Streetwise Professor

October 29, 2014

Did Putin Have the Hackers Insert Malware Popups Saying “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:54 pm

Although this has been rumored for weeks (due to the dogged reporting of Powerline), yesterday the White House admitted that hackers, likely Russian (I’m shocked! Shocked!), had compromised the (allegedly non-classified) computers of the Executive Office of the President.

Did Putin have the hackers insert malware that triggered a popup saying: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

But here’s the best part (and per usual, “best” means “worst”). We didn’t discover this ourselves. An “ally” informed us.

It would be so hilarious if the “ally” is Israel. (Germany would be a close second in hilarity.) It would also be so karmic.

But I guess this isn’t possible, because a confidential administration source said the information came from an ally, and we know what Obama, Kerry, etc. think of Israel, and “ally” isn’t the first word that trips off the tongue.

The hits just keep on coming, don’t they folks? But yes, by all means let’s hear some more lectures about how since “you didn’t build that” we need bigger government, delivered by the least competent administration ever.

 

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October 28, 2014

Gunvor Cutting Back in Russia: Jumping or Pushed?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 am

Gunvor announced plans to sell assets in Russia:

Oil trading house Gunvor is seeking to cut exposure to Russia by selling assets in the country which had long been one the main generators of its growth and profit before the United States imposed sanctions on its co-founder.

. . . .

Now the company, led by the veteran Swedish oil trader, is looking to rebalance its asset portfolio and divest a significant part of business in Russia to acquire new assets in Europe, the United States, Asia and South America.

“Since a significant portion of our investments are in Russia, over time Gunvor will be looking to sell selectively part of those assets. We do not expect this will have any impact on our existing trading activities in Russia,” the company said on Sunday.

I am somewhat amused by the statement that the company “expect this will have any impact on our existing trading activities in Russia,” because it is well known that it has been cutting back on these activities for some time.

Some obvious explanations include a genuine desire to rebalance its asset portfolio, a need for cash due to persistent suspicions about the company leading to constraints on its ability to access the credit markets, and a desire to put paid to those suspicions by cutting back exposure to Russia.

Knowing the way Russia works, I would advance another hypothesis for Gunvor’s actions. It has been told to sell out, because someone covets those assets, and because after Timchenko’s departure (and Putin’s being cashed out?) the company has lost its krysha. Russia is the country of “nice little port you have here. It’d be a shame if something happened to it. Or to you.” When you have something that somebody important wants, you’d better say da! and accept the price offered without complaint. Just ask Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

One of the assets that Gunvor is selling is its stake in the port in Novorossiisk. Wouldn’t you know who expressed an interest in acquiring a stake in the the port there? Yeah. Igor. And Rosneft has oil trading ambitions, and the Ust-Luga port on the Baltic could fit quite nicely into that.

So keep an eye on who buys. Given that this is hardly a peachy time to sell assets in Russia, given the country’s growing economic isolation and the fear of further sanctions, Gunvor’s announcement is quite telling. The buyer is likely to be Russian, and the set of possible buyers is quite limited, which means that Gunvor is not likely to get top dollar for these assets. If Rosneft or another national champion with close connections to Putin ends up being the buyer, my suspicions that Gunvor was pushed out of Russia will be largely confirmed.

Someone at Gunvor told the FT that Russia was “Gunvor’s heritage, not its future.” That’s definitely true. The only question is why. I strongly suspect this is not totally voluntary, and to the extent that it is, it reflects Gunvor’s judgment that the legal and economic and political risks of operating in Russia are no longer worth the candle.

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October 24, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:22 pm

Today Putin appeared at the Valdai Discussion Forum, and gave a performance that raises serious doubts about his sanity.

He ranted against the west, and the US in particular:

“Statements that Russia is trying to reinstate some sort of empire, that it is encroaching on the sovereignty of its neighbours, are groundless,” the former KGB spy declared in a speech delivered standing at a podium, without a smile, in a ski resort in mountains above the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted U.S. actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy.

“No,” he declared. “The unilateral diktat and the imposing of schemes (on others) have exactly the opposite effect.”

He denied the US is a democracy, and expressed his befuddlement at the electoral college. (Note to Vlad: It’s worked for 225 years.) All that was missing was a rant about hanging chads. He accused the US of organizing a coup in Ukraine and supporting Islamic terrorists. He made not-so-veiled nuclear threats. And on and on and on.

My favorite was his statement that Occupy Wall Street was “choked in its cradle.” He’s just pissed that his influence op fizzled. (I remind you that The News Agency Formerly Known as Russia Today, AKA Putin’s Agitprop Network, was constantly hyping Occupy. As was his pilot fish-or is it more than that?-Zero Hedge.)

It was truly a bizarre performance, chock full with paranoia and resentment.

It follows soon after an interview by former FSB head Nikolai Petrushev that blamed the CIA for everything under the sun, most notably events in Ukraine, which he said was a coup by “self-described Nazis”(!). Fellow ex-KGB mouth breather (but hey, he did sport some bitchin’ flairs back in the 70s) Sergei Ivanov has made similar statements lately.

Thus the question (which I have posed before): is Putin genuinely mad, or is he, pace Machiavelli, “simulating madness at the right time.” Is he pissing purple, or chewing the scenery in an attempt to intimidate a feckless west, who could use his insanity as a justification for leaving hime a wide berth?

Although I don’t discount embellishment, I think he is unhinged at his core.

First, he is under tremendous pressure. Crimea was a bloodless triumph, but the follow on in the rest of Ukraine has turned into a bloody, expensive, and largely unsuccessful mess. Instead of sweeping to an easy victory that would net him all of Novorossiya and subject Ukraine to his control, he has had to fight a nasty campaign that has netted him only the blasted remnants of an already shambolic rump piece of Sovokistan, also known as the Donbas. He has earned the intense enmity of the vast bulk of the Ukrainian population. At best, by freezing the conflict he can prevent Ukraine from developing into a “normal” (i.e., westernized) country (something that horrifies Putin), but he cannot incorporate it into a New Russian Empire, except at ruinous cost.

What’s more, Russia’s already creaking economy is under tremendous stress. Part of that stress is due to the inexorable working of sanctions, which have deprived his cherished national champions of access to western capital, and his energy companies access to needed technology. A bigger part of that stress is attributable to a global growth slowdown that has caused oil prices to fall by about 20 percent. These economic stresses deprive him of the resources needed to underwrite his ambitions. Moreover, they create tremendous divisions and anger within the elite, thereby complicating his task as the chief balancer. If they go on long enough, they will create another front: popular anger, or at least resentment and a piercing of the perception of universal popularity.

Second, Putin comes by his paranoia and anti-US resentment honestly. It has been on display for years, too long and too often to be an act. It comes naturally to a KGB man, and was reinforced by relentless indoctrination in the service: read the Patrushev interview to see a rather comprehensive statement of this world view.

Third, dictators and autocrats almost inevitably succumb to madness and paranoia. They are surrounded by sycophants whose obsequiousness feeds a sense of omnipotence and omniscience. Cults of personality feed this sense even more. They rule by intimidation and fear, and hence hear no dissenting voices. There is no institutional check on their power. All of this means that there is no pushback on crazy, so craziness metastasizes.

Such a man is unlikely to be appeased, and difficult to deter. Reducing the dangers he poses requires chipping away at his capabilities, and confronting him with power that he cannot overcome.

Recently an (incredibly campy) art exhibition in Moscow compared Putin to Hercules. (Given Hercules’ goatish omnisexuality and Putin’s homophobia, this is rather amusing.) But I think another ancient parallel is likely to be more apt: Sampson. Putin is unlikely to go quietly into that dark night, and if he is doomed he is likely to try to bring down everything around his ears. The problem is that backing off will just create a vacuum that he will fill, and just defer the inevitable reckoning. It is unlikely that conflict with him can be avoided, because he will seek it out. How do you appease the paranoid?

As bad as the Middle East is, the real existential threat in the world right now is Putin. (Heaven forfend, but I actually agree with George Soros.) He has 4,500 nukes, and he knows how to use them.

That he’s mad, or at the very least wants to be viewed as being mad, makes that the most daunting challenge the United States and the West face. Given the Lilliputian leaderships in the US and Europe, that is not a comforting thought.

 

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October 19, 2014

Russian Truculence and a History of Russian Naval Mishaps Colliding in Swedish Waters?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:35 pm

Russia has been hyper-aggressive of late in probing the defenses of neighboring countries, including the US and Canada, mainly by aircraft. Sweden has been a frequent target as well.

Now Sweden may be the subject of another probe, this one from under the sea in the Stockholm Archipelago. Anomalous underwater activity was detected, as have been communications (some encrypted) from a point in the region to the Russian naval base at Kaliningrad. The comms purportedly include a distress call. A Russian tanker (under the Liberian flag with an English name, the Concord) has been circling suspiciously in the Baltic: some suspect it is the mother ship of a mini-sub. A Russian research ship, the Professor Lugachev, has suddenly set sail from Saint Petersburg.

Given history, and current events, the Occam’s Razor solution to this mystery is that a Russian sub, maybe a mini-sub, has run into trouble while probing Swedish waters.

The Russians, of course, deny everything:

A defence ministry spokesman in Moscow told reporters that the Russian navy’s submarines and surface ships were “performing tasks… according to plan”.

“There has been no irregular situation, let alone emergency situation, involving Russian navy vessels,” he said.

Again given history, the best thing to do is to assume the opposite is true. Consider the case of the Kursk:

In the days after the incident, the Navy and the government issued a blizzard of non-information, mis-information and dis-information.  At first, the Navy denied that anything was amiss, acknowledging a mere “technical difficulty.”  The government denied the problem for some time; it took two entire days to even admit that the ship “was in serious trouble,” and then lied about when the incident had occurred.  Indeed, the day after the sinking, the Navy commander told the press that the exercise had been flawless.  Yes: flawless.

They never used the word “sink.”  They claimed the entire crew was alive.  They claimed they were in communication with the crew, and that the ship was supplied with air and power from the surface.  The Navy excused its evident lack of preparation for a rescue by bewailing the weather conditions and strong currents, even though the weather was fine and the currents benign.  All complete and outrageous fabrications.

Enraged by the duplicity, at one Navy press conference, the mother of a Kursk officer, Nedezhda Tylik, launched into a screaming denunciation of official dishonesty.  In an event captured on film, a nurse was seen to move up behind Tylik, and inject her with a hypodermic needle.  Tylik collapsed and was taken from the room.  (A still photo is available here; I have not found the video online for free despite a diligent effort; there is a documentary that has the film that can be purchased here.)  She first claimed she had been sedated against her will, and the Navy said that it had indeed given her a sedative; in an Orwellian way, it acknowledged the “solicitous administration of needed tranquilizers.”

Then, remarkably, in the aftermath of a domestic and international outcry, the Navy denied that it had sedated her, and Tylik also recanted, claiming that she had only been given her heart medication at her husband’s request.  Yeah, sure.  Who you gonna believe?  Them or your lying eyes? (Tylik maintains this version in the documentary.  But why did neither she nor her husband make that statement initially?)

And how can we forget Russia’s dodgy naval safety record? I’ve often mocked how its carrier Kuznetsov, such as it is, never leaves home without a salvage tug bobbing along in its wake. The Russian naval curse even inflicts those dumb enough to buy its cast offs and then spend billions trying to fix them up. The Indians found this out to their cost when they bought the Admiral Gorshkov. Now the Chinese are having problems with the Liaoning, ex-VaryagNo biggie. Just that steam is flooding out of its boiler compartment. But it’s not a boiler explosion, apparently! So there’s that.

Given the combination of recent Russian truculence and the long record of Russian naval mishaps, the most likely explanation is that a Russian naval intelligence operation has come to ruin. Let’s hope that the crew survives-though given the track record one doubts that Putin and the Russian high command give a crap about that. Indeed, they would probably prefer that the crew die undiscovered than survive to be captured. Let’s also hope that the facts come out, and prove very embarrassing to VVP.

But one thing for sure: pay zero attention to what the Russians say about this. Well, that’s not right, exactly. Take what they say, and assume the exact opposite and you might be within visual range of the truth.

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October 13, 2014

Russia in a Nutshell: Three Stories That Convey Important Truths About an Aggressive, Mendacious, and Economically Weak Empire

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:43 pm

A quick rundown on some Russia stories. Three stories that encapsulate important truths about an unhappy country that seems intent on forcing others to share in its unhappiness.

First, there was a lot of attention paid to Putin’s announcement that 17,000 soldiers would be withdrawn from Rostov, on the Ukrainian border, to return to their bases. The reactions are a combination of poor memory, ignorance, and wishful thinking. Poor memory because something similar happened in the spring, which didn’t preclude an invasion in the summer. Ignorance, because if you are aware of Russia’s conscription cycle, you are aware that the fall 2013 conscript class is due to be mustered out, and units must return to their bases to discharge last year’s class and induct and train this year’s. That’s what happened in the spring. This ignorance is inexcusable now, as it was written about in the spring, notably by Pavel Felgenhauer: I wrote about it here as well. Wishful thinking, because everyone is grasping at the hope that Putin will back down from the Ukraine battle. As if.

There is no news here. This is an artifact of Russia’s conscription system. Period. Watch for new training exercises in a few months, and the deployment of units to the Ukrainian border again, once the new conscripts are integrated into their units.

Second, Russia will sign several intergovernmental agreements with China when Premier Li visits next month. One of them is an agreement to export gas from Russia to China.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, didn’t they sign that deal to huge fanfare back in May?” Apparently not:

Russia has prepared intergovernmental agreements to sign during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow next week including one on a $400 billion natural gas deal agreed in May, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.

Russian gas exporter Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) have agreed that Russia will supply China with 38 billion cubic metres of gas starting from 2019.

Yet on Friday Gazprom said an intergovernmental agreement between Russia and China required for the plan to come into force had not yet been signed.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that governmental agreements including one on gas were ready for signing during Li’s coming visit.

“They include an intergovernmental agreement on natural gas supplies via an “‘eastern’ route,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

Proving yet again that announcements from the Russians about any deal should be treated with extreme skepticism. They are the masters of vaporcontracts.

The Russians are touting various deals with the Chinese as proof of their invulnerability to western sanctions and pressure. The feebleminded believe this. In fact, Russian desperation is palpable: the fact that they hyped the gas non-deal is a perfect example of this. If you don’t think that the Chinese are aware that they have the whip hand here, and are flogging the Russians for all it is worth, please contact me. I’ve securitized some bridges, and I’m sure they’d be perfect for your portfolios!

Third, the Russians are in full paranoid mode over the decline in oil prices. Brent is down to $88/bbl, which puts Urals at about $86. Speaking of 86, they are having flashbacks to 1986, when the Saudis flooded the world with oil. This began the fatal crash of the Soviet economy (described well in Gaidar’s book, Empire).

The vice-president of Russia’s state-owned oil behemoth Rosneft has accused Saudi Arabia of manipulating the oil price for political reasons. Mikhail Leontyev was quoted in Russian media as saying:

Prices can be manipulative. First of all, Saudi Arabia has begun making big discounts on oil. This is political manipulation, and Saudi Arabia is being manipulated, which could end badly.

Er, this is way different from 1986. At most, the Saudis have increased output only slightly (about 100kbbl/day): in ’86, they more than doubled output. The Saudis are just acknowledging market reality. Demand is weak,  supplies from the US are growing, and Libya is coming back into the market. Put those  things together, and prices are inevitably going to fall. The Saudis can see the writing on the wall, and their market share is sufficiently small that unilateral reductions in their output are not economically rational. Funny, now that I mention it: Saudi market share is about the same as Russian market share. The Russians produce up to capacity, because that is profit maximizing. Yet they expect the Saudis to cut back output? Of course they do! The Saudis should sacrifice their own interests to bail out the Russians! Of course they should!

Leontyev seems to be vying with the Gazprom guy Komlev to see who can make the most idiotic statements about world energy markets. Something that commentor Ivan passed on suggests that as idiotic as Komlev was, Leontyev has him hands down. The Rosneft spokesman also blamed low oil prices on ISIS selling oil at a “triple discount.” Hilarious! World oil prices are determined in the world market. ISIS has to sell at a huge discount because it is politically radioactive, and because it cannot access world markets directly. Those to whom it sells pocket the discount to adjust for the risk of dealing with a political leper (a radioactive leper!-I’m not mixing metaphors), and sell at the world price. The world price is determined by world output, not the price of the first sale. If anything, ISIS is propping up prices by reducing output in Syria (not a big deal) and threatening output in Iraq (a bigger deal).

Together, these three stories convey important truths  about Russia. And truth is ugly indeed. An aggressive, economically tottering empire dependent on commodity rents, and constitutionally unable to tell the truth or deal with reality.

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October 12, 2014

He Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:56 pm

In recent weeks there have been a spate of stories about how JP Morgan and perhaps 13 other financial institutions were the target of a massive cyber probing attack. The early reporting fingered Russians. Now there is pushback:

There is no indication that Vladimir Putin, the Russian government or any foreign nation state was involved in the JPMorgan cyberattack this summer, a source familiar with the incident tells CNBC.

There have been media reports speculating that the Russians may have carried out the attack in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russia, but that appears not to be the case, the source said. “Anyone who says this is the Russians, that’s ridiculous,” the source said. “There’s no indication of any foreign nation state. Any reporting on that is not coming from someone who knows what’s going on.”

Um, except that wasn’t the reporting, at all. Here’s an example:

JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s own investigators have found clues that a global network of computers available for hire by sophisticated criminals was used to reroute data stolen from the bank to a major Russian city, according to people familiar with the probe.

. . . .

The use of a Russian-based data center is another piece of a puzzle being constructed by investigators as they chase answers to urgent questions such as the attack’s motive, the hackers’ identity, and the possibility other banks may have been attacked or probed by the same group.

The link to Russia cybercriminals is pretty concrete here. Yes, some people pointed out the obvious: that there are links between Russian cybercriminals and the Russian state, specifically its intelligence agencies. Especially given the ongoing confrontation between the US and Russia, involving sanctions, aggressive Russian actions in the air and at sea, etc., and Russia’s history of using private hackers in attacks on states it is at odds with, it is reasonable to suspect that the probes of US financial firms has some connection to the Russian security services.

Given these facts, and this history, the very aggressive denial, and the invocation of Putin by name, is very odd. He doth protest too much, methinks.

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October 8, 2014

Pugachev’s Rebellion

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:41 pm

Spare a thought for ex-oligarch Sergei Pugachev, who was expropriated by the Russian state in 2012. Sergei has had a blinding insight about the nature of Putinistan:

A former close associate of Vladimir Putin has said Russian businessmen were all now “serfs” who belonged to the president, with none of the country’s companies beyond his reach.

. . . .

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Pugachev warned that there were no longer any “untouchables” in a Russian business landscape increasingly dominated by Mr Putin. The Russian economy, he argued, had been transformed into a feudal system where businessmen were only nominal owners of their assets.

“Today in Russia there is no private property. There are only serfs who belong to Putin,” he said.

. . . .

“Now there is Putin and there are his lieutenants who carry out his orders – and all cash generated is put on the balance of Putin,” he said. “The country is in a state of war. And therefore big business cannot live as before. It has to live under military rules.”

Excuse me while I wipe away a tear for a fallen oligarch.

But seriously, this is a revelation? This has been obvious since very early on in the Putin years.

Indeed, it is just a recognition that Putin’s Russia is the continuation of a historical tradition stretching back to the dawn of Muscovy. As Richard Pipes wrote years ago, Russia/Muscovy was a patrimonial state in which all property was the tsar’s. Possession was temporary,  contingent on service, and conditional on the will of the tsar. Muscovy was the land of kormenlie-”the feeding”-in which the tsar granted a lucrative territory to an official, who was expected to support himself off of what he could take from it, and provide the tsar with service. Lands and serfs were granted to individuals in exchange for service, but were not property as such. Everything was occupied at the sufferance of the tsar. The system was later softened, and the service obligation weakened, but since forever the patrimonial aspects of the Russian state have survived. Putin is just the latest in a long tradition.

As I’ve written since the very beginning of the blog, Putin’s Russia is a “natural state” in which the ruler adopts policies that create rents, and then divvies up those rents in order to secure support,  to reward those who do his bidding and punish those who don’t: patrimonialism is one of the most primitive forms of the natural state. So the Timchenkos and Rotenbergs and Sechins live large, and the Yevtushenkovs and Khordokovskys and Pugachevs get crushed. Sometimes people are broken for a reason: sometimes the fall is arbitrary, just to demonstrate who is boss and to reinforce the understanding that wealth and power are contingent on the Putin’s will.

As I also wrote for a long time, especially around the time of the crisis in 2008-2009, the survival of this system depends on the existence of a stream of rents. When that stream dries up, it is more difficult to buy the subservience (I would not characterize it as loyalty) of the placemen. At such times, the system becomes vulnerable to collapse.

And there are some indications that this is the case now. One must always be cautious about trying to figure out what is going on behind the scenes in Russia, but there are some visible indications of a system under stress. One is the resort to sticks, with Yevtushenkov’s arrest being one example, and myriad repressive measures being others: sticks are needed all the more when the carrots run low. Another is the pervasiveness of propaganda. Yet another is the need for foreign adventures, confrontations with the outside world, and the assiduous cultivation of an us-versus-them mentality.

But perhaps the most telling indicator is the increasingly bizarre cult of personality being constructed around Putin. Putin’s apotheosis is occurring on his 62nd birthday. Almost literally. Recently an Orthodox activist suggested that Putin will become God, or the human embodiment of God on earth, through divine grace. There was an exhibition in Moscow portraying him as a Russian Hercules.  Russians from all walks of life-including hockey playing ape Alex Ovechkin-thronged to wish VVP a happy birthday. Other evidence of cultism abound.

A society that does this is not healthy. A society that does this is deeply insecure. A society that does this is desperate to believe that it is the hands of a savior because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

A society like this, a polity like this, is extremely brittle. It is at risk to shattering into a thousand shards.

Centuries ago, a rebel named Pugachev shook Catherine the Great’s Russia to its foundations. The 21st century Sergei Pugachev does not pose such a threat, but in a state as brittle as Putin’s Russia, a latter day Pugachev may arise from the steppe. Or from the center of Moscow.

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October 6, 2014

Laughing Gaz(prom)

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 6:21 pm

Silly me, I thought the “gaz” in Gazprom was methane. But reading this article in Platts, I’m thinking it’s nitrous oxide.  I had to read it several times before I could catch a glimpse of what Sergei Komlev, head of Gazprom Export’s contract structuring and price formation department, was getting at. I now see the basic problem is that he thinks the price of gas in Europe is too low. And the culprit? Speculators! Paper traders! “Virtual gas”!

Come on Sergei, you can’t get originality points for that one. Round up the usual suspects and all that.

Anyways, FWIW, here are Sergei’s deep, N20 inspired thoughts on the subject:

“Paradoxically, gas price erosion is taking place at a time when physical supplies are tight,” Komlev said, adding that some European market analysts had acknowledged that hubs were overflowing with largely “paper” gas.

This became possible with the development of the spot gas market as hubs developed a new class of customer such as banks and commodity traders, Komlev said.

But “as no one is in a position to predict the weather, traded volumes of ‘paper’ gas significantly surpassed real world demand for gas because of the abnormally warm winter in 2014,” he said.

This artificial oversupply had put significant pressure on the market, resulting in a collapse in spot prices, he said.

“As a result, our European customers are facing negative margins as they have to supply gas to end-consumers at lower prices than they pay for physical deliveries under long-term contracts,” he said.

“When some time ago our clients sold our contract volumes on a forward curve for many months ahead they targeted this new class of customers first,” he said.

I’m doubled over in convulsions here, and I haven’t even taken a hit. Is there such a thing as second hand N20?

Let me translate what really happened. Speculators went long. Weather was unusually warm. Prices fell, and speculators took a bath. Simple story. As for “tight physical supplies”, later on Sergei lets on that gas demand in Europe fell 20 percent in the 1st half of 2014.

Sorry, but “paper gas” doesn’t heat a single home or turn a single turbine. It doesn’t oversupply. It doesn’t overdemand. It just transfers price risk. As contracts go prompt, the price of paper gas converges to the price of physical gas, which is driven by supply and demand fundamentals-most notably the weather. What frosts (or is it burns?) Sergei is that the price converged to a low price which is out of line with the oil-linked prices in Gazprom contracts. This has imposed pain on Gazprom’s customers, who are clamoring to renegotiate their contracts, which Sergei and Gazprom no likey.

Like the proverbial blind hog and the acorn, Sergei did root up a bit of the truth:

Long-term contracts were shaped at a time when spot gas markets in Europe were not developed, and the gas price — linked to oil prices — “was practically independent of supply/demand dynamics,” Komlev said.

I repeat: The oil linked price was/is “practically independent of supply/demand dynamics.”

Exactly! That’s the problem! That’s why a move to hub-based pricing, where gas prices can reflect gas values, is so necessary: it ensures that contract prices reflect supply/demand dynamics. Prices that don’t reflect values lead to distortions in output and consumption and investment, and to conflicts between buyers and sellers that inflate transactions costs.

Komlev went on to say that since price in the contracts was not flexible, and was out of line with gas values, it was necessary to permit quantity flexibility in Gazprom contracts. If the company is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and must index its contractual gas prices to-wait for it-gas prices, it will eliminate the quantity optionality.

Throw the customers into that b’rer patch, Sergei. Truth be told, fixed quantity forward supply contracts are quite the thing in the US, and have been since the dysfunctional price controls on gas were discarded in the 1980s. Companies can buy and sell base load volumes using fixed quantity long term contracts (perhaps at indexed prices); respond to near term fundamental conditions with short-term (e.g., month ahead) forward contracts entered into during something analogous to “bid week” and respond to intra-month/daily supply and demand swings with spot transactions. They can also get various customized contracts that are seasonally shaped, or have some optionality that permits efficient responses to supply and demand shocks (though the CFTC’s proposed Seven Prong-Prong, not Pirrong-test for determining whether supply contracts with quantity optionality are swaps subject to Frankendodd could wreak havoc with that).

A liberated gas market offers a variety of contract terms, including contracts that embed various sorts of quantity optionality. But the point is that heterogeneous suppliers and demanders can utilize a variety of contracts tailored to meet their idiosyncratic needs, as opposed to Gazprom contracts, which remind me of nothing so much as an ill-fitting Soviet suit.

I do have to thank Sergei. I haven’t had such a good laugh in a long time, with or without chemical assistance. But I doubt he-and Gazprom-will be laughing for long. The disconnect between oil and gas prices has become too large and too persistent for their beloved oil linkage to survive much longer.

Speaking of oil-linked prices, this is an issue in LNG markets too. I recently authored a white paper on the subject. I’ll provide a link and write a post on that subject in the next few days.

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September 28, 2014

Discounting Sechin, and Making Perfidious Exxon Suck It Up

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:13 am

Igor Sechin has made a breathless announcement of a discovery of oil in the Kara Sea:

Exxon Mobil Corp. and Russia’s OAO Rosneft have found major amounts of oil and natural gas at their first well in the Arctic, Rosneft said Saturday, offering a glimpse of the potential buried beneath the ice-studded waters north of Siberia.

. . . .

“This is an outstanding result of the first exploratory drilling on a completely new offshore field,” Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chief executive, said in a statement. Rosneft praised other western partners including Schlumberger Ltd., Halliburton Co. and Weatherford International PLC.

Sechin said the field would become the Arctic equivalent of Saudi Arabia, in terms of reserves.

To which I say: not so fast. First, this is the first well and the full analysis of the results has barely begun, let alone been completed. Second, the area is huge, and a single well cannot provide more than a rough estimate of the productivity of the entire field. Third, ExxonMobil was far more circumspect:

“We have encountered hydrocarbons but it is premature to speculate on any potential outcome regarding the University-1 exploration well,” Alan Jeffers, an Exxon spokesman, said Saturday

Fifth, even if the size of the reserves is similar to those in Saudi, the cost of getting at them, and the technological and logistical challenges of exploiting them, are far greater: even with such assistance, Arctic drilling is a fraught enterprise (just as Shell). Development and production will require the assistance of the “western partners” that Sechin praised, and that assistance is on hold for who knows how long as a result of sanctions. No doubt Perfidious Exxon will be pulling out all the stops to get the sanctions lifted, but betting on that is even more dicey than Arctic oil exploration, at the present political juncture.

But most importantly, one must heavily discount Sechin’s happy talk due to these very same political circumstances. He needs to put on a bold front to counter negative news about the company and its prospects in the aftermath of sanctions. Further, to the extent that he can convince the west that a bonanza awaits only if sanctions are eased he can increase the odds of a lifting of the sanctions. He thus has an even greater incentive to exaggerate than would normally be the case, and note that he is not operating under the same legal restrictions on making forward looking statements as a US CEO would (which could explain Exxon’s reticence, despite the fact it also would like to advance arguments that would undermine the sanctions regime).  Exaggerations therefore are basically costless, and could have a big positive payoff to the extent they are believed. All the more reason not to believe him.

Exxon’s complicity here is disturbing. Understandable, but disturbing. It is dealing with the devil, and although the deal benefits shareholders, these benefits pale with the costs resulting from bolstering a revisionist, revanchist, and expansionist gangster state, and the capos who benefit directly from it. This is a case where state action is warranted on public goods grounds.

Indeed, the more Rex Tillerson squeals, the stronger my conviction that the sanctions are a good idea. Exxon will reap only a fraction of the benefits of cooperation with Rosneft: the larger fraction will accrue to Rosneft and the Russian state, and thereby fuel its predations, and those in the power structure that are the residual claimants. In this case, what’s good for Exxon is good for Putinistan, which given the malign consequences of the latter is precisely why the former should have to suck it up.

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September 26, 2014

Gazprom: Price Discriminating, Monopolist Thugs. What’s Not to Love?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:48 am

Russia is mounting a full-spectrum offensive to grind Ukraine into the dust. Military, paramilitary, diplomatic, political, and economic.

The centerpiece of the economic campaign is, of course, gas. Today Russia’s energy minister threatened a gas cutoff to any country that resold gas to Ukraine, in violation of Gazprom’s sales contracts. Hungary immediately knuckled under.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak asserted that the re-export to Ukraine of gas Europe buys from Russia was illegal and could see some of its nations go without fuel shipments from state energy giant Gazprom for the first time since 2009.

“We hope that our European partners will stick to the agreements. That is the only way to ensure there are no interruptions in gas deliveries to European consumers,” Novak told Friday’s edition of Germany’s Handelsblatt business daily.

Novak’s comments were published only hours after Ukraine’s state energy firm Naftogaz reported an interruption of gas supplies it receives through Hungary.

Naftogaz noted that the apparent cut “came only a few days after a visit to Hungary by representatives from (Russian state gas firm) Gazprom”.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban conceded that his country could not risk losing access to Russian gas — responsible for about 60 percent of the country’s supplies — over Ukraine.

“Hungary can not get into a situation in which, due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it cannot access its required supply of energy,” Orban said on state radio.

For its part, the EU disputes Russia’s interpretation of contracts:

The European Union rapped Hungary over the supply interruption.

“There is nothing preventing EU companies to dispose freely of gas they have purchased from Gazprom, and this includes selling this gas to customers both within the EU as well as to third countries such as Ukraine,” Commission spokeswoman Helene Banner said in Brussels.

Any such contractual terms would be, literally, agreements in restraint of trade. They restrain trade between first buyers of Russian gas and others.

Sometimes  restraints enhance efficiency. That is definitely not the case here. The restrictions have one purpose, and one purpose only. To facilitate price discrimination (and hence the exercise of market power) by Gazprom and Russia. This map provides a fascinating visual demonstration of how Gazprom discriminates by price. Adjacent countries can pay dramatically different prices. More distant countries pay lower prices than ones nearer to Russia.

Much of the discrimination is purely economic. Countries with access to few alternative suppliers or few alternative energy sources pay higher prices. But much of the discrimination is political. Note that Belarus and Armenia, reliable Russian clients, pay very low prices, but Ukraine and Lithuania, which bracket Belarus, pay very high ones.

Destination clauses are necessary to maintain these big price differentials. Hence eliminating them would reduce Gazprom’s market power and profitability (though the welfare effects of 3d degree price discrimination are ambiguous) and also reduce Russia’s political leverage. With the ability to resell, those buying at a favored price could resell to those whom Gazprom wants to charge a high price. Gazprom would have to charge pretty much the same price to everyone (though since diversions are not costless it would retain some ability to discriminate, but not nearly as much, especially in the longer run as new infrastructure could be created).

Which makes it all the more bizarre that Europe, and Germany in particular, hyperventilate over far more dubious and abstract theories of market abuse by Google and Microsoft, but meekly let Gazprom run roughshod with textbook monopolist tactics. The lack of a unified energy policy, and unified energy purchasing (Europe could act as a monopsonist) allows Gazprom to play its usual divide and conquer games, of which price discrimination is one obvious result. Expediting the antitrust action against Gazprom would be another way of combating Gazprom’s malign influence.

In the current dispute the stakes are both economic and political/geopolitical. Despite the high stakes, Europe will doubtless limit its response to theoretical objections like those delivered by Helene Banner.

One (bitterly) amusing sidelight to this is despite its market power (the result of Russian law which gives it a monopoly over gas exports and of European acquiescence) Gazprom is still a horrible performer by all conventional metrics. It’s price-earnings ratio is about 3. Contrast that to Shell, Chevron, and Exxon, which have ratios of 10, 11, and 12, respectively. Performance metrics, such as value added per employee or earnings as related to reserves, are horrible.

This is a testament in large part to appalling corporate governance and the insecurity of profits and property in Russia. Speaking of which, there were several developments in the Yevtushenkov/Sistema/Bashneft story today. Yevtushenkov’s house arrest was confirmed and extended, and the Russian government seized Sistema’s Bashneft shares.

I’m never going to run out of material. Never.

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