Streetwise Professor

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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The Putin Pattern: Pocket a Concession, Demand Even More

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:36 am

Putin keeps ratcheting up the pressure on Ukraine-and the EU. In response to his earlier threats to retaliate against the beleaguered neighbor and the Europeans if they proceeded with a trade association agreement, they agreed to defer implementation of parts of the agreement for 15 months. In particular, though Europe agreed to proceed with lowering barriers on Ukrainian imports, the parties deferred lowering Ukrainian restrictions on imports from the EU to assuage Vlad.

But Vlad was not assuaged. He pocketed that concession-which the parties stated explicitly was made in response to Russian concerns-and is now demanding more:

Vladimir Putin has demanded a reopening of the EU’s recently-ratified trade pact with Ukraine and has threatened “immediate and appropriate retaliatory measures” if Kiev moves to implement any parts of the deal.

. . . .

“We still believe that only systemic adjustments of the association agreement, which take into account the full range of risks to Russian-Ukrainian economic ties and to the whole Russian economy arising from implementation of the agreement, will allow [us] to retain existing trade and economic considerations between the Russian Federation and Ukraine,” Mr Putin says in his letter.

In other words, if Ukraine lowers barriers on European goods, Russia will raise barriers on Ukrainian ones.

The ostensible Russian concern is that better and cheaper European goods will flow to Ukraine, and then on to Russia, undercutting its inefficient producers.

I have to doubt that the concerns are serious, because of country of origin provisions in Russian customs laws. Yes, it is probably true that less restricted import of European goods into Ukraine will make it easier to evade country-of-origin rules, but this hardly seems to be enough of a concern to justify Putin’s ballistic reaction.

And if the concerns are serious, it just goes to demonstrate something I’ve mentioned before: Putin’s recognition of the fundamental inferiority, greater cost, and general non-competitiveness of Russian producers.

This is probably more a political statement than an economic one. Mr. Sovereignty, who Raised Russia From Its Knees, cannot countenance Ukraine being a sovereign entity, and wants to drive it to its knees, and perhaps face down in the dirt. He cannot countenance Ukraine engaging in an independent policy that moves it closer to Europe-and civilization-and further from Russia-and Muscovite barbarism. Knowing that Russia offers nothing positive that can attract friends and allies, it has to coerce vassals.

And note the continued pattern. Putin pockets every concession intended to appease him, and then escalates. He has done that repeatedly militarily in Ukraine, and is now doing it with respect to diplomatic-economic matters involving Ukraine.

You’d think the Europeans would have figured this out by now. Hell, rats in a Skinner Box learn patterns faster than the Euroweenies. But they are so craven and clueless that they make concession after concession. And in response, smart rat that he is, Putin just keeps pushing the lever that delivers the food pellet, and is feasting away.

If the Ukrainians and Europeans cave on this latest demand, Putin will just demand more. They have to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be here, over the Association Agreement. If they don’t, eventually the line will lie slightly east of Przemsyl.

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Sanctions Bite. Just Ask Igor Sechin . . . and Morgan Stanley

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:05 am

Some months ago, Morgan Stanley agreed to sell its oil trading business to Rosneft. Now the deal is at risk of unraveling, due to the effect of sanctions on the Russian company:

Rosneft has enough cash to buy the Morgan Stanley unit, which sources said carries a price tag of between $300 million to $400 million. But to operate day-to-day, the business requires billions of dollars of bank lines of credit, funding that is difficult to secure given the sanctions.

Reuters could not learn the precise size of these credit lines, but trading houses that compete with Morgan Stanley such as Vitol, [VITOLV.UL] Mercuria and Trafigura [TRAFGF.UL] each have $30 billion to $40 billion worth of credit lines with dozens of banks.

“This deal just cannot go through. It is not an issue of finding $300 million to buy the business. Rosneft has the money. But it won’t be able to operate it,” one Russian-based source with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Trading is an extremely working capital intensive business. Depending on its size, a supertanker can carry oil worth $50 million-$300 million, and this has to be financed during the period of the voyage. A decent-sized trading operation can have several tankers on the water, plus additional oil in storage, all of which needs to be financed. A major trading operation needs access to billions in funding on a continuous basis.

Typically, traders finance this with bank credit, with the bigger ones using open lines with banks (which offer considerable flexibility). (I discuss commodity trade financing in my white paper, The Economics of Commodity Trading Firms-bonus video!) You cannot compete efficiently in this business without access to such credit/credit lines. Loss of access to credit is a death sentence to a trading firm, and one that can’t get access in the first place will never be born. That’s where Rosneft finds itself now.

This is another blow to Sechin’s (and Putin’s) aspirations to make Rosneft into a peer super major like BP or Shell or Total that have  robust trading operations. The firm’s longer term ambitions have been seriously dented by the withdrawal of western firms from deepwater and unconventional onshore drilling projects in response to sanctions.

This is also a pain for Morgan Stanley, which is under government pressure to exit the physical trading business: it’s not clear that there’s anyone with enough appetite to pay what Rosneft agreed to. But its pain is nothing compared to Rosneft’s, which will remain dependent on traders to market its oil for the foreseeable future.

Breaks me all up.

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September 20, 2014

Pour Encourager Les Autres, Or Just Another Day in Putinistan

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:24 pm

Earlier this week, Russian authorities arrested billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, 64 percent owner of the Sistema conglomerates, whose holdings include the mobile operator MTS, retail interests, and . . . the independent oil company Bashneft.

Yevtushenkov was put under house arrest for alleged money laundering related to the acquisition of Bashneft. The company has its roots in the Republic of Bashkortostan, and its privatization was a dodgy affair, even by Russian standards. The company ended up under control of the son of the president of the republic, Murtaza Rakhimov. The son-Ural-is now a fugitive in the west.

But all of this is old news. The company was privatized in 2003, and Sistema acquired it in 2009. Litigation over the privatization has been going on since. So why now? Something new must have resulted in the green-lighting of the escalation of an investigation of old news.

As is always the case with Russia, there are numerous competing hypotheses, and the outcome is probably overdetermined. A leading explanation is that Sechin covets Bashneft, and made Yevtushenkov an offer he couldn’t refuse . . . which he promptly did, leading to his current predicament.

Just exactly what that predicament is is obscure, again in a typically Russian way. After a couple of days in which Yevtushenkov was supposedly unable to communicate with anyone by phone or use the internet, Sistema claimed in a press release that the house arrest had been lifted, and Yevtushenkov supposedly spoke to a journalist by phone. But the Investigative Committee denied that the house arrest had been lifted.

Sistema lawyers filed an appeal of the Investigative Committee’s actions agains the company (though apparently not Yevtushenkov) with the Prosecutor General’s Office. This is interesting-and again typically Russian-because the Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office are sworn enemies answering to different clans within the siloviki. So maybe there is a bulldogs under the carpet clan war component to this as well.

Sistema’s stock price cratered by 35 percent on news of the arrest, and the affair has sent huge shock waves through the Russian business community. Khodorkovsky flashbacks are epidemic, and many are making dire warnings about how this will accelerate capital flight, further demolish Russia’s investment climate, and worsen the already fraught economic conditions.

Which is probably all true. And Putin is perfectly aware of this, yet has permitted this to escalate nonetheless. Either because he’s especially fond of Sechin, or believes that Rosneft’s condition is sufficiently dire in the aftermath of sanctions that it needs a fillip in the form of the acquisition of a relatively progressive, technologically advanced oil producer at a knock-down price, or because he has another, more political agenda. (Note, that once Rosneft acquires it, it will cease to become a progressive, technologically advanced oil producer.) Or all the above. Plus other things.

Don’t discount the political agenda. One of the alleged purposes of the sanctions is to create an uprising of the oligarchs against Putin and the siloviki. In his paranoia, Putin almost certainly believes that’s true: he, and most of those around him, believe that the US is hell-bent on regime change in Russia.

Putin is therefore likely to interpret any disagreement by an oligarch as a challenge to his power. He may not even believe that Yevtushenkov is challenging him politically, but is afraid that a refusal to knuckle under to Sechin can be interpreted by others as an act of insubordination, which would encourage further acts of destabilizing independence unless it is punished ruthlessly. Thus, Yevtushenkov has to pay the price, pour encourager les autres.

The FT quotes many in Russia, some on the record, some anonymously, who claim that this is an indication of how sanctions are actually having the perverse effect of empowering the siloviki and destroying those who would be “friends of the West.” I think the cause and effect is mixed up here. The sanctions are the result of Crimea and Donbas, which could only happen because Putin and the siloviki reigned supreme. Putin attacked each precisely because he and the siloviki were unchecked within Russia: the “liberal” elements in the Russian elite, such as they were, had been kicked to the curb long ago. One can date the definitive decline of the moderate, economy-oriented elements in the elite to Putin’s decision to resume the presidency. Since then the trajectory of repression, revanchism, paranoia, and statism within Russia has been unmistakable. At most, sanctions have accelerated what was an unmistakable and inexorable trend.

I still shake my head at the silly commentaries that were so common at the time of the Putin restoration to the effect that he would have to-have to!-reform and adopt moderate policies in order to rejuvenate Russia’s sputtering economy. Talk about projection and mirror imaging. Nothing of the sort was ever in prospect.

Even overlooking the fact that aging leopards don’t change their spots, Putin’s mental model of the economy does not associate moderate liberal or “neoliberal” actions with economic progress. He is a statist enamored of national champions controlled from the center.  He also distrusts biznessmen outside of his control who could get uppity and pose a political challenge: why do you think that one of his first priorities upon assuming the presidency the first time was to liquidate the oligarchs as a class, and why would you think that he would countenance their renaissance? Thus, both economic and political reasons compelled Putin to move in the exact opposite direction that fuzzy headed, mirror-gazing commentators recommended in 2012-2013. That was happening before the sanctions, and would have continued even if sanctions had never been imposed.

Those of a dialectical turn of mind, or who believe in “the worse, the better”*, might find reasons to welcome any acceleration of the perfection of Putinism, and therefore welcome any tailwinds provided by sanctions. The sooner this happens, the more rapidly the internal contradictions of his economic and political models will become manifest, and lead to his demise. Not that what will replace Putin and Putinism are likely to be anything that would bring a smile to Adam Smith’s face. The Who-meet the new boss, same as the old boss-is likely to be the best guide to a post-Putin Russia. If we ever get there.

That is, the Yevtushenkov affair is just another day in Putinistan. A continuation, not a change in course. If you’re surprised, it only means that you haven’t been paying attention or were too busy projecting.

*This phrase is widely attributed to Lenin, but there is no definitive citation. The concept is found in a novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky which allegedly influenced Lenin.

 

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