.

The exact nature of the collateralized borrowing from the PBOC is about as clear as a Beijing sunset, but it is evident that this mechanism can serve as a way of passing the muni credit risk onto the PBOC. If the munis become distressed, and the loans are de jure or de facto non-recourse, the banks default on the loans, leaving the PBOC with the bad local government debt.

It is clear that this is a bailout of the local governments. They are now borrowing at below market rates: it wouldn’t have been necessary to coerce and induce the banks to buy the local government debt if they were sold at rates reflecting the credit risk. Since the banks now appear willing to lend, they must believe that the central bank is wearing the risk, and hence paying the subsidy. In other words, the pea is under the shell labeled “PBOC.”

The command that that banks lend the proceeds from the loans from the PBOC means that the overall effect of the program will be to expand bank balance sheets and increase credit. It is both bailout and stimulus.

Putting this all together, this suggests that the Chinese authorities are deeply concerned about the financial condition of local governments and the banks, and is also deeply concerned about growth prospects. It could also indicate hesitation about transitioning away from the investment/export-driven model. All of which makes the booming Chinese stock market all the more puzzling. Unless, that is, the betting is that the government will respond to weak growth by resuming the credit stimulus and blowing asset bubbles.

None of this are signs of a healthy economy, or healthy markets. It is instead symptomatic of massive distortions and imbalances produced by years of heavy-handed policies. The imbalances must correct eventually, but the Chinese are saying not yet, lord, not yet.

But they cannot defer the reckoning forever, and the longer it is delayed, the more brutal the correction will be. But like politicians everywhere, the current Chinese government no doubt is content that the blow up occur on the next guy’s watch.


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January 6, 2015

Whither Chinese Commodity Demand? Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics — The Professor @ 8:40 pm

Commodities are down broadly: Oil gets the headlines, but most major commodities-especially industrial commodities-are down, with iron ore leading the pack. The main driver is Chinese demand: perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the main brake is slackening Chinese demand. Forecasting the course of future Chinese demand is challenging, because there is a huge political component to it.

China has long followed a commodity-intensive, investment-focused (including construction and infrastructure), credit-fueled economic model. It has long been recognized that this model is unsustainable because it is fraught with imbalances. There have been signs that China has recognized this, and in particular the new Xi government is attempting to to navigate this transition, signaling a desire to transform to a consumption-based model with growth rates in the 6-7 percent range rather than 10 percent (though analysts like Michael Pettis say that growth rates in the 3-4 percent range are more realistic.)

One sign of that is the central government’s recent attempts to rein in local governments that borrowed heavily through “local government funding vehicles” (“LGFVs”) to support local infrastructure, housing construction, and industry. Clamping down on LGFVs would be one way of steering China’s economy away from the investment-intensive model:

China’s local government bond issuers face judgment day as authorities in the world’s second-largest economy decide which debt they will or won’t support.

Borrowing costs soared by a record amount last month before today’s deadline for classifying liabilities, on speculation some local government financing vehicles will lose government support after the finance ministry starts reviewing regional authorities’ debt reports. Yield premiums on one-year AA notes, the most common ranking for such issuers, jumped a record 98 basis points in December.

Premier Li Keqiang has stepped up curbs on local borrowings just as LGFVs prepare to repay 558.7 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) of bonds this year amid economic growth that’s set for the slowest pace in more than two decades. The yield on the 2018 notes of Xinjiang Shihezi Development Zone Economic Construction Co., a financing arm in a northwestern city with 620,000 people, climbed a record 63 basis points in December.

But there are mixed signals. Today China announced a $1 trillion stimulus:

China is accelerating 300 infrastructure projects valued at 7 trillion yuan ($1.1 trillion) this year as policy makers seek to shore up growth that’s in danger of slipping below 7 percent.

Premier Li Keqiang’s government approved the projects as part of a broader 400-venture, 10 trillion yuan plan to run from late 2014 through 2016, said people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified as the decision wasn’t public.

. . . .

The projects will be funded by the central and local governments, state-owned firms, loans and the private sector, said the people. The investment will be in seven industries including oil and gas pipelines, health, clean energy, transportation and mining, according to the people. They said the NDRC is also studying projects in other industries in case the government needs to provide more support for growth.

The NDRC’s spokesman, Li Pumin, said last month China would encourage investment in those areas.

So which is it? A transition to a less-investment intensive model, implemented in large part by reducing the use of credit by local governments? Or continuing the old model, to the tune of $1 trillion over the next couple of years?

Commodity traders want to know. But given the opacity of the Chinese decision making process, it’s impossible to know. The signals are very, very mixed. No doubt there is a raging debate going on within the leadership now, and between the center and the periphery, and decisions are zigging and zagging along with that debate.

I see three alternatives, two of which are commodity bearish. First, there is a transition to a more consumption-based model: this would lead to a decline in commodity demand. Second, there is a crash or hard landing as the credit boom implodes due to the underperformance of past investments: definitely bearish for commodities. Third, the Chinese keep pumping the credit, thereby keeping commodity demand alive. The third alternative only delays the inevitable choice between Options One and Two.

In brief, for the foreseeable future, the most important factor in commodity markets will be what goes on in Chinese policymaking circles. And insofar as that goes, your guess is as good as mine.

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June 26, 2014

There’s Gold in Them Thar Vaults, Boys! Um, Maybe Not

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:48 pm

If the vaults are in China, that is. Over the weekend I posted on the fraudulent commodity-based lending (collateralized by aluminum) in Qingdao. Now a Chinese government auditor claims that the gold used as collateral in $15 billion of loans does not exist.

To put this into context, Goldman (ha!) estimates that there are about $80 billion in loans in China collateralized by gold. Thus, the auditor’s report means that at least 20 percent of those loans are fraudulent. Given that it is likely easier to verify the existence of gold pledged as collateral than is the case for copper or soybeans, this suggests that even higher percentages of these other commodity-based loans (totaling another $80 billion) are backed by warehouse receipts that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.

This situation creates the conditions for a horrific information contagion, which is the worst sort of systemic risk. Many analyses of systemic risk focus on counterparty credit risk, where the failure of one institution topples a set of interconnected dominoes. But historically, the domino problem has been less of a source of financial crises than information contagion. For instance, information contagion was arguably a far more important cause of the 2008 crisis than counterparty contagion.

Information contagion is a panic that results when the quality of assets in one part of the financial system leads people to question the value of other assets, usually similar but not always. For instance, in 2008,  the problems at Bear and Lehman were the result of bad mortgage investments by these firms. This raised questions about the solvency of other financial institutions that held, or were believed to hold, similar assets. Suddenly all banks became suspect, and had problems funding their assets. They started dumping assets to raise cash, which cratered prices and thereby created problems in institutions that had to mark their assets to a (now depressed) market. Banks that had extended liquidity support to SIVs had to bring them back on their balance sheets, threatening to make them undercapitalized.

Information contagion is most likely to occur, and is most severe when it does, when (a) asset values and balance sheets are opaque, and (b) financial institutions engage in a lot of maturity transformation (i.e., borrowing short to lend long). When asset values and balance sheets are opaque, market participants are more likely to draw inferences from revelations about the values of other firms/assets, because they can’t evaluate the firms/assets directly. In these circumstances, bad news about one firm or one type of asset can lead to a massive loss in confidence in other firms and assets. When these assets are funded with short term borrowings, firms can’t roll over their loans under these conditions, and are more likely to go bankrupt. Moreover, they are more likely to dump assets in fire sales that impose externalities on other firms holding similar assets.

China’s financial system is nothing if opaque. This is particularly true of the shadow banking system, but the banking system is also incredibly murky. For instance, the actual quality of loans on bank books is very difficult to assess. A lot of loans reported as performing are actually quite dodgy.

Information contagion is especially likely because the nature of the revelations about commodity loans raises serious questions about the monitoring of loans and the evaluation of the creditworthiness of borrowers and the quality (and existence!) of their collateral by financial institutions. If banks do a bad job at evaluating commodity loans and borrowers, and commodity collateral, it is reasonable to infer that they do a bad job at monitoring other loans and evaluating other borrowers. It is these sorts of inferences that lead to information contagion.

Moreover, maturity transformation is ubiquitous in China. This is especially true in the shadow banking system.

What this means is that although a few tens of billions of loans backed by non-existent collateral may not seem like a big deal in a financial system with about $17 trillion in credit outstanding (about 35 percent of which is in the shadow sector), the ramifications are far more serious than the value of these commodity loans suggest. There is a serious risk that doubts about the quality of the commodity loans will lead to growing doubts about the quality of other assets, especially in the shadow banking sector.  This creates the potential for panics and runs in that sector, and given the connections between shadow financial institutions and mainstream banks (connections which are themselves opaque) this could spillover into the conventional sector.

In other words, the potential for information contagion in a highly leveraged (with credit at about 250 percent of GDP), highly maturity transformed, and exceedingly opaque financial system is what makes the fraudulent commodity loans a big deal. Potentially a very big deal.

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June 21, 2014

Channeling Tino de Angelis in Qingdao

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:22 pm

Back in the early-60s, a guy named Tino de Angelis*, owner of the Allied Crude Vegetable Oil Refining Corporation, carried out a huge scam based on commodity finance. He bought soybean oil, against with American Express issued warehouse receipts. De Angelis took the warehouse receipts to banks, who took them as collateral against loans issued to Allied. And not just banks. Companies like Bunge and Proctor and Gamble also lent against the warehouse receipts.

So far, this is routine: commodity traders and processors routinely use their inventories as collateral against loans they use to finance them. The scam came in the fact that Allied obtained loans on non-existent bean oil. De Angelis had a variety of schemes to fool Amex into believing he owned more bean oil than he really did. Some of the tanks at Allied’s facilities did have oil in them, and those would be shown to Amex inspectors. The inspectors would then be led through the firm’s labyrinthine facility, allegedly to another tank to inspect. Except they’d been led back to the tank they had already inspected, but the number on the tank had been changed. Another con was to fill the tanks with water, with some oil sitting on top of the water. Allied also linked the tanks with pipes, and would shuttle the oil between tanks to keep ahead of the inspectors.

Through these means, de Angelis amassed warehouse receipts for quantities of oil that exceeded the entire amount in the US, and borrowed about $200 million against the phantom inventories (well over $1 billion in current dollars). Eventually, inspectors figured out the scheme, and the fraud was uncovered. The revelation caused Amex’s stock price to plummet (Warren Buffet scooped up some and made good money off the deal). Moreover, soybean oil futures also crashed.

De Angelis went to jail. Went released, he tried to run a Ponzi scheme.

This all happened more than 50 years ago: the scam was revealed a few days before JFK was assassinated. But a replay appears to be occurring in China, in the port of Qingdao specifically (though there are concerns that other ports may have similar problems). One trading firm has found to have borrowed large sums collateralized by non-existent aluminum allegedly stored in the port.

This is a major concern because commodity-based lending is a big deal in China, and if the practice is indeed widespread it could result in large losses. Commodity-based lending has been used in carry trades involving using letters of credit to borrow dollars buy commodities (initially mainly copper, but now other metals, iron ore, and ag products) that are imported into China and put in warehouses. The warehouse receipts are then used to collateralize loans in China, the proceeds of which are invested in high yielding, speculative endeavors.

This entire structure was already very fragile (because carry trades are inherently fragile), but if it turns out that even of a modest proportion of the collateral doesn’t exist it could collapse altogether. This could impose substantial losses on many banks. CITIC and Standard Charter are facing losses on the loans to the Qingdao trader. If there are many others, many more banks (and perhaps some western trading firms) could be hit hard.

One note of caution: some (notably Zero Hedge) are saying that collateral has been “rehypothecated.” This is not correct. Rehypothecation involves the lender pledging the collateral received from the original buyer as collateral to a loan. This process may occur several times. This results in the issuance of gross debt that is a multiple of the value of the collateral (the multiple could be as large as the inverse of the “haircut” on the collateral). But the net debt is approximately equal to the value of the collateral, and fraudulent receipts are not created. These collateral chains are potentially fragile, but the fragility does not result from the creation of fraudulent receipts.

In contrast, as described, the Qingdao scheme is like de Angelis’s, in that receipts are issued on non-existent goods. In this scheme, fraudulent receipts are created, and the net debt exceeds the value of the actual collateral. Of course, if the fraudulent receipts are rehypothecated, things will get uglier still.

Dealing with this mess would be hard enough in a jurisdiction with a solid and transparent legal system, reliable judges, and the rule of law. One can just imagine how this will play out in China, which has none of the above.

Then there are potentially broader implications. The commodity loans are one part of China’s vast shadow banking system. Concerns about the fragility of this system abound. If (a) the commodity loan problems are more pervasive, and (b) these problems are symptomatic of shoddy and fraudulent practices in the shadow banking system more generally, there is an appreciable risk of a financial crisis in China.

* Interestingly, de Angelis made money primarily on government programs, namely the National School Lunch Act and Food for Peace.

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June 6, 2014

Putinomics: The Gazprom-China Deal

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:16 am

Before the financial crisis, Gazprom CEO Alexi Miller boasted that his firm would be the first $1t market cap firm. Six years on, he’s only off by an order of magnitude: the company’s market cap is around $100 billion. Moreover, it sells for a comical 3x earnings (a little less, actually). The company’s capex is notoriously inefficient, and it is frequently cash flow negative. Other than that, it’s a financial marvel.

But that big China deal must surely have provided a boost for the company, right?

Apparently not. The other day Putin mooted the possibility that the company would have to be recapitalized by the state, i.e., receive an additional injection of capital from one of the state investment funds.

If the China deal were indeed favorable to Gazprom, it would have no problem financing the necessary investment in pipelines and greenfield production through the banks and/or the capital markets, rather than through the state. Putin’s suggestion of state funding strongly suggests that the economics and the risks of the deal are not favorable, and the necessary investments could not be funded externally: direct state funding would also suggest that Russian state banks are either unwilling or unable to fund it (or both), which speaks ill for the economics of the deal, and perhaps the financial strength of the banks. A further implication of this is that politics rather than economics was the main driver of the deal (if it exists, in fact), and that as a project intended to achieve state objectives, the state must fund it.

Reinforcing this perceived need for state rather than external funding  is the fact that obtaining outside funding would require Gazprom to divulge many more details of the deal than it has so far. This would be highly embarrassing to Putin and the government and Gazprom if these details show that Russia got the short end of the stick. So keeping the details out of public view by avoiding outside funding also suggests that there is something to hide, namely, that the Chinese exploited Putin’s needs.

If the government indeed recapitalizes Gazprom, it will be just the latest of a long line of economic policy failures. Another example of where politics or corruption/rent seeking has prevented Russia from putting its natural resource firms on a commercially sensible footing, and another example of where state funds that were generated by resource rents in the first place were ploughed back into inefficient state-controlled resource producers, rather than to help diversify the Russian economy.

This, my friends, is Putinomics. This is why Russia will remain on the hamster wheel from hell.

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June 5, 2014

You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do, Barry

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 10:50 am

Looking back at Obama’s West Point speech helps one comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible Bergdahl-Taliban imbroglio. You can see his mind, such as it is, at work. He is too clever by half, too convinced of his own brilliance and righteousness, and possessed of some acute blind spots, particularly regarding the military, and especially those serving in the ranks whom he does not have any experience with whatsoever.

In the speech, Obama effectively declared victory in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda “leadership” had been decimated. The Afghan security forces were able to step up. The Taliban were not even mentioned.

So time to declare victory and end the war and go home. And one of the signifiers of the end of a war is the exchange of POWs. Hence, the negotiation of a trade of Bergdahl for five Taliban hardliners. (“Dead-enders”, as Rumsfeld would have called them.) Moreover, once five really bad actors are released from Gitmo, what is the basis for keeping the rest? Thus, the next stage would have been additional releases.

But then things spun out of Obama’s control, and the contradictions in the policy, its ham-fisted implementation, and inane justifications exploded into view-and in Obama’s face.

First there was the strong skepticism about the prudence-or sanity-of releasing Taliban hardliners. Then there was Bergdahl himself, and Bergdahl’s father. Because of Obama’s blindspot about the military-one shared by most of his administration-he did not expect the furious reaction from the ranks, especially from those who had served with Bergdahl or served in the same area at the same time and therefore bore the brunt of the fallout from his apparent desertion. No doubt the perfumed Pentagon princes assured Obama that everyone would be pleased to have a comrade come home. But this was to misjudge the widespread belief in the ranks that Bergdahl had broken the code with his comrades, and that soldiers died as a result.

This was compounded by Obama’s very public-and literal-embrace of Bergdahl’s father, an avowed Taliban supporter who has called on God to avenge the deaths of Afghan children. Deaths he clearly blames on the US, not on the Taliban. Meaning that avenging the deaths of Afghan children would involve the deaths of US servicemen and women.

Blindsided by the furious onslaught, the administration responded in typical fashion. It trotted out Susan “Say Anything” Rice to claim that Bergdahl had been “captured on the field of battle” (almost certainly false) and had served with “honor” (again, almost certainly false). When this just re-vectored the blowback onto Rice’s sorry backside, Jay Carney interrupted his way out the door to support her, claiming that Bergdahl did serve with distinction because he had volunteered and put on the uniform.

Um, Jay, that may be a necessary condition for honorable service, but it isn’t a sufficient one. Indeed, if just putting on the uniform is all that matters, why are there distinctions made when one takes it off? Most are discharged honorably, but some depart the service with dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. Implying that one’s conduct while in uniform matters. Some people dishonor the uniform through their conduct while in service. The issue here is whether Bergdahl did that.

But perhaps Jay Carney isn’t aware of the concept of dishonorable discharges. Though he should be. John Kerry’s discharge status was an issue in 2004.

Which brings us to the next administration response: slime the soldiers who have accused Bergdahl of desertion in the face of the enemy. Yesterday it was reported that people in the administration were accusing these veterans of “Swift Boating” Bergdahl. A lot of fire is being delivered in the direction of these guys. You see, Bergdahl is honorable. They stayed and fought, but they are psychos (as one Obama administration staffer put it). How lovely.

But we’re not done yet. There is also the issue of the process and the timeline of the deal with the Taliban. The administration claimed that it had to act in haste, without giving Congress the legally-mandated 30 days notice of the release of Gitmo detainees, because of its grave concern about Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition. But these concerns were allegedly based on a video taken in December and received, via the Qataris, in January. The five month lag belies any serious alarm about the imminence of Bergdahl’s medical peril.

Belatedly the administration allowed several Senators to view the tape, to mixed reviews. Some, like the awful Dick (and I do mean Dick) Durbin toed the administration line. Others were less impressed. And not all of the unimpressed were Republicans. Manchin and Feinstein did not see evidence of imminent danger.

The health justification is especially dubious given the fact that this deal has been in the works for years. Years. At least since 2011. Moreover, there are indications that the motivation for the deal had a large political component:

President Obama [has] announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”

I would bet you dimes to donuts that the “senior administration official” is Susan Rice, especially in light of her history of viewing geopolitical issues through a domestic political filter:

At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. “We could believe that people would wonder that,” he says, “but not that they would actually voice it.” Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

Previous attempts to do the deal had been derailed by serious people, like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and yes, Hillary. People who take national security seriously. Obama has succeeded in getting rid of serious people, replacing Panetta with the pathetic Chuck Hagel, for example. What’s more, he deliberately set up the process to review the deal to exclude any possibility of a veto this time. The military was expected to “suck it up and salute.” Which the perfumed princes apparently did, whereas the rank and file did not.

In sum, Obama had been trying to close the deal that was done last week for years, as part of a broader diplomatic and political agenda. He had been stymied by fierce opposition within his own administration. He short circuited that opposition through key appointments (Hagel, Rice) and the creation of an ad hoc process that gave no opportunity for serious opposition to assert itself. Thus, the “health concerns” justification is completely at odds with the history of this situation: it is an ex post defense of a policy that Obama can’t defend on its merits.

Obama is clearly desperate-desperate-for a deal. No doubt as a part of his ongoing Legacy Project. How desperate? This desperate:

Clinching it was a phone call Obama made two days later, on May 27, with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said Qatari officials had agreed to measures to prevent at least an immediate return to the battlefield of the five Taliban prisoners, the officials said.

“Prevent at least an immediate return.” These guys have to go on time out for a while, to have a somewhat decent interval before returning to the fight. And even then, Obama admits that it’s “absolutely” possible these guys will kill again.

We’ve seen this movie before. You give Obama a fig leaf, and he will grab it and give you everything you want. (The Syrian chemical weapons deal is the classic example of that.)

For their part, once the deal was done, the Taliban punked Obama by releasing a video of the handover, along with much more extensive coverage of the joyous reception given the five released terrorists in Qatar.

And speaking of Qatar, which obviously played a huge role in all this, that could be the worst part of this sorry episode. Again in his desperation to deal, Obama has gone all in with the Qataris, who are truly malign actors whose interests are definitely not aligned with the US. Qatar has deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and was pushing its efforts in Egypt. Qatar is engaged in a struggle with Saudi Arabia to exert influence, and even achieve dominance, throughout the Middle East. Farming out key roles to these people is a dangerous game. (Interestingly, Obama met with the former emir of Qatar at West Point.)

So Obama has some serious explaining to do to justify this fiasco. So far his explanations have done worse than fallen flat: they’ve unleashed a firestorm of criticism. So you know what will happen: dismissing this as a manufactured DC controversy (which has already happened), attacks on the messenger (already well underway), and spin, spin, spin. Indeed, many of the media dervishes are whirling away as we sit here.

But not to worry. It’s not like anybody is noticing that Obama is feckless and incompetent, and taking advantage of that. Well, other than Putin, of course. And the Iranians. And the Chinese:

On the surface, this may look reckless. But one theory gaining traction among senior officials and policy analysts around Asia and in Washington is that the timing is well calculated. It reflects Mr. Xi’s belief that he is dealing with a weak U.S. president who won’t push back, despite his strong rhetorical support for Asian allies.

Mr. Xi’s perception, say these analysts, has been heightened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failures to intervene militarily in Syria and Ukraine. And it’s led him to conclude that he has a window of opportunity to aggressively assert China’s territorial claims around the region.

I’ve often said that I hope Bismarck (“There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the USA”) and Adam Smith (“there is a lot of ruin in a nation”) are right. Obama is putting both aphorisms to the test.

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May 29, 2014

Obama Gives a Speech, Meaning That No Straw Man is Safe

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:07 am

Reading about Obama’s commencement speech at West Point took me back years, to 1978 when Jimmy Carter spoke at the USNA graduation.

Not that I remember anything that Carter droned on about. Not a word. And that’s part of the reason Obama’s speech brought me back to Annapolis, 36 years ago: I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case of those in attendance at USMA yesterday.

Some things have stuck in my mind. Like my classmates getting booted from their room at 0600 by a man wearing sunglasses and carrying a long black case who proceeded to lock himself in: their room overlooked the field where Marine 1 was going to land. I remember the march over to Memorial Stadium. I remember my classmates and I heckling Sam Donaldson before he did a standup in advance of Carter’s speech.

But as for what Carter said, in one ear and out the other, if it made it in the one ear at all. And the assembled WooPoos (sorry-as an ex-Squid I couldn’t resist) will probably have similar non-memories of Obama’s banal, vacuous, and totally predictable foreign policy speech.

I knew what he was going to say and how he was going to say it before he said it because the man is utterly incapable of originality, and stubbornly clings to both his rigid and narrow perspective on policy (a view apparently invulnerable to the reality of repeated failures) and his mental and rhetorical tics. I knew that he would justify his own positions by reference to those of his opponents, and do so by outrageously mischaracterizing them. For the most notable of his tics are the false choice and the mass murder of straw men. And I was not disappointed. In these expectations, anyways.

Obama portrayed himself as the realist and the peacemaker, and his opponents as troglodyte warmongers who advocate a military solution to every foreign policy challenge. He said that because the US has the world’s premier military hammer, his political foes see every problem as a nail to be driven by it. Yes. He said every.

He was at his most outrageous in his discussion of Syria, where he peevishly and pridefully congratulated himself for his calm wisdom in not committing US ground troops to the country. Which absolutely no one was calling for in the first place, or ever. Well, maybe the chief oped writer and head of classified advertising for the Back of Buggery Bugle was shouting Geronimo and calling for the deployment of the 82d Airborne, but no major politician or policy figure, or A, B, C, or even D-list conservative opinion leader was advocating any such thing.

In point of fact, in Syria Republicans and even people in his own administration presented a variety of different policy alternatives, including arming the rebels to airstrikes. None advocated insertion of ground forces, and indeed almost all who even mentioned it did so only to disclaim that intent. Pretty much the entire security establishment in his own administration pressed for arming the rebels, but Obama demurred. Obama and Kerry themselves threatened air strikes before backing down.

And here we are, years after the war began, and the carnage and misery drags on day after day. But Obama is giving himself bursitis patting himself on the back for a job well done in fending off those baying for battle in Damascus.

200,000 dead Syrians could not be reached for comment.

Insofar as Ukraine is concerned, Obama said it brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into eastern Europe after WWII. I said to myself: yeah, we didn’t do anything about it then, and we sure ain’t going to do anything about it now. Obama has gone full auto-Yalta.

And again, no one except the chemtrail set and Russian propaganda shills (there is a large overlap between the two) even suggest the possibility of US military action. Many advocate far more robust financial measures against Russia, but (a) Obama has shied away from those despite Russia’s attempt to disrupt the election (which Obama said was a trigger for more sanctions, but what’s another red line anyways?), and (b) Obama pretends as if his critics never mention measures short of war to confront Putin.

There was stiff competition, but these were the dumbest bits:

“We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place,” Obama said. “It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it. – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership; that’s retreat.”

Translation: How can I ram idiotic policies down your throats if some uppity people insist on pointing out that they’re idiotic? The LOST part is particularly outrageous. What China is doing violates maritime rights and laws and obligations that far pre-date LOST. Moreover, even putting the legalisms aside, China is engaged in aggressive acts that greatly raise the risk of serious confrontation or even conflict.

Obama did throw in a few stock lines. If the US doesn’t lead, who will. I believe in American exceptionalism to the last fiber of my being. Cheerleader media outlets, notably Bloomberg, dutifully led with this boob bait in their headlines. But every substantive part of the speech contradicted those assertions.


This was billed as a major foreign policy speech and a ringing defense of his policies. The scary thing is that Obama and his minions probably believe that. But given the tiresome predictability of the speech, you have to wonder what they are thinking. Any slightly self-aware speechwriters, not to mention a slightly self-aware president reading what’s going on the teleprompter, should have realized that critics would be ready to pounce on the resort to Obama’s standard rhetorical tricks, and that this would greatly diminish the impact of the speech. And diminish it has. The impact is pretty much zero, from what I can tell from reading a rather wide range of sources.

Reading through the transcript, it struck me that Talleyrand’s characterization of the Bourbons fits Obama well too. He has learned nothing, and he has forgotten nothing. In his mind, despite the wreckage of policies in the Middle East, Asia, and Russia/FSU strewn all around him, it’s still Berlin 2008 or Cairo 2009. He rationalizes the criticism by mischaracterizing the critics and their arguments, in a profoundly unfair way.

With a never forgetting, never learning Bourbon in charge, we are condemned to 2.5 more years of foreign policy fiascos. Get used to it, if you haven’t already.


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May 21, 2014

Still as Clear as Mud

Filed under: China,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:21 pm

We all know the real reason Putin did a last hour gas deal with China: he wanted to make me look bad.

For yes, mere hours after I declared my perspicacity in doubting that the widely expected deal would get done, the Russians and Chinese announced that they had reached an agreement. So my powers of prognostication were short-lived. Don’t gloat too much, Vova.

That said, I believe that there is less here than meets the eye. Or at least, there are many outstanding questions.

Although the deal supposedly agrees on pricing, the pricing structure is very opaque. Gazprom’s Miller said the pricing was set, but a “commercial secret.” In other words, he would tell us, but he’d have to kill us.

People are widely quoting a number for the price, based on Gazprom leaks and back of the envelope calculations based on announcements of the notional value of the deal ($400 billion over 30 years) and the quantity (38bcm/year). But as I noted in the post a couple of days ago, there is no way that the parties would set a fixed price for the 30 year term. Instead, they would agree to some indexing formula. Gazprom said that a “base price” had been established, and Putin said that the contract utilizes oil indexing. (In my original post I said this was an important thing to look for. On its own, this is a win for Gazprom, which has been a diehard advocate of oil indexing. But given the lack of any gas hubs in Asia, it’s hard to see what other alternative there is. Perhaps indexing off a European hub, but this would present real problems for Gazprom.)

But all that said, the devil is in the details. Since the price is indexed, any statements about a flat price (e.g., $350/mcm) are based on a huge number of assumptions on the indexing formula. Since nobody knows what that formula is, they have no clue on what the real price is. (And since the oil forward curve doesn’t really go out much beyond 10 years, there would still be incredible uncertainty about the revenues that Russia will realize or could lock in by hedging even if the formula was known: given that the gas will not flow for another 6-7 years, the forward prices that would be input into the formula for the last 20+ years of the 30 year term of the deal can’t be known with any precision.)

And the devil is indeed in the details of these assumptions. There are infinitely many ways to create an oil-indexed formula, and the economic outcomes vary crucially with the exact parameters that are chosen as inputs to the indexing formula. (Indeed, the weights can be made to vary over time.)

Moreover, there are some clues that things aren’t quite as final as the public crowing suggests. Putin says that the Chinese have agreed to front $20 billion towards the construction of new infrastructure, with Russia ponying up $50+ billion. But Gazprom’s Miller says that the “two sides were still in talks over any advance.”

Well wait one cotton picking minute. Upfront payments have to be offset by favorable prices over the life of the deal, to compensate the Chinese for the principal amount of the advance and the interest on it. If the upfront payments haven’t been set there is no bleeping way that all of the pricing terms are set. These terms are interdependent.

That little slip by Miller is, my friends, a huge red flag that this deal isn’t as done as the principals claim. Huge. If that part is still under discussion, the entire thing is still under discussion.

Here is my cynical interpretation (and when Russia is involved, and China is involved, cynicism is the order of the day-and when both are involved, oi!). The failure to reach a deal was so embarrassing to Putin that he was desperate to leave Shanghai with his signature on something. So the parties basically memorialized what they had already agreed to, but there are crucial gaps to be filled, and the negotiations to fill these gaps continue. The basic contours of the deal (e.g., some sort of oil link) are known, but the exact parameters, and the upfront payment, are still TBD. The Chinese accommodated, because letting Putin save face cost them nothing, and could benefit them later.

Gazprom stock popped a couple of percent on the announcement, but given the continued ambiguity, and the past fading of these deals after the initial fanfare, I consider that market reaction to be optimistic. I won’t be convinced that this is real until I see pipe being laid. Talk is cheap, and all we have now is still just talk.

So as far as I am concerned, there are still substantial doubts over the solidity of this deal. The admitted lack of agreement over the upfront payment is telling. Until the parties agree on that, they haven’t really agreed on anything.

In other words, things are still as clear as mud.


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May 20, 2014

Don’t Be a Sucker: Sell, Don’t Buy, Russian/Gazprom Hype

Filed under: China,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 7:16 pm

I told you to ignore the hype (all of which originated from the Russian side) about an impending Russia-China gas deal. Despite being 98 percent done! Down to one digit! Putin left China with no deal to sell gas to China.

Again: don’t believe it until you see it.

There was the same old-same old blah, blah, blah to rationalize the failure:

According to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, after meeting Mr. Xi in Shanghai, Mr. Putin said, “I’m glad to be informed that the two sides have made significant progress in the price negotiation of the east route of the natural gas project.”

A joint statement said that Russian natural gas supplies would start flowing “as soon as possible,” a phrase used after many previous negotiations between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation, and an indication that the two sides could not close the gap on price in time for the two leaders to announce the deal at their meeting.

The linked NYT article quotes several people who are surprised at the outcome. I really need their contact information. I have some bridges to sell. These people are apparently afflicted with this time it’s different syndrome. But it never is.Yes, there are some differences now, but it’s really not that different.

The most telling thing (which I alluded to in yesterday’s post) is that all of the hype emanated from the Russian side. The Chinese were noticeably silent. Since it takes two to make a contract, this asymmetry was a major tip-off.

One wonders what the Russians hoped to gain by exaggerating the imminence and certainty of a deal.

Did they think that they would embarrass the Chinese into giving in? Why would they think that? That the Chinese would lose face if their guests left empty handed? As if the Chinese care. This is a commercial transaction, and the Chinese realize the Russians need the deal more than they do.  If anything, by trading them like obsequious hosts cringingly sensitive to world opinion, such a strategy would be more likely to tick off the Chinese and make them less likely to deal. If anything, the Chinese want to cultivate a reputation for being hard bargainers and actually expect to benefit from walking away.

Didn’t the Russians think that another failure would make them less likely to believed next time? Apparently not. But as the whole Ukraine episode demonstrates, they say outlandish things that are sure to be disproved with no apparent shame.

Actually, the most plausible explanation is that the Russians were pumping and dumping Gazprom stock. The price moved up as the market became convinced that a deal was impending, and then fell about 3 percent when the sure thing turned out to be not so sure . If Gazprom management and regime figures sold into the rally, they could have covered quite profitably on the selloff.

I say that only half in jest. Because otherwise I am at a loss to explain why the Russians would repeatedly over-hype the prospect for a China deal.

But I am also at a loss to understand how the stock would have rallied on the Russian pumping of the likelihood of a deal. This requires a lot of suckers to believe it.  After 10 years of this farce, you’d think people would wise up and heavily discount Russian assurances.  I guess there are a lot of suckers who want to believe. Charlie Brown lives.

Next time around don’t be a sucker. Sell rumors that Russians are peddling, and maybe-maybe-buy facts of an actual deal.

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May 19, 2014

A Snowden Revelation on NSA Spying on China in 3, 2, 1 . . .

Filed under: China,Politics,Russia,Snowden — The Professor @ 6:19 pm

The US has indicted the Chinese military for cyberespionage. (Who knew?)

Meaning that soon there will be a Snowden “revelation” about NSA spying on China. Making book on that. (Recall that when he arrived in Hong Kong, Snowden revealed NSA operations to penetrate Chinese computers. That was his negotiating ploy to get Chinese protection. The Chinese, being no dummies, said thank you very much for that, and no doubt scraped everything they could off his computers, then pawned him off on the Russians.)

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