Streetwise Professor

December 11, 2016

Exxon’s Russian Dealings Are No Reason to Fret About Tillerson. If Anything, the Reverse is True

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:16 pm

Current reports suggest that Trump will select ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Like many things Trump, this creates substantial uncertainty. For despite the fact that Tillerson has been a public figure for years, he has not been part of the foreign policy community, and hence his view on specific issues (China, the Middle East, and on and on), and his philosophical/ideological/doctrinal orientation are unknown.

As for the fact he has not been part of the FP community–good! It’s not as if it has covered itself in glory in the past couple of decades. Chin pullers moan that Tillerson’s appointment would represent the biggest discontinuity in US foreign policy in years. Again–good! We’re in a rut. Discontinuity has potential.

Others fret that as the mere CEO of one of the largest (if not the largest) corporations in the world, which invests in highly complex technology, operates in virtually every country on the globe, and which must navigate complex political issues in these myriad countries, is just not up to the job of managing the complexities of international diplomacy:

Some former officials said it was an open question whether Tillerson could make the transition from running Exxon, a vast company that explores for oil and gas on six continents, to the even greater complexity of being secretary of state.

“Negotiating a real estate deal or an oil contract with Saudi Arabia is not the same thing,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East specialist now at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.

“It’s not a complicated summit where you are trying to reconcile historical woundings, religious identities, sectarian tensions.”

“I’m not arguing that he can’t make this conversion. I just don’t think we know.”


Because ex-pols and career diplomats like John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Warren Christopher, Cyrus Vance, James Baker, etc., are such towering geniuses that they are much better able to manage the complexities of foreign affairs.


In today’s hysteria over Russia, of course Exxon’s and Tillerson’s relationship with Russia and Putin has been the focus of much angst and criticism. He received the “Order of Friendship” from Putin! XOM was going to invest zillions in Russia but sanctions prevented that! Sanctions cost Exxon billions! He’ll go easy on Russia to help Exxon!

Tillerson ran an oil company. Oil companies look for oil. Russia has oil. Tillerson’s company looked for oil in Russia. Not that complicated.

Further, XOM was not nearly as dependent on Russia as other majors, such as BP or Shell. Consider the billion or so that Exxon had at risk in joint ventures with Rosneft, but which were scuppered by sanctions. Well, a billion is real money, it’s not nearly as big a deal for Exxon because, well, Exxon is so damn big. Even at the depressed values due to low oil prices, $1 billion is .25 percent of XOM’s market cap. The other numbers bandied about–$400-$500 billion in investments in the Arctic over decades–are highly speculative, and dependent on many contingencies. Indeed, the main source of these numbers is hype by Igor Sechin, and should be discounted accordingly.

But even going beyond that, oil exploration and development is a highly fraught and unpredictable endeavor, especially in harsh natural environments like the Arctic, and harsh political environments like Russia. Seemingly promising finds can turn out to be disappointing. Numerous technological hurdles must be overcome. Political difficulties must be surmounted. Take a look at the Shtokman saga to see how these things can bedevil big Arctic projects.

Most importantly, development economics depend on prices, and prices are highly volatile. The initial XOM-Rosneft deals were negotiated in 2011-2013 when oil prices were north of $100/bbl, and were expected to stay there for, well, pretty much forever. A mere year later, oil prices cratered, and now the conventional wisdom is that $100/bbl oil is not on the horizon, even the distant horizon. Even absent sanctions, there would have been a massive re-evaluation of the scale and scope of the Rosneft-XOM cooperation.

Look at Shell. The technological challenges and costs of the Arctic, plus low prices, have led it to pull the plug on its once vaunting ambitions there.

Here’s something else that should provide this perspective. One of Tillerson’s most important moves as CEO was the acquisition of shale operator XTO Energy, for which Exxon paid $31 billion. This dwarfs the commitment to Russia, and shows that Tillerson was investing bigger dollars  in a technology that actually reduced the need for access to Russian resources.

To some, any involvement in Russia inevitably makes one beholden to Putin. Consider this from one of the lead hysterics, Julia Ioffe:

What does that kind of friendship mean? Past experience suggests it is not a relationship of equals. It means that, at the drop of a hat, the Kremlin might discover serious environmental violations at your Sakhalin plant and drive you out of the country, as it did to Royal Dutch Shell, and then give the lucrative access to a better, domestic ally. It might decide to harass you with lawsuits to force you out, as it did to BP. And it might even throw you in jail, as it did to powerful Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov in order to take a small oil company, Bashneft, away from you and give it to Sechin. Putin would even arrest his largely popular economics minister, as he did on November 15, to help Sechin retain it.

The lesson of Putin’s 16-year tenure is a lesson that all businesspeople, foreign and domestic, have learned: to do business in Russia, you have to be on good, personal terms with Putin and Sechin. And you have to understand that those two gatekeepers to Russia’s riches are fickle and sadistic, and, as former KGB operatives, know little of real friendship. To do business in Russia—both for Exxon Mobil and for Tillerson’s own massive retirement fund whose fortunes would rise significantly if a Trump White House lifted sanctions—you have to dance to Putin’s tune, and take whatever favors and humiliations he sends your wayPutin may act a friend and pin state medals on your breast, but he is, ultimately, a cynic. And to play ball with him, you have to be a cynic, too. Forget your honor, your rule of law, your independent judiciary, your human rights, your international law, and focus on the gold coins he throws to your feet. And forget looking dignified as you gather them up.

Note that none–NONE–of Ioffe’s examples involve ExxonMobil. Consider Shell’s travails in Sakhalin. ExxonMobil had a project in Sakhalin as well–Sakhalin I. Gazprom tried for years–years–to muscle its way in on that the way it muscled in on Shell’s Sakhalin II. It failed miserably. XOM swatted them away. And note that Gazprom and the Russian government didn’t pull the crap with Exxon that they pulled with Shell, or with BP in Kovytka or with TNK-BP. That’s a very big dog that didn’t bark. You think the Russians were just being nice to Exxon? Hardly. They respond to strength, and knew better than to confront Exxon.

When Rosneft and Exxon were negotiating their deals in the 2011-2013 time frame, Sechin wanted an arrangement similar to that he extracted/extorted from BP: an XOM investment in Rosneft combined with a big Rosneft equity stake in XOM. This went nowhere. Instead, Exxon negotiated a set of joint ventures that limited its exposure and gave it a lot of optionality and off-ramps, thereby limiting its vulnerability to Russian extortion. As further protection, it also exchanged hostages, namely JVs in the GOM. (These were ironically terminated last week, due to bad economics and unfavorable exploration results, thereby demonstrating the tenuous nature of these kinds of ventures.) Sachin was the supplicant, and was rejected.

All of this reveals that ExxonMobil, and Tillerson personally, were quite aware of the nature of the Putin regime, and the dangers in dealing with it. He hardly needs instruction from Julia Ioffe on these things. Indeed, he has more schooling in these matters that pretty much anyone alive, and has far fewer scars to show for it than pretty much anybody else who has tried to deal in Russia (Bob Dudley, for instance). He has fewer scars because he had more power to fight back than even behemoths like BP. Because Exxon is the behemoth among behemoths.

XOM/Tillerson were clearly aware of the lack of property rights in Russia, and the vulnerability to expropriation. They were the industry leaders at structuring contracts to reduce their risk to this. Further, they had the economic heft to stand up to Russia and Putin: Exxon’s market cap is almost equal to the market cap of the entire Russian market. What’s more, Exxon used this economic heft to get good deals out of Russia. If anything, Russia needed Exxon more than Exxon needed Russia–something that BP or even Shell could not say.

In other words, Tillerson is a man who understands Russia well, is intimately aware of its dysfunctions, understands relative power, and is willing to negotiate from a position of strength in order to obtain positive outcomes that limit the risk of exposure to these dysfunctions.

This is a problem why, exactly? That sounds like the perfect skill set. I know those still in shock after losing an election want to blame Russia for all their misfortunes and are (insanely) seeking open confrontation. That’s idiocy. He will have the resources of the most powerful nation in the world at his disposal, and he will know that American power vastly exceeds Russia’s. Tillerson has taken Putin’s measure, knows the players, and knows how to deploy power to reach mutually beneficial outcomes. Sounds good to me.

Also, incentives matter. As CEO, Tillerson was accountable to shareholders, and his compensation largely aligned his incentives accordingly. He was not (directly) accountable to the US government or the American people, and therefore it is expected that he would sometimes make decisions that benefited Exxon but which were not necessarily aligned with American policy or even American interests. (Though no one has provided a compelling example of that.*)

As Secretary of State, however, his incentives will be far different, and his interests will be far less aligned (if aligned at all) with his former employer. However imperfectly, the incentive structure of democratic politics will lead him to make choices that will differ substantially from those he would have made as CEO of Exxon. I would note that there are many, many instances where what people do in office is very different from what they did or said previously. This is because they face very different incentives. To go out on a limb, I would not be surprised if Tillerson becomes a Strange New Respect winner.

I have no idea how Tillerson will perform as Secretary of State. But I am highly confident that his long experience in Russia does not represent a serious concern: in fact, I would venture that it is his greatest attribute.  He dealt with the Russians for years, and didn’t get run over, and indeed, negotiated some pretty favorable deals with them. That speaks volumes.

Further, I would note that Russia is obviously an important policy challenge, but as a declining power that faces some rather daunting geopolitical and economic handicaps, I do not consider it our primary policy threat. The political class’ recent obsession with Russia, to the exclusion of more important countries–China, most notably–reflects the narcissistic rage of a part of the political class that was thwarted in its ambitions, and which is casting about for a scapegoat. These people didn’t give a damn about Russia before last summer, and indeed, to the extent they mentioned it at all it was to scorn those (e.g., Romney) who raised alarms about it. These are not serious people and their hysterics should not be taken seriously. Fixating on Tillerson’s Russian experience and dealings will distract attention from inquiries about his policy thinking on more important issues.

*In the comments Tim Newman mentions ExxonMobil’s dealings with Kurdistan in defiance of US government policy. That’s a good example, though I do find American policy in this regard problematic. Another example that comes to mind is Tilleson’s decision to terminate drilling in Ukrainian waters around the time of the Crimean crisis.

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December 10, 2016

The Glencore/QIA/Rosneft Deal: A Little Clearer Than Mud

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 8:28 pm

Rosneft and Glencore have released some additional information on the three way involving these two firms and the Qatar Investment Authority. These releases answer some of the questions about the deal–and evidently there is now a deal–but not all of them.

The new information indicates that I got some things wrong and some things right in my snap take. What I got wrong was the amount of equity, and hence the amount of leverage in the deal. My original conclusion that the equity investment was €600 million was based on (a) the announcement that Glencore would invest €300 million, and (b) Sechin’s statement that Glencore and QIA would be “equal partners.” (Silly me for believing Igor!) As it turns out, the QIA will invest €2.5 billion, making the deal leveraged a mere 3.6 to 1.

Where I got it right was my surmise that there was a lot of financial engineering going on. We still don’t know the full extent of such machinations, but the Glencore statement gives a glimpse. The key tipoff is the fact that although the Glencore-QIA consortium is 50:50, Glencore is at great pains to emphasize that its “economic exposure” to Rosneft represents a mere .54 percent share of the Russian company, and that “Glencore will not have any economic exposure to its interests in the Shares.”

Well, if the consortium is buying 19.5 percent of Roseneft, and Glencore is 50 percent of the consortium, that’s a wee bit bigger than .54 percent, isn’t it? So there must be some structure or structures that effectively shift the risk to other parties.

The Glencore statement provides a hint of at least one of these structures. It describes this feature:

  • Limited liability structure fully ring-fenced and non-recourse to Glencore apart from its €300 million equity contribution and the provision of margin guarantees of up to €1.4 billion, for which Glencore has obtained full indemnification from appropriate Russian banks.

My interpretation of this is term is that the loan funding the bulk of the purchase includes a margining feature, as in a stock margin loan. That is, the borrower is obligated to put up additional cash if the collateral value of the shares declines. In this case, Glencore has apparently promised to pay up to €1.4 billion. But apparently Glencore has passed this risk to “appropriate Russian banks.” (What’s an “appropriate bank”, anyways?) That is, the Russian banks will stump up the cash in the event of a stock price decline. Sounds to me like the banks have written a put on Rosneft shares (which is one of the structures that I had originally guessed at).

Well, puts aren’t free. Neither of the documents indicates the price of the put, or who is paying the premium.

If Glencore’s downside is limited to €300 million, certainly it doesn’t have a claim to 50 percent of the upside. One possibility is that it is paying for the put by writing a call. If so, the deal basically embeds a swap between Glencore and “appropriate banks” via which the risk of Rosneft shares are essentially transferred to the banks (with Glencore being short the swap and the banks long). If so, this would be a backdoor way for the Russian banks to buy Rosneft shares. To a first approximation their exposure is on the order of 9 percent (19.5 x .5 minus a little to reflect Glencore’s exposure).

This interpretation would square with Glencore’s assertion that “Glencore will not have any economic exposure to its interests in the Shares.” That means neither upside nor downside exposure. Where did the upside exposure go? Most likely to the Russian banks.

The QIA has been totally silent on the deal. It has not issued a press release. (Its web page looks like it was designed by a 15 year old in 1999, and is remarkably uninformative. Go figure.) Therefore, it is unknown if Qatar also has posted “margin guarantees.” If so, it would make calling the debt “non-recourse” highly misleading. It’s not as if QIA could put the keys in the mail and walk away with no additional liability in the event of a large decline in the value of Rosneft stock. Such a margin guarantee feature would effectively make a good portion of the debt recourse, rather than non-recourse, and convert its position into a conventional leveraged equity purchase. (This is because the lenders would have a claim on QIA assets beyond the initial investment.)

Another way to look at this is to ask: where does the risk go? The candidates are: QIA, Glencore, Intesa Sanpaolo and other funding banks, Russian banks “providing financing and credit support,” and even Rosneft (there would be Enronesque ways of passing the risk of an SPV back to Rosneft). Even with the additional disclosure, we only have a limited understanding of where the risk is going. Glencore is insisting its downside risk is very limited: €300 million. Its upside potential is unclear, but it is highly likely that has been transferred elsewhere, mainly to pay for Glencore’s limiting its downside exposure. We know some of the downside exposure has gone to Russian banks. The exact division is unclear.

If I had to guess, I would surmise that the exposure of Intesa and other banks providing funding is limited: margin guarantees limit their risk to a stock price decline. Due to the indemnification, Intesa et al have a rather complex exposure to the credit of Russian banks and Glencore, where this credit exposure also depends on the price of Rosneft stock. Good luck modeling that correlation risk and (implicit) tranching!

As I noted earlier, my guess is that Qatar has a fairly standard leveraged long position in Rosneft.

The Russian banks have a long position too, through the indemnification feature, and likely through the way that is paid for (e.g., a call). If this is the case, and if the “appropriate banks” are state banks like VTB, that makes the privatization something of a sham, or at least only half of what Sechin and Putin are trumpeting, because Russian state entities would have an long equity exposure to Rosneft.

A couple of asides on how this story evolved–or should I say is evolving. First, Rosneft evidently made its initial announcement without clearing it with Glencore. I have been told that the first Glencore’s corporate affairs people heard of the news was when reporters contacted them. Glencore then made a rather bizarre statement, the first sentence of which was: “Glencore notes the announcement released by the Russian government regarding the privatization of shares in Rosneft.” (Emphasis added.) Notes the announcement. Doesn’t confirm the truth of it, just notes it. Glencore then proceeded to say that negotiations were still ongoing and that no deal was finalized, though it anticipated such a result. Methinks that Rosneft made the announcement to pressure Glencore into finalizing the transaction.

Second, just how the official announcement would read was a  matter of contention up to the last minute. Rosneft told several wire services that they would receive a briefing at 11PM Moscow time on Friday (!). But that was delayed hours, apparently because Glencore and Rosneft (and their lawyers) were fighting over how Glencore’s participation would be described. My conjecture is that Rosneft wanted it to appear that Glencore was a full equity participant, thereby putting its imprimatur on Rosneft as a great investment: this would also conceal the risk being passed onto Russian banks. Glencore, as we’ve already seen, is intent on conveying that its exposure to Rosneft is minimal. This would no doubt allay its creditors concerns–but it would also undermine Sechin’s narrative. Hence the battle. Reading the releases, it looks like Glencore won. The sense I get is that Glencore is signaling that it gained significant trading benefits (a big offtake agreement, and potential for future commercial ventures with Rosneft) without having to expose itself all that much to Rosneft’s embedded price, operational, and political risks.

Perhaps some additional details will come out. But I doubt much more will. If I’m right, Rosneft and the Russian banks have little interest in disclosing how much risk Glencore is passing along to them. Glencore will be happy as long as it is convinced its creditors and investors believe that it has little exposure to Rosneft but has gained significant commercial advantages. And QIA don’t need to tell nobody nothing.

So as it stands, things are clearer than mud, but not much. Like the Brazos River or somesuch.


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December 7, 2016

Ivan Glasenberg’s Shock and Awe: But There Has to Be More Than Meets the Eye

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 8:25 pm

Today saw a major surprise. I mean a major surprise. The Russian government announced that a consortium consisting of Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority had purchased a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft for €10.5 billion. (Glencore said the price was €10.2 billion.)

The major surprise was that outside investors were involved at all at this time. For weeks the story had been that Rosneft itself would buy back the shares from the Rosneftgaz holding company, and then sell them to a private investor at a later date. This looked like a sham privatization, which fit in with the idea that Igor Sechin was less than enamored with the idea of selling equity to outsiders.

Also a surprise was Glencore’s participation. Qatar’s name had been floated as a possible buyer, but not Glencore’s. And no wonder. The firm is just recovering from a near death experience, has been feverishly de-leveraging, and only a few days ago announced it would pay $1 billion in dividends next year. So it hardly looked like a firm that would have the cash to pay out of pocket, and was not a candidate to borrow a lot.

But it appears there is some financial engineering going on here. A Glencore-QIA joint venture will buy the Rosneft shares, and the two investors will put up a mere €300 million each in equity. The remainder will be financed (according to Putin) by one of “the largest European banks.” Furthermore, the debt is supposedly non-recourse to Glencore or QIA. This means that the loan is essentially secured by the Rosneft shares.

This would allow Glencore to keep the debt off its balance sheet, and skirt sanctions by not having an equity stake in Rosneft.

If those numbers are right, the deal will be leveraged 17.5-to-1. That reminds me of a real estate boom SPV–except that the underlying asset here is even riskier than subprime. Given the riskiness of the underlying asset (Rosneft shares) that gearing seems unsustainable to me. What bank would take that risk?: the bank owns all the downside, and the JV partners get all the upside.

You can bet that any bank wouldn’t let you buy Rosneft shares on that geared a margin loan–and a non-recourse one no less. So I am guessing that there is some other part of the deal that passes the equity price risk back to Glencore and QIA. For instance, a total return swap between the JV and its owners. Or a put (which would make it unnecessary for the JV to make payments to the investors in the event Rosneft stock rises in value, as would be the case in a TRS.) If that, or something like it, is going on here, this is a cute way to keep investment off Glencore’s balance sheet, and also may be a way to work around sanctions, because derivatives on Rosneft debt (e.g., CDS) and equity are not subject to the sanctions. I cannot believe that any bank would lend so heavily based only on the security of Rosneft stock. So there must be a part of the deal that hasn’t been disclosed yet. (This may also involve an arrangement between Qatar and Glencore that limits the latter’s exposure.) There is more here than meets the eye, at least from the initial reporting.

Speaking of sanctions, the fact that a European bank (who?–reportedly Intesa Sanpaolo) is stepping up suggests that they believe the structure is sanctions-proof. This may also be a Trump effect: banks may have less concern about aggressive sanctions interpretation and enforcement in a Trump administration.

If it is Intesa Sanpaolo–that’s also rather interesting. Italian banks aren’t exactly in great shape these days, and are particularly shaky in the aftermath of the rejection of the referendum on Sunday. It is one of Italy’s healthier banks, but like saying someone is one of the healthier patients in the oncology ward. (Its equity is about 7 percent of assets.) Normally a loan of this size would be syndicated to spread the risk. If it isn’t, the loan represents more than 20 percent of Intesa’s equity and almost a quarter of its market cap. That’s insane.

All the more reasons to think that the bank has to find a way to lay off the price risk in the deal. (All the ways I can think of would expose it to the credit risk of Glencore and QIA. The latter isn’t an issue . . . the former could be. All the more reason to consider the possibility of QIA providing some credit support in the deal even if it is formally non-recourse.)

Another interesting aspect to the deal. Trafigura has been an important bulwark for Rosneft in the last two plus years. It dramatically stepped up its pre-pay deals with Rosneft, thereby providing vital (though very short-term sanctions compliant) funding when the Russian company was cut off from the capital markets. Moreover, Trafigura’s participation was a linchpin in Rosneft’s acquisition of Indian refiner Essar. As a result of these deals, Trafigura had nudged out Glencore as Rosneft’s biggest Russian partner. Now Glencore owns a major equity stake, and as part of the deal gets a 220,000 barrel-per-day off-take agreement with Rosneft. This gives Glencore 11.5 million tons/year of oil. Trafigura has been doing about 20 million tons of crude and 20 million tons of product from Rosneft. (Glencore also has off-take volume stemming from a 2013 pre-pay deal.)

Perhaps Trafigura did not have an appetite or capacity for doing much more volume with Rosneft, but it must be disconcerting to see Glencore take such a large equity stake. That undoubtedly has implications for Rosneft’s future dealings.

This transaction says a lot about Ivan Glasenberg. Given the experience of the last two years, one could have understood if he had been risk averse. This shows that his legendary appetite for risk remains. (And the more of the equity risk that is passed back to Glencore through financial engineering, the bigger that appetite will be shown to be.) This was shock and awe.

This deal is a boon for Russia and Putin, who can really use the money, and outside money especially. I wonder if Sechin is all that pleased, though. As noted earlier, he has been dragging his feet on privatization. Earlier this year a Rosneft analysis said the company would only be able to raise $1-$2 billion: obviously this was intended to convince Putin that a privatization would be a giveaway that he should take a pass on. But I’m sticking with my earlier guess that going through with the privatization was the quid pro quo for Putin allowing Rosneft to buy Bashneft. And again, Vlad really needs the money.

One last thing to put this all in perspective. Yes, €10 billion seems like a lot, but that values Rosneft at around $55 billion. The company’s reserves are about 34.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). Its output is around 1.75 billion BOE per annum. For comparison, ExxonMobil is worth ~$350 billion. Its reserves are a third smaller than Rosneft’s: 24.8b BOE. Its output of 1.43 billion BOEPA is about 80 percent of Rosneft’s. So on a dollars per unit of reserves or output basis, XOM is about 8-9 times as valuable as Rosneft. That speaks volumes about Rosneft’s inefficiency, and the political risks that go along with the normal commercial risks inherent in an oil company. Keep that in mind when evaluating Putinism.


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December 2, 2016

Lucy Putin?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:53 pm

I was somewhat surprised that OPEC came to an agreement. I will be more surprised if they live up to it: that would be not just going against history, but against basic economics. The incentives to cheat are omnipresent (as the Saudi’s ex-Minister of Petroleum of Petroleum Naimi acknowledged in the aftermath of the announcement). Further, what is the enforcement mechanism? Retaliatory output increases/price cuts (i.e., price wars)? Moreover, given that many OPEC nations are facing acute budgetary strains, the present looms and the future looks very, very far away: consequently, getting some additional revenue today at the risk of losing some revenue a year or two from now when a price war breaks out looks pretty attractive.

The breathless TigerBeat-style reporting of the meeting states that Russia’s last-minute intervention rescued the deal. A few things to keep in mind. Russian oil output has surged in the last few months, meaning that its promise to cut 300,000 bbl/day basically puts its output back to where it was in March. This is in fact pretty much true of the OPEC members too: the deal very much as the feel of simply taking two steps back to reverse the two steps forward that major producers took in the past 9 months (and the two steps forward were no doubt driven in large part to improve bargaining positions in anticipation of the November OPEC meeting).

Moreover, the timing of the Russian commitment is rather hazy. Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia would cut “gradually.” That can mean almost anything, meaning that the Russians can say “the cuts are coming! Trust us! We said it would be ‘gradual!'” and that there will be no hard evidence to contradict them.

The most amusing part of this to me is that many are interpreting Putin’s personal involvement as proof that the Russians will indeed cut. “If Putin tells Russian oil companies to cut, they’ll ask ‘how deeply’?”


Call me cynical (yeah, I know), but I find this scenario far more plausible: Putin sweet-talked the Saudis and Iranians to overcome their differences to cut output in order to raise prices, all the while planning to sell as much as possible at the (now 10 percent) higher prices. Breezy promises cost nothing, and even if eventually OPEC members wise up to being duped, in the meantime Russia will be able to sell to capacity at these higher prices. Yes, the OPEC members will be less likely to believe him next time, but Putin’s time horizon is also very short, for a variety of reasons. He’s not getting any younger. And more immediately, the Russian recession is dragging into its third year, and budgetary pressures are mounting (especially since he is committed to maintaining a high level of military spending). The Russian Wealth Fund (one of its two sovereign wealth funds) has been declining inexorably: the rainy day fund is almost empty, and the skies still haven’t cleared. And the presidential election looms in 2018. For Putin, the future is now. The future consequences of making and breaking a promise are not of great importance in such circumstances. But more money in the door today is very, very important.

Russia isn’t like other OPEC producers, which have national oil companies that respond to government orders. Although government-controlled Rosneft is the biggest producer in Russia, there are others, and even Rosneft and Gazpromneft have more autonomy than, say, Saudi Aramco. Yes, Putin could, er, persuade them, but a far more effective (and credible) tool would be to adjust taxes (especially export taxes on both crude and fuels) to give Russia’s producers an incentive to cut output (and especially exports, which is what OPEC members really care about). A tax boost would be a very public signal–and reversing it would be too, making it harder to cheat/renege. (Harder, but not impossible. The government could give stealth tax cuts or rebates. This is Russia, after all.) But I have not seen the possibility of a tax rise even be discussed. That makes me all the more skeptical of Putin’s sincerity.

So my belief is that Putin is stepping into the role that Sechin played in 2009, that is, he is being Lucy beckoning Charlie Brown/OPEC with the football. And Charlie Brown is attempting a mighty boot. We know how that works out.

Even if Putin lives up to his pinky-swear to cut output, Russia has cut a much better deal than the Saudis. The promised Russian cut is about 60 percent of the Saudi cut, yet both get the same (roughly 10 percent) higher price, meaning that (roughly speaking) Russian revenues will rise 40 percent more than than Saudi revenues do–assuming that both adhere to the cuts. The disparity will be greater, to the extent that Russia cheats more than the Saudis.

Time will tell, but what I am predicting is that (a) Russia will not cut anything near 300kbbl/d, and (b) cheating by OPEC members will snowball, meaning that next November’s OPEC meeting will likely be another rancorous effort dedicated to repairing a badly tattered deal, rather than a celebration of the anniversary of a successful and enduring bargain.

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November 15, 2016

Igor Sechin Takes His Revenge

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

The Bashneft sale to Rosneft (which I wrote several posts about) is a done deal, but apparently there was some unfinished business. Namely, the business of  revenge.

On Monday Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev was detained for corruption. He allegedly took a $2 million bribe to “allow” the sale. Indeed, Bloomberg claims he was caught in the act:

Ulyukayev, 60, was detained on Monday “in the act” of receiving the cash, said Russia’s Investigative Committee. He was later charged with demanding the money from Rosneft PJSC to allow its purchase last month of the government’s 50 percent stake in regional oil producer Bashneft PJSC, the agency said in a statement. The economy minister denies any wrongdoing, his lawyer Timofei Gridnev told Business FM radio. Investigators moved that he be held under house arrest before he arrived for arraignment Tuesday at Moscow’s Basmanny Court.

Ah, Basmanny justice. Gotta love it.

This all seems quite bizarre. The Bashneft acquisition was clearly a source of intense conflict with the Russian government, with the government ministries–including Ulyukayev–initially expressing opposition. Then there was temporizing, with Putin seeming to come down on both sides of the issue. Then it was decided in Rosneft’s–that is, Igor Sechin’s–favor.

Presumably, Putin was the ultimate decider here. If so, Ulyukayev was in no position to “allow” anything. Maybe he had a chance to make his case, either directly to Putin, or indirectly via Medvedev. But once he lost, he would have been delusional to think he had any leverage over whether the deal would proceed.

Further, the timing is beyond strange. The deal was decided in September, and finalized on October 12, more than a month ago. So, did Ulyukayev give net 30 terms on the bribe? Net 60? Was it half now, half later? Is bribery really done on credit in Russia?

I would also venture that attempting to shake down Sechin and Rosneft is tantamount to suicide. Did Ulyukayev attempt such a risky thing? Did Sechin play along and then facilitate a sting by the Investigative Committee? Or was this a set-up job from the start?

One thing that is almost certainly true is that this is Sechin taking his revenge, and sending a message to others: look at what happens to those who cross me.

The Energy Ministry, under Novak, also opposed the deal initially. I wonder if he is sleeping well.

There are some comic elements to the story. Several stories breathlessly report a law enforcement leak saying that Ulyukayev’s phone had been tapped “for months.” Um, pretty sure it was tapped like forever.

Ulyukayev has a reputation as a “liberal” in Russia, and assorted Western dimwits expressed Shock! Shock! at his arrest. Prominent among these were Anders Aslund and my fellow professor and buddy Michael McFaul. I say dimwits for several reasons. First, is it news to them that the “liberals” in the Russian government are marginalized, and exist at the sufferance of people like Sechin who are in Putin’s inner circle? Second, are they so credulous as to believe that these liberals are untainted by corruption? Puh-lease. Ulyukayev appeared in the Panama Papers. Further, the “liberals” and “reformers” mainly go back to the Yeltsin period, and remember that  Yeltsin elevated Putin in exchange for foregoing any investigation or prosecution of the rife corruption of the Yeltsin administration. Ulyukayev was associated with Gaidar, who was also tied to corruption (although the publicly revealed instances were small beer by Russian standards).

There are no clean hands in Russia. This very fact is what usually keeps people in line, for they know the adage “for my friends, everything: for my enemies, the law!” Everybody is vulnerable to prosecution, because everybody is corrupt: actual prosecution is used sparingly, however, to punish those who have committed a political transgression.

Ulyukayev clearly committed such a transgression, and hence he finds himself in the dock.

There is no reason to be shocked by this. It merely confirms that people like Sechin are the real power. But this is apparently a revelation to alleged Russia experts.

Bashneft is the Hope Diamond of oil companies: it seems to bring bad luck to anyone who touches it. Ural Rakhimov, the son of the boss of Bashkortostan (where the company is located), who profited from the corruptly done privatization of the company in 2002, but who apparently fled Russia when the privatization and subsequent sale came under government scrutiny. Vladimir P. Yevtushenkov, who bought Bashneft from Rakhimov, but then wound up under house arrest for 92 days for allegations related to the privatization: he walked only after the government seized Bashneft shares from Yevtushenkov’s holding company before performing the re-privatization Kabuki that ended with the company being bought by Rosneft. And now Ulyukayev.

Will the skein of bad luck end with Rosneft and Sechin? That’s a good bet, but not a lock. Who knows what changes in power are in store, especially as Putin ages, or if there is some economic or political shock?

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November 9, 2016

Blessed Are Ye Who Are Long Gamma

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:03 am

Hillary Clinton made history last night. Just not quite the way she had expected. Rather than “shatter the glass ceiling” (gag), she was crushed as the roof caved in on a complacent, corrupt, and clueless establishment of which she was the exemplar. Donald Trump was the personification of the forces that defeated her and the “elite”, but pretty much only that: either by canny calculation or dumb luck he rode a deep current of popular discontent to achieve a stunning victory that saw at least five, and likely six, strongly Democratic states flip from D to R. The Democrats prevailed only in the leftist strongholds of the P-Coast, the Northeast, The Illinois Salient, and Governmentlandia (Virginia and Maryland). The rest of the country went red. Trump was the effect, not the cause. The vessel that floated on the tide, not the tide itself.

Blessed are ye who are long gamma. Those who have the flexibility and optionality to respond to uncertain developments are the winners here, for there will be uncertainty aplenty. The future with Hillary would have been drearily predictable: the future with Trump will be a wild ride.

Consider few representative areas.

The Supreme Court: Hillary would have chosen rigid leftist ideologues intent on remaking the country–not just its government and economy, but its social fabric. Trump? I have no clue, and either does anyone else. My guess that his court picks generally will be highly idiosyncratic with no unifying philosophical orientation–because Trump lacks one as well.

Government appointments: Hillary would tap from the Empire’s vast array of apparatchiks, most of whom would be statist to the core. The middle and lower level appointments would have teemed with the kinds of political cockroaches revealed in the light of the Podesta emails. As an outsider, Trump has no similar pool of bureaucrats-in-waiting. The transition process will likely be chaotic, and he will have to rely on a Republican establishment that he distrusts (and which distrusts him) to advance candidates. Again, the outcome is wildly unpredictable, and will probably result in a hodgepodge of appointments with no unifying ideology or philosophy, who will often work at cross purposes.

There will be new blood, which is a good thing: people from outside the ranks of the courtiers in DC and the coastal metropolises are desperately needed. These people will inevitably be high variance. But that is an inevitable part of the process of change.

Economic policy: Hillary would have continued the onslaught of regulations that has been producing an Amerisclerosis that rivals Eurosclerosis. Agencies like the EPA would have continued to propose and implement burdensome, growth-sapping regulations. She would have pushed the kinds of taxes on capital that are also inimical to growth (although her ability to get those through Congress would have been a very open question). Trump? He is an economic ignoramus, but it is likely that Congress will temper some of his wackier ideas. Further, he is open to reducing many of the regulatory monstrosities like those that the EPA has imposed, and to removing barriers to energy production and transportation. His tax ideas are unpredictable, but again they are not relentlessly hostile to investment and capital. And a big thing: there is an opportunity to fix Obamacare. Hillary would have fixed it by moving to single payer. There is an opportunity to move away from government control, not doubling down on it.

Regulatory policy and taxes will require cooperation with Congress. The relations between Trump and the Republican leadership are fraught, at best. Idiots like Max Boot are delusional if they think that a Republican House and Senate will give Trump carte blanche. But Trump views himself as a negotiator, and will no doubt engage in negotiations with Congress with zest. The outcome of those negotiations? Impossible to predict. Likely something best described by the old joke: “What is a giraffe? A horse designed by committee [or negotiation].” Again, tremendous uncertainty.

With respect to economic policy, personnel will matter here. Again, Hillary’s appointments to agencies like EPA, SEC, FERC, FTC, FCC, and CFTC would have been tediously predictable statists intent on extending government control over the economy. Trump’s appointments are much more likely to be a very mixed bag, leading to less predictable outcomes. I do think it is likely, however, that there will be many fewer regulatory control freaks. Thus, I expect that at the CFTC, for instance, a Trump commission will jettison economic inanities like Reg AT and position limits.

Foreign policy: Hillary has a strong interventionist, not to say warmongering, streak, and would have almost certainly been more aggressive in Syria than Obama has been, with very sobering consequences (including a substantially increased risk of confrontation with Russia). Trump’s predilections seem much less interventionist, but events, dear boy, events, can lead presidents to do things that they would prefer not to. And given Trump’s mercurial nature, how he will respond to events is wildly unpredictable.

He will have to deal with other major issues, notably China. He will approach these like a negotiator–including, I expect, large doses of bluff and bluster–and the outcomes of these negotiations will be even harder to predict than those of his negotiations with Congress. (One issue that could have both domestic and foreign policy effects is that I conjecture it is likely that the Sequester will die under Trump, whereas it would have continued with a divided government.)

It is clear, therefore, that Trump will disrupt the system, both domestically and internationally, whereas Hillary would have perpetuated it. And I am not unduly concerned about extreme disruptions, because the inherent complexity of the American system of government, the tension between Trump and Congress, and quite frankly, Trump’s limited attention span will temper his more extreme impulses.

Further, shaking up the system is a good thing, for the system is dysfunctional and corrupt. Hillary would have continued our relentless slouch to cryptosocialism and would have cemented the rule of a contemptible and remote establishment: the possibility of an upside is greater with Trump, even if by accident. Hillary would have delivered us sclerosis on purpose.

I would also suggest that a Hillary victory would have increased the likelihood of a bigger cataclysm in the future. She and her acolytes would have disdained and dismissed the forces that in the event propelled Trump to victory. She would have doubled down on the policies that have contributed to our present discontent. As a result, that discontent would have only increased, thereby increasing in turn the likelihood of an even bigger political spasm in the future.

To put things differently: with Trump, we will be on a roller coaster. With Hillary, we would have been on the luge.

I think Trump will be a transitional figure. Transitioning to what, I have no idea. But given the deeply dysfunctional nature of the status quo, transition holds out hope. Shaking up a decrepit and corrupt system creates the possibility for change. Creative Destruction is a possibility with Trump. With Hillary, no.

All this said, the Empire will strike back. It will wage a relentless war from its redoubts in the media, and to a lesser degree, the courts. Look at what the Remain crowd is doing in the UK in its attempt to undo its loss at the polls. That will happen here too: there will be a Thermidor, or at least an attempted one. And that battle will produce uncertainty.

And not all of the Empire’s minions are Democrats: the Republican establishment will fight Trump from within the citadel. This political warfare adds the prospect of even more uncertainty. Again, a reason to be long gamma.

I cannot say I predicted this, because I didn’t. I do think it is fair to say that I limned the outlines of what has transpired. This came in two parts. First, I noted that as with Brexit, this possibility was far more likely than elite opinion believed. A complacent elite sat smugly atop the volcano, blithely ignorant of the pressure of deep popular disdain pushing up the earth under their feet, disdain powered by the financial crisis, bloody and inconclusive wars, and an anemic economy. Talking only to one another, the elite received no feedback about what voters were thinking and feeling.  Existing in an echo chamber made them vulnerable to shock and surprise. Moreover, their contempt for those not in their class also led them to think that such feedback was irrelevant, because these little people didn’t matter. They knew better.

But the little people, largely without voice in the forums in which the elite communicate and interact, nursed their injuries, bided their time, and took their revenge.

Second, Hillary is a horrible person, and a horrible candidate–or should I say deplorable? Look at the vote totals vs. Obama in 2012. To say she underperformed is an extreme understatement. She underperformed because she had nothing new to offer, and indeed, the old conventional liberal stuff she was offering was long past its sell-by date. Add to that her horrible personal packaging (the corruption, the endless scandal, the inveterate lying) and she was crushed by an inarticulate political novice carrying more baggage than the cargo hold of an Airbus A380.

I did not have the courage of my convictions to predict that these two factors would result in a Trump victory. I thought Jacksonian America was too small to prevail. I too was in the thrall of conventional wisdom to some degree.

If you asked me to describe my mood, I would echo the title of a Semisonic song: Feeling strangely fine. Part of that feeling, I must admit somewhat guiltily, is due to schadenfreude: the hysteria of those whom I despise is quite enjoyable to witness. But part of it is that I think I am long gamma, and that the US is long gamma too. The old system and the old establishment have crushed American dynamism. Shaking up that system has more upside than downside, and whatever you think about Trump, you have to know he will shake things up.

I’ll close by quoting about the most un-Trump-like president I can think of: Eisenhower. “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” In other words, disrupt. Get out of the box. Don’t continue down the same endless path: try something new. The United States has been facing many insoluble problems, political, economic, strategic. The establishment had no clue at how to solve these problems, and their attempts to try the same things expecting different results put us on a slow road to ruin. Or maybe not so slow. A disruption was needed. An overthrow of the elite was imperative. Those things will in some respects enlarge our problems, by creating turmoil. But out of that enlargement there is the prospect of solutions–and yes, the prospect of catastrophe.

I don’t think that Trump himself will be the architect of those solutions. His role will be to tear down–he’s already done that to a considerable degree. Others will have to build up. Who that is, I don’t know. What construction will emerge, I don’t know. But there is far more upside now than there would have been with President Hillary Clinton. And that is reason to feel fine, strangely so or not

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November 8, 2016

WTI Gains on Brent: You Read It Here First!

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:22 pm

Streetwiseprofessor, August 2011:

WTI’s problems arise from the consequences of too much supply at the delivery point, which is a good problem for a contract to have.  The price signals are leading to the kind of response that will eliminate the supply overhang, leaving the WTI contract with prices that are highly interconnected with those of seaborne crude, and with enough deliverable supply to mitigate the potential for squeezes and other technical disruptions.

. . . .

Which means that those who are crowing about Brent today, and heaping scorn on WTI, will be begging for WTI’s problems in a few years.  For by then, WTI’s issues will be fixed, and it will be sitting astride a robust flow of oil tightly interconnected with the nexus of world oil trading.

Bloomberg, November 2016:

In the battle for supremacy between the world’s two largest oil exchanges, one of them is enjoying a turbo charge from the U.S. government.

Traders bought and sold an average of almost 1.1 billion barrels of West Texas Intermediate crude futures each day in 2016, a surge of 35 percent from a year earlier. The scale of the gain was partly because of the U.S. government lifting decades-old export limits last year, pushing barrels all over the world, according to CME Group Inc., whose Nymex exchange handles the contracts. By comparison, ICE Futures Europe’s Brent contract climbed by 13 percent.

WTI and Brent have been the oil industry’s two main futures contracts for decades. In the past, the American grade’s global popularity was restrained by the fact that exports were heavily restricted. Now, record U.S. shipments are heading overseas, meaning WTI’s appeal as a hedging instrument is rising, particularly in Asia, where CME has expanded its footprint.

“You have turbo-charged WTI as a truly waterborne global benchmark,” Derek Sammann global head of commodities and options products at CME Group, said in a phone interview regarding the lifting of the ban. “You’re seeing the global market reach out and use WTI — whether that’s traders in Europe, Asia and the U.S.”

This should surprise no one–but the conventional wisdom had largely written off WTI in 2011. Given that economic price signals were providing a strong incentive to invest in infrastructure to ease the bottleneck between the Midcon and the sea, it was inevitable that WTI would become reconnected with the waterborne market.

Once the physical bottleneck was eased, the only remaining bottleneck was the export ban. But whereas the export ban was costless prior to the shale boom (because it banned something that wasn’t happening anyways), it became very costly when US supply (especially of light, sweet crude) ballooned. As Peltzman, Becker and others pointed out long ago, politicians do take deadweight costs into account. In a situation like the US oil market, which pitted two large and concentrated interests (upstream producers and refiners) against one another, reducing deadweight costs probably made the difference (as the distributive politics were basically a push).  Thus, the export ban went the way of the dodo, and the tie between WTI and the seaborne market became all that much tighter.

This all means that it’s not quite right to say that CME’s WTI contract has been “turbocharged by the federal government.” Shale it what has turbocharged everything. The US government just accommodated policy to a new economic reality. It was along for the ride, as are CME and ICE.

ICE’s response was kind of amusing:

“ICE Brent Crude remains the leading global benchmark for oil,” the exchange said in an e-mailed response to questions. “With up to two-thirds of the world’s oil priced off the Brent complex, the Brent crude futures contract is a key hedging mechanism for oil market participants.”

Whatever it takes to get them through the day, I guess. Reading that brought to mind statements that LIFFE made about the loss of market share to Eurex in early-1998.

The fact is that there is hysteresis in the choice of the pricing benchmark. As exiting contracts mature and new contracts are entered, market participants will have an opportunity to revisit their choice of pricing benchmark. With the high volume and liquidity of WTI, and the increasingly tight connection between WTI and world oil flows, more participants will shift to WTI pricing.

Further, as I noted in the 2011 post (and several that preceded it) Brent’s structural problems are far more severe. Brent production is declining, and this decline will likely accelerate in a persistent low oil price environment: not only has shale boosted North American supply, it has contributed to the decline in North Sea supply. Brent’s pricing mechanism is already extremely baroque, and will only become more so as Platts scrambles to find more imaginative ways to tie the contract to new supply sources. It is not hard to imagine that in the medium term Brent will be Brent in name only.

Since WTI will likely rest on a strong and perhaps increasing supply base, Brent’s physical underpinning will become progressively shakier, and more Rube Goldberg-like. These different physical market trajectories will benefit WTI derivatives relative to Brent, and will also induce a shift towards using WTI as a benchmark in physical trades. Meaning that ICE is whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe they are just taking Satchel Paige’s advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” And in ICE Brent’s case, that’s definitely true, and the gap is closing quickly.



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October 26, 2016

China Has Been Glencore’s Best Friend, But What China Giveth, China Can Taketh Away

Filed under: China,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 3:55 pm

Back when Glencore was in extremis last year, I noted that although the company could do some things on its own (e.g., sell assets, cut dividends, reduce debt) to address its problems, its fate was largely out of its hands. Further, its fate was contingent on what happened to commodity prices–coal and copper in particular–and those prices would depend first and foremost on China, and hence on Chinese policy and politics.

Those prognostications have proven largely correct. The company executed a good turnaround plan, but it has received a huge assist from China. China’s heavy-handed intervention to cut thermal and coking coal output has led to a dramatic spike in coal prices. Whereas the steady decline in those prices had weighed heavily on Glencore’s fortunes in 2014 and 2015, the rapid rise in those prices in 2016 has largely retrieved those fortunes. Thermal coal prices are up almost 100 percent since mid-year, and coking coal has risen 240 percent from its lows.

As a result, Glencore was just able to secure almost $100/ton for a thermal coal contract with a major Japanese buyer–up 50 percent from last year’s contract. It is anticipated that this is a harbinger for other major sales contracts.

The company will not capture the entire rally in prices, because it had hedged about 50 percent of its output for 2016. But that means 50 percent wasn’t hedged, and the price rise on those unhedged tons will provide a substantial profit for the company. (This dependence of the company on flat prices indicates that it is not so much a trader anymore, as an upstream producer married to a big trading operation.) (Given that hedges are presumably marked-to-market and collateralized, and hence require Glencore to make cash payments on its derivatives at the time prices rise, I wonder if the rally has created any cash flow issues due to mismatches in cash flows between physical coal sales and derivatives held as hedges.)

So Chinese policy has been Glencore’s best friend so far in 2016. But don’t get too excited. Now the Chinese are concerned that they might have overdone things. The government has just called an emergency meeting with 20 major coal producers to figure out how to raise output in order to lower prices:

China’s state planner has called another last-minute meeting to discuss with more than 20 coal mines more steps to boost supplies to electric utilities and tame a rally in thermal coal prices, according to two sources and local press.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has convened a meeting with 22 coal miners for Tuesday to discuss ways to guarantee supply during the winter while sticking to the government’s long-term goal of removing excess inefficient capacity, according to a document inviting companies to the meeting seen by Reuters.

What China giveth, China might taketh away.

All this policy to-and-fro has, of course is leading to speculation about Chinese government policy. This contributes to considerable price volatility, a classic example of policy-induced volatility, which is far more common that policies that reduce volatility.

Presumably this uncertainty will induce Glencore to try to lock in more customers (which is a form of hedging). It might also increase its paper hedging, because a policy U-turn in China (about which your guess and Glencore’s guess are as good as mine) is always a possibility, and could send prices plunging again.

So when I said last year that Glencore was hostage to coal prices, and hence to Chinese government policy–well, here’s the proof. It’s worked in the company’s favor so far, but given the competing interests (electricity generators, steel firms, banks, etc.) affected by commodity prices, a major policy adjustment is a real possibility. Glencore–and other major commodity producers, especially in coal and ferrous metals–remain hostages to Chinese policy and hence Chinese politics.

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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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