Streetwise Professor

July 22, 2015

Glimpses of Military Discontent

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

I have long been certain that there is seething discontent within the Pentagon, directed squarely at Obama. The past several days have made this abundantly clear.

The most brutal takedown was by retiring Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno. This certified warrior squarely blames Obama’s Iraq bugout for the rise of Isis. Further, he pointed out Iran’s malign role in the Middle East. He agreed that Iran, and the truly evil Qasem Soleimani in particular (who was un-sanctioned as a result of the Iran deal), were responsible for the bulk of American deaths in Iraq in 2007-2009.

Further, two generals (including the nominee to be Odierno’s replacement) and the Secretary of the Air Force gave testimony before the Senate which squarely undercuts Obama policy. Each identified Russia as the US’s primary threat: one referred to it as an “existential” threat. As if to emphasize that this was off-message, spokesnimrod Josh Earnest said that no one on Obama’s national security staff believes this. This is no doubt true. So much the worse for them.

One of the generals (Milley, I believe) supported arming Ukraine. The testimony also indicated that deploying tactical air controllers to Iraq was advisable. Also not on the Obama agenda.

And note: these are the people that Obama has selected for the top positions in the military. Just think of what those who couldn’t make it through the political filter are saying and thinking.

I am not saying that there is a crisis in civil-military relations under Obama, but it is pretty clear that these relations are in the worst shape in modern memory. What Odierno and the others are saying is likely just a pale shadow of the extreme discontent in the military at their commander in chief.

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Vlad’s Pivot to Oblivion

Filed under: China,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:09 pm

This story is a Sino-Russian twofer:

The contract between Russia and China for gas supplied via the western route known as Power of Siberia-2 is being delayed indefinitely, Vedomosti cited Russian officials. They say China is reviewing its energy needs due to the economic slowdown.

The demand growth for gas in China is slowing, at the same time access to liquefied natural gas (LNG) is becoming more available in the country, for example from Australia, due to the fall in oil prices, Sberbank CIB analyst Valery Nesterov told Vedomosti on Wednesday.

Repeat after me: Gazprom finalizes about one out of a hundred of the vapor deals it announces. This is especially true where China is involved.

There are three basic problems. First, the pipeline is expensive, primarily because the Russians insist on building it. After all, how else could they tunnel out money? And if they can’t tunnel out money, what the hell is Gazprom good for?

“Gazprom offers CNPC a high price, explaining this by the high cost of the Power of Siberia – 2 construction. China is ready to build the pipeline at a cheaper cost and at public tender, so its companies could participate and for the construction price to be transparent,” the president of the Russia-China analytical center Sergei Sanakoyev said.

Second, the pipeline would go to the western part of China, which is convenient for Gazprom, but it isn’t where China needs the gas.

Third, China doesn’t need as much gas period, because (a) new (LNG) supply is coming on line in Australia, and (b) despite the happy talk of official statistics, every indication is that the Chinese economy is slowing:

The demand growth for gas in China is slowing, at the same time access to liquefied natural gas (LNG) is becoming more available in the country, for example from Australia, due to the fall in oil prices, Sberbank CIB analyst Valery Nesterov told Vedomosti on Wednesday.

So how’s that pivot to Asia working out, Vladimir? Timing is everything in life, and Putin is counting on China precisely when China has its own issues to deal with. If China was continuing to power forward, Putin’s pivot would have turned him into China’s pilot fish. Now even being a pilot fish looks out of reach.

To all those who hyperventilated at the announcements of huge Sino-Russian gas deals: when will you people learn to discount virtually anything Gazprom says down to just above zero? That’s especially true when there was a huge political reason for Putin to hype such a deal. I guess suckers never learn.

The second part of the twofer here is the further evidence it provides of China’s economic troubles. Look at the commodity carnage going around: oil, copper, iron ore, gold, platinum, you name it are in the dumper. China put them there. This is just another pixel in the image.

 

 

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July 21, 2015

The Fifth Year of the Frankendodd Life Sentence

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:52 pm

Today is Frankendodd’s fifth birthday. Hardly time for celebration. It is probably more appropriate to say that this is the fifth year in the Frankendodd life sentence.

So where do we stand?

The clearing mandate is in force, and a large fraction of derivatives, especially interest rate and credit index derivatives are cleared. This was intended to reduce systemic risk, and as I’ve written since before the law was passed and signed, this was a chimerical goal. Indeed, in my view the systemic risk effects of the mandate are at best a push (merely shifting around the source of systemic risk), and at worse the net effects of the mandate are negative.

Belatedly regulators are coming around to the recognition of the risks posed by CCPs. They understand that CCPs have concentrated risk, and hence the failure of one of these entities would be catastrophic. So there is a frenzy of activity to try to make CCPs less likely to fail, and to ensure their rapid recovery in the event of problems. Janet Yellen has spoken on the subject, as has the head of the Office of Financial Research, Robert Dudley of the NY Fed, and numerous European regulators. Efforts are underway in the US, Europe, and Asia to increase CCP resources, and craft recovery and resolution procedures.

This is an improvement, I guess, over the KoolAid quaffing enthusiasm for the curative effects of CCPs that virtually all regulators indulged in post-crisis. But it distinctly reminds me of people madly sewing parachutes after the rather dodgy plane has taken off.

Further, these efforts miss a very major point. The main source of systemic risk from the clearing mandate derives from the huge liquidity strains that clearing (notably variation margin on a rigid time schedule) will create when the market is stressed. There has been some attention to ensuring CCPs have access to liquidity in the event of a default, but that’s not the real issue either. The real issue is funding large margin calls during a crisis.

Moreover, as I’ve also discussed, efforts to make CCPs more resilient can increase pressures elsewhere in the financial system (the “levee effect.”) Relatedly, regulators have not fully come to grips with the redistributive aspects of clearing–including in particular how netting, which they adore, can just relocate systemic risks.

I therefore stand by my prediction that a regulation-inflated clearing system will the source of the next systemic crisis.

Moving on, I called the SEF mandate the worst of Dodd-Frank. In the US, the majority of swap trades are done on SEFs, though mainly through RFQs rather than the central limit order books that Barney and Co. dreamed about in 2010.

There was never a remotely plausible systemic risk reducing rationale for the SEF mandate. Hence, if SEFs are inefficient ways to execute transactions, the mandate is all pain, no gain. As an indication of that this is indeed the case, note that virtually all European banks and end users stopped trading Euro-denominated swaps with US counterparties exactly when the mandate kicked in. The swaps mandate was too onerous, and anyone who could escape it did.

In a piece in Risk, I referred to the Made Available to Trade part of the SEF mandate the worst of the worst of Dodd-Frank. It made no sense to force all market participants to trade a particular kind of swap on SEFs just because one SEF decided to list it. Apparently that realization is slowly sinking in. The CFTC recently held a meeting on the MAT issue, and it seems as if there is a good chance that the CFTC will eventually determine what has to be traded on SEFs.

It is an indication of my loathing for MAT as it currently exists that I consider that an improvement.

Still moving on, Frankendodd was intended to reduce concentration and interconnectedness in the financial system. The actual result cannot really be called a mere unintended consequence: it was the exact opposite of the intended effect. Completely predictably (and predicted) the huge regulatory overhead increased concentration rather than reduced it. This is particularly true with respect to clearing. Gary Gensler’s dream of letting a thousand clearing firms bloom has turned into a nightmare, in which the clearing business is concentrated in a handful of big financial institutions, exacerbating too big to fail problems. And clearing has turned out to be the Mother of All Interconnections, because every big financial institution is connected to all big CCPs, and because pretty much everyone has to funnel the bulk of their derivatives trades through clearinghouses.

I could go on. Let me just re-iterate another risk of Frankendodd: standardization–the regulators’ fetish–is  a major source of systemic risk. Monocultures are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic failure, and the international regulatory standardization that was birthed in Pittsburg in 2009, and enacted in Frankendodd and MiFID and Emir, has created a regulatory monoculture. Some are grasping the implications of this. But too few, and not the right people.

I’ve focused here on the sins of commission. But there are also the sins of omission. Frankendodd did nothing about the Fannie and Freddie monster, which is coming back from the dead. F&F was a real systemic risk, but the same political dynamic that fed it in the 1990s and pre-2008 is at work again. Get ready for a repeat.

Frankendodd should have just focused on raising capital requirements for banks and other financial institutions with liquidity and maturity mismatches, and driven a stake through Fannie and Freddie. Instead, it sought to impose a detailed engineered solution on an emergent order. This inevitably ends badly.

So maybe it would be more accurate to say that we’re in our fifth year on death row. Someday the warden will come knocking.

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Perhaps There is an Alternate Universe Where This All Makes Sense

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:45 pm

The US has entered into  deal with Iran that will unfreeze $100 to $15o billion in assets, and which will also unleash an investment bonanza in the country going forward. (With unseemly haste, the German vice chancellor has already run to Tehran to rekindle economic ties.) Iran is a longtime supporter of Hezbollah and the Syrian government, and all sentient beings (and by saying this I understand I exclude John Kerry and Barack Obama) realize that Iran will spend some of this windfall on Hezbollah, Syria, and other equally charming organizations and countries. Indeed, Iran has made plain that it will do so:

In relevant remarks on Monday, renowned political analyst Dr. Mohammad Marandi said that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told him in Vienna last week that Iran would continue to supply arms to the regional nations even under a final nuclear deal.

“When we were in Vienna, the Arab reporters asked me if Iran would continue arms aids to its regional allies under the final deal, and when I asked Mr. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, the question, he told me that Iran would continue the arms supply policy,” Marandi, a Tehran University Professor, said.

“Mr. Zarif told me that Iran would continue its arms aid to the regional nations and he told me that it would be in violation of the UN Security Council resolution (that was adopted earlier today), but it would not be in opposition to the agreement (also known as the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action),” he reiterated adding that Zarif had not asked him to remain unnamed when reflecting the answer to the reporters.

Simultaneously, however, the US is sanctioning Hezbollah officials for their involvement in the Syrian bloodbath:

The U.S. government on Tuesday imposed sanctions on three leaders of the militant group Hezbollah and a businessman in Lebanon, saying they were key players in the group’s military operations in Syria.

The sanctions were imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“The United States will continue to aggressively target (Hezbollah) for its terrorist activities worldwide as well as its ongoing support to (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad’s ruthless military campaign in Syria,” said Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Jesus H. Christ: Who is the biggest supporter of “Assad’s ruthless military campaign in Syria”? Iran! So we are freeing billions to a country that will use it to support Assad’s butchery but we are sanctioning Hezbollah (which is pretty much a wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary) because it supports Assad’s butchery.

You cannot make up this stuff. It is impossible.

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July 18, 2015

Nothing Says Panic Quite Like Three TARPs

Filed under: China,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:41 pm

The invaluable Christopher Balding has been tracking closely the massive financial support the Chinese government has been injecting into the banking system, the shadow banking system, local governments, and the stock market. In a blog post earlier this week, he estimated that this support totaled at least $692 billion, rising to $933 billion if the Reserve Ratio cut is counted as a subsidy to the banking system.

These funds went to the local government bond program I wrote about in June, an  investment in pension funds, PBOC 6 month loans to banks, and PBOC loans to the Chinese Securities Financing Corporation, which in turn will lend these funds to buy stock on margin.

But it’s hard to keep up! Christopher kindly shared with me his most recent calculation, which shows that the Chinese government keeps pumping in the money, most notably an additional $200 billion in loans to intermediaries who will use these funds for margin lending, and a rumored (but not yet confirmed) $160 billion in additional support for provincial municipal bonds. This brings the total to $1.3 trillion.

In RMB, that totals over 8 trillion (with a “t”, boys and girls). To Sinofy Evertt Dirksen: A trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money.

Another metric: $1.3 trillion is approximately three TARPs. Maybe we should start using that as a new unit of measurement, as in, “Chinese authorities intervened in the market and banking system today, providing an additional .5 TARPs in state funding.”

Yet another metric: $1.3 trillion is almost exactly $1000 per Chinese citizen. TARP was about $1500 per American. But China’s per capita GDP is (depending on whether you use exchange rates or PPP) about 1/5th or 1/7th of US GDP per capita. Thus, a low middle income country is spending roughly 3 to 5 times more per person as a percentage of per capita income than the high income US did. (Given that Chinese GDP is likely overstated-another issue that Christopher has analyzed in detail-the true multiples are even higher.)

Such massive spending-arguably the most gargantuan stimulus package ever-is not the sign of a confident leadership. It is a clear sign of panic.

Remember the extreme panic in DC and Wall Street in the post-Lehman period that culminated with TARP? Even in that hysterical environment, people questioned the need for and advisability of TARP. But in the end panic won out. That is the only reason TARP passed: people were scared stiff at what would happen if it didn’t.

Now think of how panicked the Chinese must be to implement measures that dwarf TARP. That’s what economists call revealed preference. Or, in this instance, revealed panic.

This gives the lie to official statistics, which showed a (patently unbelievable even absent this massive stimulus) .1 percentage point decline in the growth rate. Also giving the lie to the official statistics is the collapse in China-driven commodity prices, notably iron ore and coal, and oil as well. The slowdown in commodity economies further discredits the official Chinese data.

The Chinese stock market is getting most of the attention. This is the drunk-looking-under-the-streetlamp-for-his-keys phenomenon. The stock market is visible, and people can relate to it: this is why the government is using massive carrots (notably the support for margin lending) and even bigger sticks to try to arrest the decline. This would suppress the most visible manifestation of crisis. But the real dangers are lurking out of sight, in the leveraged sector (most notably the rats’ nest of non-bank lenders, but the banks are concealing a lot too), SOEs, and a real economy whose performance is masked by dodgy official statistics.

I’ve long referred to China as the Michael Jackson Economy, kept going by intense dosages of economic/financial drugs, cosmetic surgeries, and stimulants. The Chinese authorities are now administering the biggest dosages ever. This is an indication that the patient is doing quite badly. Further, although such actions may delay the inevitable, they make the end all the more horrific.

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July 13, 2015

Chronicles of Hillary, Book the First: Kabuki, Not Conviction

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 7:16 pm

This is, alas, likely to be a long running saga, hence the title: if we are lucky, the chronicles will end no later than 16 months from now. We can only hope.

Today Hillary gave a Big Speech on the economy. She channeled her inner Elizabeth Warren, and blasted Wall Street, big banks, hedge funds, short-termism and other easy targets.

You knew it was Kabuki, not conviction, from the very first: Hillary was introduced for her bankster bashing speech by leading bankster Lloyd Blankstein of Goldman Sachs. If Blankfein was truly threatened by Hillary, he wouldn’t have been embracing her, literally.

And of course, for all of Hillary’s leftist red meat, she has long been quite intimate with Wall Street. She has long milked The Street for campaign contributions and other boodle like it was a prize holstein. Most notably, Hillary was a very solicitous junior senator from NY, and in exchange for very generous financial support, she did Wall Street’s bidding. No Warren-esque rhetoric then, in those halcyon pre-Crisis years.

Further, Hillary has personal experience with hedge funds. Her son-in-law (about whom she presumably corresponded on her secret server in now-deleted emails) runs a hedge fund. More tellingly, Hillary held a million dollar investment in a hedge fund which just so happened to short medical stocks while she was on the campaign trail blasting the pharmaceutical industry and promising thoroughgoing health care reform. In other words, Hillary was an investor in hedge funds before she was against them.

Hillary declaimed today against Too Big to Fail. I guess I will have to give her a pass on this: her experience  is with small, crooked, insolvent ditchwater S&Ls in Dogpatch, not big banks in Gotham.

 

And insofar as short-termism is concerned, who can forget the Miracle of the Cattle Futures, in which Hillary turned some short-term profits totaling around $100 grand, based (in her telling) on her discerning reading of the WSJ? Which has always had crappy commodities coverage.

Hillary, in other words, is wildly implausible as an anti-Wall Street crusader. It is transparently the case that this is something that polls well, especially among Democratic primary voters, so she will play that part.

Hillary’s complementary theme is that she will fight for middle America. Yet more kabuki. You know Hillary detests her middle class upbringing in Park Ridge, IL, and has spent her entire life distancing herself from it. The years in Arkansas were like purgatory. Whenever Hillary subjects herself to the actual presence of middle class Americans, it is plainly evident that she would much rather be undergoing a root canal, but for the fact that a root canal won’t advance her vaulting political ambitions. The trials she endures!

Insofar as policy is concerned, Hillary served up a dog’s breakfast of tedious progressive proposals. The most amusing of these was a swipe at Uber and Airbnb, further evidence that alleged progressives are actually the enemies of disruptive technologies that undermine (politically-connected) incumbents: they are the party of stasis, not progress. (The losers from Uber are not working stiff cabbies, who make their reservation wage, but the owners of government-rationed taxi medallions.) She also paid obeisance to the sacred cow of “infrastructure,” advocating the creation of an infrastructure bank (which would direct resources to the politically connected rather than the economically productive). She also had a flashback to the 60s-70s infatuation with corporate profit sharing, which she said her administration would “encourage.” If profit sharing is indeed mutually beneficial, Hillary’s encouragement is hardly needed. If it isn’t, such encouragement would be detrimental.

All in all, a paint-by-progressive-numbers performance intended to shore up her left flank. It was classic Hillary-banal, and as authentic as Velveeta.

And just think, we have at least a year to put up with the tripe. Just pray its not 5 plus-or 9 plus-years.

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July 12, 2015

The Chinese SEC, as in, Securities Execution Commission

Filed under: China,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

Trying to staunch the bleeding in the stock market, China is unleashing the full power of a police state. A Securities Execution Commission, if you will:

China’s police ministry is teaming up with the securities regulator to probe short selling, as the government works to stem a stock plunge that has erased $3.9 trillion in market value.

The Ministry of Public Security said it will help the China Securities Regulatory Commission investigate evidence of “malicious” short selling of stocks and indexes, according to a statement on its website Thursday. Vice Public Security Minister Meng Qingfeng visited the regulator’s offices in Beijing on Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency said earlier on its microblog.

The move comes after the securities regulator pledged to “strictly” punish market manipulation and China’s state-run media blamed short selling, rumor-mongering and foreign meddling for fueling the stock slide. The ruling Communist Party has announced an unprecedented series of measures to boost shares, including banningmajor shareholders, executives and directors from selling stakes.

Whenever a police ministry “teams up” with securities regulators, watch out. You can bet-and it wouldn’t be speculation!-that some poor schmoes are going to do hard time for manipulative short selling. And China being China, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some really unlucky bastards will wind up in front of a firing squad or inside a mobile execution van.

And isn’t it always the way? Stock price declines are always blamed on short sellers. Always. And with stocks, manipulation accusations are thrown about on the way down, but never on the way up.

If the Chinese authorities want to find a market manipulator, they need to look no further than the nearest mirror.  Which is precisely why they are so intent on finding someone else to blame.

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Gazprom Struggles. And There Was Much Rejoicing.

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:18 pm

Surprise, surprise, surprise. The vaunted Russia-Turkey gas pipeline deal is not really a deal. The reason-brace yourself against the shock-is that the two sides can’t come to an agreement over price:

Russia’s plan to build a new $15 billion pipeline to Turkey is at risk of delay because of a fight over gas prices, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

State-run OAO Gazprom and its Turkish counterpart Botas had a six-month period to agree on prices for gas supplies between the two countries, which expired on Monday. The Ankara-based company now has the right to take the matter to international arbitration, three of the people said, asking not to be named because the information is private.

The dispute over prices means there’s no immediate prospect of signing a binding pact for the new pipeline, the second between Russia and Turkey. An agreement could now be delayed until at least October, two more people said, also asking not to be identified.

I was about as surprised about this as I was to see the sun rising in the east this morning.

Remember: Gazprom consummates maybe one percent of the “deals” that it announces. And the deals founder on price. Almost every time.

By the way, this totally demolishes the alleged pipeline deal between Russia and Greece, because the Grecian pipeline was intended to carry gas that Russia had shipped to Turkey on to Europe.

Not that the $2-odd billion pipeline deal would have been more than spit in the ocean of Greece’s debt problem: the Greek government would only realize a fraction of the $2+ billion, many years from now. And as things look now, never.

In other Gazprom news, apparently the company is stiffing Turkmenistan:

Turkmenistan, irked by falling natural gas exports to Russia, hit out at Moscow’s gas export monopoly Gazprom on Wednesday, saying the energy giant had not paid for gas purchased from the Central Asian country so far this year.

“Since the beginning of 2015, OAO Gazprom has not paid for its debts to state concern Turkmengas for the shipped volumes of Turkmen natural gas,” Turkmenistan’s Oil and Gas Ministry said in a statement on its official website (www.oilgas.gov.tm).

Could be worse. Gazprom could have blown up the pipeline.

This suggests that Gazprom is having some major cash flow problems.

And who says there is no good news?

 

 

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July 5, 2015

1. Referendum. 2. ???? 3. Prosperity!

Filed under: Economics,Financial Crisis II,Politics — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

The Greeks voted a resounding No! in today’s referendum, thereby rejecting a deal that had been taken off the table.

Figuring out the Syrzia plan is something of a puzzle. It reminds me of the old South Park Underwear Gnomes bit, hence the  title of this post. One can see the desired objective (a more prosperous future liberated from a crushing debt burden) and one can see the initial move (referendum), but the middle steps are a complete mystery.

At first blush-and second, and third-it appears that what the Greek government is doing is crazy and self-destructive. This suggests two alternatives:

  1. The Greek government is crazy and self-destructive.
  2. The Greek government is pretending to be crazy and self-destructive for tactical reasons.

I say crazy because the Greeks are claiming that they are willing to accept economic Armageddon instead of making far less costly concessions to the Europeans. But if there is even a small probability that people are of this type (i.e., they much prefer to die on their feet than live on their knees), pretending to be this way and getting a reputation for being this way can be an effective way of extracting concessions from an adversary. It is often rational to defer to craziness.

This gambit works best if a repeat player is matched against a series of one-shot players: the repeat player benefits from creating a reputation, the one-shot players don’t. That’s not the case here, though. The solvent Euros (e.g., the Germans and Dutch) also have an incentive to build a reputation for being tough in negotiations, because they are repeat players. They reason that if they concede to the Greeks, the Southern Euros (Spain, Portugal, Italy in particular) will try to extract concessions as well. So they have an incentive to play tough with the Greeks even though if this was a one-off situation it would make sense to make more concessions.

Which all means that I have no idea how this will play out.

Furthermore, this is primarily a game about redistribution rather than creating wealth. This maximizes the potential for conflict, and increases the incentives for rent seeking and rent dissipation. The exact outcome is difficult to predict, but the basic contours of this outcome are pretty predictable: everybody ends up poorer and miserable.

It is hard to have sympathy for either side. The Greeks have a corrupt and bloated state, and its people have a socialist, welfare/entitlement state mindset, and they borrowed lavishly to achieve a lifestyle that their productivity could not support. The Europeans gladly lent more to a corrupt and bloated state, and a people with a socialist-tinged, welfare/entitlement state mindset than they could afford to repay. They jointly made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. So be it.

The least likely outcome is that Greece makes fundamental changes and conjures up a growth miracle, like postwar Japan or Germany, or Taiwan or Korea. The socialist/statist/welfarist impulses are too deeply rooted, and its interlocutors-the Euros-are also too statist to compel or persuade the Greeks to change their ways.

A couple of years ago I said that Europe had a choice between amputation and gangrene in dealing with Greece. They chose not to amputate. They now have to live with the consequences.

 

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July 2, 2015

Though I’ve Been Away, I Keep a Weather Eye on Putinsanity

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:50 pm

Apologies for the light posting. Some travel (to Sweden, Denmark and London), work, and a need to decompress for a bit account for the absence.

I have kept a watch on things, though, and some Putinsanity has caught my eye.

For instance, VVP has accused cursed furriners of luring, Pied Piper-like, talented Russian youth away from the glorious Motherland:

A network of [foreign] organizations has ‘rummaged’ through the schools in the Russian Federation for many years under the guise of supporting talented young people. In reality, they simply hoover everything up like a vacuum

Note to Vlad: the reason that “talented young people” want to leave in droves is less that “foreign organizations” attract them, but that the state and society that you have constructed repel them.

Note the rampant insecurity here. I think that Putin knows that Russia has little to offer. But he can’t admit that, so he rages agains the West.

Item two: Surprise, surprise, surprise. The Russia-Turkey gas pipeline project is stalled because of a failure to communicate on price. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so:

Russia’s plan to build a new $15 billion pipeline to Turkey is at risk of delay because of a fight over gas prices, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

State-run OAO Gazprom and its Turkish counterpart Botas had a six-month period to agree on prices for gas supplies between the two countries, which expired on Monday. The Ankara-based company now has the right to take the matter to international arbitration, three of the people said, asking not to be named because the information is private.

The dispute over prices means there’s no immediate prospect of signing a binding pact for the new pipeline, the second between Russia and Turkey. An agreement could now be delayed until at least October, two more people said, also asking not to be identified.

The Russians think that you are stupid enough to believe that this is due to Erdogan’s defeat in the recent parliamentary elections, but that’s just a face saving cover story. Truth be told, the Russians are masters of vapor agreements. By my rough estimate, two of the last 100 announced gas deals have come to completion. And I’m being generous.

Anyone who believes anything Russia/Gazprom say about any pipeline project, deal, contract, etc., please contact me! Have I got a deal for you!

(As an aside, Erdogan and Putin are doppelgängers in a competition for the coveted titled of Most Insane Wannabe Autocrat Obsessed With Restoring Lost Imperial Greatness. May the best nut win!)

Next comedic moment: the Russia-Greece pipeline vapor deal, which is effectively contingent on a (non-existent) Russia-Turkey pipeline vapor deal. (BTW: Why is everybody freaking out about Russia courting Greece? Let Putin have them! Just what he needs. Another economic basket case, to join Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Donetsk, Luhansk. May the Orthodox nations enjoy every happiness! They deserve one another!)

Item three: Russia blasts the new US defense doctrine, which (realistically) identifies Russia as a threat to the sovereignty of its neighbors due to its willingness to use force as “confrontational.”

This is a perfect illustration of Pirrong’s Principle of Putinist Psychological Projection. Whatever the Russians say about the US is a pitch-perfect description of what the Russians are doing. They are the masters of projection.

This leads to my last observation: what will Putin do in Ukraine? He can’t go back: that would be a humiliating climbdown which he is psychologically incapable of, and which could actually threaten his power. Maintaining the status quo is the lowest risk, but offers the least potential for gain, and creates the real potential for a creeping collapse as the economic drain of sanctions and militarization saps the economy. Going forward and attacking Ukraine presents serious risks. Ukraine might be able to deny him a quick victory and impose serious losses. Even if he prevails operationally, the costs of occupation will be steep. These include the direct costs, which will be especially high if Ukrainians resort to historical precedent and wage a grueling guerrilla war (remember the Greens?). They also include the indirect costs of almost certainly escalated sanctions.

He’s in a fine mess, and I don’t know how he will react. Time is running out for a summer offensive, but time is not on his side generally. My fear is that he will follow Eisenhower’s dictum: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The question is: where? The Baltic-Finland, Sweden, Denmark, as well as the Baltic States-is a real possibility. Putinsanity is hard to predict, but nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

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