Streetwise Professor

December 18, 2016

The eReformation: Every Man His Own Editor

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:45 pm

The concept of “fake news” is running neck-and-neck with “Putin Did It!” as the leading explanation for the inexplicable (inexplicable to the self-identified elite, anyways). These explanations sometimes overlap, when the Russians are blamed for disseminating fake news, never mind the fact that what the Russians are primarily blamed for (the DNC and Podesta leaks) was anything but fake: it was all too real. Indeed, perhaps the most egregious example of fake news is the mantra that the leaks are fake news. (A new competitor for this dubious honor is the WaPoo’s and NYT’s repetition of the claim that the FBI and the DNI have endorsed the CIA’s claim that the Russians hacked to help Trump, based solely on the (ironically) leaked ipse dixit of the CIA.)

The idea that fake news is somehow, well, new, is farcical. All that has changed is the means of dissemination. I remember vividly poorly printed flyers distributed in Chicago making lurid accusations about Harold Washington. (Ironically, some of the people bewailing fake news now were quite likely involved in some of those old school Chicago antics.) But go back centuries: American political newspapers and pamphlets in the 18th and 19th centuries contained slanderous falsehoods.

But “fake news” has become a thing because Hillary et al are desperate for some excuse for Trump’s triumph. More sinisterly, they are panicking at the realization that they no longer control the flow of information, which once gave them a decided political advantage. They are all about narratives, and when people depended on traditional media channels for news, it was much easier to control the narrative. Now that control is slipping away, they are desperately trying to regain their dominance by enlisting major social media companies in a campaign to crack down on alleged fake stories on their platforms. In the case of Facebook, this involves employing allegedly independent fact checkers, who are in fact made members of the leftist media establishment.

What has obviously happened is that the Internet has disintermediated traditional news media. There are so many channels through which stories (true and false) can flow that the traditional gatekeepers, and the beneficiaries of a more controlled media environment (namely, the political establishment), have lost control. This is inducing hysteria and a panicked effort to regain it.

This reminds me of the Reformation, which disintermediated the incumbent religious hierarchy, and the rulers who relied on the Church to exert social control. Then, the establishment railed at false theology. Today, the establishment rails at false news. Then, the translation of the Bible into the vulgate allowed individuals to make their own theological judgments outside the authority of the institutional church: today, the ability of people to access myriad stories and opinion pieces allows them to make their own political and social judgments without the authority of media or political mandarins. Then, the phrase was “every man his own priest”: today, it could be “every man (or woman) his (or her) own editor.” In the 16th century, the elite–the Church and many secular rulers–reacted to the popularization of religion in by attempting to reassert their religious and social authority over the masses, at times with violence.  In 2016 what passes for an elite is attempting to reassert its ideological and social authority over the masses. As yet, there has been no violence. But it’s early days yet.

The Counter-Reformation ultimately failed because the underlying technological (e.g., printing) and social forces overwhelmed the ability of traditionalists to restore their authority. I expect that the same will be true in the case of the ongoing eReformation. What Facebook and other social media are attempting to do will likely be little more than a futile rearguard action. It is ironic, and somewhat pathetic, that companies which are themselves the product of the technology that disintermediated information are now trying to impose themselves as the new information intermediaries: they certainly like the profits that the technology has showered upon them (well, not Twitter), but are deeply frightened about how the that technology has liberated the reliance of the masses on the elite for their information. They want their cake, and to eat it to.

But this will fail. The contradictions here are so glaring that I am tempted to resort to Marxian language to describe them. I will resist the temptation, and merely conclude by saying that Facebook and Twitter and all of the other would be intermediaries will not be able to surmount these contradictions. And thank God for that.

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December 16, 2016

Who is the Biggest Winner From the Blame It on Vlad Frenzy? Vlad.

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:47 pm

Hillary Clinton is busy crafting a narrative to explain her crushing defeat. Not surprisingly, it is a narrative in which she bears no personal responsibility. Instead, blame attaches to bad men, namely the FBI’s James Comey and Vladimir Putin:

There were some unprecedented factors that I don’t think we can ignore, because to do so is at our peril. Now, don’t take it from me. Take it from independent analysts. Take it from the Trump campaign. Take it from Nate Silver, who’s pointed out that swing-state voters made their decisions in the final days, breaking against me, because of the FBI letter from Director Comey. And Nate Silver believes — I happen to believe this — that that letter most likely made the difference in the outcome. But we’re also learning something more every day about the unprecedented Russian plot to swing this election. And this is something every American should be worried about. You know, we have to recognize that, as the latest reports made clear, Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyber attacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me.

Poor, poor victim Hillary. She had been such an amazingly successful and strong Secretary of State that Putin was going to stop at nothing to thwart her.

Sure. Whatever gets you through the night, Hillary.

The CIA is doing its best to bolster the narrative, by outrageously leaking the content of letters alleging that it knows that Putin personally directed hacks against the Democrats for the express purpose of electing Trump and defeating Hillary. Just how the CIA knows what went on in the inner sanctum of the Kremlin (and between Putin’s ears) must remain left to the imagination. The FBI and the DNI were not willing to agree with the CIA’s first claim about Putin’s intent. So the CIA leaked another letter, in which CIA Director Brennan allegedly told agency staff that the FBI and DNI now agreed with the CIA. However, neither Comey nor Clapper have stated this publicly. Instead, the WaPo and other mainstream outlets are treating Brennan’s unsubstantiated assertion (which contradicts the FBI’s and DNI’s previous denials) as fact.

This is beyond outrageous. First, the CIA should make its statements on matters of such gravity publicly and provide evidence. Ex cathedra statements released anonymously and devoid of any supporting evidence are clearly inadequate given the gravity of this situation, and the political ramifications of Brennan’s actions. Second, if the FBI and DNI agree, then Brennan, Clapper, and Comey should release a joint statement signed by all. Third, the forum for such disclosures is not leaks to the WaPo (apparently the designated mouthpiece for the agency) but in formal statements, and in testimony before the relevant Congressional committees.

But the CIA pointedly declined to make anyone available to meet with the intelligence committees, despite the fact that they had been asked specifically to do so. This is just appalling.

So why is Brennan doing this? The only plausible explanation is that it is an attack on Trump intended to de-legitimize the election and undermine his presidency before he even raises his right hand to take the oath of office. The CIA has much practice doing this abroad. It is a very siloviki, Chekist thing to do. Ironic, isn’t it?

Trump must act forcefully to submit this agency to presidential control. Given all the gnashing of teeth over the threat posed by Mattis to civilian control over the military, the silence from these quarters over the CIA is stunning–and telling.

There is still no definitive evidence that Wikileaks obtained the offending documents from the Russians: Assange claims that it was not a nation state. One of Assange’s friends, a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, claims that he knows who provided the information, and that it was an insider: as I noted from the outset, this is totally plausible. (Assange is apparently irritated at this claim.)

As for the claim (endorsed by Hillary) that the DNC and Podesta documents were released by the Russians specifically to harm her, then why were none of her missing emails leaked? Or are we supposed to believe the fairy tale that hers was the one computer in the entire US that was immune from cyberattack?

Further, this is all a sideshow. What harmed Hillary was the substance of the leaked documents, which showed her and the Democratic Party apparatus to be manipulative and corrupt. Comey’s letters were damaging because they drew attention to Hillary’s palpable dishonesty and high-handedness about her private server. It was the substance was fatal, but Hillary has not-and I warrant will not-addressed the issue of the substance in a serious way.

It is also amazing to watch the schizo behavior of the Democrats and anti-Trump fellow travelers (e.g., Tom Nichols). They are reacting with fury to criticism of the CIA’s behavior. How dare we question these patriots? They are consummate government professionals, working hard to protect us! Yet at the same time they want us to believe that the FBI are partisan hacks, and that the Bureau is a virtual Trumpland that wanted to see Hillary go down in flames.

So let’s see. CIA=non-partisan professionals and patriots. FBI=unprofessional partisan hacks. How does that work, exactly? How do two agencies of the US government develop alpha and omega cultures? The intellectual incoherence here is beyond belief. But those pushing these utterly incompatible stories apparently see no contradiction.

It is also beyond bizarre to see the Democratic Party unabashedly defend the CIA and treat any criticism of it as near treason. Frank Church must be rolling in his grave.

Although there is an element of absurdity to all this, it is a very dangerous set of developments. Hillary and the Democratic Party are crafting something analogous to the Stab in the Back narrative that the German militarists pushed in the aftermath of WWI. Just like Erich von Ludendorff et al, Hillary et al are denying any responsibility for their defeat. Instead they blame it on malign forces that deprived them of the victory that they deserved. Such denial prevents an honest reckoning with the past, and feeds bitterness and resentment. It poisons politics, divides Americans, undermines respect for existing institutions, and will feed extremism. Moreover, Hillary’s narrative basically insults tens of millions of Americans because she insinuates that they were either unwitting dupes of a malign plot hatched abroad, or enthusiastic supporters thereof. This will make any rapprochement in the US impossible, leaving both sides daggers drawn for the foreseeable future. Call it The Deplorables vs. The Better Thans. This will not end well.

That is, Hillary’s indulgence of her amour propre will prevent any political reconciliation in the United States. This is an act of incredible selfishness and destructiveness. But considering who she is, this comes as no surprise.

For his part, Obama spoke on the alleged Russian interference in the election in a press conference today. He said that he told Putin to “cut it [hacking] out.” That’s telling him. Did Obama draw a red line? That’s always a sure winner. Obama also channeled his inner Dean Wormer, and put Putin on Double Secret Probation. That is only a slight exaggeration: Obama said that the US would retaliate, but won’t say how:

President Obama said the U.S. must retaliate against Russia for the election-season hack into Democrats’ emails and that his administration will do so on its own time frame — perhaps in secret.

“Some of it may be explicit and publicized, some of it may not be,” Obama said during an interview that aired on National Public Radio on Friday morning.

“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action,” Obama told NPR host Steve Inskeep. “And we will, at a time and place of our own choosing.”

Dude. You are only going to be in office for 35 more days. You don’t have a lot of time to choose from.

Proving that he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, Obama continued his old habit of belittling Putin and Russia:

After unleashing a string of putdowns about Russia, describing America’s Cold War adversary as “a weaker country” that “doesn’t produce anything anyone wants to buy except oil and gas and arms,” Obama conceded the country could exploit political divisions in the United States.

“They can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values,” Obama said.

Yes. Because the putdown strategy has worked so, so great in the past several years. (What, no comments about Putin’s posture?) Talk about the antithesis of speak softly and carry the big stick. This approach will only encourage Putin, and earn his disdain.

In the years after 911, the phrase “if we do X the terrorists will have won” became common and the subject of ridicule–and justly so. Well, in the present case by obsessing over Putin, he does win. Exaggerating his influence in order to absolve oneself of responsibility, and to avoid coming to grips with the repudiation of large numbers of Americans–as Hillary and most Democrats and NeverTrumpers are doing–will sow strife in American politics and bolster Putin’s standing both in Russia and abroad. And as a result, the biggest winner from this 21st century counterpart to waving the bloody shirt will be one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

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Clearinghouse Resilience and Liquidity Black Holes

Filed under: Clearing,Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 5:11 pm

About six weeks ago I wrote a post on the strains put on clearing by Brexit. This informative post by Clarus’ Tod Skarecky provides some very interesting detail about the mechanics of the LCH’s margining mechanism.

One way to summarize it is to say that the LCH was a liquidity black hole. Not only did it collect intra-day and end-of-day variation margin from losers that was paid out to winners only with a delay, it also collected Market Data Runs, which were effectively intra-day initial margin top-ups. A couple of perverse features. First, a position that initially had a loss that triggered an MDR outflow had to pay out, but if the market turned in its favor intra-day, it didn’t get that money back until the following day. Second, a firm that had a loss that triggered an MDR outflow had to pay out, and if the position incurred a loss on the day, it still had to pay variation margin, and didn’t receive the MDR back until the next day: that is, there was”double dipping.”

Tod puts his figure on the logic (crucially, the logic from LCH’s perspective): “Heck if I managed credit risk at a firm, I’d always choose to be paid now rather than later.” Definitely. That minimizes credit risk. But look at how much liquidity was sucked up in order to do this.

Variation margin is bad enough: despite the (laughable) claim of the BIS some years back, the fact that variation margin is recycled does not mean that it does not create liquidity strains. After all, (a) liquidity demand arises due in large part to differences in timing between the receipt of cash and the payment thereof, and the clearing mechanism (in which the CCP pays out VM some hours after it receives VM) creates such timing differences, and (b) even absent payment timing differences, the VM receivers would have to lend to the VM payers, which is problematic especially during stressed market conditions. But the LCH IM top up exacerbates the problem because the cash is stuck in the clearinghouse overnight, and therefore cannot possibly be recirculated. More liquidity becomes less accessible.

Again, this is understandable from LCH’s microprudential perspective: it reduces the likelihood that it will become insolvent or illiquid. But just because this is sensible from a microprudential perspective does not mean it is macroprudentially sensible. In fact, it is anything but sensible: it greatly adds to liquidity demand, particularly during periods of time when liquidity is likely to be scarce, and when liquidity freezes are a serious risk.

This is a perfect example of the “levee effect” I’ve written about for years: raising the levee around the LCH increases the chances of its survival, but just redirects the stresses to elsewhere in the system.

Note the irony here. Clearing mandates were sold on the idea that there were pervasive externalities in uncleared derivatives markets, due primarily to the potential for default cascades in these markets. But clearing (supersized by mandates, in particular) creates externalities too. Here LCH does things that are in its interest, but which impose costs on others. It has a contractual relationship with some of these (FCMs), so there is some potential that externalities involving these parties can be mitigated through negotiation and changing contracts. But there are myriad parties not in privity of contract with LCH, and which LCH may not even know of, who are impacted, perhaps severely, by a liquidity shock exacerbated by LCH’s self-preserving actions.

In other words, clearing mandates don’t internalize all externalities. They create them too. And given the severe dangers of liquidity crises, the liquidity externality that clearing creates is particularly troubling.

Outgoing CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad says, don’t worry, be happy!:

Brexit’s Impact on Clearing Activity

Let’s first look at the impact on clearing activity. It’s important to remember first that clearinghouses mark all products to market every day, and require that participants with market losses post margin every day, sometimes more than once a day. Margin payments must be paid promptly because for every payment made to the clearinghouse, the clearinghouse must make a payment to another participant who has gains. The clearinghouse always has a balanced or “matched” book.

Even though margins were increased in advance of the vote, the volatility resulted in very large margin calls on June 24.

Clearing members paid $27 billion dollars in variation margin across the five largest clearinghouses registered with the CFTC. This was $22 billion dollars greater than the previous 12-month average—over five times larger. The good news is no one missed a payment, no one defaulted.

Supervisory Stress Tests

The results after Brexit confirmed what we recently found in our own internal testing: resilience in the face of stressful conditions. Last month, CFTC staff released a report detailing the results of a series of stress tests we performed on the five largest clearinghouses under our jurisdiction, which are located in the U.S. and the UK. Our tests assessed the impact of stressful market scenarios across these clearinghouses as well as their clearing members, many of whom are affiliates of the world’s largest banks.

We developed a set of 11 extreme but plausible scenarios based on a number of factors, including historical price changes on dates when there was extreme volatility. By comparison, our assumed price shocks were several times larger than what happened after Brexit. We applied these scenarios to actual positions as of a specific date. And we looked at whether the pre-funded resources held by the clearinghouse—in particular, the initial margin and guaranty fund amounts paid by clearing members as well as the clearinghouse’s capital—were sufficient to cover any losses.

Still not getting it. The discussion of stress tests essentially repeats the same mantra as LCH: it is a decidedly microprudential treatment that focuses on credit risk, not liquidity risk. The discussion of margins is perfunctory, despite the fact that this is what gave market participants serious worries on Brexit Day. No discussion of what extraordinary efforts were required to ensure that all payments were made. No discussion of whether this would have been possible during a bigger–and unanticipated–price shock. No discussion of the liquidity externalities. No discussion of what would happen if operational difficulties (e.g., a technology problem in the payments system like the failure of FedWire on 10/19/87) interfered with the completion of payments. (More payments increases the likelihood that such an operational failure will jeopardize the ability of FCMs to complete them. And a failure to meet a call triggers a default.)

This “what? Me worry?” approach sounds so . . . 2006. And it is exactly this kind of complacency that makes me worry. The nature of the liquidity issue still has not penetrated many regulatory skulls.

This is most likely due to a severe case of target fixation. Clearing mandates were motivated by a desire to reduce credit risk, and all efforts have been focused on that. That is the target that regulators are fixated on, and in the pursuit of that target their field of vision has narrowed, with liquidity risk being largely outside it. It is obviously the target that CCPs are focused on. This is why I take little comfort in the belated efforts to make CCPs more resilient. The recipe for resilience is to demand MOAR LIQUIDITY. Which is also the recipe for a broader market crisis.

Analogous to the dangers of high powered incentives with multi-tasking when some activities can be measured more accurately than others, the mandate to reduce derivatives credit risk has led regulators and market participants–particularly market utilities like CCPs–to devote excessive effort to mitigating credit risk, even though it exacerbates liquidity risk.

I doubt the clearing portions of Title VII of Frankendodd will be eliminated altogether, but the incoming administration should seriously consider a major re-evaluation to determine how to address the serious liquidity issues that clearing mandates create.

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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.

Please.

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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The CIA Leak About the DNC & Podesta Leaks: The Ad Hominem Fallacy Run Amok

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:52 am

Today’s Daily Freak Out relates to a WaPoo story claiming that a “secret” (not any more!) CIA study has concluded that Russians with “links to the Russian government” provided Wikileaks with the hacked DNC and Podesta emails. (I only note in passing the irony of leaking a document to stoke outrage about leaks. Evidently judgments about leaking are instrumental and situational.)

If the CIA has identified individuals who at the very least are accessories, presumably the FBI and DOJ will launch criminal investigation and (if the evidence is a rock solid as the CIA claims) indict them. Unless that happens, I put the credibility of this report somewhere around the level of Curve Ball and aluminum tubes.

Even the “secret” report acknowledges that the CIA has no evidence that these purported individuals were directed by the Russian government. Instead, the CIA infers that the Russian government intended to influence the election based on the (alleged) fact that the RNC was also hacked, but its communications were not leaked.

Can the CIA actually be this stupid? (Rhetorical question alert!)

If the DNC and Podesta emails were damaging, it was because they revealed highly unflattering information about Hillary Clinton and her legions of flying monkeys in Democratic Party circles. The leaked documents revealed that the DNC was actively partisan in its support for Hillary, and took active measures to rig the process against Bernie Sanders. (Which is why I still wouldn’t rule out that a disgruntled Bernie-ite in the DNC played a role here.) Individually and collectively, the emails cemented the narrative of a corrupt Hillary and a corrupt party establishment rigging the system against Sanders: the narrative was already out there, with plenty of evidence to back it up, and these emails just put the cherry on the sundae. They revealed that Hillary and the Democratic National Committee were actively anti-democratic.

It is quite possible that RNC emails would have also revealed a party apparatus intent on undermining an insurgent candidate. Who would have been Trump. That is, whereas the DNC and Podesta emails showed Hillary and her minions to be the perpetrators of an offense, the most likely scenario is that the RNC documents would have shown Trump to be the target and victim of a campaign to disable his candidacy. That would have actually played to Trump’s benefit! It would have fit right in with his narrative of a man fighting the system and the establishment. It would have confirmed all of the criticism he had leveled against the party during the primaries.

Can you see the difference here? If your IQ is above 85 or thereabouts, I presume so. But then apparently you would be disqualified for working as a crack analyst at the CIA.

And let’s always keep one fact in mind. Those who decry the impact of the leaks are effectively taking the position that it would have been better for the American people to have cast their votes in ignorance. That the problem with the leaks wasn’t that they were lies: it was that they revealed unpleasant truths. The provenance of the documents, and how they came to light is secondary or tertiary: the content is primary. If your defense is “it’s an outrage I got caught and those who caught me are dirty bastards”, you deserve no deference or sympathy.

This controversy is the ad hominem fallacy run amok, that it is the speaker (or the source) not the substance that matters.  If revelations about your conduct contributed to the election of a mercurial political neophyte, your conduct, not the party that brought it to light (no matter their motives) is to blame.

 

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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 4, 2016

A Mad Dog, Not a Caesar

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:15 pm

Ever since Gen. James Mattis (USMC Ret.) had been suggested as a possible candidate for Trump’s Secretary of Defense, I was fervently hoping that he would be chosen, and that hope was realized. Mattis has a long and storied career as a warrior–a true warrior–and is widely acknowledged as a thoughtful, scholarly man who thinks deeply on strategic issues. He also has a long history of blunt outspokenness, which is sorely needed in these PC times–and in particular, is sorely needed in a Pentagon in which PC rot spread deeply during the Obama administration.

Mattis is a throwback in many ways, not least in that he has the kind of background and biography more typical of 19th or early-20th century figures. No over-credentialed Ivy Leaguer he. He grew up in the wheat fields of Washington state, enlisted in the Marines at 19, and attended Central Washington University. He then worked his way up through the Marine Corps, earning promotion to four star rank on the basis of performance.

Mattis’ appointment has drawn almost universal praise in DC and the media centers, including from the New York Times. Truth be told, this is the only thing that makes me temper my enthusiasm for him.

The one possible objection that has been raised by the usual array of chin-pullers is that he only retired from the USMC a little over three years ago, thereby requiring Congress to pass a waiver to circumvent a 1947 law that requires seven years between the time an officer retires and he (or she) can become SecDef. Mattis’ appointment, the chin-pullers intone, threatens to undermine civilian control of the military.

Really? Dwight Eisenhower retired from the Army on May 31, 1952, and assumed the presidency in January, 1953. Ulysses S. Grant remained as Commanding General of the US Army while running for president in 1868, and only resigned shortly before assuming office in 1869. Neither turned into Caesars. (By the way, did you know that in 1789 Congress passed a law that prevented those who had been engaged in commerce from becoming Secretary of the Treasury?)

Further, I would note that the principle of civilian control of the military is drilled into US military officers from day one of their service–as I experienced personally at the Naval Academy. What’s more, any officer whose commitment to that principle comes into question is never going to make it to flag rank. Nor would Donald “You’re Fired!” Trump–of all people–brook mutiny at the Pentagon.

But it is best to hear Mattis out on this in person. In this 2015 interview–recorded before his appointment was even a remote possibility, and indeed, would have been reckoned to be a zero probability event, not least of all by him–his commitment to the principle comes through loud and clear. He states forthrightly that an officer’s duty is to give his civilian superiors his honest opinion, but that it is also his duty to defer to the authority of those civilian superiors. This was clearly not a calculated statement intended to help secure an appointment (which was hardly imaginable, let alone on offer), but a reflection of his beliefs.

In sum, the thought that James Mattis is a threat to civilian control of the military is inane.

The entire interview is worth watching, because it shows Mattis to be an articulate and thoughtful man who speaks frankly, with an almost world-weary mien. He speaks with authority on a variety of strategic, military and geopolitical issues, is persuasive, and has Trump’s respect and ear. He gave evidence of this even before being nominated, when he convinced Trump to backtrack on the torture issue. This is exactly the kind of man we need in office. The fact that he will be an articulate advocate and explainer of administration policy is also invaluable. (Mattis is far more articulate than General Flynn, in particular.)

Some have also questioned Mattis’ ability to handle the challenges of managing the vast Pentagon bureaucracy. Here the interview is also instructive, because it shows that Mattis has observed the closely managerial and process dysfunction in Defense, and in particular how the mega-contractors have warped the system. No babe in the woods he. Fixing the Pentagon is a Herculean task, and I doubt that Mattis can do it, but he can probably make more progress than anyone with a more conventional resume for the job could.

As commenter aaa noted, one blot on Mattis’ record is his role as a director at Theranos, which has proved to be a colossal con. In his defense it can be said that he was hardly alone: the list of directors and big money investors who were taken by Elizabeth Holmes’ shtick is a who’s who of American business and politics (e.g., George Schultz). This endeavor was outside of Mattis’ expertise, and the main criticism he deserves is for taking a position for which his training and experience did not particular suit him. That’s not the issue at Secretary of Defense.

In sum, “Mad Dog” Mattis is exactly the kind of figure the US needs at the Pentagon right now, and poses no threat to the institutions of the Republic. To the contrary, he is uniquely qualified to serve as an intermediary between the citizenry and the uniformed military, particularly given that he knows the uniformed military, and those in the military know and respect him. The country will be stronger with him serving in a civilian role so close in time to the end of his 44 years of active service.

 

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December 3, 2016

The Trumpharrumphers’ Latest Freakout

Filed under: China,Economics,History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:30 pm

In the nearly 4 weeks since Trump’s election, we’ve seen a daily freakout on this issue or that. Every day, we hear about another statement or appointment or Tweet that is apparently going to result in the impending arrival of the end times. For those thinking about career moves, becoming a Pfizer manufacturer’s rep in a blue state is a sure winner, because Xanax sales are certain to skyrocket.

Yesterday’s Freak Out by the Trumpharrumphers–which is spilling over into today–is that their bête noire took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. How this call came about is somewhat obscure. CNN reported that a former Cheney advisor now working the Trump transition, Stephen Yates, arranged it. Yates denies it.

That’s really neither here nor there. The issue is whether this is some grave blunder on Trump’s part. The immediate reaction by many is that this was thoughtless and rash, but I wouldn’t be so sure. It could very well be calculated to send a message to China that Trump does not accept the status quo that has developed over the past decades. China has challenged this status quo, particularly through its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. This could be Trump’s way of pushing back. Sending a message to the revisionist power that revisions can be a two way street.

It is a low cost way of sending that message. Unlike some alternatives, it is not latent with potential for an immediate confrontation. China would have to make an aggressive countermove. Consider an alternative way of sending a signal: sending US ships or aircraft to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. That presents the potential of immediate conflict, due either to the decision of the leadership in Beijing, or a hotheaded commander on the spot. Recall that soon after Bush II took over that the Chinese forced down a US EP-3 aircraft off Hainan.

Not to say that Trump will not order freedom of navigation missions after becoming Commander in Chief. Just pointing out that taking the phone call certainly gets China’s attention, and gets it to think about what the new administration’s posture will be, without putting US and Chinese military forces in close contact in a way that could result in a disastrous incident.

One thing that is very striking about the hysterical reaction to The Call is that many of those responding most hysterically that it raises the risk of World War III have also favored a much more confrontational approach with Russia, especially in Syria. Gee, you’d think that declaring a no fly zone over Syria would create a far greater risk of an armed confrontation between nuclear superpowers than taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president.

This asymmetric approach to Russia and China makes no sense. Yes, Putin has a zero sum view of the world; wants to revise the post-Cold War settlement; nurses historical grievances; and believes that the United States is hell-bent on denying Russia its proper place in the world (or worse yet, overthrowing its government). But the Chinese have a zero sum view of the world; want to revise the balance of power in Asia; nurse historical grievances; and believe that the United States is hell-bent on denying China its proper place in the world. Russia hacks. China hacks. Indeed, if anything, Chinese hacks have been far more threatening to US national security than the alleged Russian hacks that have generated the greatest outrage, namely the DNC and Podesta email lacks. For instance, the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management database likely caused grievous harm to US security: the DNC and Podesta hacks only embarrassed, well, political hacks. (Which probably explains the intensity of the outrage.) Insofar as Russian propaganda is concerned, if RT (which does not even register on the Nielsen ratings) and fringe internet sites gravely threaten US democracy, we have bigger problems to worry about: we will have met the enemy, and he is us.

The key issue is capability. With the exception of nuclear weapons, Russian capabilities are declining and limited, whereas Chinese capabilities are increasingly robust. The Soviets were big on “the correlation of forces.” The correlation of forces is strongly against the Russians at present. They have limited ability to project power beyond their immediate borders, and then only (in a persistent way) against ramshackle places like the Donbas and Abkhazia. The Russian Navy is a shambles: its current deployment off Syria would make Potemkin blush. The Navy faces the same problem that it has faced since the time of Peter I: it is split between inhospitable ports located at vast distances from one another. The submarine force has made something of a comeback, but its surface units are old and decrepit, and fielded in insufficient numbers. The potential for expansion is sharply constrained by the near collapse of Russian shipbuilding: even frigate construction is hamstrung because of the loss of Ukrainian gas turbine engines.

Russia is also in an acute demographic situation: during his recent speech, Putin crowed that fertility had increased from 1.70 live births/woman to 1.78–still well below replacement. This problem manifests itself in the form of increasing difficulties of manning the Russian military. It still relies on conscription for about 1/2 of its troops, and those serve for an absurd 12 months. After 8 years of reform efforts, 50 percent of the personnel are now kontraktniki, but the Defense Ministry’s refusal to release information on the number of contract soldiers who leave each year (while touting the number of new volunteers) suggests that there is considerable turnover in these forces as well. There is still no long-term cadre of non-commissioned officers, and the force structure is still very top heavy.

Moreover, this military rests on a very shaky economic foundation. In particular, Russian military manufacturing is a shadow of what it once was, and the fiscal capacity of the state is sharply limited by a moribund economy. This makes a dramatic expansion in Russian military capability impossibly expensive: even the modest rearmament that has occurred in the past several years has forced the government to make many hard tradeoffs.

In contrast, Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

In contrast to Russia, China is actually in the position of having a surfeit of military manpower, and is looking to cut force numbers while increasing the skill and training of the smaller number of troops that will be in the ranks after the reforms are completed.

Policy should emphasize capability over intentions. Intentions are hard to divine, especially where the Russians and Chinese are involved: further, the United States’ record in analyzing intentions has been abysmal (another argument for gutting the CIA and starting over). Moreover, intentions change. It must also be recognized that capabilities shape intentions: a nation with greater power will entertain actions that a weaker power would never consider.

Taking all this into consideration, I would rate Russia as a pain in the ass, but a pain that can be managed, and far less of a challenge to US interests than China. Putin has played a very weak hand very well. Indeed, as I have written several times, we have actually fed his vanity and encouraged his truculence by overreacting to some of his ventures (Syria most notably). But the fact remains that his is a weak hand, whereas China’s power is greater, and increasing.

I am not advocating a Cold War: East Asia Edition. But when evaluating and responding to capabilities of potential adversaries, China should receive far greater attention than Russia. Certainly there is no reason to risk a confrontation over Syria, and pique over embarrassing disclosures of corrupt chicanery that the perpetrators should damn well be embarrassed about is no reason for a confrontation either. A longer term focus on China, and managing its ambitions, are far more important. That is a relationship that truly needs a revision–a Reset, if you will. And methinks that Trump’s taking the phone call from the Taiwanese president was carefully arranged to tell the Chinese that a Reset was coming. A little chin music to send a message, if you will.

A more provocative thought to close. Realpolitik would suggest trying to find ways to split China and Russia, rather than engage in policies like those which currently are driving them together. A reverse Nixon, if you will. I am by no means clear on how that would look, or how to get there. But it seems a far more promising approach than perpetuating and escalating a confrontation with a declining power.

PS. This is fitting in many ways:

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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’?”

Seriously?

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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