Streetwise Professor

March 9, 2016

Clearing Angst: Here Be Dragons Too

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:21 pm

We are now well into the Brave New World of clearing and collateral mandates. The US clearing mandate is in place, and the Europeans are on the verge of implementing it. We are also on the cusp of the mandate to collateralize non-cleared swaps.

After years of congratulating themselves on how the Brave New World was going to be so much better than the Bad Old World, the smart set is now coming to grips-grudgingly, slowly-with the dawning realization that not all the financial demons have been slain: here be dragons too. From time to time I’ve written about regulators recognizing this reality. There have been several more examples recently indicating that this has become the new conventional wisdom. For instance, Bloomberg recently editorialized on CCPs becoming the New Too Big to Fail: meet the new systemic risk, not that different from the old systemic risk. The BoE is commencing a review of CCPs, focusing not just on financial risks but operational ones as well. Researchers as Citi are warning that CCPs need more skin in the game. Regulators are warning that CCPs have become a single point of aim for hackers as they have become more central to the financial system. Researchers at three central banks go Down Under back into the not-too-distant past to show how CCPs can get into trouble–and how they can wreak havoc when they try to save themselves. An economist at the Chicago Fed warns that CCPs create new risks as they address old ones. Even the BIS (which had been an unabashed clearing cheerleader) sounds warnings.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that it is now becoming widely recognized that central clearing mandates (and the mandated collateralization of non-cleared derivatives) is not the silver bullet that will slay systemic risk, as someone pointed out more than seven years ago.

This is a good thing, on the whole, but there is a danger. This danger inheres in the framing of the issue as “CCPs are too big to fail, and therefore need to be made fail-safe.”  Yes, the failure of a major CCP is a frightening prospect: as the article linked above about the crisis at the New Zealand Futures and Options Exchange demonstrates, the collapse of even a non-major CCP is not a cheery prospect either.

But the measures employed to prevent failure pose their own dangers. The “loser pays” model is designed to reduce credit risk in derivatives transactions by requiring the posting of initial margins and the payment of variation margins, so that the CCP’s credit exposure is reduced. But balance sheets can be adjusted, and credit exposure through derivatives can be-and will be, to a large extent-replaced by credit exposure elsewhere, meaning that collateralization primarily redistributes credit risk, rather than reduces it.

Furthermore, the nature of the credit can change, and in bad ways. The need to meet large margin calls in the face of large price movements  causes spikes in the demand for credit that are correlated with market disruptions: this liquidity risk is a wrong way risk of the worst sort, because it tends to occur at times when the supply of liquidity is constrained, and it therefore can contribute to liquidity crises/liquidity hoarding and can cause a vicious spiral. In addition, as the article on the NZFOE demonstrates other measures that are intended to save the clearinghouse (partial tearups, in that instance) redistribute default losses in unpredictable ways, and it is by no means clear that those who bear these losses are less systemically important than, or more able to withstand them than, those who would bear them in an uncleared world.

The article on the NZFOE episode points out another salient fact: dealing with a CCP crisis has huge distributive effects. This makes any CCP action the subject of intense politicking and rent seeking by the affected parties, and this inevitably draws in the regulators and the central bankers. This, in turn, will inevitably draw in the politicians. Thus, political considerations, as much or more than economic ones, will drive the response. With supersized CCPs, the political fallout from any measures adopted to save CCPs (including extending credit to permit losers to make margin calls) will be acute and long lived.

Thus, contrary to the way they were hawked in the aftermath of the crisis, CCPs and collateralization mandates are not fire-and-forget measures that reduce burdens on regulators generally, and central banks in particular. They create new burdens, as regulators and central banks will inevitably be forced to resort to extraordinary measures, and in particular extraordinary measures to supply liquidity, to respond to systemic stresses created by the clearing system.

In his academic post-mortem of the clearing during the 1987 Crash, Ben Bernanke forthrightly declared that it was appropriate for the Fed to socialize clearinghouse risks on Black Monday and the following Tuesday. In Bernanke’s view, socializing the risk prevented a more serious crisis.

When you compare the sizes of the CCPs at issue then (CME Clearing, BOTCC, and OCC) to the behemoths of a post-mandate world, you should be sobered. The amount of risk that must be socialized to protect the handful of huge CCPs that currently exist dwarfs the amount that Greenspan (implicitly) took onto the Fed balance sheet in October, 1987.

Put differently, CCPs have become single points of socialization. Anyone who thinks differently, is fooling themselves.

Addendum: The last sentence of the Bernanke article is rather remarkable: “Since it now appears that the Fed is firmly committed to respond when the financial system is threatened, it may be that changes in the clearing and settlement system can be safely restricted to improvements to the technology of clearing and settlement.” The argument in a nutshell is that the Fed’s performance of its role as “insurer of last resort” (Bernanke’s phrase to describe socializing CCP risk) during the Crash of 1987 showed that central banks could readily handle the systemic financial risks associated with clearing. Therefore, managing the financial risks of clearing can easily be delegated to central banks, and CCPs and market users should focus on addressing operational risks.

There is an Alfred E. Newman-esque feel to these remarks, and they betray remarkable hubris about the powers of central banks. I wonder if he thinks the same today. More importantly, I wonder if his successors at the Fed, and their peers around the world, share these views. Given the experience of the past decade, and the massive expansion of derivatives clearing world, I sure as hell hope not.

 

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February 27, 2016

The Last Shriek in the Retreat: Neocons Threaten to Leave the Republican Party

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 8:20 pm

Arch neoconservative Robert Kagan looks upon the Trump phenomenon with horror, and has declared his intention to leave the party and vote for Hillary Clinton. He has much company among fellow-neocons, and  #NeverTrump has become a thing on Twitter.

I guess Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you really can go home again. The neoconservative movement was begun by an assortment of leftists whose political home was the Democratic Party. They ranged from dyed-in-the-wool Trostskyists (or is it Trotskyites?) to New Deal Democrats. The rise of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s left the soon-to-be-neocons marginalized within the Democratic Party, and they decamped to the Republican Party. Now that they are being marginalized in the Republican Party (such as it is) by a populist uprising, so they are looking to return to their old political home. Not that they will fit in comfortably there, either.

Kagan calls Trump a Frankenstein’s monster. This is rich with irony, because if that’s true, he, and his fellow neocons are Dr. Frankenstein, or at least Igor. The George W. Bush administration represented the neocon ascendency, especially in foreign policy. From that catastrophe was born Obama, and now Trump. The brutal repudiation of Jeb Bush, and the lack of widespread outrage among the hoi polloi at Trump’s borderline-Truther attack on George W., demonstrates how totally the Bushes, and their neocon advisors, have been rejected.

If Kagan et al want to go back to the Democrats, and embrace the Hildabeast, I reply as my grandfather would have: “Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?” Or, more crudely: “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. I wouldn’t want you to damage the door.”

Why? Well, precisely because neoconservatives are antithetical to the classical liberal, small government, and libertarian types who are also called “conservative” in the American political lexicon.

There are two big points of contrast between neoconservatives and small government conservatives, Jacksonian populists, and other non-neoconservative elements on the right.

Neoconservatives are anti-individualist, and statist. Neoconservatives owe a considerable part of their philosophical foundation to Leo Strauss. Following Strauss, neoconservatives are hostile to individualism, and the natural rights of individuals. Individuals pursuing happiness are merely egotists, and lack virtue. Achieving virtue requires collective projects, carried out through the state, and guided by an elite.

These projects should be pharaonic in scope. In the 2000s, neoconservatives were pushing the “national greatness conservatism” agenda. The goal of policy should not be to promote the betterment of individuals’ lives, but to pursue great projects worthy of a great nation and a great people. New space programs. Massive infrastructure investments. Such projects can only be executed by the Federal government.

Neocon political heroes were men like Teddy Roosevelt–a progressive, remember.

For the neoconservatives, foreign affairs present the greatest opportunity for the pursuit of endeavors worthy of a great nation. Spreading democracy, through regime change and war if necessary, is such an endeavor.

To some, the phrase “war is the health of the state” is a damning criticism. To many neocons, it is anything but. Wars fought in a virtuous cause are a good thing, and require a strong and healthy state.

This, of course, is what impelled Bush foreign policy, and led to its ignominious repudiation among a large majority of Americans. Obama, remember, won primarily by running as the anti-Bush. It would be fair to say that he won by running as the anti-neocon.

In the current campaign, Rubio is the standard bearer for the neocon cause. Trump, and to some degree Cruz, are prospering in large part because of their opposition to that cause.

Neocons are elitist and anti-populist. Again reflecting their Straussian roots, neocons believe that a robust state pursuing grandiose national projects can only be led by an elite. The people are too fickle, too ignorant, and too self-regarding to be trusted to carry out great schemes. But to implement their agenda in a democratic system, neocons have to manipulate public opinion, in part by telling different “truths” to different groups.

One remarkable tell of this elitism is immigration policy. Kagan and other major neoconservatives (e.g., Jon Podhoretz) adamantly support open borders. (Keep that in mind when you parse what Rubio has to say on immigration.) Opposition to unlimited immigration has been the singlemost important issue in galvanizing Trump’s support.

Robert Kagan and his cabal find themselves in their current straits because of the disastrous effects of big government elitism. Again, the catastrophe of the Bush years, which began with a disastrous intervention in Iraq and ended with a financial crisis, utterly discredited the self-anointed elite. Interventions during the Obama years–notably in Libya–that neoconservatives strongly supported only cemented the popular revulsion.

And said people are rising up, pitchfork and torches in hand, with Trump at their head, to storm the neocon castle. Further evidence of the cluelessness of Kagan and his ilk, they don’t understand that in the popular mind they are Dr. Frankenstein. If the neoconservatives don’t like the current political environment, they have primarily themselves to blame. It is in large part a reaction to them, and what they wrought.

In some respects, it is remarkable that neoconservatives (whom Reagan did not like) and small/smallish-government types were able to coexist in the same party for so long. But the stresses that have accumulated in fifteen years of foreign policy failure and economic malaise are too much for whatever bonds held these disparate groups together to hold. So Kagan and his fellow neocons will go their own way, and will not be missed. If they are perceived as being instrumental in putting Hillary in the White House, they will be the target of even more enmity by those they left behind.

The fundamental fact is this. In the Republican Party or out of it, neoconservatives are not friends of individual liberty and a modest, constrained state. To the contrary, they are its enemies. Whatever else the Trump movement accomplishes, it has already succeeded in forcing the neoconservatives to drop their Straussian deceptions and reveal their true beliefs: a big state and an interventionist foreign policy that is more than comfortable with using war to achieve their messianic purpose.

 

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February 26, 2016

The Notorious S.W.P., or, Dr. Pirrong Goes to Washington

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:20 pm

If Elizabeth Warren were to have her way, you’d see my mug on the wall of your local Post Office. What have I done to become to earn her nomination as Public Enemy? Having the temerity to oppose position limits, and co-authoring a report summarizing the deliberations of the CFTC’s Energy & Environmental Markets Advisory Committee, which strongly criticized the need for, and details of, the Commission’s proposed position limits rule.

The backstory is this. In 2015 I was an associate member of EEMAC. (As of 10 days ago, I am a full member.) The Committee’s sponsor, Commissioner Christopher Giancarlo, asked me to write the (Dodd-Frank mandated) report summarizing the Committee’s deliberations at two meetings in 2015. I agreed, and along with Jim Allison (who just retired from ConocoPhillips), I wrote a relatively short draft that just summarized the transcripts of the two meetings. The report went through some additional edits, and was then submitted to the nine full members of EEMAC for their approval. It was approved by an 8-1 vote.

The conclusions and recommendations of these meetings were rather straightforward to recapitulate, because there was considerable agreement on the major issues of (a) whether position limits were necessary, (b) the proposed rule’s bona fide hedging exemptions, and (c) whether to implement limits for spot months only initially, or to implement for all months.

If you read the transcript, and read the final report, you will see that the report is a faithful record of what happened during the meetings. As I said in yesterday’s meeting, I viewed my role to be that of “faithful scribe,” and that’s what I was.

But since the message in the report was NOT what Elizabeth Warren (and one of the EEMAC members, Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum) wanted to hear, Warren, Slocum, and Warren’s journalistic creatures (most notably the New York Times) decided to kill the messenger. Warren wrote a letter to the CFTC, demanding that the report be withdrawn. Slocum wrote a dissent to the majority report. Assorted journos scurried along behind. Each called foul on my authorship. Here’s what Warren said about yours truly:

The second panelist I am concerned about is Dr. Pirrong. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Pirrong has positioned himself as the hard-nosed defender of financial speculators – the combative, occasionally acerbic academic authority to call upon when difficult questions arise in Congress and elsewhere about the multitrillion-dollar global commodities trade…. [who] has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some ofthe largest players in the commodities business,” and played a key part in “a sweeping campaign [by the financial industry] to beat back regulation.”10

With specific regard to the position limits rule, Dr. Pirrong served as a consultant for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association – a lead plaintiff suing to block the very rule he was asked to provide his views on for the EEMAC.11 There is no record indicating that these conflicts were even disclosed by Dr. Pirrong when he served as a witness, let alone addressed by the EEMAC.

Thanks, Liz! You’re too kind! Honored to be the kind of person your kind of person considers a threat.

One of the journalists slouching after her, the New Republic’s David Dayen weighed in:

The recent inclusion of Craig Pirrong on the committee is perhaps the most flagrant example. Pirrong, who co-wrote the first draft of the report with James Allison, is a professor of finance at the University of Houston, who has been paid by several industry participants and trade groups for his research into commodity speculation. He was also a paid research consultant for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, the very group that got the initial rule overturned by the courts.

The CFTC report relies mostly on Pirrong’s research and a presentation he made to the committee last year, which did not include the opinion of anyone who believes in the dangers of excessive commodity speculation. In fact, 10 of the 13 witnesses at EEMAC meetings came from industry, two were representatives of CFTC, and the other was Pirrong. The meetings never mentioned that there would even be a final report.

This is amusing on several levels. The first is the fact that the New Republic became the dumpster fire of left-wing opinion rags under the ownership of Christopher Hughes (which ended today, with the magazine’s sale).

The second is that last sentence about no mention of a final report. Er, it’s mandated by law, genius. A law you no doubt love, no less–Frankendodd.

The third-and best-is the title of the piece: “Why Elizabeth Warren is on the Warpath This Week.” This is particularly hilarious. I could see a right-wing mag saying that, as a snarky allusion to the very blonde Warren’s exploitation an alleged Cherokee heritage to game affirmative action to work her way up the greasy pole of legal academia (thereby earning herself the nickname Fauxahontas). But for a lefty to title a piece that way is too precious.

My reply? Yawn.

This ad hominem ankle biting is old and tiresome. This is what passes for serious criticism on the left. It is particularly appalling that a former dean of Harvard Law School can’t do any better than this. No substantive criticism whatsoever. You’d think that if I was just a paid hack that the substance of what I’ve written would be readily dismantled. But Warren and her acolytes don’t even try.

Which is probably wise. That is revealing in itself: you don’t fight battles you know you would lose, so you choose other methods, such as ad hominem slurs, questioning motives rather than challenging facts and logic.

The gravamen of the criticism, such as it is, is also just plain wrong. Warren, Slocum, Dayen, the New York Times, and various Twitter trolls all cite to the 2014 New York Times article which claims that I did paid research for multiple speculators. As Slocum put it in his dissent: “The Times continued that Dr. Pirrong has a long list of paid contracts with energy speculators.”

Long list? The article lists three.

  1. CME. Not a speculator. My work for CME consisted of writing an analysis of the hedging performance of the WTI contract, and serving as an expert in patent litigation involving Globex. Nothing to do with speculation.
  2. Royal Bank of Scotland. Never did work for them. Not an energy speculator.
  3. Trafigura. Not a speculator. A hedger.

As I pointed out at the time of the NYT article, using Trafigura as the Gotcha! just demonstrated how clueless the author of the Times piece was. Now Warren and Slocum are exhibiting similar cluelessness. Trafigura is not a speculator. Its main use of derivatives is as a hedger, and on the short side. Further, contrary to the insinuation that Trafigura likes high prices, it is generally neutral as to price level because it makes money on margins not flat prices, and in fact can profit in low price environments–and has profited handsomely in the recent historic price decline.

People with such a limited understanding of the way things actually work are not worthy of serious attention. Those who are stubbornly and deliberately ignorant (like Warren and Slocum) just deserve scorn.

As for the ISDA connection, I did write a comment letter that ISDA submitted in conjunction with its comment letter on position limits. However, I was NOT paid for that. I directed that ISDA make a donation in my name to the Wounded Warriors Project.

This confusion about who is and who isn’t a speculator illustrates the cosmic stupidity of Warren’s (and Slocum’s and the journalistic clique’s) criticism of EEMAC and its make-up. There are no true speculators represented on the Committee–either its full or associate members. None. No banks–Warren’s usual bêtes noires. No hedge funds. No managed futures funds. No ETFs. Speculators qua speculators were conspicuous by their absence. It is impossible to argue that the EEMAC was doing Wall Street’s bidding.

Instead, the membership is dominated by end users-including public utilities, municipal utilities, producers, merchants-and exchanges. These entities are not speculators whose participation would be constrained directly by the limits, but are mainly hedgers who would face substantial compliance burdens and undue constraints on their risk management activities. Further, they rely on the liquidity and risk bearing capacity supplied by speculators to hedge cheaply and effectively. Constraints on speculation threaten to raise hedging costs. Moreover, if speculation indeed destabilized prices, these firms would suffer.

Thus, these are the firms that limits are intended to help. And they are saying loud and clear: don’t do us any favors.

But Warren et al are apparently incapable of–or more likely, unwilling to–distinguish among the diverse participants in energy markets. To them, everyone is a speculator, and opposition to speculative limits is some dark conspiracy among those who engage in destabilizing betting on commodity prices. Thus, Warren’s criticism of the make-up of EEMAC is extremely indiscriminate and profoundly ignorant. She is so invested in her black-and-white cartoon view of the world that she can only explain opposition to restrictions on speculation as some evil plot by malign corporate interests and their lackeys–including yours truly.

And considering all that, I wear Warren’s hatred like a badge. I must be doing something right. And I plan on keeping on doing it.

As Maria Callas said, “When my enemies stop hissing, I’ll know that I’m slipping.” With Warren hissing at me like a cobra, I guess I ain’t slipping yet.

As for the substance of the meeting, the EEMAC’s efforts may be for naught. Chairman Massad clearly signaled that he is hell-bent on proceeding with implementing the position limits rule. In doing so, he used a simile that rivals Gensler’s apple metaphor for inanity:

“It strikes me a bit like saying you’re against speed limits because they may make you late for work,” Massad said.

Huh? No, it’s not like that at all. The comparison is so off-base it’s not even worth trying to modify it to make it coherent.

As the participants in EEMAC clearly and almost unanimously stated, they are against position limits because they are all pain, and no gain. The “speed limits” aren’t necessary because the activity that they constrain does not create dangerous risks. Further, not only do they not produce any appreciable benefit, they constrain perfectly legitimate and salutary actions by large numbers of market participants.

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February 21, 2016

The first rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 2:55 pm

The straw man argument is one of the oldest–and lamest–rhetorical tricks. Obama is a master. But he’s by no means alone. Alleged intellectuals (and yet another 5 time Jeopardy champion!) like John Podhoretz play this cheap trick, as in this Podhoretz article denying the existence of a Republican Establishment.

Here’s Podhoretz’s straw man definition:

The Republican Establishment was a subset of the American Establishment. These were not formal entities; they were not entities at all. Indeed, the term for them only came into common currency in England in the 1950s, when the British journalist Henry Fairlie used it to describe a group of people who went to the same schools, ate lunch in the same clubs, and so from childhood came to share the same set of attitudes that permeated the way they exercised power and transmitted cultural messages through the system. It is meaningful that Fairlie described it so pointedly just as it was crumbling away in England; perhaps it was only as it was melting away that its skeletal structure could be seen and its genus and species identified.

and:

an Establishment is a set of people in the elite who share the kinds of cultural and social commonalities that truly define a kind of social and political caste, and for which important matters are transmitted invisibly through family and educational and social ties so that they end up operating almost unconsciously from the same base of experience.

How’s that for crypto-academic argle-bargle?

It’s also completely at odds with the way that the term is hurled as an insult in the ongoing 2016 presidential contest in the Republican Party. In the current political discourse, the term is not used as it would be in a sociology seminar. In fact, those using the term today are referring precisely to people who sound like they are giving a sociology lecture.

Instead, it is used by normal people to refer to a particular group of individuals concentrated in Washington, DC. This group consists of senior elected officials (especially in the Senate), Republican Party functionaries, and assorted courtiers in journalism (notably the Weekly Standard, National Review, and Commentary), think tanks, and lobbying firms. The extended establishment includes businesses who are dependent on regulation and government expenditure (e.g., defense contractors).

This is a self-perpetuating group whose primary purpose is not ideological or principled, but is instead dedicated to maintaining power, access to power, and the sinecures attendant to power. These are people who speak of the nation, but whose real obsession is much more parochial: their horizons do not truly stretch beyond the confines of the 202 area code. These are people who are mainly interested in being players. Winning the game is actually secondary.

Indeed, the thought of a game that can actually be won or lost is rather terrifying to them, because losing would mean that they could be unceremoniously ejected from their comfortable perches. An unending, static contest is much more to their interest, and their liking.

This group has many mechanisms of social control to keep its members in line. Withholding funding, social ostracization, or providing plum jobs or committee assignments are all used to coerce or seduce loyalty.

This is why Trump and Cruz are so terrifying to the establishment. Trump is not dependent on it in any way. Indeed, he has gained traction precisely because he insults it at every turn, and they can do nothing about it: their levers of social control do not work on him. The establishment recoiled in horror at his remarks about Iraq and 911, but this did not dent his popularity, and likely increased it: the fact that he was willing to say such outrageous things about the establishment signaled that he is the kind of guy that many Americans are thirsting for, because it shows he does not play by the establishment’s rules.

For his part, Cruz has shown that he will not play by establishment rules either, even though as a Senator he is ostensibly an insider. He has fought against the Republican Senate hierarchy (the heart of the Republican establishment) in a very public way from day one, and has expressed his disdain for it while doing so. This has earned him the hatred of the 202 in-crowd: witness the intense anti-Cruz fury of establishmentarian emeritus Bob Dole. But again, this is a feature, not a bug for many Americans.

Establishment political culture is not new. Americans have long been inured to the existence of a governing class consisting of different partisan elements that is more engaged in advancing its interests as a class than national or popular interests. What is different about 2016 is that many Americans believe, with good reason, that the governing establishment is utterly indifferent to their concerns: once upon a time, the establishmentarians were able to fake sincerity, but now they don’t seem to try to do even that. Further, the fact that the establishment has done pretty well for itself in the past decade, while many Americans can’t say the same, feeds anger. Washington seems like pre-Revolutionary Versailles to many Americans.

On the Republican side, immigration has proved to be the issue that has alienated the establishment from those outside of DC. Trump realized this early, and seized on it. It is the issue that will make it difficult indeed for the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate-Rubio-to win. Too many people who vote in Republican primaries identify with Trump on this salient issue, rather than Rubio.

It must be noted that the disdain for the governing establishment is not limited to the Republicans. Hillary’s inability to shake a dotty socialist demonstrates that many Democratic voters are also deeply alienated. Hillary is rightly perceived as the insiders’ insider, and her risible attempt to sound militant comes off as dishonest and phony.

Podhoretz’s attempt to deny the existence of a Republican establishment has a comic element to it. It reminds me of the rules of Fight Club: The first rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment. The second rule of the Republican Establishment is: You do not talk about the Republican Establishment. Podhoretz’s attempt to deny its existence betrays a deep fear. He is very much a part of that establishment, and his access, influence, and income are threatened by the barbarians at the gates. He is not alone, and as a result the desperation is palpable: witness the frenzied attempts to pump up Rubio.

What Podhoretz and his ilk aren’t getting, however, is their efforts are completely counterproductive. Since they are the problem in the minds of many Americans, their attempts to promote one candidate and tear down others hurts the former and helps the latter: their endorsements are an insult, and their insults are endorsements.

They don’t have a positive agenda to offer, and preservation of their class is hardly a selling point in the current political environment. And an establishmentarian’s denial of the existence of an establishment will do nothing to convince anti-establishmentarians that their anger is misdirected. To the contrary, it will come off as another act of condescension-“the establishment doesn’t exist: who are you gonna believe, me, or your lying eyes?”-that will just feed the anger.

I think it is fairly clear that the Republican side of the establishment is doomed, which is precisely why people like Podhoretz are so intent on denying its existence. I sometimes wonder whether the party is in the throes of a collapse comparable to the Whigs in the 19th century. Its passing will not be lamented. What remains to be seen is whether what replaces it will be an improvement.

 

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February 16, 2016

Deep Social Thought: Trump=Bitter Clingers+Facebook

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 8:20 pm

I am not a Trump supporter, for many reasons. But the depth and intensity of support that he has attracted is an important social and political phenomenon, that needs to be understood before the deep concerns and anger that he has tapped can be addressed with good policies.

I made a preliminary attempt here. Others have done a much more thorough job. Most notable of these is Walter Russell Mead, on whose idea of Jacksonian Americans I drew upon in my post. His Andrew Jackson, Revenant, is a must read on the subject. So are Charles Murray’s Trump’s America and Angelo Codevilla’s Does Trump Trump?

Then there is Tom Nichols. The Naval War College professor’s theory is–I am being serious here–“Facebook envy.” Specifically, social media has made middle and working class Americans newly and keenly aware that there are people with more stuff than them. This has made them green with envy, and their envy-fueled anger has driven them to support Trump.

I think that is a very fair summary. Read for yourself:

In other words, Trump (and Sanders) have convinced people that the same socioeconomic arrangements that once benefitted them are actually screwing them, mostly on the premise that it’s not benefitting them enough.

No one factor explains Trump, but this underlying resentment is at least in part a result of the Information Age, which is spurring one of the biggest experiments in relative deprivation in human history. People who once had little idea how others outside of their social circle lived now constantly compare themselves not just to their neighbors, but to the wealthy, and even to the super-wealthy. They are not just keeping up with the Joneses next door, but via the Internet and cable they’re keeping up with the Reeds down the street, the Browns in the next town, the Smiths in the next state, and the Kardashians all the way across the country.

As one wag on Twitter put it, call it the “HGTV Effect.”

This is only possible because of new technology.

There are two parts to this theory. That the Trump phenomenon is driven by envy, and that this envy is a new phenomenon that was impossible in the era before Facebook.

This would be news to Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Veblen, and Weber, just to name a few. Each of these wrote when literacy was rather limited, and newspapers and pamphlets represented the cutting edge of information technology. Yet each of them also devised theories of social relations based on the tendency of humans to compare themselves and their circumstances to those of others; to seek social status; and to measure status by material attainment. Not just absolute material attainment, but in comparison to others. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche explicitly used the French word “resentissment” that Nichols drops in his piece.

And all without Facebook. So the idea that some technological shock was necessary to cause Americans to cast a covetous eye at the wealth and consumption of others is beyond farcical. Concern about relative standing is as old as society.

Then there’s the issue of whether the visceral anger that Trump (and to some degree, Bernie Sanders) have tapped a manifestation of a mortal sin, or whether it is reflects legitimate grievances (which is a different issue as to whether Trump can address these grievances).

In fact, there is a strong basis for those grievances. In attributing Trump’s popularity to the base motives of his supporters Nichols is deeply condescending and insulting.

The grievances stem from two sources, which are somewhat interrelated.

The first is clearly economic. The middle and working classes in the United States have seen their incomes stagnate. The gap in incomes between those with and those without college educations has increased substantially. The expectation of upward mobility that was commonplace in post-WWII America no longer exists for many Americans.

It is remarkable that Nichols quotes and links to Murray, but fails to acknowledge that Murray has documented in detail (in his book Coming Apart) how the white middle class has become increasingly marginalized, and has experienced decline in several important socioeconomic dimensions.

Just what has driven these developments is the subject of intense controversy among economists. There is no consensus, which should not be surprising because it is unlikely that any major social development can be attributed to even a small number of causes, and because explaining complex phenomena is inherently difficult. But the data do clearly demonstrate that the phenomenon exists. What Trump is tapping into is therefore a legitimate-if somewhat inchoate–movement that reflects deep social forces, not the temper tantrum of people who don’t know how good they have it, and whose worst instincts have been awakened by Facebook.

The second major source is deep disillusionment with the “elites,” combined with the mixture of dismissiveness and condescension with with the elites have responded to the dissatisfaction of the hoi polloi. Codevilla in particular has eviscerated “the Ruling Class.” Thomas Sowell’s scathing criticism of “the Anointed”, which long predates the Trump phenomenon is good on this subject as well.

The gravamen of this criticism is quite simple. American governing elites have amassed a remarkable record of failure in foreign policy and economics. Iraq and the Great Financial Crisis are just the two most conspicuous examples. Yet, the elite has made out better than OK, and there has been virtually no accountability for these failures. That rankles deeply.

Furthermore, the elites–in both parties–often appear to have more globalist loyalties, than local ones. Jacksonians are nationalists, which is why Trump’s slogan of “make America great again” resonates deeply. This also explains why many Americans are perfectly content to extirpate ISIS, with few reservations about the inevitable collateral damage, but have no interest whatsoever in getting engaged in allegedly idealistic ventures in Syria–especially since the elite has shown no competence whatsoever in bringing these ventures to a successful conclusion (cf. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan).

What’s more, the elite doesn’t get it. The GOP establishment’s response to Trump (and Cruz, who draws from the same well) proves this. Rather than trying to understand, and to come to grips with, the widespread discontent, the establishment has circled the wagons and doubled down on the condescension. The Nichols article is one example. So is National Review’s shrieking anti-Trump jeremiad.

And then they express shock and surprise that Trump only seems to get stronger. They don’t realize that even though they aim their insults at Trump, they hit the Jacksonians instead. And as Mead rightly pointed out, honor is deeply important to Jacksonians, and insults to their honor trigger their formidable combative instincts.

I still doubt (as I did last year) that Jacksonians can be part of a winning political coalition. I still believe that although their passions and beliefs are attractive to many, they repel many others. I also continue to doubt that the remedies that Trump proposes (especially on economic issues like protectionism) will  ameliorate the ills that have galvanized his followers.

But I do not doubt at all that superficial, condescending, and insulting analyses of what drives Trump supporters  will only strengthen Trump–even if they are written by a five time Jeopardy Champion. Saying that a large swathe of Americans with legitimate grievances, and legitimate critiques of their “betters,” are nothing but bitter clingers whose baser instincts were catalyzed by too much time on Facebook is not just deeply insulting. It is a sure fire way to strengthen Trump, not cut him down to size.

Those who disagree with Trump’s policies need to understand and engage the forces he has tapped. They need to persuade and attract, not insult and repel. If Trump becomes the Republican nominee, let alone president, it will be because his opponents fail in this task.

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February 15, 2016

“More Europe.” Yeah, Who Wouldn’t Want More of This?

Filed under: History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:34 pm

Two stories that illustrate what a clueless monstrosity the EU is. (H/T to @libertylynx on both.) (I was about to write “has become”, but that would be wrong–it’s been this way from the beginning.)

First, “France fails to win immediate EU action on farming crisis“:

France failed to secure further relief measures for its struggling livestock farmers at a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers on Monday, as it tries to contain protests sparked by persistent low prices.

French dairy and meat farmers have been staging protests for weeks, blocking roads, dumping manure, straw and earth in front of public buildings and supermarkets.

The growing crisis had prompted President Francois Hollande last week to promise tax cuts for farmers and to call for decisions at the EU farm minister meeting.

France, the EU’s largest agricultural producer, had gone to Monday’s EU meeting with a set of proposals to regulate oversupply in the milk and pigmeat sectors, but the European Commission asked it to come back with new proposals.

From the time that the Common Agricultural Policy began in the early-1960s, European farm policy has been a special interest nightmare. Agricultural markets have never been permitted to work, and 300+ million Europeans have been held hostage by a few million (relatively inefficient) farmers, particularly (but not exclusively) in France.

Second–again from France!–“Most vulnerable industries need 100 percent free carbon–France“:

Energy intensive industries most likely to leave the European Union because of costs should get all of their EU Emissions Trading System permits free until other major blocs have a carbon price in place, France‘s economy minister said on Monday.

The European Commission is revising its rules for handing out free permits to cushion energy intensive industries, such as the steel sector and oil refiners, from the expense of offsetting emissions on the ETS.

As if this wasn’t completely predictable. Apparently the Europeans believed that the world would immediately see the error if its ways, and defer to the shining example of Europe on climate change policy.

Actually, the rest of the world–the developing world/emerging markets in particular–pretty much decided that they didn’t like being poor, and if the Europeans were going to burden their energy intensive industries with myriad restrictions in the name of battling global warming, the rest of the world was perfectly willing to seize on the opportunity.

I could go on. The immigration mess. The fact that European post-crisis financial regulation (MiFID II and EMIR) makes Frankendodd look like light touch regulation. Energy policy. The list is endless.

There’s an old joke that Arkansas exists so that Mississippians have someone to look down upon. (Or is it Mississippi exists so that Arkansans have someone to look down upon?) I often think that the EU exists so the US has someone to look down upon. As dysfunctional as we are, we ain’t got nothing on them.

What makes it worse is that Europe presumes to lecture the world on policy and governance. That, and all the navel-gazing “more Europe” crap. “More hitting myself in the head with a ball peen hammer” sounds preferable.

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Rubio of Arabia

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:08 pm

When asked what would make a good president, Marco Rubio answered: “Do they the know difference between Sunni & Shia..between ISIS & Al Qaeda?”

Apparently those able to answer the $200 question in Teen Jeopardy would make good presidents.

Rubio has been Johnny One Note on the Shia-Sunni issue. He is beyond insipid. It also brings to mind the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The prevailing narrative at the time was that Shias were radicals, and that Sunnis represented the “moderate branch of Islam.” In retrospect, this was the Saudi propaganda line, and they are pushing the same thing today.

Perhaps it was excusable for Americans in 1979 and 1980 to be ignorant of the deep radicalism that permeated Sunni Islam. But in the aftermath of at least 20 years of Sunni terrorism, the relentless proselytizing of the Wahhabis, and the insidious operations of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is inexcusable to swallow the Saudi narrative, hook, line, and sinker, as Rubio clearly has. To add insult to injury, he presumes to lecture us on his superior knowledge of the nuances of Islam.

The best Western analogy to what is going on in Islam right now is the 30 Years War. A sectarian conflict between two branches of the same religion, being fought across a good portion of a continent. Taking sides in that is idiotic. But that is exactly what Rubio and his supporters and advisers are pushing, and claiming that it is wisdom.

 

 

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February 13, 2016

The Great White Hope With A Glass Jaw and Disastrous Policies

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:50 pm

I haven’t written much about the ongoing presidential race because, well, it’s just too damn depressing. The race is nearing a critical period, so I’ll make a few observations and then go back to looking for an island to escape to.

Trump is still ascendant in the Republican race. His closest rival, Cruz, is almost as frightening to the Republican establishment as Trump. So said establishment has seized upon Marco Rubio as its savior. After Iowa, Rubio was anointed as the voice of reason with the best chance of defeating Hillary (assuming that she is the nominee, and given the way the Democratic nominating process is rigged, that could happen even if she loses every primary to the dotty socialist, and has to appear at her inauguration in an orange jumpsuit instead of a canary yellow Mao suit).

That lasted for about a week, when Chris Christie showed that the establishment’s Great White Hope had a glass jaw in the New Hampshire debate. This sent the establishment into paroxysms of defensive rage, directed mainly at Christie for having the temerity to challenge The One and undermining the Republican’s best chance at victory in November.

This logic is delusional. If Rubio can’t handle  a telegraphed punch from a fellow Republican, how could anyone possibly expect him to do anything but wither under the assault of the Clinton machine and the national media (but I repeat myself)?

Even if Rubio is toast, the establishment’s enthusiasm for him and his positions is disturbing, and reveals precisely why Trump and Cruz are dominating the process. Rubio has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign. This despite the fact that the signs are all around that economic troubles are mounting, and that the election is likely to turn on economic issues than foreign policy ones. The seething discontent that feeds Trump (and Cruz, and Sanders on the Dem side) is at root a populist revolt driven by economic anxieties and a belief that the political system is favors elites that have done quite well in the aftermath of the crisis while many Americans are floundering.

Further, the specifics of Rubio’s foreign policy positions are troubling and disconnected. Yes, terrorism is a major concern of many Americans. But Rubio’s nostrums involve a new round of interventions in Syria and Iraq that are unlikely to reduce materially the threat of terrorism. Indeed, mouthing the words of his neoconservative adviser Max Boot and his ilk, Rubio advocates getting involved in intra-Muslim sectarian civil war on the side of the primary source and funders of anti-American terror in a place where only minor American interests are involved, and where intervention would greatly increase the risk of a confrontation with Russia. And large swathes of the Republican establishment cheer him on.

Rubio talks constantly on the stump and in debates about taking the side of the Sunnis in the Sunni-Shia Muslim civil war. Let’s be clear about what he really means: he means taking the side of the Saudis and Qataris and Turks, none of whom are reliable allies, or have US interests at heart. Indeed, (a) the Saudis in particular are the wellspring of terror, and (b) their main interest is in manipulating the US to intervene in their battles to advance their interests, which are in no way aligned with ours. We have no stake in the Muslim civil war.

Ostensibly, Rubio’s (and Boot’s and the neoconservatives’ generally) support for Sunnis is aimed at fighting ISIS, and is anti-sectarian:

Because they currently occupy Sunni cities and villages. Sunni cities and villages can only truly be liberated and held by Sunnis themselves. If they are held by Shias it will trigger sectarian violence. The Kurds are incredible fighters, and they will liberate the Kurdish areas, but Kurds cannot and do not want to liberate and hold Sunni villages and towns. It will take Sunni fighters themselves in that region to take those villages and cities, and then to hold them and avoid the sort of sectarian violence that follows in the past. And why that is important is because if Sunnis are not able to govern themselves in these areas, you are going to have a successor group to ISIS. ISIS is a successor group of al Qaeda. In fact, they broke away from al Qaeda, because as horrible as al Qaeda is, ISIS thought al Qaeda was not radical enough. This is who we’re dealing with, and they have more money than al Qaeda ever had.

This is delusional for several reasons. First, it presumes that “Sunni fighters” are all that interested in fighting ISIS, which is an avowedly Sunni movement that wants to extirpate Shia. In Syria, the Sunnis are focused on toppling Assad. In Iraq, the Sunni powers in the region have little interest in defeating an insurgency because that would empower Iran and the Shia government of Iraq. Second, the governments of Syria and Iraq have no interest in empowering Sunnis who would, if they succeeded in defeating ISIS, become a threat to those governments. The aftermath of a putative defeat of ISIS by the magical Sunni fighters would almost certainly involve conflict between the victorious Sunni forces and the governments of Syria and Iraq, thereby involving the US as a partisan in civil conflicts in both countries. In the case of Syria, this would set up a direct confrontation between Russia and the US. Third, the idea that there are Sunni moderates, or that Sunnis with guns are likely to be moderate, is nuts. In Syria, the armed Sunni groups are overwhelmingly Al Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood. Both are virulently anti-American. Even if they somehow vanquished ISIS, we would just be empowering other anti-American groups with a history of carrying out terrorism.

The Rubio model (or more accurately, the model of his advisors, because he seems incapable of independent thought) appears to be the Surge in Iraq. Yes, the Surge was very successful, much to the surprise of many. But its success depended on many conditions, none of which can be repeated now.

Remember what was “surged”: American combat units. 150,000 US personnel were involved. Although the Anbar Surge has received most attention, American troops also fought fiercely to subdue Shia militias as part of the effort. Indeed,  that was vital in giving the US credibility in forming alliances with the Sunni tribes in Anbar. Moreover, the Sunni tribes would not have stood up against Al Qaeda in Iraq (the predecessor of ISIS) if there were not tens of thousands of Americans in the fight. This is not happening, nor should it happen, because the gain is not worth the cost.

Nor can one ignore the fact that the US’s ignominious withdrawal from Iraq is what made it possible for ISIS to metastasize and wreak vengeance on those Sunnis who had cooperated. It also allowed the hardcore Shia sectarians in Iraq to run amok, and take their vengeance on Sunnis. The trust that Petraeus and other Americans so painstakingly built to coax the Sunni tribes into the conflict against AQI has been destroyed, and it will not be possible to restore it.

In brief, the success in Anbar was dependent on conditions that cannot be repeated. Those using the Surge as their model for the battle against ISIS are fighting the last war, which inevitably turns out badly.

I should also note that Rubio’s relentless criticism of Assad puts him clearly on the Sunni/Saudi/Turkish/Qatari side of the civil war in Syria. Further, his advisors, and those supporting him, are relentlessly anti-Shia and pro-Sunni. They demonize Assad-who is indisputably a malign man who has committed atrocities-but gloss over the equally malign nature of most of those fighting him. This black-and-white characterization of what is really a black-and-black situation is exactly what led to the disastrous intervention in Libya. Even if ISIS is subdued, the Rubio mindset makes it inevitable that he would get the US involved in a civil war in a minor country that is only tangential at best to American interests.

Here too Trump and Cruz have a better sense of the American people than Rubio. There is widespread opposition to another adventure in the Middle East, even one dressed up as a war against ISIS.

To some extent, this issue would be neutralized in a general election campaign between Clinton and Rubio, because Hillary is also an interventionist, and one who wears Libya like an albatross around her neck. But being an interventionist would be a disadvantage if Hillary was matched up against a non-interventionist.

Rubio’s advisors are strong advocates of the idea of the US as the world’s policeman, and have blasted Cruz, Christie, Paul and Fiorina as “isolationists” because of their skepticism over engaging in new adventures in Syria and elsewhere. Yes, Obama’s anti-interventionism has contributed to the current chaos in the world. But just as Obama over-learned the lessons of the Bush presidency, Rubio, his neoconservative advisors, and the Republican establishment, seem hell-bent on over-learning the lessons of the Obama presidency. The average between too much and too little isn’t “just right.” Rather than see-sawing between extremes, we need a foreign policy that is discriminating in where and how it intervenes, focusing on areas of vital US interests, ignoring sideshows (as tragic as they are), not picking unnecessary battles even with egregious actors (e.g., Putin) and not being played by regional actors with their own agendas.

A callow Rubio, who is clearly very reliant upon the advice of others who are anything but discriminating, would combine the worst characteristics of Bush and Obama. This is definitely not what the US needs right now. Unfortunately, what the US needs is not on offer. Not even close.

 

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February 6, 2016

Putin Plays Pyrrhus

Filed under: Music,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:46 pm

The Assad regime and the Russians are on the verge of victory in northern Syria. In particular, the rebel stronghold of Aleppo is on the verge of falling.

This is not all that surprising. It demonstrates the decisive effect of airpower if–and this is crucial–it is operated in support of an even minimally competent ground force, especially one with armor. This is particularly true if the airpower is utilized ruthlessly, with little squeamishness about civilian casualties.

The few victories against ISIS–Kobane, Sinjar, and Ramadi–demonstrate the same point, as does the ineffectualness of the “allied” air attacks against ISIS in Syria and Iraq generally, because these attacks are not mounted in support of a coherent ground attack undertaken by an even moderately effective infantry and armor force.

The Syrian-Russian success also provides an interesting contrast to the Saudi fiasco in Yemen. The Saudis have bombed ruthlessly, with little military effect, because the bombing is not coupled with a credible ground campaign against the Houthis. This no doubt reflects the Saudi’s knowledge of the severe limitations of their ground forces.

These limitations made me laugh at the Saudi offer to deploy troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even overlooking the logistical impracticality of this, the Saudis would be setting themselves up for an embarrassing failure.

The Russians and Syrians actually intensified their offensive in the lead-up to the farcical “peace” talks in Geneva. No surprises here. They are in this to win decisively, not to negotiate a compromise. And there is no better way to send that message than by victory on the battlefield on the cusp of talks.

This has left the US and Europeans and Gulf Arabs sputtering in ineffectual rage. John Kerry was particularly embarrassing (nothing new here!):

“Hospitals have been hit, civilian quarters have been hit, and in some cases, after the bombing has taken place, when the workers have gone in to try to pull out the wounded, the bombers come back and they kill the people who are pulling out the wounded,” Kerry told reporters in Washington. “This has to stop. Nobody has any question about that. But it’s not going to stop just by whining about it.”

But what else is he (or anyone else) doing about it other than whine? Nothing. It would have been better for Kerry to remain silent, rather than advertise his (and The US’s) impotence.

It is also interesting to note that Kerry is damning the Russians and Syrians for bombing civilians, yet is utterly silent on the equally bad (if not worse) Saudi air campaign in Yemen.

In response to the Aleppo debacle, Turkey has closed its border with Syria. Erdogan is no doubt attempting to create (exacerbate, really) a humanitarian crisis in order to goad the US and Europe into intervening. It will never happen. The Europeans lack both the will and the means. The US has the military capability, but not the will: whatever will existed at one time (which was minimal) disappeared when intervention meant a confrontation with the Russians.

So Putin will likely get a battlefield victory. But so what? He and his Syrian creature will conquer a depopulated and devastated country. This will have little impact on the strategic balance in the region, and virtually no impact on US interests. Yes, Erdogan’s imperial and sectarian ambitions will be thwarted. Saudi and Qatari sectarian supremism will be defeated. To the extent that the US is impacted, these are actually favorable developments.

Those in the West who fulminate over Putin’s success in Syria are ironically engaged in the vacuous zero-sum thinking that drives Putin. A Putin victory is not necessarily an American defeat.

But the zero-sum thinker Putin is probably gleeful at the shrieks of distress from Kerry, the head of the UN, the Europeans, and various anti-Russian elements in the Western media. It’s all music to his ears, and also quite useful to him domestically. Another irony, that: the more that Putin’s enemies in the West screech about what is happening in Syria, the more it helps him.

Putin’s victory may be hollow, though, and his glee short-lived. He initially attempted to utilize his intervention in Syria as a way of presenting Russia as an ally of the West in the war against ISIS in order to undermine the sanctions regime, and to bring Russia in from the diplomatic cold. However, his unabashedly pro-Assad campaign, his intensifying the offensive in the run-up to the Geneva talks, the resultant humanitarian and refugee crisis, and the minimal Russian targeting of ISIS will make it impossible for the Europeans to do anything that will appear to be rewarding him. Putin’s intervention, with its demonstration of the cynicism and pointlessness of American policy, and thereby make Obama look bad, will cause our petulant president to retaliate in his passive-aggressive way, but maintaining sanctions, and pressuring the Europeans to do the same.

Putin is overplaying his hand elsewhere in Europe as well. The Russian media and government histrionics over the “Lisa” fake rape case in Germany has deeply angered Merkel who is already under siege over the migrant crisis (and especially the sexual assault crisis that has followed in its wake). Further, Putin met with Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s most strident critic on immigration.  This will also anger Angela.

Putin, of all people, should realize that if you strike at the king (or queen) you better strike to kill. If Merkel survives-which is likely-she will be ill-disposed to ease sanctions, especially since Putin is ratcheting up the conflict in Donbas as well. Long surviving politicians tend to have long memories as well.

In sum. Air power can be dominant when teamed with infantry and armor. Putin will likely win a tactical victory in Syria. But the victory will be strategically barren, and possibly counterproductive, because (a) the “winner” will inherit a blasted and dysfunctional battleground, and (b) this “victory” will set back Putin’s efforts to roll back sanctions.

If anyone “wins” out of this, it is Iran. The Iranians will maintain their pipeline to Hezbollah, and deal the Saudis a stinging defeat. So Putin will succeed as the mullahs’ muscle, and in the process he will gain the satisfaction of humiliating the US (which stupidly set itself up to be humiliated), but at the cost of perpetuating Russia’s economic isolation, which is exacting a terrible toll on a country already reeling from the collapse in oil prices. That is about as Pyrrhic a victory as one could imagine.

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February 2, 2016

Russian “Privatization”? Only If Putin Is Desperate Indeed

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:11 pm

Putin held a meeting with the CEOs of seven state-owned enterprises to discuss the sale of minority stakes in their companies (a move sometimes mischaracterized as “privatization”). Putin frankly admitted that the impetus for this discussion is Russia’s dire budgetary situation. Putin caused some confusion by saying the “new owners of privatized assets must have Russian jurisdiction,” leading some to conclude that he was ruling out foreign investment. Peskov clarified the next day, saying that Russia welcomed foreign investors, but “If the question is about a foreign investor, that’s one thing. If it’s about a Russian investor, it must not be another offshore scheme.”

I consider it likely that this initiative will be stillborn, at least insofar as sales of stakes to foreigners are concerned. Putin said that the sales must not take place at “knockdown prices.” Well, in the current environment, the prices (especially for Rosneft and VTB) are likely to be very low indeed.

This is especially so since foreign investors will demand a substantial discount to compensate for expropriation risk. Savvy investors with long memories will recall that Putin justified expropriating Shell’s Sakhalin II project by saying that the terms of the Sakhalin PSA were unfair to Russia, and that Shell had exploited Russia’s economic desperation when it signed the deal at a previous time of low energy prices. Putin (or whoever succeeds him) could easily resurrect such rhetoric in the future when oil prices rebound. Further, minority shareholders in Russian enterprises–especially state enterprises–have few protections against schemes that divert assets, or which dilute their holdings.

Given that prices are likely to be very low, if there are sales to foreigners, it will indicate (1) that Russia is desperate indeed, and (2) Putin et al consider it unlikely that sanctions will be relaxed anytime soon.

If there are sales, it is likely to be to Russian oligarchs, and in particular those with extensive holdings outside Russia. Just as Putin dragooned them into paying for Sochi and other prestige projects, he could well pressure them into overpaying for stakes in the state enterprises. This would allow him to kill two birds with one stone. It would help stanch the budgetary bleeding. It would also advance Putin’s longstanding goal of onshoring Russian capital. That would fit with the “owners must have Russian jurisdiction” remark.  And Putin has substantial leverage to get oligarchs to do his bidding–literally.

Even if partial sales take place, it will be merely a stopgap budgetary measure: it will not indicate a fundamental reconsideration of Russian economic policy.  Putin is still obviously a firm believer in the state control/state champion model, despite its manifest inefficiency. Putin prefers the control over resources that state control provides to having an efficient economy. Which is why he finds himself in his current straits.

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