Streetwise Professor

October 6, 2016

Igor for the Win!, or Privatization With Russian Characteristics

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:19 pm

Today Russia announced that Rosneft has been approved to purchase Bashneft. This despite the Economics Ministry’s earlier attempts to prevent state-owned Rosneft from participating in a “privatization” of a company that had been de-privatized (through expropriation), and Putin’s statement that this was not the best option.

But there’s more! The company was handed to Rosneft on a platter. Rosneft didn’t have to win an auction. There was no competitive tender process. It was just Christmas in October for Igor.

This speaks volumes about how Russia is run. (I won’t say “governed” or “managed.”) In a natural state way, a favored insider was rewarded despite the fact that all economic considerations push the other way. For one thing, privatization has been touted as a way of alleviating Russia’s severe budgetary problems. This will not do that. The decision occurred at a time when all indications are that the economic stringency will endure. There is no prospect for a serious rebound in oil prices, and there is also little prospect of an easing in sanctions. Indeed, Putin’s obduracy in Ukraine and his escalation in Syria may result in the imposition of additional sanctions. Putin’s spending priorities are increasing the economic strain. He plans to increase defense spending by $10 billion, and reduce social spending by less than that. Furthermore, Rosneft is a wretchedly run company that will generate far less value from Bashneft than would another owner, including a private Russian firm like Lukoil.

In brief, a cash-strapped Putin passed up an opportunity to generate some revenue and handed over Bashneft to a company that destroys value rather than enhances it. Such are the ways of a natural state that functions by allocating rents to courtiers. Privatization, with Russian characteristics.

In sum, in the Bashneft deal, Igor wins. And Russia loses.

The only thing that could potentially redeem this is if there was a quid pro quo, namely, that Sechin would relent to the sale of big stake in Rosneft to outside investors. Nothing of the sort was announced today, and perhaps they are waiting for some time to pass so as not to suggest that there was a deal. But I doubt it. I am guessing that Igor will win that argument too.

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September 26, 2016

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:07 pm

One of the great myths of commodity futures trading is the “roll return,” which Bloomberg writes about here (bonus SWP quote–but he left out the good stuff!, so I’ll have to fill that in here). Consider the oil market, which is currently in a contango, with the November WTI future ($45.99/bbl) trading below the December ($46.52/bbl). This is supposedly bad for those with a long ETF position, or an index position that includes many commodities in contango, because when the position is “rolled” forward in a couple weeks as the November contracts moves towards expiration, the investor will sell the November contract at a lower price than he buys the December, thereby allegedly causing a loss. The investor could avoid this, supposedly, by holding inventory of the spot commodity.

The flip side of this allegedly occurs when the market is in backwardation: the expiring contract is sold at a higher price than the next deferred contract is bought, thereby supposedly allowing the investor to capture the backwardation, whereas since spot prices tend to be trending down in these conditions, holders of the spot lose.

This is wrong, for two reasons. First, it gets the accounting wrong, by starting in the middle of the investment. The profit or loss on the November crude futures position depends on the difference between the price at which the November was sold in early October and bought in early September, not the difference between the price at which the November is sold and the December is bought in early October. Similarly, in November, the P/L on the December position will be the difference between sell and buy prices for the December futures, not the difference between the prices of the December and January futures in early December.  You need to compare apples to apples: the “roll return” compares apples and oranges.

On average and over time, the investor engaged in this rolling strategy earns the risk premium on oil (or the portfolio of commodities in the index). This is because the futures price is the expected spot price at expiration plus a risk premium. The rolling position receives the spot price at expiration and pays the expected spot price at the time the position is initiated, plus a risk adjustment. On average the spot price parts cancel out, leaving the risk premium.

Second, the expected change in the price of the spot commodity compensates the holder for the costs of carrying inventory, which include financing costs (very small, at present), and warehousing costs, insurance, etc. Net of these costs, the P/L on the position includes a risk premium for exposure to spot price risk, and in a well-functioning market, this will be the same as the risk premium in the corresponding future.

Moving away from commodities illustrates how the alleged difference between a rolled futures position and a spot position is largely chimerical. Consider a position in S&P 500 index futures when the interest rate is above the dividend yield. (Yes, children, that was true once upon a time!) Under this condition, the S&P futures would be in contango, and there would be an apparent roll loss when one sells the expiring contract and buying the first deferred. Similarly, comparing the futures price to the spot index at the time the future is bought, the future will be above the spot, and since at expiration the future and the spot index converge to the same value, the future will apparently underperform the investment in the underlying. But this underperformance is illusory, because it neglects to take into account the cost of carrying the cash index position (which is driven by the difference between the funding rate and the dividend yield). When buys and sells are matched appropriately, and all costs and benefits are accounted for properly, the performance of the two positions is the same.

Conversely, in the current situation using the roll return illogic, the rolled position in S&P futures will apparently outperform an investment in the cash index, because the futures market is in backwardation. But this backwardation exists because the dividend yield exceeds the rate of financing an investment in the cash index. The apparent difference in performance is explained by the fact that the futures position doesn’t capture the dividend yield. Once the cost of carrying the cash index position (which is negative, in this case) is taken into consideration, the performance of the positions is identical.

Back in 1992, Metallgesellschaft blew up precisely because the trader in charge of their oil trading convinced management that a stack-and-roll “hedging” strategy would make money in a backwardated market, because he would be consistently selling the future near expiration for a price that exceeded the next-deferred that he was buying. This “logic” was again comparing apples to oranges. By implementing that “logic” to the tune of millions of barrels, Metallgesellschaft became the charter member of the billion dollar club–it was the first firm to have lost $1 billion trading derivatives.

So don’t obsess about roll returns or try to figure out ways to invest in cash commodities when the market is in a contango/carry. Futures are far more liquid and cheaper to trade, so if you want exposure to commodity prices do it through futures directly or indirectly (e.g., through ETFs or index funds). Decide on the allocation to commodities based on the risk it adds to your portfolio and the risk premium you can earn. Don’t worry about the roll. If you decide that commodities fit in your portfolio, laissez les bon temps roullez!

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August 31, 2016

Sechin Makes His Bashneft Bid

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:13 am

In my most recent post on the Bashneft saga, I surmised that there might be a quid pro quo: Rosneft would be allowed to buy the smaller producer in exchange for a promise to proceed with its long delayed privatization. It appears that something along those lines is what is going on, although whereas I conjectured that Putin made this offer to Sechin, Bloomberg reports that Sechin is pitching the idea to Putin:

Rosneft PJSC chief Igor Sechin, not taking no for an answer, has come up with a proposal to expand his energy empire while helping critics in the Russian government meet their goal of reducing the widest budget deficit in six years.

Sechin, a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin, has asked the government to let state-run Rosneft buy its controlling stake in smaller oil producer Bashneft PJSC for $5 billion in cash, a premium to the market, according to two senior officials. Russia could then earn another $11 billion by proceeding with its delayed sale of 19.5 percent of Rosneft itself, generating a $16 billion windfall that would cut this year’s projected deficit in half, they said.

Sechin is also proposing to sell off small pieces of Rosneft to multiple investment funds and trading firms, rather than a big chunk to the Chinese or Indians.

This illustrates the transactional nature of Putinism. Presumably other interested parties have submitted their proposals to Putin, who will decide based on a mixture of efficiency, fiscal, and political considerations. The political considerations will focus on the distribution of rents among his retainers in exchange for political support and other services that those favored can provide Putin. Putin is in essence holding an auction, and the technocratic opposition to a Rosneft acquisition (at least before it privatizes) essentially forces Sechin to bid more aggressively.

One interesting aspect of this is the sequencing. If Putin bestows Bashneft on Rosneft in exchange for a promise of a future privatization, would Sechin dare to stall or delay once Bashneft is in hand, resorting to his usual arguments that due to this, that, or the other, the price isn’t right? If Rosneft sells off a stake in exchange for Putin’s promise that it can then acquire Bashneft, might Putin say at a later date: “Things have changed, so I’ve changed my mind”?  Making commitments credible in a personalized, natural state is not an easy thing. And these things get harder, the older Putin gets, as the end game problem looms larger by the day. The ability to evade future performance depends on  the political balance and economic conditions at the time performance is required, and those can shift dramatically.

So this is Sechin’s bid. It will be interesting to see whether Putin accepts it, and the conditions that he imposes in an attempt to make sure that Sechin lives up to his half of the bargain. Those conditions will reveal a good deal about not just Sechin’s current position within the hierarchy, but the degree of trust between the major players in the regime.


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August 24, 2016

Ooooh! Look at that Superfast Squirrel!

Filed under: Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:33 am

Yesterday Elon Musk announced the introduction of a 100kW battery pack that would create the quickest production car, capable of doing 0-60MPH in 2.5 seconds. But even Musk admits that production volume will be low, due to the cost and complexity of the new pack. Further given that it will add $10k to the price of an already very expensive vehicle, it will do nothing to advance Tesla’s ambitions of becoming a mass production company.

But it gives Elon the opportunity to strut and amaze the technofanboyz. Wow! Even more ludicrous!

But whenever Elon makes a big splash announcement, there is a very high probability that the true intent is to mask some other far less favorable news. And that was the case yesterday. While everybody covered the battery story, and gave it prominence, only a few covered a far more important, but unflattering story, and did so in a perfunctory way. Specifically, in an SEC filing Musk announced that he was buying $65 million of Solar City’s $124 million bond offering. But it gets better! His cousins, the CEO and CTO of Solar City, are each plunking down $17.5 million. Meaning that related insiders are buying more than 80 percent of the bond issue.

In other words, the market won’t touch these bonds with a ten foot pole, but Elon and his cousins must step into the breach. Mind you, this is happening after Tesla has offered to bail out–excuse me, buy out–Solar City. One would think that would be a credit risk positive, right? Apparently one cash bleeder buying another cash bleeder isn’t appetizing to potential bond investors, even in this era of yield famine–the Solar City bonds weren’t drawing any buyers at a yield of 6.5 percent.

Yet again, this illustrates that the Solar City deal is all about propping up a floundering enterprise, all in the name of staving off a reputation damaging failure.

I also wonder where are Elon et al getting the $100 million to pay for the bonds. Is Elon pledging more of his Tesla stock to Goldman, etc., to secure loans to buy the bonds?

There are other indications that Tesla’s financing issues are beginning to bite. Musk noted that

While the P100D Ludicrous is obviously an expensive vehicle, we want to emphasize that every sale helps pay for the smaller and much more affordable Tesla Model 3 that is in development. Without customers willing to buy the expensive Model S and X, we would be unable to fund the smaller, more affordable Model 3 development.

Which means that the company is having difficulty funding Model 3 development and production (and the Gigafactory) through the capital markets. The bond markets are pretty much off-limits now. The company just did a big equity sale, and will issue more shares to buy Solar City. Tesla’s financial infrastructure looks shaky indeed. Further, it’s not as if the Models S and X are flying off the lot: Tesla inventories consist predominately of the more expensive 90kW battery versions.

So don’t get dazzled. Don’t get distracted by the superspeedy squirrel. Elon makes such announcements in order to divert attention from bad news. Indeed, when Musk makes a splash, you should start looking out for what he’s trying to hide.

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August 23, 2016

Carl Icahn Rails Against the Evils of RIN City

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

Biofuel Renewable Identification Numbers–“RINs”–are back in the news because of a price spike in June and July (which has abated somewhat). This has led refiners to intensify their complaints about the system. The focus of their efforts at present is to shift the compliance obligation from refiners to blenders. Carl Icahn has been quite outspoken on this. Icahn blames everyone, pretty much, including speculators:

“The RIN market is the quintessential example of a ‘rigged’ market where large gas station chains, big oil companies and large speculators are assured to make windfall profits at the expense of small and midsized independent refineries which have been designated the ‘obligated parties’ to deliver RINs,” Icahn wrote.

“As a result, the RIN market has become ‘the mother of all short squeezes,”‘ he added. “It is not too late to fix this problem if the EPA acts quickly.”

Refiners are indeed hurt by renewable fuel mandates, because it reduces the derived demand for the gasoline they produce. The fact that the compliance burden falls on them is largely irrelevant, however. This is analogous to tax-incidence analysis: the total burden of a tax, and the distribution of a tax, doesn’t depend on who formally pays it. In the case of RINs, the total burden of the biofuels mandate and the distribution of that burden through the marketing chain doesn’t depend crucially on whether the compliance obligation falls on refiners, blenders, or your Aunt Sally.

Warning: There will be math!

A few basic equations describing the equilibrium in the gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel and RINs markets will hopefully help structure the analysis*. First consider the case in which the refiners must acquire RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.03 AM

Equation (1) is the equilibrium in the retail gasoline market. The retail price of gasoline, at the quantity of gasoline consumed, must equal the cost of blendstock (“BOB”) plus the price of the ethanol blended with it. The R superscript on the BOB price reflects that this is the price when refiners must buy a RIN. This equation assumes that one gallon of fuel at the pump is 90 percent BOB, and 10 percent ethanol. (I’m essentially assuming away blending costs and transportation costs, and a competitive blending industry.) The price of a RIN does not appear here because either the blender buys ethanol ex-RIN, or buys it with a RIN and then sells that to a refiner.

Equation (2) is the equilibrium in (an assumed competitive) ethanol market. The price an ethanol producer receives is the price of ethanol plus the price of a RIN (because the buyer of ethanol gets a RIN that it can sell, and hence is willing to pay more than the energy value of ethanol to obtain it). In equilibrium, this price equals the the marginal cost of producing ethanol. Crucially, with a binding biofuels mandate, the quantity of ethanol produced is determined by the blendwall, which is 10 percent of the total quantity sold at the pump.

Equation (3) is equilibrium in the biodiesel market. When the blendwall binds, the mandate is met by meeting the shortfall between mandate and the blendwall by purchasing RINs generated from the production of biodiesel. Thus, the RIN price is driven to the difference between the cost of producing the marginal gallon of biodiesel, and the price of biodiesel necessary to induce consumption of sufficient biodiesel to sop up the excess production stimulated by the need to obtain RINs. In essence, the price of biodiesel plus the cost of a RIN generated by production of biodiesel must equal the marginal cost of producing it. The amount of biodiesel needed is given by the difference between the mandate quantity and the quantity of ethanol consumed at the blendwall. The parameter a is the amount of biofuel per unit of fuel consumed required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Equation (4) is equilibrium in the market for blendstock–this is the price refiners get. The price of BOB equals the marginal cost of producing it, plus the cost of obtaining RINs necessary to meet the compliance obligation. The marginal cost of production depends on the quantity of gasoline produced for domestic consumption (which is 90 percent of the retail quantity of fuel purchased, given a 10 percent blendwall). The price of a RIN is multiplied by a because that is the number of RINs refiners must buy per gallon of BOB they sell.

Equation (5) just says that the value of ethanol qua ethanol is driven by the relative octane values between it and BOB.

The exogenous variables here are the demand curve for retail gasoline; the marginal cost of producing ethanol; the marginal cost of producing BOB (which depends on the price of crude, among other things); the marginal cost of biodiesel production; the demand for biodiesel; and the mandated quantity of RINs (and also the location of the blendwall). Given these variables, prices of BOB, ethanol, RINs, and biodiesel will adjust to determine retail consumption and exports.

Now consider the case when the blender pays for the RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.25 AM

Equation (6) says that the retail price of fuel is the sum of the value of the BOB and ethanol blended to create it, plus the cost of RINs required to meet the standard. The blender must pay for the RINs, and must be compensated by the price of the fuel. Note that the BOB price has a “B” superscript, which indicates that the BOB price may differ when the blender pays for the RIN from the case where the refiner does.

Without exports, retail consumption, ethanol production, biodiesel production, and BOB production will be the same regardless of where the compliance burden falls. Note that all relevant prices are determined by the equilibrium retail quantity. It is straightforward to show that the same retail quantity will clear the market in both situations, as long as:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.35 AM

That is, when the refiner pays for the RIN, the BOB price will be higher than when the blender does by the cost of the RINs required to meet the mandate.

Intuitively, if the burden is placed on refiners, in equilibrium they will charge a higher price for BOB in order to cover the cost of complying with the mandate. If the burden is placed on blenders, refiners can sell the same quantity at a lower BOB price (because they don’t have to cover the cost of RINs), but blenders have to mark up the fuel by the cost of the RINs to cover their cost of acquiring them. here the analogy with tax incidence analysis is complete, because in essence the RFS is a tax on the consumption of fossil fuel, and the amount of the tax is the cost of a RIN.

This means that retail prices, consumption, production of ethanol, biodiesel and BOB, refiner margins and blender margins are the same regardless of who has the compliance obligation.

The blenders are complete ciphers here. If refiners have the compliance burden, blenders effectively buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to refiners. If the blenders have the burden, they buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to consumers. Either way, they break even. The marketing chain is just a little more complicated, and there are additional transactions in the RINs market, when refiners shoulder the compliance obligation.

Under either scenario, the producer surplus (profit, crudely speaking) of the refiners is driven by their marginal cost curves and the quantity of gasoline they produce. In the absence of exports, these things will remain the same regardless of where the burden is placed. Thus, Icahn’s rant is totally off-point.

So what explains the intense opposition of refiners to bearing the compliance obligation? One reason may be fixed administrative costs. If there is a fixed cost of compliance, that will not affect any of the prices or quantities, but will reduce the profit of the party with the obligation by the full amount of the fixed cost. This is likely a relevant concern, but the refiners don’t make it centerpiece of their argument, probably because shifting the fixed cost around has no efficiency effects, but purely distributive ones, and purely distributive arguments aren’t politically persuasive. (Redistributive motives are major drivers of attempts to change regulations, but naked cost shifting arguments look self-serving, so rent seekers attempt to dress up their efforts in efficiency arguments: this is one reason why political arguments over regulations are typically so dishonest.) So refiners may feel obliged to come up with some alternative story to justify shifting the administrative cost burden to others.

There may also be differences in variable administrative costs. Fixed administrative costs won’t affect prices or output (unless they are so burdensome as to cause exit), but variable administrative costs will. Further, placing the compliance obligation on those with higher variable administrative costs will lead to a deadweight loss: consumers will pay more, and refiners will get less.

Another reason may be the seen-unseen effect. When refiners bear the compliance burden, the cost of buying RINs is a line item in their income statement. They see directly the cost of the biofuels mandate, and from an accounting perspective they bear that cost, even though from an economic perspective the sharing of the burden between consumers, refiners, and blenders doesn’t depend on where the obligation falls. What they don’t see–in accounting statements anyways–is that the price for their product is higher when the obligation is theirs. If the obligation is shifted to blenders, they won’t see their bottom line rise by the amount they currently spend on RINS, because their top line will fall by the same amount.

My guess is that Icahn looks at the income statements, and mistakes accounting for economics.

Regardless of the true motive for refiners’ discontent, the current compliance setup is not a nefarious conspiracy of integrated producers, blenders, and speculators to screw poor independent refiners. With the exception of administrative cost burdens (which speculators could care less about, since it will not fall on them regardless), shifting the compliance burden will not affect the market prices of RINs or the net of RINs price that refiners get for their output.

With respect to speculation, as I wrote some time ago, the main stimulus to speculation is not where the compliance burden falls (because again, this doesn’t affect anything relevant to those speculating on RINs prices). Instead, one main stimulus is uncertainty about EPA policy–which as I’ve written, can lead to some weird and potentially destabilizing feedback effects. The simple model sheds light on other drivers of speculation–the exogenous variables mentioned above. To consider one example, a fall in crude oil prices reduces the marginal cost of BOB production. All else equal, this encourages retail consumption, which increases the need for RINs generated from biodiesel, which increases the RINs price.

The Renewable Fuels Association has also raised a stink about speculation and the volatility of RINs prices in a recent letter to the CFTC and the EPA. The RFA (acronyms are running wild!) claims that the price rise that began in May cannot be explained by fundamentals, and therefore must have been caused by speculation or manipulation. No theory of manipulation is advanced (corner/squeeze? trade-based? fraud?), making the RFA letter another example of the Clayton Definition of Manipulation: “any practice that doesn’t suit the person speaking at the moment.” Regarding speculation, the RFA notes that supplies of RINs have been increasing. However, as has been shown in academic research (some by me, some by people like Brian Wright)  that inventories of a storable commodity (which a RIN is) can rise along with prices in a variety of circumstances, including a rise in volatility, or an increase in anticipated future demand. (As an example of the latter case, consider what happened in the corn market when the RFS was passed. Corn prices shot up, and inventories increased too, as consumption of corn was deferred to the future to meet the increased future demand for ethanol. The only way of shifting consumption was to reduce current consumption, which required higher prices.)

In a market like RINs, where there is considerable policy uncertainty, and also (as I’ve noted in past posts) complicated two-way feedbacks between prices and policy, the first potential cause is plausible. Further, since a good deal of the uncertainty relates to future policy, the second cause likely operates too, and indeed, these two causes can reinforce one another.

Unlike in the 2013 episode, there have been no breathless (and clueless) NYT articles about Morgan or Goldman or other banks making bank on RIN speculation. Even if they have, that’s not proof of anything nefarious, just an indication that they are better at plumbing the mysteries of EPA policy.

In sum, the recent screeching from Carl Icahn and others about the recent ramp-up in RIN prices is economically inane, and/or unsupported by evidence. Icahn is particularly misguided: RINs are a tax, and the burden of the tax depends not at all on who formally pays the tax. The costs of the tax are passed upstream to consumers and downstream to producers, regardless of whether consumers pay the tax, producers pay the tax, or someone in the middle pays the tax. As for speculation in RINs it is the product of government policy. Obviously, there wouldn’t be speculation in RINs if there aren’t RINs in the first place. But on a deeper level, speculation is rooted in a mandate that does not correspond with the realities of the vast stock of existing internal combustion engines; the EPA’s erratic attempt to reconcile those irreconcilable things; the details of the RFS system (e.g., the ability to meet the ethanol mandate using biodiesel credits); and the normal vicissitudes of the energy supply and demand.  Speculation is largely a creation of government regulation, ironically, so to complain to the government about it (the EPA in particular) is somewhat perverse. But that’s the world we live in now.

* I highly recommend the various analyses of the RINs and ethanol markets in the University of Illinois’ Farm Doc Daily. Here’s one of their posts on the subject, but there are others that can be found by searching the website. Kudos to Scott Irwin and his colleagues.

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August 21, 2016

The Price of Politics in Putin’s Natural State

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:20 am

After months of watching Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazpromneft, and others shout “Bashneft is mine!” “NO! It’s mine!”, Putin has apparently lost patience and said “None of you will get it!” Last week Medvedev announced that the sale of the company (seized from oligarch Vladimir Evtushenkov’s Sistema in 2014) would be delayed indefinitely.* Rustem Khamitov, president of Russian Republic of Bashkortostan (where Bashneft is located), suggested that the sale be delayed five years. Meaning never.

Yes, Medvedev made the announcement, but a decision like this is obviously Putin’s. Medvedev’s job is to announce controversial decisions or release bad news that Putin doesn’t want to be questioned about. Coming as it does in the midst of the surprise defenestration of Putin’s chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov and other high-level reshuffling, this has set off considerable speculation about the real reason for the decision.

The main subject of speculation is what this means for Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft. Sechin wanted Bashneft badly, but the technocrats in the government, led by another Igor–Deputy PM Shuvalov–were fighting this tooth and nail. Perhaps Putin just got tired of the fighting, and pace my introduction, decided to end it by putting the company on the shelf.

Or maybe there is something more to it. The official reason given for the delay of the Bashneft is that the company is that the government wants to prioritize the sale of a piece of Rosneft:

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov on Wednesday said Russia would consider selling Bashneft stake after it has completed the privatization of Rosneft,

“A sale of a stake in Rosneft is on the forefront now. We should focus on that. After selling the Rosneft stake, [the government] will return to selling Bashneft as we have a Presidential order to privatize this company,” Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Shuvalov as saying.

One interpretation of this is that is a big defeat for Sechin. Sechin has fought “privatization” for years. When the oil price has been high, Sechin has said that it would be stupid to sell because the company was undervalued; when the oil price has been low, Sechin has said that it would be stupid to sell when the stock price is commensurately low. In Sechin’s view, the market undervalues Rosneft 100 percent of the time, and the price is never right. The real reason is that nosey outside investors would cramp Igor’s style.

If this signals Putin’s resolve to push the sale of Rosneft, it would be a stinging defeat for Sechin. This would fit with the firing of Ivanov, as it would represent a further winnowing of the old guard.

A more charitable interpretation is that this is Putin’s way of cutting the baby. Shuvalov and others had objected to Rosneft’s participation in the Bashneft auction because purchase of the company by a state company would not be a proper privatization, and would violate Russian law. Perhaps Putin promised Bashneft to Sechin, but only after a sale of the stake in the company (which would still remain majority state owned).

What is clear is that the decision is not purely an economic one, but is driven by regime politics. Politics will drive the ultimate disposition of the company (and Rosneft), and will provide some information about who’s up and who’s down within the elite.

The episode provides a demonstration of the importance of rent seeking within a natural state like Russia. The delay is driven by a battle over rents, and the delay is quite costly. The Russian government needs quite badly the money (a material $5 billion or so) that a sale would generate. Oil in the $40-$50 range and sanctions have put a serious dent in Russia’s fiscal situation, and it has blown through a good fraction of its rainy day funds. Further, the stock price of Bashneft fell 8 percent on the day of Medvedev’s announcement. This is a measure of the value destroyed by state ownership.

This is real money, particularly for Russia right now. That Putin is willing to leave it on the table is a measure of the price of politics in Putin’s natural state.

* Evtushenkov’s fate is a perfect illustration of the parlous nature of an oligarch’s existence. Those attempting to draw inferences from past connections (such as they were) between Trump and Russians really need to keep that in mind, but never do. Hell, if figures like Yakunin, Victor and Sergei Ivanov, and perhaps now Igor Sechin can fall from favor, past connections with far lesser figures are less than meaningless.

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July 30, 2016

Dogs Fighting Under the Carpet, Ex-Mullet Man Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:54 am

There is a very revealing struggle going on in Russia right now. It is a pitch-perfect illustration of how Putinism works.

At issue is the Russian government’s privatization initiative, and specifically the privatization of the oil company Bashneft (a Russian firm with a very sordid, checkered past, but I repeat myself). Igor Sechin covets Bashneft, in large part because Rosneft production has been falling (estimates for 2016 are a 2 percent decline), and with sanctions and the company’s inefficiency, here is little hope of reversing the decline. Getting ahold of Bashneft would increase Rosneft’s production and reserves, and Bashneft’s production has grown handsomely of late (almost 11 percent in the last year): Sechin could buy what he can’t create.

But government technocrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, are adamantly opposed to a Rosneft takeover. The opposition stems in part because acquisition of Bashneft by a state-owned firm would make a travesty of privatization, and also thwart the goal of using privatization proceeds to address the government’s fiscal strains, which requires outside money. The opposition also reflects the understanding that enhancing Rosneft’s position in the Russian oil industry is detrimental to the future development of that industry. Rosneft is more parasite that creator.

Dvorkovich therefore flipped out when Russian bank VTB invited Rosneft, as well as other state-owned companies like Gazprom Neft, to participate in the privatization auction. It initially appeared that Putin had sided with Dorkovich, and an anonymous spokesman in the Presidential Administration had confirmed this. This was hailed as a huge defeat for Sechin, and perhaps a harbinger of a change in the balance of power within the Russian government.

But not so fast! An “official” said that the exclusion of Rosneft was “unofficial”. But then this week Putin’s spokesman Peskov, who had confirmed only a week before the “understanding” that Rosneft was out of the running, reversed himself, and said that “formally speaking” Rosneft was not a state owned company, and hence it could participate. You see, Rosneft is owned by a holding company, which is owned by the state. So  even though economically this is a distinction without a difference, legally it provides enough of an opening for Igor to slip through.

So who knows what will happen? Maybe Rosneft will be allowed to participate, under the understanding that it will not win. Or maybe the fix is in. Or maybe Putin is just letting Dvorkovich and (ex-)Mullet Man battle it out ender the carpet for a little while longer before ruling. This would allow him to weigh the arguments–and also to force the contenders to make bids for his support. Putin will rule depending on how he wants to balance the competing political factions, and who can offer the most to Putin or others he wants to favor.

And as in the heyday of Kremlinology, outsiders will attempt to discern deeper lessons from the outcome. Who is on top? How committed is Putin to reforming the Russian economy? How wedded is he to the idea of state champions? Or is he willing to concede that given Russia’s economic straits it is necessary to make accommodation to more Western commercial and legal norms?

The problem with the answers to all of these questions is that even if you are right today, nothing is set in stone. Putin could reverse course later. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. This is an inherent problem with autocratic systems: autocrats can’t make credible commitments. The only precedent is that there are no precedents. Today’s decision matters. . . for today.

So whatever the outcome of this current dog fight, it will tell you about the current state of play and the current balance of power, and not much more, because for an autocrat, tomorrow is another day.

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Say “Sayonara” to Destination Clauses, and “Konnichiwa” to LNG Trading

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:12 am

The LNG market is undergoing a dramatic change: a couple of years ago, I characterized it as “racing to an inflection point.” The gas glut that has resulted from slow demand growth and the activation of major Australian and US production capacity has not just weighed on prices, but has undermined the contractual structures that underpinned the industry from its beginnings in the mid-1960s: oil linked pricing in long term contracts; take-or-pay arrangements; and destination clauses. Oil linkage was akin to the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost: the light was good there, but in recent years in particular oil and gas prices have become de-linked, meaning that the light shines in the wrong place. Take-or-pay clauses make sense as a way of addressing opportunism problems that arise in the presence of long-lived, specific assets, but the development of a more liquid short-term trading market reduces asset specificity. Destination clauses were a way that sellers with market power could support price discrimination (by preventing low-price buyers from reselling to those willing to pay higher prices), but the proliferation of new sellers has undermined that market power.

Furthermore, the glut of gas has undermined seller market and bargaining power, and buyers are looking to renegotiate deals done when market conditions were different. They are enlisting the help of regulators, and in Japan (the largest LNG purchaser), their call is being answered. Japan’s antitrust authorities are investigating whether the destination clauses violate fair trade laws, and the likely outcome is that these clauses will be retroactively eliminated, or that sellers will “voluntarily” remove them to preempt antitrust action.

It’s not as if the economics of these clauses have changed overnight: it’s that the changes in market fundamentals have also affected the political economy that drives antitrust enforcement. As contract and spot prices have diverged, and as the pattern of gas consumption and production has diverged from what existed at the time the contracts were formed, the deadweight costs of the clauses have increased, and these costs have fallen heavily on buyers. In a classic illustration of Peltzman-Becker-Stigler theories of regulation, regulators are responding to these efficiency and distributive changes by intervening to challenge contracts that they didn’t object to when conditions were different.

This development will accelerate the process that I wrote about in 2014. More cargoes will be looking for new homes, because the original buyers overbought, and this reallocation will spur short-term trading. This exogenous shock to short term trading will increase market liquidity and the reliability of short term/spot prices, which will spur more short term trading and hasten the demise of oil linking. The virtuous liquidity cycle was already underway as a result of the gas glut, and the emergence of the US as a supplier, but the elimination of destination clauses in legacy Japanese contracts will provide a huge boost to this cycle.

The LNG market may never look exactly like the oil market, but it is becoming more similar all the time. The intervention of Japanese regulators to strike down another barbarous relic of an earlier age will only expedite that process, and substantially so.

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July 23, 2016

For All You Pigeons: Musk Has Announced Master Plan II

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:29 am

Elon Musk just announced his “Master Plan, Part Deux,” AKA boob bait for geeks and posers.

It is just more visionary gasbaggery, and comes at a time when Musk is facing significant head winds: there is a connection here. What headwinds? The proposed Tesla acquisition of SolarCity was not greeted, shall we say, with universal and rapturous applause. To the contrary, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, sometimes extremely so (present company included)–but the proposed tie up gave even some fanboyz cause to pause. Production problems continue; Tesla ended the resale price guarantee on the Model S (which strongly suggests financial strains); and the company has cut the price on the Model X SUV in the face of lackluster sales. But the biggest set back was the death of a Tesla driver while he was using the “Autopilot” feature, and the SEC’s announcement of an investigation of whether Tesla violated disclosure regulations by keeping the accident quiet until after it had completed its $1.6 billion secondary offering.

It is not a coincidence, comrades, that Musk tweeted that he was thinking of announcing his new “Master Plan” a few hours before the SEC made its announcement. Like all good con artists, Musk needed to distract from the impending bad news.

And that’s the reason for Master Plan II overall. All cons eventually produce cognitive dissonance in the pigeons, when reality clashes with the grandiose promises that the con man had made before. The typical way that the con artist responds is to entrance the pigeons with even more grandiose promises of future glory and riches. If that’s not what Elon is doing here, he’s giving a damn good impression of it.

All I can say is that if you are fool enough to fall for this, you deserve to be suckered, and look elsewhere for sympathy. Look here, and expect this.

As for the “Master Plan” itself, it makes plain that Musk fails to understand some fundamental economic principles that have been recognized since Adam Smith: specialization, division of labor, and gains from trade among specialists, most notably. A guy whose company cannot deliver on crucial aspects of Master Plan I, which Musk says “wasn’t all that complicated,” (most notably, production issues in a narrow line of vehicles), now says that his company will produce every type of vehicle. A guy whose promises about self-driving technology are under tremendous scrutiny promises vast fleets of autonomous vehicles. A guy whose company burns cash like crazy and which is now currently under serious financial strain (with indications that its current capital plans are unaffordable) provides no detail on how this grandiose expansion is going to be financed.

Further, Musk provides no reason to believe that even if each of the pieces of his vision for electric automobiles and autonomous vehicles is eventually realized, that it is efficient for a single company to do all of it. The purported production synergies between electricity generation (via solar), storage, and consumption (in the form of electric automobiles) are particularly unpersuasive.

But reality and economics aren’t the point. Keeping the pigeons’ dreams alive and fighting cognitive dissonance are.

Insofar as the SEC investigation goes, although my initial inclination was to say “it’s about time!” But the Autopilot accident silence is the least of Musk’s disclosure sins. He has a habit of making forward looking statements on Twitter and elsewhere that almost never pan out. The company’s accounting is a nightmare. I cannot think of another CEO who could get away with, and has gotten away with, such conduct in the past without attracting intense SEC scrutiny.

But Elon is a government golden boy, isn’t he? My interest in him started because he was–and is–a master rent seeker who is the beneficiary of massive government largesse (without which Tesla and SolarCity would have cratered long ago). In many ways, governments–notably the US government and the State of California–are his biggest pigeons.

And rather than ending, the government gravy train reckons to continue. Last week the White House announced that the government will provide $4.5 billion in loan guarantees for investments in electric vehicle charging stations. (If you can read the first paragraph of that statement without puking, you have a stronger stomach than I.) Now Tesla will not be the only beneficiary of this–it is a subsidy to all companies with electric vehicle plans–but it is one of the largest, and one of the neediest. One of Elon’s faded promises was to create a vast network of charging stations stretching from sea-to-sea. Per usual, the plan was announced with great fanfare, but the delivery has not met the plans. Also per usual, it takes forensic sleuthing worthy of Sherlock Holmes to figure out exactly how many stations have been rolled out and are in the works.

The rapid spread of the evil internal combustion engine was not impeded by a lack of gas stations: even in a much more primitive economy and a much more primitive financial system, gasoline retailing and wholesaling grew in parallel with the production of autos without government subsidy or central planning. Oil companies saw a profitable investment opportunity, and jumped on it.

Further, even if one argues that there are coordination problems and externalities that are impeding the expansion of charging networks (which I seriously doubt, but entertain to show that this does not necessitate subsidies), these can be addressed by private contract without subsidy. For instance, electric car producers can create a joint venture to invest in power stations. To the extent government has a role, it would be to take a rational approach to the antitrust aspects of such a venture.

So yet again, governments help enable Elon’s con. How long can it go on? With the support of government, and credulous investors, quite a while. But cracks are beginning to show, and it is precisely to paper over those cracks that Musk announced his new Master Plan.

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June 21, 2016

Mating Hemophiliacs Seldom Turns Out Well

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:00 pm

I’ve long been an Elon Musk/Tesla skeptic, to put it mildly. I’ve called him out as a crony capitalist who milks subsidies, and as a con man.

Most recently, I said that one Musk company’s (SpaceX) purchase of the debt of another Musk company–Solar City–should raise alarms. Well, today four alarms rang: Tesla bid to take over Solar City, and to pay for the acquisition in Tesla stock. Solar City (SCTY) stock soared on the news: Tesla plunged. The effect of the announcement was market cap negative: Tesla’s value declined more than SCTY’s rose.

Both Solar City and Tesla rely on government subsidies, and crucially, on very dodgy financing models and questionable accounting. Like many other solar firms, Solar City was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Such an event would have a direct financial consequence for Musk, and given Elon’s large (and leveraged) ownership stake in Tesla, this would impact Tesla adversely.

Moreover, there’s a serious possibility that a SCTY bankruptcy would reveal a byzantine web of financial connections among Musk’s various ventures. Given the boundary-pushing accounting and tenuous financial condition of all of his companies, there is no doubt a lot hidden that Elon desperately wants to keep hidden.

But perhaps most importantly, a SCTY bankruptcy would undermine Musk’s image as a visionary genius and business colossus. This image is vital to keeping Musk, Inc. going. It is vital because this image is a key element of every con, and if Musk isn’t a con man, he sure does a great impression of one.

One key tell of that is that whenever people start expressing doubts about Tesla, Musk has some grandiose announcement about the next new big thing, even though he hasn’t delivered on the last new big thing, or even the new big thing before that. That’s a classic con man trick.

This is also a vital part of the Tesla funding model. In addition to subsidies, Tesla relies heavily on customer deposits for funding. In order to get those deposits, Tesla has to make promises on production that it has not been able to keep. But enough people are dazzled by Elon’s pitch that they fork over the cash that he needs to keep the endeavor aloft.

I read an investment report that referred to such types as “loss tolerant investors.” That’s a polite way of saying “suckers.”

A major Elon fail would put the con model at risk. So despite the fact that the initial reaction to the deal has been incredulity and outrage, and despite the fact that that reaction was utterly predictable, Musk has plunged ahead. That should give you some idea of his desperation.

In the announcement of the bid, Tesla served up a load of argle-bargle that should make any PR person blanch:

Tesla’s mission has always been tied to sustainability. We seek to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transportation by offering increasingly affordable electric vehicles. And in March 2015, we launched Tesla Energy, which through the Powerwall and Powerpack allow homeowners, business owners and utilities to benefit from renewable energy storage.

It’s now time to complete the picture. Tesla customers can drive clean cars and they can use our battery packs to help consume energy more efficiently, but they still need access to the most sustainable energy source that’s available: the sun.

The SolarCity team has built its company into the clear solar industry leader in the residential, commercial and industrial markets, with significant scale and growing customer penetration. They have made it easy for customers to switch to clean energy while still providing the best customer experience. We’ve seen this all firsthand through our partnership with SolarCity on a variety of use cases, including those where SolarCity uses Tesla battery packs as part of its solar projects.

So, we’re excited to announce that Tesla today has made an offer to acquire SolarCity. A copy of Tesla’s offer is provided below.

If completed, we believe that a combination of Tesla and SolarCity would provide significant benefits to our shareholders, customers and employees:

  • We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.
  • We would be able to expand our addressable market further than either company could do separately. Because of the shared ideals of the companies and our customers, those who are interested in buying Tesla vehicles or Powerwalls are naturally interested in going solar, and the reverse is true as well. When brought together by the high foot traffic that is drawn to Tesla’s stores, everyone should benefit.
  • We would be able to maximize and build on the core competencies of each company. Tesla’s experience in design, engineering, and manufacturing should help continue to advance solar panel technology, including by making solar panels add to the look of your home. Similarly, SolarCity’s wide network of sales and distribution channels and expertise in offering customer-friendly financing products would significantly benefit Tesla and its customers.
  • We would be able to provide the best possible installation service for all of our clean energy products. SolarCity is the best at installing solar panel systems, and that expertise translates seamlessly to the installation of Powerwalls and charging systems for Tesla vehicles.
  • Culturally, this is a great fit. Both companies are driven by a mission of sustainability, innovation, and overcoming any challenges that stand in the way of progress.

Note the appeal to enviro-vanity. “Shared ideals.” “Culture.” Vague synergies: “including by making solar panels add to the look of your home.” Are they serious? Is that the best he can come up with? “Customer-friendly financing products.” Another joke: the unviability of the Solar City financing model is exactly what put the company into its current straits. So extending this unviable financing model to autos is somehow going to do wonders for Tesla? The release mentions charging systems. A few years ago Elon promised thousands. There are currently 616 worldwide, and Elon has faded his original promise to provide free charging: Model S customers will have to pay.

Further, there’s no explanation of how marrying one cash bleeder to another cash bleeder is going to address either company’s fundamental problem . . . which is that they are cash bleeders. Buying Solar City exacerbates the Tesla cash bleeding problem, rather than ameliorating it: the mating of hemophiliacs is unlikely to turn out well.

Indeed, Tesla bleeds cash like a Game of Thrones battle scene. Hence the need to rush out the Model S (and collect deposits) while huge questions about production remain. Hence the repeated returns to the equity markets to issue new stock.

Which will now be harder, because paying for Solar City in stock–and hence diluting existing shareholders substantially–mere weeks after a big equity offering will make investors to whom Musk will have to sell stock in the future to meet his voracious needs for money think twice: will he take their money then dilute them again a few weeks or months later?

This move looks very short sighted, and it almost certainly is. But Musk is doing it because he needs to address very pressing immediate concerns, and he’ll worry about the future ramifications when the future comes.

Musk has made a living off of suckers. Suckers in government (including most notably the federal government, and the states of Nevada and California) who have lavished huge subsidies based the dubious environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Suckers enamored with the technology and performance of Tesla vehicles–despite the questions surrounding Tesla’s ability to produce those vehicles.

To keep the suckers coming, Musk has to perpetuate his image as the Great and Powerful Oz. A major fail–like the bankruptcy of Solar City–threatens to pull back the curtain and demolish that image. Musk needs to prevent that from happening. He needs to buy time, and to buy time, he is having Tesla buy Solar City.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The proposed purchase of Solar City reeks of desperation, because it facially makes no business sense, and is explicable only as a way to keep a con alive.

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