Before the massacre over Donetsk, the big Russia-related story was the new sanctions imposed on Wednesday. Although those sanctions were overshadowed by yesterday’s atrocity, the wanton destruction of MH17 raises the possibility that more intense sanctions will be forthcoming. Therefore, it is worthwhile to examine what the US did Wednesday to see what would be necessary to impose truly crippling costs on Russian companies and the Russian economy generally. (Forget what the Euros did. That is so embarrassing that it should be passed over in silence.)
The sanctions imposed Wednesday are very weak beer. (Here is an FAQ from the Treasury outlining them.) They were different than previous sanctions in that these were directed at companies, rather than individuals. Moreover, some of the targeted companies are on the commanding heights of the Russian economy: Rosneft, VTB, Gazprombank, and Novatek. (Notable absences: Gazprom and Sberbank.)
Under the sanctions, “US Persons” (which can include US subsidiaries in foreign countries) are prohibited from buying new debt from or new making loans to these companies with maturities of 90 days. (Existing loans/bonds are not affected.) US persons are also precluded from buying “new” equity from the financial firms: they can buy new equity from Rosneft and Novatek.
Since US banks are major lenders to foreign companies, this might seem to be a major impediment to the affected companies, and indeed Rosneft’s and Novatek’s stock prices were both down more than 5 percent on the news. But in my opinion, this reaction is more related to how the announcement raised the likelihood of more severe sanctions in the future, rather than the direct effects of these new sanctions.
That’s because although the sanctions will constrain the capital pool that Rosneft and the others can borrow from, other lenders in Europe and Asia can step into the breach. The sanctions do make it more difficult for the sanctioned companies to borrow dollars even from foreign banks, because although the sanctions do not bar foreign banks and investors from accessing the US dollar clearing system for most transactions, they could be interpreted to make it illegal to process the banned debt and equity deals:
U.S. financial institutions may continue to maintain correspondent accounts and process U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives, so long as those activities do not involve transacting in, providing financing for, or otherwise dealing in prohibited transaction types identified by these directives.
Some have argued that this is a serious constraint that will effectively preclude the sanctioned companies from borrowing dollars other than on a very short-term basis. This is allegedly a big problem for Rosneft, because its export revenues are in dollars, and borrowing in other currencies would expose the company to substantial exchange rate risk.
I disagree, because there are ways around this. A company could borrow in Euros, for instance, and sell the Euros for dollars. It could then deposit, invest, or spend the dollars just like the proceeds from dollar loans because it would have access to the dollar clearing system. Alternatively, the companies could borrow in Euros and immediately swap the Euros into dollars. This is because derivatives transactions are not included in the sanctions, and the payments on those could also be cleared. This would add some expense and complexity, but not too much.
The sanctions even permit financial engineering that would allow US banks effectively to provide credit for the sanctioned firms because derivatives on debt and equity of the sanctioned firms are explicitly exempted from the sanctions. For instance, a US bank could sell credit protection on Rosneft to a European bank that would increase the capacity of the European bank to extend credit to Rosneft. Syndication is one way that US banks can get credit exposure to Rosneft and reduce the amount of credit exposure that foreign banks have to incur, and even though the sanctions preclude US banks from participating in syndicates, the same allocation of credit risk could be implemented through the CDS market. This would permit foreign banks to increase their lending to the sanctioned firms to offset the decline of US direct lending. (This would still involve the need to convert foreign currency into dollars if the sanctioned borrower wanted dollars.)
Unlike real super majors (who can borrow unsecured, or secured by physical assets), Rosneft is unusually dependent on prepaid oil sales for funding, and these agreements are almost exclusively in dollars. This has led to some debate over whether the sanctions will seriously cramp Rosneft’s ability to use prepays.
There are a couple of reasons to doubt this. First, after the initial round of sanctions raised the specter of the imposition of sanctions on Rosneft, many prepay deals were re-worked to include sanctions clauses. For instance, they permit the payment currency to be switched to Euros, or to another currency in the off chance that the Europeans grow a pair and shut Rosneft out of the Euro payment system. Again, as long as access to the dollar system is not blocked altogether, those non-dollar currencies could be converted into dollars.
Second, there is some ambiguity as to whether prepays would even be covered. The sanctions specify the kinds of transactions that are covered:
The term debt includes bonds, loans, extensions of credit, loan guarantees, letters of credit, drafts, bankers acceptances, discount notes or bills, or commercial paper.
It is not obvious that prepays as usually structured would fall into any of these categories, and prepays are not specifically mentioned. A standard prepay structure is for a syndicate of banks to extend a non-recourse loan to a commodity trading firm like Glencore, Vitol, Trafigura, or BP. The trading firm uses the loan proceeds to make a prepayment for oil to Rosneft. In return, the trading firm gets an off take agreement that obligates Rosneft to deliver oil at a discounted price: the discount is effectively an interest payment.
The banks lend to the trading companies, not Rosneft. But (except for a small participation of 5-10 percent by the traders) the banks have the credit exposure. So this does not fall under any of the listed categories, except for perhaps “extension of credit.” Insofar as the trading firm is the borrower who faces the banks, it’s not clear the banks fall afoul of the sanctions even though that banks bear Rosneft’s credit risk. What about the trading firm? It’s not a US person, and a prepayment is not explicitly listed as a type of debt under the sanctions: again, this would turn on the “extensions of credit” provision. Under prepays, payment is usually with an irrevocable letter of credit, but these generally have maturities of less than 90 days, so that’s free of any sanctions problem.
So, there’s a colorable argument that prepays aren’t subject to the sanctions. But there is a colorable argument that they are. Economically they are clearly loans to Rosneft, though done via a trading firm acting as a conduit. But whether they are “debt” legally under the sanctions definition is not clear.
But especially in this regulatory environment, bank (and trading firm) tolerance for ambiguity is pretty low. So the FUD factor kicks in: even though they could make a plausible legal argument that prepays fall outside the definition of debt under the Treasury rules, the risk of having that argument fail may be sufficient to dissuade them from doing dollar prepays. This is especially true in the post BNP Paribas world. So it is likely that future prepays may be in currencies other than the dollar, and as long as dollar clearing is open to it, Rosneft will just have to convert or swap the Euros or Sterling or Swiss Francs or whatever into dollars if it really wants to borrow dollars. Again, an inconvenience and an added expense, but not a major hurdle.
All this means that the most recent round of sanctions are sound and fury, signifying not very much. Indeed, by deliberately avoiding the truly devastating sanction, this round signifies a continued reluctance to hit Putin and Russia where it really hurts. Someone like Putin likely interprets this as a sign of weakness.
What would the devastating sanction that was deliberately avoided be? Cutting off altogether access to the dollar clearing system. Recall that the just-imposed sanctions say “U.S. financial institutions may continue to maintain correspondent accounts and process U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives.” Change that to “U.S. financial institutions are prohibited from maintaining correspondent accounts and processing U.S. dollar-clearing transactions for the persons identified in the directives” and it would be a whole new ballgame. This would mean that the sanctioned companies could not receive, spend, deposit, or invest a dollar. (Well, they could if they could find a bank insane enough to be the next BNP Paribas. Good luck with that.)
I discussed how this would work in a post in March, and the Banker’s Umbrella provided a very readable and definitive discussion about that time. Basically, every dollar transaction, even one handled by a foreign bank, involves a correspondent account at a US bank. Cut off access to those accounts, and the sanctioned company can’t touch a dollar.
This would close off the various workarounds I discussed above. The sanctioned companies would have to restructure their operations and financing pretty dramatically. This would be particularly challenging for Rosneft, given that the currency of choice in oil transactions is the USD. This would be like the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran and on Sudan.
This would represent the only truly powerful sanction. And that’s one of the issues. Anything short of cutting off all access to the dollar market is at most an irritant to the sanctioned companies. Cutting off all access imposes a major cost. There’s not much in between. It’s a choice between a pinprick and a sledgehammer blow, with little in-between.
But if a Rubicon hasn’t been crossed now, with the murder of 298 people and continued battles in places like Luhansk waged by Russian-armed rebels, it’s hard to imagine it will ever be. If Putin and Russia are going to pay a real price for their wanton conduct, the sledgehammer is the only choice.