Streetwise Professor

May 8, 2017

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

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

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

The grounds of the lawsuit are unclear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 6, 2017

Son of Glass-Steagall: A Nostrum, Prescribed by Trump

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 7:30 pm

Apologies for the posting hiatus. I was cleaning out my mother’s house in preparation for her forthcoming move, a task that vies with the Labors of Hercules. I intended to post, but I was just too damn tired at the end of each day.

I’ll ease back into things by giving a heads up on my latest piece in The Hill, in which I argue that reviving Glass-Steagall’s separation of commercial and investment banking is a solution in search of a problem. One thing that I find telling is that the problem the original was intended to address in the 1930s was totally different than the one that is intended to address today. Further, the circumstances in the 1930s were wildly different from present conditions.

In the 1930s, the separation was intended to prevent banks from fobbing off bad commercial and sovereign loans to unwitting investors through securities underwriting. This problem in fact did not exist: extensive empirical evidence has shown that debt securities underwritten by universal banks (like J.P. Morgan) were of higher quality and performed better ex post than debt underwritten by stand alone investment banks. Further, the  most acute problem of the US banking system was not too big to fail, but too small to succeed. The banking crisis of the 1930s was directly attributable to the fragmented nature of the US banking system, and the proliferation of thousands of small, poorly diversified, thinly capitalized banks. The bigger national banks, and in particular the universal ones, were not the problem in 1932-33. Further, as Friedman-Schwartz showed long ago, a blundering Fed implemented policies that were fatal to such a rickety system.

In contrast, today’s issue is TBTF. But, as I note in The Hill piece, and have written here on occasion, Glass-Steagall separation would not have prevented the financial crisis. The institutions that failed were either standalone investment banks, GSE’s, insurance companies involved in non-traditional insurance activities, or S&Ls. Universal banks that were shaky (Citi, Wachovia) were undermined by traditional lending activities. Wachovia, for instance, was heavily exposed to mortgage lending through its acquisition of a big S&L (Golden West Financial). There was no vector of contagion between the investment banking activities and the stability of any large universal bank.

As I say in The Hill, whenever the same prescription is given for wildly different diseases, it’s almost certainly a nostrum, rather than a cure.

Which puts me at odds with Donald Trump, for he is prescribing this nostrum. Perhaps in an effort to bring more clicks to my oped, the Monday after it appeared Trump endorsed a Glass-Steagall revival. This was vintage Trump. You can see his classic MO. He has a vague idea about a problem–TBTF. Not having thought deeply about it, he seizes upon a policy served up by one of his advisors (in this case, Gary Cohn, ex-Goldman–which would benefit from a GS revival), and throws it out there without much consideration.

The main bright spot in the Trump presidency has been his regulatory rollback, in part because this is one area in which he has some unilateral authority. Although I agree generally with this policy, I am under no illusions that it rests on deep intellectual foundations. His support of Son of Glass-Steagall shows this, and illustrates that no one (including Putin!) should expect an intellectually consistent (or even coherent) policy approach. His is, and will be, an instinctual presidency. Sometimes his instincts will be good. Sometimes they will be bad. Sometimes his instincts will be completely contradictory–and the call for a return to a very old school regulation in the midst of a largely deregulatory presidency shows that quite clearly.


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