Streetwise Professor

September 28, 2014

Discounting Sechin, and Making Perfidious Exxon Suck It Up

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The European Union rapped Hungary over the supply interruption.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaks me all up.

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September 20, 2014

Pour Encourager Les Autres, Or Just Another Day in Putinistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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September 15, 2014

Russia to OPEC: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. OPEC: Believe Me, We Have

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:00 pm

This is so amusing, because it is so typical:

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak will meet OPEC officials on Tuesday in Vienna, his spokeswoman said, as oil’s price fall piled pressure on Moscow’s budget.

The annual meeting had been planned long before oil fell below the $100 per barrel level critical for Russia’s oil sales which account for 40 percent of state budget revenues.

Russia suffered from a decline of oil production and prices this year and has cut its outlook for oil output as core western Siberian fields become more depleted.

The spokeswoman said that Novak and the officials from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had not planned to discuss the prices of oil, which hit 26-month low for Brent crude on Monday.

However, a government source said the measures to prop up the prices have long been discussed at the ministry.

“The talk of closer cooperation with OPEC on prices have long been there,” he said.

So far, Russia, the world’s top producer of conventional oil, has ruled out coordinated action with OPEC to halt the price decline.

Yeah. Novak is scurrying to Vienna, but he’s not going to talk prices. Sure. Tell me another one, but not so funny as I just busted a gut reading that and can’t take too much more.

Putin, Inc. is no doubt in a mild-to-moderate panic at present because Brent has breached $100, and Urals is below that, in the low $90s. Russia needs Urals in the $104 range to meet budget targets, and that’s not counting Crimea or especially a war that doesn’t officially exist but which costs real money to fight.

So off Novak runs to Vienna, in an attempt to get OPEC to prop up the price. Not that Russia will do anything to help, mind you. It’s MO has long been to demand, beg, cajole OPEC to cut output to support prices, while Russia produces to capacity. That’s what Russia did in 2009 when prices cratered into the $30s. OPEC was not amused then, and they won’t be amused now.

If anything, geopolitical considerations, namely Russia’s support of Assad and cooperation with Iran, will make the Saudis in particular even less generously inclined towards Russia.

Meaning that Novak’s mission to Vienna will accomplish nothing, except to provide an entertaining example of Russian all take, no give negotiating style.

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September 10, 2014

Family Feud: Lifting the Oil Export Ban

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:42 pm

Larry Summers has called for an end to the crude oil export ban in the US. This is pretty much a no-brainer for even a pedestrian economist, let alone one of Summers’s intelligence, not to say one as intelligent as Summers thinks he is.

No-brainer or not, eliminating the ban (which isn’t a total ban, in any event) will have only modest effects. This is because although crude cannot be exported freely, refined products can be. Lifting the ban will mainly entail a substitution of crude exports for product exports, which will result in modest impacts on final product prices.

Here’s a crude outline of how opening up exports will play out (pun intended).

  1. The price of crude in the US will rise, and the price in Europe (notably Brent) will fall, until the price differential is approximately equal to transport costs of a buck or two, in contrast to the current differential of approximately $6.50. This isn’t immaterial, but it’s not a huge change either, given current prices in the $90s.
  2. The amount of crude refined in the US will decline, and the amount of crude refined overseas will rise. Refining margins in Europe will rise and those in the US will fall. The differentials in product prices will remain about the same, because products will be exported after the ban is lifted just as they are now, though export volumes will decline. Prices will differ by transportation costs post-lifting, just as they do now.
  3. The effect on product prices in the US (e.g., the price of gasoline) is a priori impossible to sign, because there are offsetting effects. US refiner input prices will rise, but margins will fall. The net price effect of higher costs and lower margins can’t be determined a priori.
  4. One factor will definitely lead to lower product prices. Post-free trade in crude, there will be a better match between crude slates and refineries. US refineries are more complex, and optimized to process heavier crudes from Mexico and Venezuela. Most are not optimized to process the large quantities of very light crudes that are flowing from Eagle Ford and the Bakken. In contrast, European refineries are better able to process lighter crudes. This better match of refineries to crude will reduce costs and increase productivity, which tends to reduce product prices.
  5. The main factor that will determine whether product prices rise or fall will be the effect of the lifting of the ban on the total output of crude: if more crude is produced, more products will be produced, and prices will decline. The lifting of the ban will reduce Brent prices, which will reduce North Sea output (and Nigerian output too). The lifting of the ban will increase US prices, which will cause US output to rise. The net effect on total crude output depends on the relative elasticities of supply. If, for instance, Brent supply is very elastic and US supply is very inelastic, total crude output could well fall, which would tend to increase gasoline and distillate prices in the US. If the elasticities are reversed, total supply would likely rise leading to lower product prices.
  6. If I had to guess, I would say that given that the product price changes will be negative but small, and hard to detect in the normal fluctuations of prices. The combined price effect shared between the US and non-US markets for light crudes is relatively small (on the order of 5 percent of price) and the offsetting effect on foreign and domestic output leaves a net effect on output (and hence prices) that will be relatively small.
  7. Tom Friedman supports lifting the ban, which makes me think twice. Friedman also says that lifting the ban will cause crude prices to drop by $25/bbl and thereby crush Putin and Iran and ISIS, thereby saving Ukraine and the MIddle East. Tom Friedman is an idiot. Pay no attention.

There will be one major effect, which Summers alludes to, and which I have emphasized when I teach about the export restriction in my Energy Policy course for EMBAs: the main effect of the change in policy will be to redistribute rents within the domestic oil industry. It will reduce the profitability of US refiners, especially some independents who are feasting on the abundant supply of light crude. It will increase the profitability of domestic crude producers.

In other words, contrary to a lot of the rhetoric, this isn’t about “big oil” vs. main street. It’s about Downstream Medium Oil vs. Upstream  Medium Oil. The big integrated majors basically see money shifted from one pocket to the other: since the lifting of the ban will increase total surplus in the energy market, the integrated majors will benefit, but the benefit will be smallish. The independent refiners will be losers, and pure upstream companies will be winners.

This is, in other words, a sort of family feud. A battle between different branches of the US energy sector family. But as any cop called to the scene of a domestic dispute will tell you, these can be pretty intense.

In sum, ending the ban would make the pizza slightly bigger, but you won’t notice it much at the pump, if you notice it at all. The main effect would be to change the size of the slices. But since conflicts over how the pizza is divided drive politics, the export ban will generate  political battles of an intensity out of proportion to its modest effects  on overall wealth and welfare.

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September 9, 2014

The Euros Get Tough on Google, But Run and Hide From Gazprom

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

The European Commission’s competition commissioner has scuppered a proposed settlement with Google. The Commission has already taken many pounds of flesh from Microsoft and Intel over the past year, so now it is looking to add some Google cuts to the meat locker.

What about the EU’s case against Gazprom, you ask? <Crickets.>

I’m not a big Google or Microsoft fan, but the accusations leveled against them (and Intel) are highly speculative. Gazprom’s exercise of market power, and its protection of that market power, is almost textbook. The egregious price discrimination, and its use of contractual terms (no re-sale) to support that discrimination, is a blatant example. So on the merits, the Gazprom case should proceed and the Google case should be settled, and on anything but onerous terms.

But the craven Euros quake before Gazprom. Indeed, they seem to be even less willing to confront the company now that Putin is on the war path.

They have a better case against Gazprom, and that case could be a political lever in what is an existential battle over European security: Putin and the Russians have ranted and raved about the case when the Euros did press it some, which indicates that it hits the company, and hence Russia, where it hurts.  But rather than hitting this pressure point, the Euros bury the case and go kick Google instead.

Don’t think that Putin doesn’t notice. And know that it is exactly this kind of cowardice that emboldens him.

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Igor Might Cash In, But Only Because the Future Is Bleak

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:44 pm

It looks like Igor may get his money:

Allocation of over $40 billion from Russia’s National Welfare Foundation for Rosneft oil giantcould be reasonable, as the investment will be repaid, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview to the Vedomosti newspaper, released Monday.

“This number only seems so impressive, but this is not [supposed to be repaid] within a year,” Medvedev said, answering a reporter’s question on whether Rosneft’s request for $40 billion is feasible.

“The company needs to keep up production, since Rosneft is a major contributor to the budget. In this regard, we have to help them by maintaining the investment level,” Medvedev explained, adding that the government is considering specific ways of aiding Rosneft.

Now, this is Medvedev speaking, so take it for what it’s worth. But it’s my impression that lately Dmitri’s designated role is ventriloquist’s dummy, and if you looked closely you can probably see Putin’s lips moving. This is at least a trial balloon, and perhaps it is laying the groundwork for an official announcement. It is sufficiently controversial within the Russian government that Putin probably does not want to act precipitously and is putting Medvedev out there to see if the proposal attracts too much fire.

This statement likely reflects a couple of realities. First, Sechin’s influence with Putin. The second is the effect of sanctions. Although the EU and US sanctions have not been as draconian as they might be, the FUD factor has worked. Western capital markets and banks are largely shut to Russian companies, especially those subject to sanctions (like Rosneft). Rosneft has maturing debt to refinance, and as Medvedev says, it needs to invest to maintain production.

Output dropped 1.3 percent in August, as the productivity of western Siberian fields continues to drop as they age.

In another indication of the stress that it is facing, Rosneft (and thus Putin/Russia) actually agreed to let China invest in Russian oil fields on terms never extended to a western firm. The Chinese can bring capital, but not the expertise and technology that Rosneft needs to develop the challenging resources on which has staked its future. And the Chinese usually drive a hard bargain. So even with state money, Rosneft will struggle to achieve anything like the lofty ambitions that Sechin has laid out.

The state money will buy some time for Rosneft. Presumably Putin and Sechin are hoping that the state money will get them through the sanctions, which they likely anticipate will fade away in the near-to-medium term. But the FUD factor will continue to limit Rosneft’s access to western capital and western technology. Yes, energy firms and banks will come back if and when sanctions go away, but on terms that will be far less favorable than had been available pre-Ukraine. Putin’s unpredictability has dramatically raised the political risks of investing in Russia, especially in the energy sector.  Future capital will come with strings, and will be reluctant to invest in long term projects that could fall victim to Putin’s next adventure.

In other words, if Putin indeed permits Rosneft to dip deeply into the National Welfare Fund, it will be an acknowledgement that Russia has burned its bridges with western finance and technology.

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August 18, 2014

Wage Asymmetric Warfare: Unleash the SPR!

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:25 pm

The decline in the price of oil-Brent is down almost to $100/bbl, and Urals-Med is below that level-puts pressure on an already stressed Russian economy. And it especially puts pressure on a stressed Russian government budget, which balances at about $110+. What’s more, Russia is looking to replace private western funding with state support for its banks, and some corporations: recall my post yesterday which described how Sechin is panting after tens of billions of government money to replace western creditors. Further, Putin has made all sorts of promises, including lavish spending on the military and on infrastructure (e.g., a hugely expensive bridge over the Kerch Strait to Crimea). All of these add to the strains on the Russian budget.

Some of this is due to a weakening of the Russian economy for independent factors. Some of it is due to the sanctions.

The effectiveness of the sanctions could be enhanced by putting even further pressures on the Russian government. The most direct means of doing so would be through the price of oil, and short of persuading the Saudis to do a reprise of their 1986 act of flooding the market with oil, the best way to do that would be to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Especially given the burst in US domestic oil production, the already weak case for maintaining a large reserve is even weaker. Moreover, since much of the oil in the SPR is Brent, and thus could presumably be exported, this would be a way of mitigating the distortions associated with the existing crude export ban.

The number of barrels that would actually flow to the market would presumably be somewhat lower than the amount released from the SPR, because some of the public storage would be replaced by private storage. (As I argued in 2011, this effect depends on market expectations regarding how the SPR would be used.) But the direction of the price effect is clear, and the price impact would not be trivial.

Putin is waging asymmetric war in Ukraine. (Though it is becoming less asymmetric, and more conventional, by the day.) Sanctions are an asymmetric form of warfare. A release of the SPR would be another asymmetric move that would impact Russia directly, and indirectly by enhancing the financial strains produced by the sanctions. There’s no substantive economic case for retaining the SPR at its current levels. Seems like an obvious move. Will Obama make it?

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August 16, 2014

Sechin: Sanctions Don’t Hurt Rosneft, But I Need $42 Billion Because of Sanctions

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:46 pm

Igor Sechin, he of the ape drape, is asking the Russian government for $42 billion for Rosneft, to be paid from the National Wealth Fund. This would represent almost half of the value of that fund’s $86 billion. Sechin “said the company needed the money to help it cope with a ban on U.S. credits and loans with a maturity longer than 90 days, which European banks and investors have joined.”

This newfound fear of sanctions contradicts what Sechin and other Russian officials have said: they have dismissed them as irrelevant trifles.

I really don’t think that Sechin has become convinced that the sanctions do in fact pose a serious threat to Rosneft. This is just his way of trying to let no crisis go to waste, and get his hands on Russian government monies. Sechin has always fought tooth and nail against Medvedev’s repeatedly shelved plans to sell off a big stake in Rosneft: he doesn’t want nosy western investors cramping his style. The sanctions, and their alleged impact on Rosneft’s ability to borrow in the west, gives him an opportunity to show the door to pesky western creditors as well. Sechin no doubt believes that he can exert far more influence and power over the Russian government than he can over foreign bankers and traders. Bad, empire building investments; sweetheart contracts with favored supply firms; and tunneling funds are all easier when the main obstacles are government bureaucrats who can be bought off or threatened with horrible fates. The challenges are greater when outside investors and creditors are involved.

Sane Russian economics officials (there are some!) are aghast:

An anonymous official cited by Vedomosti called Sechin’s plan “horrible”, and another government source told the paper Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was unlikely to back it.

As if Medvedev matters.

I doubt Sechin will get his $42 billion, but I imagine he will get a lot more than zero. Maybe the $12 billion that Rosneft has to repay this year. Putin is likely to be sympathetic, given his decided autarkic turn.

In other possibly sanctions-related news, Gazprom is apparently relocating its London trading operations to Zug. To its discredit, Switzerland has refused to join in on EU sanctions, or to adopt serious sanctions of its own. Switzerland’s economy minister cautioned against joining EU sanctions, and advanced his country as a mediator with the Russians.

Which makes this Russian rant over the one timorous move that Switzerland has made truly revealing:

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday sharply criticized the Swiss government for restrictivemeasures against Russia related to Moscow’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis, saying such moves could harm bilateral relations.

“We express our disappointment in connection with these decisions taken by Bern,” the ministry said in a statement.

Earlier on Friday, the Swiss government decided to draft additional measures aimed at preventing the use of the territory of the Swiss Confederation to circumvent the existing EU sanctions against Russia. The government also confirmed the ban on transfers of dual-purpose products and technologies to Russia.

Those Russians. Poster children for Dale Carnegie.

But who could resist the appeal of a guy like this?:

sechin_ape_drape

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