Streetwise Professor

July 23, 2017

Ending CIA Arming of the Syrian Rebels Sparks More Zero Sum Thinking on Russia

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:14 pm

The latest establishment freakout is over the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the CIA’s program to arm anti-Assad rebels. This episode displays prominently all of the establishment’s mental defects and psychological obsessions.

The first question relevant in appraising the wisdom of the CIA program is whether it is in America’s interest. The objective of the program was to assist in the overthrow of the Assad regime. Which benefits the US how, exactly?

Overthrowing is merely the first–and in some respects, the easiest–step. What comes next? Who/what replaces the existing regime? We’ve seen this movie in the Middle East, and it has never ended well. The aftermath of Khaddafy’s fall is probably the most illuminating example, and anyone who contemplates it for a moment should be very dubious about what wold happen in Syria post-Assad. After all, many of those the CIA was arming in Syria were either jihadists or inferior in combat power and will to jihadists: a post-Assad Syria would likely either be a jihadist state, or a collection of warring statelets, many (if not most) of which would be dominated by Salafists and provide operational bases for anti-western terrorism.

How is that in American interests? We are approaching our 17th year in Afghanistan, the objective of which was originally, and largely remains, to deny Islamic terrorists a base: so why would we want to pursue a policy that would likely give them one that is much more proximate to vital US interests?

The second question is: even overlooking whether the mission objective is wise, has the operation been successful? Here the answer is a resounding “no!” The anti-Assad forces have been losing ground steadily on the battlefield, and have no prospect of winning going forward. Why reinforce an obvious failure? Especially when many of the weapons supplied could well be turned against the US?

AHA! The establishment responds: the opposition lost because the Russians intervened! We are therefore advancing Russian interests by terminating the program!

This is indeed the focus of most of the establishment criticism: yet more evidence of Trump’s pro-Russian stance!

This argument epitomizes zero sum thinking: something that makes Russia better off makes the US worse off, and vice versa. Therefore, we should do something that (a) is unlikely to “succeed”, and (b) even if it “succeeded” would likely be adverse to US interests, because stopping it pleases Putin.

This is exactly what I mean by “mental defect” and “psychological obsession.” This is not strategic thinking: it is dangerous foolishness driven by a monomaniacal focus on Russia.

There is a sick irony here because zero sum thinking is one of Putin’s defining characteristics. His obsession with the US leads him to pursue things which either are adverse to Russian interests, or which utilize resources that could be much better deployed elsewhere, because he believes inflicting pain on the US somehow helps Russia. Thus, those who criticize the end of the CIA program because it will help Putin are mirroring the object of their hatred.

Bizarre.

And so what can Putin “win”? He maintains influence over a country that was a dung heap and economic basket case even before it was all but destroyed by six years of civil war. Check out how much the USSR threw down the Syrian rathole–fat lot of good that it did them. Putin has basically added another wrecked country that will be a dependent on Russia for economic support for decades to his collection of stellar allies. (Note too Putin’s efforts to make deals with Venezuela, which is hurtling into chaos and destruction.)  It is an ulcer.

If that’s what he wants to do–why get in his way? This seems to e a classic case of “never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.” Oh! He will be able to retain an expand a naval base! Which, (a) he could never support in the event of a shooting war involving the US, and (b) could be obliterated in  a trice. It makes him feel important, but has zero strategic value.

Further, insofar as proving he’s a playa in the Middle East is concerned, this has also come at a cost which hardly seems worth it. He has alienated the Saudis and other Sunni states, and has enmeshed himself with the ally from hell–Iran. Good luck with that, Vlad.

And indeed, Iran seems to be the main beneficiary of Assad’s survival. For this reason, if the debate over supporting the anti-Assad forces takes into consideration his survival’s effect on the balance of power, the focus should be Iran, not Russia. In particular, Assad’s Syria is the vital link between Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s fortunes would take a serious blow if an anti-Iran regime rules Syria. Which explains why Hezbollah has spent much blood, and Iran has spent much treasure and blood, in fighting for Assad.

Well, truth be told, Hezbollah is not primarily an American concern. Yes, we have unfinished business with them (e.g., the Marine barracks bombing, among other things) but it is not high on the list of threats to the US. Hezbollah is first and foremost an Israeli problem, and arguably is an existential threat or at least a potential one, to Israel.

But if you’ll notice, Israel has pretty much stayed out of the Syrian war. It certainly has not publicly called for his ouster, nor is there evidence that they have worked to support the opposition or to undermine him. Indeed, Israel’s behavior suggests that they think he is the devil they know, and better than the alternative.

Israeli involvement in Syria has been primarily focused on striking direct support for Hezbollah, such as missile shipments from Iran destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Israel has attacked these directly, rather than indirectly by going after Assad.

Note too that the Israelis have not been exercised with Russian intervention in Syria. In fact, Putin and Netanyahu have engaged in several businesslike meetings, and the two countries seem to have an understanding about Syria.

The US should take a clue from the Israelis. If they can live with Assad, the US can too. Yes, Assad is a butcher, and a man who has shown he will commit pretty much any crime to survive. But given that Jeffersonian democracy is not on offer as a successor, and indeed, any successor is likely to be virulently anti-American, a source of terrorism, and as big (or bigger) butcher than Assad, why continue an intervention that has proved a failure on its own terms? And no, “because continuing to arm the rebels angers Putin” is not the answer to that question. At least, it’s not for anyone in possession of his/her faculties, and not gripped zero sum thinking and an unhealthy obsession with Putin. Conditions which, alas, do not characterize the American political class at the moment.

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July 15, 2017

Remember Chinagate?: Trump Jr. Was Betting on Form

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:17 pm

The hyperventilating over the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya meeting continues. The latest revelation is from a Russian also present at the meeting, lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who claims that Veselnitskaya gave the Trump Jr. party a “plastic folder” (why not a plain brown paper wrapper?) containing “printed documents” (as opposed to what, unprinted documents?) revealing a flow of dirty foreign money into Democratic Party coffers.

According to just about everybody, including the likes of Charles Krauthammer, this is utterly damning. Not only did Trump go to the meeting under the belief he would get damning documents, he actually got them! Proof of collusion!

Did I say hyperventilating earlier? I should have said “paint huffing”: the sound is the same but huffing leads to intoxication and brain damage, which is manifestly evident here. Because it is delusional to think it is somehow scandalous to pursue allegations of foreign money flowing illegally to the DNC during a campaign with someone named “Clinton” at the top of the ticket. It is delusional precisely because allegations that the Clintons and the DNC could be the beneficiaries of illicit foreign donations is hardly beyond the realm of possibility: It is a historical fact. Hello? Remember Chinagate? You know, Johnny Chung. John Huang. James Riady. Maria Hsia. Charlie Trie. Fundraisers in Buddhist temples. The Chinese embassy in Washington coordinating campaign contributions to the DNC–a story broken by the Washington Post, by the way. Veselnitskaya’s claims were not something wildly implausible: they were deja vu. (Which may be precisely why that was her come on.) (And by the way–could you imagine the Category 5 shitstorm that would be raging were there allegations that the Russian embassy in DC had been coordinating donations to the RNC?)

Note that such allegations and the information to substantiate them are not likely to emanate from the Vatican. It is almost inevitable that they would come from a potentially dodgy source with an axe to grind. And the source is ultimately irrelevant as to the truth or falsity of the documents or allegations that the source provides. Reducing all questions of fact to issues of motive-which is true of most of the arguments about Russian influence attempts -is a disreputable tactic, and one that usually means that the facts are pretty damning.

As it happened, Trump Jr. quickly judged that Veselnitskaya could not back up her claims, so he did not pursue the matter.

The nature of Trump Jr.’s supposed sin also sets the head spinning. It is somehow an unpardonable foreign manipulation of US elections to hear out someone claiming to have evidence that one’s opponent is the beneficiary of foreign manipulations? It is foreign interference to receive purported evidence (from foreign sources) about foreign interference?

And that’s somehow worse than accepting–and passing on to law enforcement–unsubstantiated allegations about Trump obtained from a foreign source? John McCain did that with the Steele dossier, which was paid for by (a) at least one of Trump’s Republican opponents, and (b) an as yet unnamed Democratic Party source. Trump Jr. didn’t pay to dig up the alleged dirt: it was brought to him. Trump Jr. rejected what was proffered. McCain (and perhaps others) passed on what they had like the clap.

The Steele dossier was opposition research, meaning that by design it was intended to influence the US election. It was circulated with that intent. It originated from a foreign source, motives unknown. All things which allegedly make the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya meeting wrong. Yet the amount of curiosity about the dossier pales in comparison with this Trump Jr. meeting. Do you think Trump Jr. will be able to get away with stonewalling the way Fusion GPS, the intermediary in the Steele dossier, is doing?

No. If the Trump  Jr. meeting demands a full public inquiry, so does the entire genesis and history of the Steele dossier. And I would surmise that the Steele dossier story is far more sordid and damning than Trump Jr.’s ultimately barren dalliance with Veselnitskaya. Which is exactly why a cynic like me believes an examination of the dossier’s provenance is being avoided like the plague–it would not reflect well on many, many members of the political class and federal law enforcement.

Trump Jr.’s meeting was extremely unwise because of the optics, rather than the substance. The dangers of Russian connections were already apparent, although on 9 June 2016 they were not nearly as radioactive as they would become after the Wikileaks release of the DNC emails and subsequently the Podesta emails, let alone after Hillary’s crushing loss and the consequent need for a scapegoat and a means of kneecapping the Trump presidency. It was rash for Trump Jr. (and Kushner) to meet on the basis of such sketchy hints passed on via Z-list promoters: they should have dispatched an intermediary to do a preliminary check, which almost certainly would have led to the same result as the actual meeting did, but which would have avoided the risk–which ultimately crystalized, long after the election–inherent in a face-to-face meeting between a Russian and Trump’s two closest confidents.

But facts are facts, regardless of the source. And if Veselnitskaya indeed had factual evidence of a foreign attempt to influence the US election, her dubious background would not have gainsaid those facts. And given the DNC’s and the Clinton’s history with dirty foreign connections, it was hardly wrong to entertain and investigate assertions that history was repeating.  And if the allegations were proven, they would have demonstrated what is supposedly a horrible sin–foreign interference in the US election. Trump Jr. was betting on form, and by the standards now advanced by his father’s political opponents, performing a public service of policing American elections.

 

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July 4, 2017

Donald Trump, LNG Impressario: Demolishing the Putin Puppet Narrative

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 am

If Trump has a signature policy issue, it is promoting US energy to achieve what he calls “energy dominance.” The leading edge of this initiative is the promotion of LNG. Immediately prior to his appearance at the G20 Summit (where ironically he will be tediously hectored on trade by the increasing insufferable Angela Merkel), he will speak Thursday at the “Three Seas Summit” in Poland, where he will tout American LNG exports as both an economic and security fillip to Europe, and in particular eastern Europe.

“I think the United States can show itself as a benevolent country by exporting energy and by helping countries that don’t have adequate supplies become more self-sufficient and less dependent and less threatened,” he said.

This strikes at the foundation of Putin’s economic and geopolitical strategy. Export revenues from gas and oil keep his country afloat and his cronies flush. He uses gas in particular as a knout to bludgeon recalcitrant eastern Europeans (Ukraine in particular) and as a lever to exercise influence in western Europe, Germany in particular.

Gazprom routinely sniffs that LNG is more costly than Russian gas, and that LNG will not appreciable erode its market share. That’s true, but illustrates perfectly the limitations of market share as a measure of economic impact. The increased availability of LNG, particularly from the US, increases substantially the elasticity of supply into Europe. This, in turn, substantially increases the elasticity of demand. As the low cost producer (pipeline gas being cheaper), Russia/Gazprom will continue to be the source of the bulk of the methane molecules burned in Europe, but this increased elasticity of demand will reduce Gazprom’s pricing power and hence its revenues.

Furthermore, the effect on short-run elasticities will be particularly acute. Pre-LNG, there were few sources of additional supply available in a period of days or weeks that could substitute for Russian gas cutoff during some geopolitical power play. With LNG, the threat of shutting off the gas has lost much of its sting: especially as LNG evolves towards a traded market, supplies can swing quickly to offset any regional supply disruption, including one engineered by Putin for political purposes. So LNG arguably reduces Putin’s political leverage even more than it reduces his economic leverage. This is particularly true given complementary European policy changes that permit the flow of gas to regions not serviced by LNG directly.

Trump is getting some pushback from domestic interests in the US (notably the chemical industry) because greater exports would support prices and deprive these industries of the cheap fuel and feedstock that has powered their growth (something totally unpredictable a decade ago, when the demise of the US petrochemical industry was a real possibility). But (a) Trump seems totally committed to his pro-export course, and (b) complementary efforts to reduce restrictions on supply will mitigate the price impact. So I expect the opposition of the likes of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America to be little more than a speed bump in his race to promoting energy exports.

This all reveals Trump for the mercantilist he is: imports bad, exports good. This is economically illiterate and incoherent, but it’s Trump trade policy in a nutshell. Economic coherence aside, however, Donald Trump, LNG Impressario totally demolishes the Putin puppet narrative. Not that you’d notice–the hysteria continues unabated, because reality doesn’t matter to the soi disant reality-based community.

Here we have Trump devoting the bulk of his non-Twitter-directed energies (and he is high energy!) to promoting an economic policy that hits Putin at his most vulnerable spot, economically and geopolitically. Whatever his Russia-related rhetoric, pace Orwell, he is objectively anti-Putin.

Not that this causes neo-McCarthyites even to experience cognitive dissonance, let alone to engage in a serious re-evaluation. To them, Trump is literally a Kremlin operative in Putin’s thrall. And nothing–not even Trump venturing to the heart of the area Putin and his ilk believe to be in Russia’s sphere of influence and loudly (very loudly) proclaiming that he is offering American gas to free Europe from its energy thralldom–will divert them from their non-stop narrative.

As an aside, I do Joseph McCarthy a grave disservice by comparing today’s mainstream media, the Democratic Party, Neocons, and large swathes of the Republican establishment to him. There was actually a far more substantial factual basis for his paranoia than there is for that of the anti-Trump brigades.

There is an irony here, though. I have often sneered at Putin (and when he was president, Medvedev), for acting like a glorified Secretary of Commerce, going around being the pitchman for Russian economic interests, in energy in particular. Stylistically, Trump is doing somewhat the same. But substantively, in Making American Energy (LNG particularly) Great, Trump is giving Putin a good swift kick in the stones.

Not that the promoters of the New Red Scare are paying the slightest heed. Which demonstrates that theirs is a completely partisan and grotesquely intellectually dishonest campaign.

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June 28, 2017

Puzzling Statements From Rosneft and Russneft

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

Yesterday Rosneft was the target of a cyberattack (ransomware to be specific). The company ominously tweeted:

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 6.58.23 PM

So the first thing that came to mind was that some legal adversary (presumably Sistema) was hacking Rosneft in retaliation for Rosneft’s lawsuit?

How weird is that? Paranoid? A threat? A paranoid threat?

This is even more bizarre because multiple companies–including Russian companies like Evraz and several banks, Ukrainian companies, and major international firms like Maersk–were hit simultaneously and the news spread rapidly. But apparently those running Rosneft’s social media live in a bubble and think (a) everything is about them, and (b) their commercial enemies are out to get them (which could well be a clinical case of projection). The Tweet certainly suggests that the Sistema litigation is a huge deal at Rosneft, which is telling in its own way.

Regardless of the explanation, this has to be the most bizarre corporate Tweet I have ever seen. And I’ve read some of Elon’s (before he blocked me!)

In other news that makes me question the competence of the management of Russian oil companies, consider this gem from Russneft:

Russneft, Russia’s mid-sized oil producer, is looking to clinch an oil hedging deal with VTB, Russia’s second biggest bank, Russneft Senior Vice President Olga Prozorovskaya said on Tuesday.

Mikhail Gutseriyev, a Russneft co-owner, told an annual shareholders meeting separately that he had earned $700 million on a previous oil hedge deal. Sources told Reuters earlier that Gutseriyev had been hedging at Sberbank.

“We are waiting for (the right) moment … and we will do (oil) hedging in the nearest future. We will hedge in such a way that we will get a couple of hundreds of million dollars in profit,” Gutseriyev said. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but on its face the statement makes no sense: hedging is not a profit making activity, but is a risk reduction activity. Indeed, in most markets a short hedger (which an oil producer would be) lowers average profits by hedging (because hedging pressure generally depresses the forward price below the expected spot price), but may choose to hedge nonetheless because of the benefits of lower profit variability (which arise from factors such as financial distress costs, agency costs, and taxes).

So methinks Gospodin Gutseriyev is unclear on the concept of hedging.

Attempting to be charitable here, perhaps what he means is that by selling forward its anticipated output Russneft will lock in a profit in the hundreds of millions. Dunno, but read literally the statement suggests that Russneft needs some schooling on what hedging can actually achieve.

 

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June 17, 2017

We Can Now Bound From Above the Price of German Principles

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:30 pm

If you really concentrate, I’m sure you can stretch your memory to recall those long past days when Angela Merkel was hailed as the new Leader of the Free World, most notably because of her stalwart stance on Russia, in contrast to Trump, who was deemed a squish on Russia at best, and a collaborationist at worst. But that was so . . . May. Now in mid-June, the Germans and much of the rest of Europe and their fellow travelers here in the US are totally losing it over the 98-2 vote in the US Senate (the two dissenters being ideological bookends Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders) to strengthen the sanctions regime on Russia, and notably, to limit Trump’s ability to relax sanctions unilaterally.

So: In May, soft on Russia bad, hard on Russia good. In June, hard on Russia bad. In May, Trump had too much power. In June, limiting Trump’s power is inexcusable.

What changed? Actually nothing changed. This is volte face reflects an enduring constant: German commercial interests. The Senate sanctions bill would impose potential penalties on those assisting in the construction of Russian pipelines, most notably NordStream 2. NordStream 2 is a joint project between Gazprom and a handful of major European, and particularly German, corporate behemoths.

German explanations of the motivation behind the Senate’s action betray extreme psychological projection. Echoing Gazprom (an action which if you were to do it in the US would immediately bring down upon on your head screams of “RUSSIAN TROLL”), several European policymakers have claimed that this action was intended to advance the interests of US LNG exporters.

Um, no. Not even close. The objections of the US to NordStream date back to the Obama administration, which was hardly a major promoter of the US natural gas industry. Further, the main drivers in the Senate were people like McCain, for whom economic considerations are tertiary, at best: McCain et al have had it in for Russia generally and NordStream particularly for geopolitical reasons, and their opposition dates back years. Moreover, the bill reflects the current anti-Russia hysteria in the US, which in turn reflects a strange mix of political factors, not least of which is the clinical insanity of the Democratic Party post-November, 2016.

Indeed, US opposition to Russian gas pipelines into Europe dates back to the Reagan administration. The US tried to stop the pipelines through Ukraine that Putin is now trying to outflank with NordStream, because it thought the pipelines provided an economic benefit to the USSR and made Europe hostage to Russian economic pressure. This was in fact a source of one of the few disagreements between Thatcher (who supported the pipelines) and Reagan.

How much did the US hate the USSR-Europe gas pipelines, you ask? Enough to blow them up. Blow them up real good: “The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

Those who claim economic motivations say a lot more about themselves than they do about the US Senate: adopting a policy to advance German/European economic interests is exactly what they would do, and they are projecting this motivation on the US.  Indeed, the Germans’ hysterical reaction demonstrates just how important economic considerations are to them, and how marginal are geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.

If you think the Russians are as big a threat as the Germans and other gas-poor nations say, they should be deeply grateful for the emergence of US LNG which reduces their dependence on the evil Russkies. But the Germans say: we don’t want your methadone, we’d rather continue to buy smack from this really nasty dealer.

The hypocrisy and projection don’t stop there. Of course German economic policy is strongly oriented towards boosting its exports, often at the cost of beggaring its supposed European brothers and sisters (especially the swarthy ones down south). What’s good for zee goose, kameraden. .  .

Further, recall (if you can remember back that far) that one reason for the German/European freakout over Trump in May was his refusal to acknowledge solidarity with our allies by mouthing the words “Article 5.” All for one! One for all!

Right?

Well, eastern Europeans–the Poles in particular–think that NordStream basically sells them out to the Russians in order to benefit Germany. The Germans have totally blown off this criticism, and have subjected the Poles and Baltic States to considerable criticism and pressure for their opposition to NordStream. So much for European solidarity. It’s all for one, all right: that one being Germany. That one for all . . . not so much.

It gets better! Merkel and other Euros are fond of saying “more Europe.” Well, that’s exactly what the dispute and the sanctions are about, isn’t it? The economics of NordStream 2 are dubious, but it presents a nearly existential threat to Ukraine. The entire reason for the conflict in Donbas and the seizure of Crimea (conflicts that Merkel is allegedly attempting to mediate) were Ukraine’s attempt to move closer to Europe.

That is: (1) Ukraine takes “more Europe” seriously, and enters into an agreement with the EU that would open up trade with an eye on Ukraine joining the union in the future, (2) Putin takes exception to this, and initiates a series of actions that culminate with the ouster of Yanukovych followed by the seizure of Crimea, and a hot war in Donbas, (3) the US Senate attempts to penalize Russian actions by sanctions, and (4) the Europeans scream bloody murder at US intrusion into their policy domain.

In other words, when forced to put their money (and their gas) where their mouths are, the Europeans jettison “more Europe”. And then turn around and slag the US for taking them at their word.

Hey, they can do what they want. And the US can do what it wants. Just spare me the sanctimonious bullshit about standing up to Russia, European solidarity, more Europe, and on and on. It’s all about the Euros, baby–€–and German € in particular. Every “principle” that supposedly earned Merkel the designation as Leader of the Free World went out the window in a nanosecond, once some big German companies were going to have to pay a price for those principles.

We can now bound from above the price of German principles. The upper bound is in the billions of Euros. I am sure that the true price is far lower than that.

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June 8, 2017

Rosneft Follies, Redux

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 1:16 pm

Sarah Mcfarlane dropped a long piece in the WSJ claiming that the already sketchy Rosneft-QIA-Glencore deal was even sketchier than it appeared at the time, hard as that is to believe. Specifically, according to Sarah (and Summer Said), Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, agreed in that Russia would repurchase the stake at a future date:

Moscow agreed with Qatar that Russia would buy back at least a portion of the stake from the rich Persian Gulf emirate, the people said. The Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities giant, formed a partnership to buy the 19.5% stake in Russia’s energy jewel at a time when Mr. Putin’s government needed cash.

The people with knowledge of the deal say the buyback arrangement was negotiated with involvement from Mr. Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Russia and Qatar saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge between countries that had taken up opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, the people said. One of the people said the buyback would happen in the next 10 years.

Color me skeptical. For one thing, Glencore is a principal in the deal, and it would have to sign off too: the story does not assert, claim, suggest, or imply that Glencore did so. Both Glencore and QIA vigorously deny the story, for whatever that’s worth, as do the Russians. (As an aside, a source in Russia tells me that Ivan Glasenberg refused to discuss anything about the deal recently. Why the UK authorities and the LSE are so willing to accept the extremely deficient disclosure by a major UK issuer relating to a major transaction is beyond me. Maybe they are trying to convince Saudi Aramco that if it lists in London, it can do pretty much anything anywhere, no questions asked! BP’s silence is also curious.)

For another thing, Putin saying “I’ll buy it back later” without a mechanism to determine price is meaningless. I smile when I think about the number of times going back to at least 2006 the Russians announced that they had almost completed a gas deal with China: all that remained to determine was the price! And this went on year, after year, after year.  In other words, no agreement on pricing means no real agreement.

This is pretty funny:

Qatar wanted its Rosneft stake to be temporary, the people said. The emirate believes it will profit from selling the shares back to Russia at a later date, the people said, betting that oil prices will rise and push up Rosneft’s share price. Qatar saw the political benefits of giving Russia access to quick cash as a sort of loan to address a budget deficit that had widened due to lower oil prices, the people said.

In the 7 months (to the day) since the deal was announced, this has turned out to be a bad bet: Rosneft’s stock is down about 12 percent in Euros. (It’s down about 18 percent in rubles.)

This raises some other crucial issues. The €2.8 billion that QIA and Glencore put down represents about 26 percent of the value of the deal. Meaning that about one-half of the equity cushion is gone. Thus, the indemnities and guarantees that the Russian banks provided Glencore (there is no clarity on whether they similarly indemnified the QIA portion of the loan, but its non-recourse nature suggests they did) are getting pretty close to being in the money. Given the recent bloodbath in the oil market there is a decent probability that the loan will be underwater in the near to medium term.

Intesa’s statement suggests that QIA is indemnified/guaranteed too:

An Intesa spokesman said the loan to the Qatar/Glencore partnership “is covered by a robust package of guarantees.” Intesa is trying to spread the risk of its loan by syndicating it to other banks, but a person familiar with the matter said the bank hasn’t yet found willing banks.

The syndication part makes me laugh. Um, you’re kinda supposed to arrange the syndication at the front end, either before the deal or shortly (I mean days) afterwards. Seven months later, when you have zero negotiating leverage because you already are wearing the entire loan? With about half the equity cushion gone? With the loans being backed by Russian banks that are (a) not in the most robust health, and (b) under a cloud due to Russian sins real, and recently, feverishly imagined? Yeah, that will be an easy sell! I’m sure other banks are just lining up for a piece of that!

In bocca al lupo, signori!

The story suggests that Putin pressured Sechin to stitch together this Frankenstein’s monster to address pressing budget issues. I have no doubt that this was done under duress, but less because of budget than because of prestige and reputation. Putin had said that a stake in the company would be privatized in 2016, and to a non-Russian buyer. So Putin put his reputation on the line, and Sechin had to come through.

But virtually all the downside risk resides in Russia (something I pointed out early). So although the deal (a) generated some cash inflow that did address some budget issues, and (b) provided some reputational benefits (for a few weeks, anyway), it did nothing to mitigate the Russian government’s exposure to Rosneft’s downside, but did give away the upside. In essence, Putin and Sechin got their PR play by giving away a put on Rosneft. That’s what enticed QIA and Glencore.

In other news from the bizarre world of Russian–and Rosneft specifically–transactions, the Rosneft/Sechin-Sistema litigation rolls on. Indeed, Sechin increased his demands by more than 50 percent, from $1.9b to $3b. My same Russian source says all of Russia is mystified by this, but he did provide a valuable tidbit.

What had mystified me was how Rosneft could go after Sistema when it bought Bashneft from the state. Well, apparently Igor was in such a hurry to complete the deal that Rosneft didn’t begin the audit/due diligence until after the deal was completed! 

Why was Igor in a hurry? My guess is that Putin had opposed Rosneft’s purchase in August, and changed his mind in September, and Sechin wanted to move before Putin changed his mind again.

Perhaps Igor was thinking that if the audit uncovered irregularities, he could get a Russian court to give him a mulligan and claw back the money. In which case, the current litigation might have been part of the plan (at least as a contingency) all along.

I’m still puzzled, though, because some of the things Sechin goes on about (e.g., the sale of Bashneft’s oilfield services business to a Sistema entity, and the subsequent contract between Bashneft and that entity for said services) was known about before. So maybe Igor is just throwing everything into the litigation claim, even when it doesn’t make any sense. After all, this isn’t being heard in a London court or arbitration in a European country: although this is an intra-Russian dispute, Sechin definitely has home field advantage.

Keep this all in mind whenever anyone (and now it seems that means pretty much everyone) tries to scare you about the Russian bogeyman. The follies of one of Russia’s premier companies, a so-called national champion, illustrate just what a ramshackle, and at times clownish, contraption the Russian state is. Putin does a great Wizard of Oz imitation, but when Toto pulls back the curtain as has happened with the Rosneft/Glencore/QIA deal, you’ll see that there’s a little man blowing a lot of smoke.

 

 

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May 28, 2017

Calling Out the Free Riding Euroweenies

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Russia — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

Trump’s continued insistence that Europe pony up to pay for its own defense–by living up to its commitment to spend 2 pct of GDP on the military–sent the Euros into a tizzy during the recent Nato and G-7 meetings. Ironically, given that the UK is leaving Europe, the FT has been particularly obnoxious in its defense of the decided lack of Euro defense spending. Two opeds from last week are perfect cases in point.

In this one, Ivo Daalder, former US permanent representative to Nato, and diehard foreign policy establishmentarian, opines that defense expenditures are not the measure of a defense alliance. Instead, “[t]he heart of the alliance lies in the commitment of each member to defend the others.”

That this is retarded is self-evident. What, pray tell, is the commitment to defend worth if those making the “commitment” do not have the means to live up to it?

It is worth exactly nothing. If, for instance, the Russians invaded the Baltics or Poland: what could the Europeans do? They could no doubt issue stirring statements expressing solidarity with their eastern brethren. But as for actually doing something–fat chance.

Belgium has committed to defend other Nato members. Belgium has zero main battle tanks. The Netherlands has committed to defend other Nato members. The Netherlands has 18 MBTs. Germany has committed to defend other Nato members. Germany–an economic colossus–has a grand total of 250 MBTs.

Furthermore, not only do these nations have little actual combat power, they have virtually no strategic mobility. God only knows how the 18 Dutch MBTs would actually make it to Nato’s eastern marches.

When the Europeans intervened in Libya, they depended almost exclusively on the US for reconnaissance, intelligence, and aerial refueling.

In brief, non-US Nato countries have little combat power, and no ability to sustain what little power they have outside of their own countries.

Meaning that the hallowed commitment is worth exactly squat.

The second oped, by a Princeton poli sci prof, claims that Europe pays its fair share because measuring contributions to security by looking at military expenditure alone “rests on an outdated notion of global power.”

Pray tell, Professor Moravcsik, how is that “civilian power” is working out in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, etc.? Besides, I thought that the reason that Putin was such a grave threat is precisely that he clings to “outdated notions of global power”, for which the Europeans have no answer.

Moravcsik and others who make the same argument also present a false choice: “civilian power” and military power are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are highly complementary. As the Al Capone line goes, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. That’s especially true when those you are dealing with do not embrace the same post-modern conceits as you.

This last point is of particular importance. “Civilian power” may work in a world where there are only sheep: it is not a feasible strategy when there are wolves, too. Moreover, playing the sheep strategy makes it quite advantageous for others to adopt the wolf strategy. If you declare force to be an “outmoded measure of global power,” and disarm yourself accordingly, as sure as night follows day, a nation or nations will find such “outmoded” notions work quite fine, thank you. Indeed, by disarming you make it quite affordable for economic basket cases that could not compete otherwise (e.g., Russia) to obtain a relative advantage in conventional military power–and a relative advantage is all that they need.  By disdaining “outmoded measures of global power” you make it eminently affordable for less edified nations to achieve an advantage.

Today Angela Merkel said that Europe can no longer rely on the US. That’s projection, Angie baby: the US has not been able to rely on Germany for decades. Well, we can rely on them for pretentious preening, carping, and ankle biting. But for actual contributions to mutual defense, not so much.

Trump is right to continue to pound of the Euros about this. If it hurts their tender little feelings, oh well. Free riders need to be called out.

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May 25, 2017

Maxine Waters Plays Six Degrees of Donald Trump, With Hilarious Results

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:48 am

The Six Degrees of Donald Trump/Russia game has reached new peaks of hilarity. Let by noted genius Maxine Waters (when the stupid stick hit Maxine, the stick got stupider), a group of Congressional Democrats are demanding release of Deutsche Bank records relating to Trump loans because . . . Deutsche Bank has been implicated in a money laundering scheme in which billions were tunneled out of Russia. QED!

For the record, Deutsche Bank has about 100,000 employees, and operations all over the world. The people handling commercial banking transactions in the US for Donald Trump were definitely not also manning the DB equities desk in Moscow, or the Russia equities operations in New York and London–which is where the money laundering scheme was executed. And what is the connection between the beneficiaries of the money laundering scheme and the Kremlin?

Deutsche Bank is a sprawling operation with loose controls, as its involvement in virtually every financial scandal in recent years (gold and silver fixings; IBOR manipulation; sanctions violations; mortgage violations; tax evasion) attests. The scheme bouncing around in the void of Maxine’s skull would require centralized coordination and control and oversight across completely unrelated lines of business that Deutsche Bank has conspicuously lacked for a very long time.

Also, Deutsche Bank does business in every major country of the world–and some not so major ones. Its lending and trading operations touch myriad corporations, governments, and individuals. Some of those touches are of dubious legality (as witnessed by the sanctions violations). To connect two dots of the millions in the Deutsche Bank orbit, and ignore the rest, is beyond absurd.

The ostensible plot took place in 2012-2015. Um, in 2012-2014, Trump was not a candidate: he was not part of the political conversation at all then. Even when he declared in 2015, it was considered something of a joke. Actually, strike “something of.” A 2012-2014 Trump trade would have been about a .01 delta call. If that. Deep, deep out of the money.

Maxine suggests that the Russian government may have guaranteed Trump loans. Hilarious! For a big part of this period, Russia was facing a financial crisis and deep recession, and was having to worry about its own companies, rather than cultivate Trump. In 2014 sanctions were followed by an oil price collapse. I remember the joke that 62 was the magic number for Russia: Putin would turn 62, the ruble would hit 62, and oil would trade at 62. That was wildly optimistic. Yes, Putin turned 62 but the ruble hit 80 and oil went under $30. All major Russian companies were feeling the strain, and Putin was only showing love to his buddies like Timchenko and the Rotenbergs, who were hit by sanctions.

These are not serious people, Maxine et al. Using the fact that they gargantuan financial institution like DB dealt with Trump and dirty Russians to claim a nexus between Putin and Trump shows how completely unserious they are.

 

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May 8, 2017

Whatever Igor Wants, Igor Gets: Primitive Capital Accumulation, a la Sechin

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:34 pm

Apparently winning the “auction” for Bashneft (after it was widely claimed by Putin, and others, that a sale of the company to Rosneft would be a sham privatization) wasn’t enough for Igor Sechin. Igor is now after MOAR, and is using the “legal” process to get it. Rosneft has filed suit against the former owner of Bashneft, Vladimir Evtushenkov’s holding company Sistema, and is asking for a cool $1.9 billion. News of the suit knocked almost 40 percent off of Sistema’s stock price.

The grounds of the lawsuit are unclear.

In the past Sechin has complained about a sale of a Bashneft asset, oil services company Targin, to Sistema at an allegedly knock-down price. He has also criticized contracts between Targin and Bashneft entered into after the sale as unduly favorable to Sistema.

Both of these allegations are plausible. This is Russia, after all, and related-party transactions and Credit Mobilier-like contracting scams are classic ways of tunneling assets.

Recently Rosneft has had to spend $100 million to address safety problems at Bashneft refineries. Rosneft claims that it has found “irregularities.”

If commercial and legal logic mattered (a big if, I know), the alleged shenanigans involving Targin would not be grounds for a suit, and it would be hard to imagine how Rosneft would have standing. Recall that Bashneft was seized by the state in 2014, and Rosneft bought it from the government. So any uneconomic transactions in 2014 or earlier would not harm Rosneft: it would have known that Targin was not included, and what the contracts were. So Rosneft was not harmed by what happened before the company was nationalized.

Failure to detect “irregularities” at the refineries would suggest a lack of due diligence if these were not discovered prior to buying from the state, or if they were known, they would have been reflected in the price. Again, it is hard to see how Rosneft could have been defrauded. Further, there’s a big difference between a $100 million repair bill and a $1.9 billion legal claim.

But does it matter, really? Any legal claim is almost surely a pretext to expropriate a politically vulnerable oligarch who is, shall we say, Без крыши. And this strategy is in Rosneft’s DNA. After all, the company was built primarily on the assets seized from Yukos, and another big asset–TNK-BP–was obtained only after a campaign of pressure against BP (although the Russian AAR consortium held their own and were paid in cash). Put differently, Rosneft was built by  what Marxists called primitive capital accumulation–force and fraud, sometimes operating under the color of legal authority.

But there is a price to be paid for this. It shows that Russia remains a fraught place for investors with assets that come under the covetous eyes of Sechin, or others like him. This depresses valuations for Russian companies, and is a serious drag on investment. No wonder year in and year out Russia is notable for the small share of investment, which runs about 18 percent of GDP, very low for a country in its stage of development. (The world rate is about 24 percent.)

But whatever Igor wants, Igor gets, evidently. Even though what’s good for Igor isn’t good for Russia.

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April 29, 2017

Carter Page Doesn’t Prove the Existence of a Trump-Putin Nexus: He Proves Its Non-Existence

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:48 pm

The linchpin of the supposed Trump-Russia connection is one Carter Page. Rather than demonstrating the existence of some deep, dark conspiracy, this fact demonstrates just how farcical the entire idea of such a conspiracy is.

Carter Page was a fringe figure on the make in Russia. He tried assiduously to cultivate business contacts there, with vague–if any–success. He also tried to forge political connections in the US, which apparently brought him to the attention of some Tea Party guy from Iowa named Sam Clovis. Clovis worked on the Trump campaign (and has since been rewarded with the august position of White House representative to the USDA). Clovis put Page’s name on a list of potential policy advisers, and when Trump was asked about his foreign policy advisers in March, 2016, Trump apparently pulled that name off the list.

Working from the other direction, as a guy trying to make connections in Russia, Page obviously came to the attention of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. In 2013 he met with Russian diplomats & a businessman, who were subsequently identified as Russian agents. Page was lecturing about energy policy at NYU (in the kind of position that one sometimes obtains by advertising “will teach for food”) at the time, and claims he gave his Russian interlocutors some teaching notes. Page later gave a speech at the New Economics School in Moscow. After the election he met with Sechin.

And that’s about it.

In brief: Page came to Trump’s attention precisely because he had no advisors with connections to Russia, and was under continuous attack for the thinness of his foreign policy expertise and the absence of any eminent foreign policy advisers. Page’s connections were gossamer thin–he was a wannabe playa in Russia, not a real one. But he’s the best Trump could come up with on the spur of the moment. Similarly, if the SVR (or FSB or GRU) had strong connections with anyone actually close to Trump, they wouldn’t have needed Carter Page.

Thus, the fact that everything rests on Page shows just how tenuous the Trump-Russia connections were. Trump had nobody with real ties to Russia, so he reached out for a nobody who at least had some involvement there; The Russians had nobody, so they courted the same nobody (e.g., rewarding him with a meeting with Sechin in December). If there was a strong Trump-Russia nexus, Carter Page wouldn’t have warranted the time of day by either Trump or the Russians.

The lecture Page gave at the New Economics School is often raised to illustrate Page’s Russian connections. Pardon my French, but what a fucking joke, and one that illustrates that the people who opine on the Trump-Russia connection don’t know squat. The New School was originally, and remains to some degree, aligned with the liberal elements in Russia. It is hardly a siloviki front, and was established with the specific intent of becoming a western-style academic institution favorable to liberal, western ideas. Many of the faculty had degrees from western (mainly US and UK) universities. One of its initial supporters was George Soros, for crissakes.

One salient story says it all. The New School’s former rector, my friend Sergei Guriev, criticized the Russian government’s prosecution of Khodorkovsky, and the loss of freedom in Russia generally, and soon came under such pressure that he was forced to go into exile in France. If anything, a connection with the New School is likely to raise suspicions among the FSB et al, and hardly indicates influence among the Putinists.

Page’s academic connections also illustrate his irrelevance. The people around Putin aren’t known for their scholarly depth, or their commitment to rigorous academic research. Indeed, the deepest connection of them to academia is to get fraudulent academic credentials–including PhDs–to burnish their résumés. Serious academics exert very little real influence in Putin’s Russia.

But Carter Page was very, very useful–to the FBI. They used his connections with Trump and Russia, tentative as they were, (along with the ridiculous dossier, in which Page was mentioned) as a pretext to get a FISA warrant to put him under surveillance. This, in turn, potentially gave them some justification and legal authority to intercept other communications involving Trump people, presumably on the knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone theory: Page talked to X, X talked to Y, Y talked to Z who talked to Trump, so investigate X, Y, and Z and maybe Trump. Give the FBI a micrometer, they’ll take a million miles.

This also means that Page’s importance has to be hyped by leakers and those in politics and the media intent on creating Russiagate. But viewed more objectively, the fact that that the story apparently begins and ends with first-class nobody Carter Page shows that Trump had no real connections in Russia–especially with the siloviki or Putinists–and the Russians had no influential connections in the Trump camp.

This is a self-inflicted wound for Trump, and an inevitable consequence of his untraditional, helter-skelter, and extemporized insurgent campaign. A more traditional and organized campaign wouldn’t have had to pull a nobody’s name off a list prepared by a nobody. This created a vulnerability that his enemies are flogging for all they are worth.

That said, it is also very telling that the FBI seized on this sad sack to justify an investigation. It is pretty clear that they were desperate to a pretext to investigate the Trump campaign, quite likely due to political pressure emanating from the Obama administration, and as a way of compensating for the damage that the email investigation (and Comey’s to-ing and fro-ing about it) was doing to the Clinton campaign. The centrality of Page in this investigation also reveals that the FBI has nothing substantive, and never really did. But it soldiered on nonetheless. Appalling, but again, the FBI seized on an opportunity that Trump gave them.

So as with most of the Acela Corridor conventional wisdom, the obsession with Carter Page inverts reality. Rather than indicating the existence of a deep connection between Putin and Trump, Carter Page shows that such connections were completely non-existent.

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