Streetwise Professor

July 4, 2017

Donald Trump, LNG Impressario: Demolishing the Putin Puppet Narrative

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 am

If Trump has a signature policy issue, it is promoting US energy to achieve what he calls “energy dominance.” The leading edge of this initiative is the promotion of LNG. Immediately prior to his appearance at the G20 Summit (where ironically he will be tediously hectored on trade by the increasing insufferable Angela Merkel), he will speak Thursday at the “Three Seas Summit” in Poland, where he will tout American LNG exports as both an economic and security fillip to Europe, and in particular eastern Europe.

“I think the United States can show itself as a benevolent country by exporting energy and by helping countries that don’t have adequate supplies become more self-sufficient and less dependent and less threatened,” he said.

This strikes at the foundation of Putin’s economic and geopolitical strategy. Export revenues from gas and oil keep his country afloat and his cronies flush. He uses gas in particular as a knout to bludgeon recalcitrant eastern Europeans (Ukraine in particular) and as a lever to exercise influence in western Europe, Germany in particular.

Gazprom routinely sniffs that LNG is more costly than Russian gas, and that LNG will not appreciable erode its market share. That’s true, but illustrates perfectly the limitations of market share as a measure of economic impact. The increased availability of LNG, particularly from the US, increases substantially the elasticity of supply into Europe. This, in turn, substantially increases the elasticity of demand. As the low cost producer (pipeline gas being cheaper), Russia/Gazprom will continue to be the source of the bulk of the methane molecules burned in Europe, but this increased elasticity of demand will reduce Gazprom’s pricing power and hence its revenues.

Furthermore, the effect on short-run elasticities will be particularly acute. Pre-LNG, there were few sources of additional supply available in a period of days or weeks that could substitute for Russian gas cutoff during some geopolitical power play. With LNG, the threat of shutting off the gas has lost much of its sting: especially as LNG evolves towards a traded market, supplies can swing quickly to offset any regional supply disruption, including one engineered by Putin for political purposes. So LNG arguably reduces Putin’s political leverage even more than it reduces his economic leverage. This is particularly true given complementary European policy changes that permit the flow of gas to regions not serviced by LNG directly.

Trump is getting some pushback from domestic interests in the US (notably the chemical industry) because greater exports would support prices and deprive these industries of the cheap fuel and feedstock that has powered their growth (something totally unpredictable a decade ago, when the demise of the US petrochemical industry was a real possibility). But (a) Trump seems totally committed to his pro-export course, and (b) complementary efforts to reduce restrictions on supply will mitigate the price impact. So I expect the opposition of the likes of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America to be little more than a speed bump in his race to promoting energy exports.

This all reveals Trump for the mercantilist he is: imports bad, exports good. This is economically illiterate and incoherent, but it’s Trump trade policy in a nutshell. Economic coherence aside, however, Donald Trump, LNG Impressario totally demolishes the Putin puppet narrative. Not that you’d notice–the hysteria continues unabated, because reality doesn’t matter to the soi disant reality-based community.

Here we have Trump devoting the bulk of his non-Twitter-directed energies (and he is high energy!) to promoting an economic policy that hits Putin at his most vulnerable spot, economically and geopolitically. Whatever his Russia-related rhetoric, pace Orwell, he is objectively anti-Putin.

Not that this causes neo-McCarthyites even to experience cognitive dissonance, let alone to engage in a serious re-evaluation. To them, Trump is literally a Kremlin operative in Putin’s thrall. And nothing–not even Trump venturing to the heart of the area Putin and his ilk believe to be in Russia’s sphere of influence and loudly (very loudly) proclaiming that he is offering American gas to free Europe from its energy thralldom–will divert them from their non-stop narrative.

As an aside, I do Joseph McCarthy a grave disservice by comparing today’s mainstream media, the Democratic Party, Neocons, and large swathes of the Republican establishment to him. There was actually a far more substantial factual basis for his paranoia than there is for that of the anti-Trump brigades.

There is an irony here, though. I have often sneered at Putin (and when he was president, Medvedev), for acting like a glorified Secretary of Commerce, going around being the pitchman for Russian economic interests, in energy in particular. Stylistically, Trump is doing somewhat the same. But substantively, in Making American Energy (LNG particularly) Great, Trump is giving Putin a good swift kick in the stones.

Not that the promoters of the New Red Scare are paying the slightest heed. Which demonstrates that theirs is a completely partisan and grotesquely intellectually dishonest campaign.

Print Friendly

July 1, 2017

All Flaws Great and Small, Frankendodd Edition

On Wednesday I had the privilege to deliver the keynote at the FOW Trading Chicago event. My theme was the fundamental flaws in Frankendodd–you’re shocked, I’m sure.

What I attempted to do was to categorize the errors. I identified four basic types.

Unintended consequences contrary to the objectives of DFA. This could also be called “counter-intended consequences”–not just unintended, but the precise opposite of the stated intent. The biggest example is, well, related to bigness. If you wanted to summarize a primary objective of DFA, it would be “to reduce the too big to fail problem.” Well, the very nature of DFA means that in some ways it exacerbates TBTF. Most notably, the resulting regulatory burdens actually favor scale, because they impose largely fixed costs. I didn’t mention this in my talk, but a related effect is that increasing regulation leads to greater influence activities by the regulated, and for a variety of reasons this tends to favor the big over the medium and small.

Perhaps the most telling example of the perverse effects of DFA is that it has dramatically increased concentration among FCMs. This exacerbates a variety of sources of systemic risk, including concentration risk at CCPs; difficulties in managing defaulted positions and porting the positions of the customers of troubled FCMs; and greater interconnections across CCPs. Concentration also fundamentally undermines the ability of CCPs to mutualize default risk. It can also create wrong-way risks as the big FCMs are in some cases also sources of liquidity support to CCPs.

I could go on.

Creation of new risks due to misdiagnoses of old risks. The most telling example here is the clearing and collateral mandates, which were predicated on the view that too much credit was extended via OTC derivatives transactions. Collateral and netting were expected to reduce this credit risk.

This is a category error. For one thing, it embodies a fallacy of composition: reducing credit in one piece of an interconnected financial system that possesses numerous ways to create credit exposures does not necessarily reduce credit risk in the system as a whole. For another, even to the extent that reducing credit extended via derivatives transactions reduces overall credit exposures in the financial system, it does so by creating another risk–liquidity risk. This risk is in my view more pernicious for many reasons. One reason is that it is inherently wrong-way in nature: the mandates increase demands for liquidity precisely during those periods in which liquidity supply typically contracts. Another is that it increases the tightness of coupling in the financial system. Tight coupling increases the risk of catastrophic failure, and makes the system more vulnerable to a variety of different disruptions (e.g., operational risks such as the temporary failure of a part of the payments system).

As the Clearing Cassandra I warned about this early and often, to little avail–and indeed, often to derision and scorn. Belatedly regulators are coming to an understanding of the importance of this issue. Fed governor Jerome Powell recently emphasized this issue in a speech, and recommended CCPs engage in liquidity stress testing. In a scathing report, the CFTC Inspector General criticized the agency’s cost-benefit analysis of its margin rules for non-cleared swaps, based largely on its failure to consider liquidity effects. (The IG report generously cited my work several times.

But these are at best palliatives. The fundamental problem is inherent in the super-sizing of clearing and margining, and that problem is here to stay.

Imposition of “solutions” to non-existent problems. The best examples of this are the SEF mandate and position limits. The mode of execution of OTC swaps was not a source of systemic risk, and was not problematic even for reasons unrelated to systemic risk. Mandating a change to the freely-chosen modes of transaction execution has imposed compliance costs, and has also resulted in a fragmented swaps market: those who can escape the mandate (e.g., European banks trading € swaps) have done so, leading to bifurcation of the market for € swaps, which (a) reduces competition (another counter-intended consequence), and (b) reduces liquidity (also counter-intended).

The non-existence of a problem that position limits could solve is best illustrated by the pathetically flimsy justification for the rule set out in the CFTC’s proposal: the main example the CFTC mentioned is the Hunt silver episode. As I said during my talk, this is ancient history: when do we get to the Trojan War? If anything, the Hunts are the exception that proves the rule. The CFTC also pointed to Amaranth, but (a) failed to show that Amaranth’s activities caused “unreasonable and unwarranted price fluctuations,” and (b) did not demonstrate that (unlike the Hunt case) that Amaranth’s financial distress posed any threat to the broader market or any systemic risk.

It is sickly amusing that the CFTC touts that based on historical data, the proposed limits would constrain few, if any market participants. In other words, an entire industry must bear the burden of complying with a rule that the CFTC itself says would seldom be binding. Makes total sense, and surely passes a rigorous cost-benefit test! Constraining positions is unlikely to affect materially the likelihood of “unreasonable and unwarranted price fluctuations”. Regardless, positions are not likely to be constrained. Meaning that the probability that the regulation reduces such price fluctuations is close to zero, if not exactly equal to zero. Yet there would be an onerous, and ongoing cost to compliance. Not to mention that when the regulation would in fact bind, it would potentially constrain efficient risk transfer.

The “comma and footnote” problem. Such a long and dense piece of legislation, and the long and detailed regulations that it has spawned, inevitably contain problems that can lead to protracted disputes, and/or unpleasant surprises. The comma I refer to is in the position limit language of the DFA itself: as noted in the court decision that stymied the original CFTC position limit rule, the placement of the comma affects whether the language in the statute requires the CFTC to impose limits, or merely gives it the discretionary authority to do so in the even that it makes an explicit finding that the limits are required to reduce unwarranted and unreasonable price fluctuations. The footnotes I am thinking of were in the SEF rule: footnote 88 dramatically increased the scope of the rule, while footnote 513 circumscribed it.

And new issues of this sort crop up regularly, almost 7 years after the passage of Dodd-Frank. Recently Risk highlighted the fact that in its proposal for capital requirements on swap dealers, the CFTC (inadvertently?) potentially made it far more costly for companies like BP and Shell to become swap dealers. Specifically, whereas the Fed defines a financial company as one in which more than 85 percent of its activities are financial in nature, the CFTC proposes that a company can take advantage of more favorable capital requirements if its financial activities are less than 15 percent of its overall activities. Meaning, for example, a company with 80 percent financial activity would not count as a financial company under Fed rules, but would under the proposed CFTC rule. This basically makes it impossible for predominately commodity companies like BP and Shell to take advantage of preferential capital treatment specifically included for them and their ilk in DFA. To the extent that these firms decide to incur costs (higher capital costs, or the cost of reorganizing their businesses to escape the rule’s bite) and become swap dealers nonetheless, that cost will not generate any benefit. To the extent that they decide that it is not worth the cost, the swaps market will be more concentrated and less competitive (more counter-intended effects).

The position limits proposed regs provide a further example of this devil-in-the-details problem. The idea of a hedging carveout is eminently sensible, but the specifics of the CFTC’s hedging exemptions were unduly restrictive.

I could probably add more categories to the list. Different taxonomies are possible. But I think the foregoing is a useful way of thinking about the fundamental flaws in Frankendodd.

I’ll close with something that could make you feel better–or worse! For all the flaws in Frankendodd, MiFID II and EMIR make it look like a model of legislative and regulatory wisdom. The Europeans have managed to make errors in all of these categories–only more of them, and more egregious ones. For instance, as bad as the the US position limit proposal is, it pales in comparison to the position limit regulations that the Europeans are poised to inflict on their firms and their markets.

 

Print Friendly

June 28, 2017

Media Meltdown: “Mommy! Mommy! No Fair! Donnie Hit Me Back!

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:05 pm

Watching the prissy press go to into absolute meltdown mode over the fact that Trump, Sarah Huckabee Trump, and Sean Spicer are such meanies is hilariously entertaining. My God, who do these people think they are? They are so impressed with themselves, and convinced of their own importance, that any criticism is tantamount to unleashing death squads against them.

And no, that is not hyperbole.

CNN is leading the collective crying jag, because it has been the target of Trump’s and Trump’s media team’s most pointed criticism. And justifiably so, given the networks obsession over Trump and the Russia story in particular. An obsession which has resulted in stories so bad that three “journalists” responsible for one of them (relating to Trump friend Anthony Scaramucci allegedly meeting with the head of a Russian investment fund, during which CNN (falsely) claimed Scaramucci indicated that sanctions would be lifted) being fired.

This reminds me of the story about the kid who goes screaming to his mother: “Mommy! Mommy! No fair! Donnie hit me back.”

Yes, the media truly believes that they can hit until arm weary, but it is a grave offense for the target of their blows to hit back.

The funniest thing about this whole episode is that the media actually thinks that anybody outside their bubble gives a shit. No! They don’t! The media is widely loathed, and for good reason. In fact, to the extent that anybody outside the bubble cares about the media getting smacked around, they are likely to care in the way I do–that is, they get some satisfaction and entertainment out of the spectacle.

The overreaction will actually be counterproductive for exactly this reason. Going after the media is throwing red meat to Trump supporters. The more the media howls, the better it is for Trump, and the more he will ramp it up.

This illustrates yet again the media’s (and the establishment’s generally) complete failure to understand the Trump phenomenon. They just do not comprehend that there are people that not only don’t think like them, but dislike them actively and intensely. So they act like Einstein’s definition of a madman: they do the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

Sorry, folks. The song remains the same. Actually, not sorry.

The “elite” is preternaturally thin-skinned because of their excessive self-regard. The media are the most flagrant examples of this, for at least a couple of reasons. One is that they have ready access to mass media, and can more readily express their outrage in ways that are noticed beyond their immediate circle: related to this is the fact that these widely disseminated public displays feed off one another, and the hysterics compete with one another to demonstrate who can be the most hysterical.

Another reason is that journalism is not a highly paid profession, and as a result a substantial fraction of the compensation is psychic: as figures in the public eye, media people have status that far exceeds their skills (note that journalists as a group have below average cognitive abilities), and crucially is disproportionate to their income. Hence, they are jealously protective of this status: without it, they are low paid hacks in a dying profession.

Meaning that Trump and his minions are striking hard at the media’s self-esteem, and as inflated as it is, that’s pretty much all they’ve got. Hence the hysterical reaction.

Which I find hysterical (in another sense of the word).

 

Print Friendly

Puzzling Statements From Rosneft and Russneft

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 6:21 pm

Yesterday Rosneft was the target of a cyberattack (ransomware to be specific). The company ominously tweeted:

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 6.58.23 PM

So the first thing that came to mind was that some legal adversary (presumably Sistema) was hacking Rosneft in retaliation for Rosneft’s lawsuit?

How weird is that? Paranoid? A threat? A paranoid threat?

This is even more bizarre because multiple companies–including Russian companies like Evraz and several banks, Ukrainian companies, and major international firms like Maersk–were hit simultaneously and the news spread rapidly. But apparently those running Rosneft’s social media live in a bubble and think (a) everything is about them, and (b) their commercial enemies are out to get them (which could well be a clinical case of projection). The Tweet certainly suggests that the Sistema litigation is a huge deal at Rosneft, which is telling in its own way.

Regardless of the explanation, this has to be the most bizarre corporate Tweet I have ever seen. And I’ve read some of Elon’s (before he blocked me!)

In other news that makes me question the competence of the management of Russian oil companies, consider this gem from Russneft:

Russneft, Russia’s mid-sized oil producer, is looking to clinch an oil hedging deal with VTB, Russia’s second biggest bank, Russneft Senior Vice President Olga Prozorovskaya said on Tuesday.

Mikhail Gutseriyev, a Russneft co-owner, told an annual shareholders meeting separately that he had earned $700 million on a previous oil hedge deal. Sources told Reuters earlier that Gutseriyev had been hedging at Sberbank.

“We are waiting for (the right) moment … and we will do (oil) hedging in the nearest future. We will hedge in such a way that we will get a couple of hundreds of million dollars in profit,” Gutseriyev said. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but on its face the statement makes no sense: hedging is not a profit making activity, but is a risk reduction activity. Indeed, in most markets a short hedger (which an oil producer would be) lowers average profits by hedging (because hedging pressure generally depresses the forward price below the expected spot price), but may choose to hedge nonetheless because of the benefits of lower profit variability (which arise from factors such as financial distress costs, agency costs, and taxes).

So methinks Gospodin Gutseriyev is unclear on the concept of hedging.

Attempting to be charitable here, perhaps what he means is that by selling forward its anticipated output Russneft will lock in a profit in the hundreds of millions. Dunno, but read literally the statement suggests that Russneft needs some schooling on what hedging can actually achieve.

 

Print Friendly

June 24, 2017

Why Are Progressives Fawning Over Proto-Classical Liberal Ibn Khaldun?

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 9:56 pm

This article about the 14th century Arab/Muslim scholar and proto-economist Ibn Khaldun has attracted great deal of attention from the leftist progressive set, including leftist progressive economists like Paul Krugman. In part, that’s because the author (Dániel Oláh) bashes those that Krugman et al love to hate, neoclassical (now often style “neoliberal”) economists. The piece’s subtitle is “neoclassical economists created a false narrative of the history of economics,” and it concludes with this rather bizarre screed:

But why do we need a new narrative, rediscovering our past? The answer is simple: to avoid such superficial beliefs that Adam Smith (or Ibn Khaldun) is the father of economics, the development of economics started in the New Age to culminate in neoclassical thought, Khaldun already invented the Laffer-curve, the financial market effectively regulates itself or a big government is always bad for the economy – among others. Economists have to exercise self-reflection: the crisis of 2008 proved that gaps in the mainstream transform easily into policy mistakes.

With a new, more plural approach to history of thought the Alzheimer’s disease of mainstream economics can be cured which is badly needed in the 21th century.

There’s another reason for the leftist love, of course: it is very fashionable to embrace the Muslim Other, because they are now the most potent foe of the leftist progressives’ real enemy: more traditionalist Westerners and traditional Western thought. (The refusal of self-described feminists to confront Muslim misogyny, and indeed, their desire to silence those who do attempt to confront it is the most flagrant example of this odd alliance between progressives and a socio-religious group that is as objectively at odds with progressive ideals as one can possibly imagine.)

Substantively, it does appear based on my limited exposure to him that Ibn Khaldun was indeed well ahead of his time, and that his insights were quite penetrating. Further, it seems bizarre to make him into some progressive poster boy, given that much of what he says indeed could be characterized as classical liberal thinking. If he was Adam Smith before Adam Smith–and the case can be made–then why do the enemies of Adam Smith claim him for their own, other than that they have found a way to conscript him in their war against their real enemies, the intellectual descendants of Adam Smith?

And it is the issue of descendants which holds the real meaning here: Ibn Khaldun apparently had few, if any, whereas Smith’s were legion.* That raises issues of true importance: why would the intellectual line of a flourishing civilization die out and fade into obscurity, whereas the product of a hardscrabble society like 18th century Scotland (which was largely wild and untamed not long before) be the progenitor of a great intellectual tradition?

And it is not only scholarship. A friend once sent me pictures she took of pages of her kids’ social studies textbook that lavishly praised how economically and socially advanced the Muslim world was in the Middle Ages, when Europe was mired in poverty and strife. Scotland during the time of Ibn Khaldun was dreary, violent, pastoral, and poor. Yet by the time of Adam Smith, Scotland (and other places in the British Isles and Continental Europe like the Netherlands) were advancing rapidly economically and socially, while once flourishing Arab Muslim lands were undergoing a secular decline that in many respects continues to this day.

Those who sing the praises of the Glory Days of the Muslim world–like the very PC authors of the aforementioned social studies text–beg these very important questions. What caused these reversals of fortune? It’s also rather strange: rather than somehow validating the current value of The Other, this heaping of praise on long past glories actually casts an unflattering light on present despair, revealing that there is something deeply dysfunctional in that society that led to their absolute and relative decline. How could a civilization that was so far ahead (according to the textbook telling, and likely the truth), fall so far behind?

Of course, one response to that question advanced by the left is that like other non-Western societies, the Arab world was victimized, exploited, and degraded by the colonialist West. But that again just poses the same question in a slightly different form: how could relative economic, social, and military capacities change so dramatically to permit the once marginal Occident that quaked in fear before “Mohammedans” and “Musselmans” to master the once dominant Muslim Orient?

These are large questions for which there are no easy answers. But ironically, part of the answer may be that the ideas and institutions now known as classical liberal that were present in Ibn Khaldun’s work did not take root in the Arab and then Ottoman worlds, whereas they did in Adam Smith’s UK, the Netherlands, the United States, and elsewhere (and somewhat later) in northern Europe. That Ibn Khaldun’s prescient insights did not reflect the realities of his society, whereas Adam Smith’s did.

 

Oláh’s article notes that Ronald Reagan praised Ibn Khaldun. Indeed, it appears that there is a greater intellectual affinity between Reagan and Khaldun than between Krugman and the Andalusian, which just makes plain the PC-driven superficiality of the progressives’ recent praise for him.

* Oláh notes that it is unknown whether Smith knew of Ibn Khaldun’s work. I consider it unlikely. The phenomenon of multiple independent discoveries of important ideas is well known. The sociologist Robert K. Merton posited the theory of multiple independent discovery. Ironically, his son, Robert C. Merton, illustrates that: Merton fils was a co-discoverer with Black & Scholes of preference free options pricing. [Stephen] Stigler’s Law of Eponymy states that no law is named for its original discovery: ironically, Stigler said that his law should have been named after Merton, and hence provides an illustration of his law. Stigler’s father George wrote an article about multiple discoveries in economics, titled “Merton on Multiples, Denied and Affirmed.” George Stigler was editor of the JPE when it published the Black-Scholes article. So there are multiple family connections in the intellectual history of the theory of multiple discoveries.

Print Friendly

June 17, 2017

Out of the History, Into the Heat

Filed under: History — The Professor @ 2:31 pm

Apologies for the paucity of posts over the last couple of weeks. I was traveling, bracketed by a visit Zug and Lugano for speaking and teaching and a trip to Oxford for a commodities conference. In between I bounced around France for 12 days–first real vacation I’ve had in years.

My itinerary was Paris-Rouen and environs (Gisors, Gaillard, Harcourt)-Bayeux-Omaha Beach-Avranches-Mortain-Mont St. Michel-St. Malo-La Rochelle-Bordeaux-Chinon-Chartres-Paris (where I spent a couple of enjoyable days with my uncle, aunt, and my cousin and her family). My main focus was, as usual when I travel, history. With the exception of the foray to La Rochelle and Bordeaux (which wasn’t worth the extra mileage), I was not disappointed.

Perhaps my favorite spot was Chinon, even though I’ve been there before. It is hard to imagine such a small place with so much history. In the space of a few acres took place dramas involving the Plantagenets (and notably Henry II and his three sons–who will never be confused for a Fred MacMurray sitcom!–as portrayed in A Lion in Winter), Phillip II of France and the forces of Bad King John (one of Henry’s sons), and most notably, Joan of Arc. Chinon is quite beautiful, offering very pleasant views of the Loire Valley, and blessed with remnants of the castle dating from the 12th-14th centuries. (Not far away is the Abbey of Fontevraud, most notable for the effigies of Henry II, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I. It is also definitely worth a trip.)

The connection with Joan is most meaningful to me. It was to Chinon that she traveled in order to meet the future King Charles. Charles attempted to disguise himself, to test Joan’s supposed gifts. But the Maid immediately picked him out in the throng of the court, ignoring the servitor dressed in Charles’ clothing. Overcoming the incredulity of the court at the temerity of a young girl claiming to be a messenger of God sent to redeem France, she persuaded Charles to let her lead an expedition to Orleans, where she led seemingly forlorn hope charges that routed the besieging English and freed the city. From Orleans she led Charles to Reims for his coronation. That was the acme of her career. Her subsequent attack on Paris failed, and soon thereafter she was captured by the Burgundians (perhaps as the result of treachery–there is no doubt that Charles subsequently betrayed her), ransomed by the English, then burned at the stake in Rouen.

Joan has the remarkable talent to dissolve the deepest cynicism of people like her battle-hardened contemporaries, Mark Twain–and me. I actually would consider it more miraculous if she achieved what she did without divine intervention, than with it. How can you explain an ignorant peasant girl persuading kings, becoming an inspirational war leader and skilled tactician, and devising the strategy that reshaped western European politics, all in the course of a few short months? Her performance at her trial–she was both brave and clever–is equally inexplicable, given her background. Her moments of doubt when confronted with the pyre were human, and were redeemed by her decision to suffer a horrible death rather than suffer dishonor, and her transcendence as the flames devoured her. Yes, she has been mythologized, and conscripted in religious and political battles over the centuries, but the basic facts of her life are well-documented and those speak for themselves. I cannot think of a parallel in history: she is an exception that proves many very dreary rules.

I have previously been to Chinon, Orleans, Reims, and Compiègne (where she was captured). Rouen was the last major scene in her life that I visited. There is a single tower remaining from the Rouen Castle where she was imprisoned during her trial (but it is not the tower where she was kept). There is a small garden marking the spot in the Rouen marketplace where she was immolated as a heretic. There is a fairly new multimedia presentation about her trial in a building that is part of the cathedral complex–it’s worth a visit.

The physical remains of the scenes of her life are almost non-existent–the room where she met Charles in Chinon is no longer there, for example–but visiting those traces does evoke thoughts about her remarkable life and career.

I’m back in Houston now, just in time for summer to begin in earnest. So the work–and the posting–will resume. Hopefully it will be improved by a relaxing few weeks immersed in history and historical places.

Print Friendly

We Can Now Bound From Above the Price of German Principles

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:30 pm

If you really concentrate, I’m sure you can stretch your memory to recall those long past days when Angela Merkel was hailed as the new Leader of the Free World, most notably because of her stalwart stance on Russia, in contrast to Trump, who was deemed a squish on Russia at best, and a collaborationist at worst. But that was so . . . May. Now in mid-June, the Germans and much of the rest of Europe and their fellow travelers here in the US are totally losing it over the 98-2 vote in the US Senate (the two dissenters being ideological bookends Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders) to strengthen the sanctions regime on Russia, and notably, to limit Trump’s ability to relax sanctions unilaterally.

So: In May, soft on Russia bad, hard on Russia good. In June, hard on Russia bad. In May, Trump had too much power. In June, limiting Trump’s power is inexcusable.

What changed? Actually nothing changed. This is volte face reflects an enduring constant: German commercial interests. The Senate sanctions bill would impose potential penalties on those assisting in the construction of Russian pipelines, most notably NordStream 2. NordStream 2 is a joint project between Gazprom and a handful of major European, and particularly German, corporate behemoths.

German explanations of the motivation behind the Senate’s action betray extreme psychological projection. Echoing Gazprom (an action which if you were to do it in the US would immediately bring down upon on your head screams of “RUSSIAN TROLL”), several European policymakers have claimed that this action was intended to advance the interests of US LNG exporters.

Um, no. Not even close. The objections of the US to NordStream date back to the Obama administration, which was hardly a major promoter of the US natural gas industry. Further, the main drivers in the Senate were people like McCain, for whom economic considerations are tertiary, at best: McCain et al have had it in for Russia generally and NordStream particularly for geopolitical reasons, and their opposition dates back years. Moreover, the bill reflects the current anti-Russia hysteria in the US, which in turn reflects a strange mix of political factors, not least of which is the clinical insanity of the Democratic Party post-November, 2016.

Indeed, US opposition to Russian gas pipelines into Europe dates back to the Reagan administration. The US tried to stop the pipelines through Ukraine that Putin is now trying to outflank with NordStream, because it thought the pipelines provided an economic benefit to the USSR and made Europe hostage to Russian economic pressure. This was in fact a source of one of the few disagreements between Thatcher (who supported the pipelines) and Reagan.

How much did the US hate the USSR-Europe gas pipelines, you ask? Enough to blow them up. Blow them up real good: “The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

Those who claim economic motivations say a lot more about themselves than they do about the US Senate: adopting a policy to advance German/European economic interests is exactly what they would do, and they are projecting this motivation on the US.  Indeed, the Germans’ hysterical reaction demonstrates just how important economic considerations are to them, and how marginal are geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.

If you think the Russians are as big a threat as the Germans and other gas-poor nations say, they should be deeply grateful for the emergence of US LNG which reduces their dependence on the evil Russkies. But the Germans say: we don’t want your methadone, we’d rather continue to buy smack from this really nasty dealer.

The hypocrisy and projection don’t stop there. Of course German economic policy is strongly oriented towards boosting its exports, often at the cost of beggaring its supposed European brothers and sisters (especially the swarthy ones down south). What’s good for zee goose, kameraden. .  .

Further, recall (if you can remember back that far) that one reason for the German/European freakout over Trump in May was his refusal to acknowledge solidarity with our allies by mouthing the words “Article 5.” All for one! One for all!

Right?

Well, eastern Europeans–the Poles in particular–think that NordStream basically sells them out to the Russians in order to benefit Germany. The Germans have totally blown off this criticism, and have subjected the Poles and Baltic States to considerable criticism and pressure for their opposition to NordStream. So much for European solidarity. It’s all for one, all right: that one being Germany. That one for all . . . not so much.

It gets better! Merkel and other Euros are fond of saying “more Europe.” Well, that’s exactly what the dispute and the sanctions are about, isn’t it? The economics of NordStream 2 are dubious, but it presents a nearly existential threat to Ukraine. The entire reason for the conflict in Donbas and the seizure of Crimea (conflicts that Merkel is allegedly attempting to mediate) were Ukraine’s attempt to move closer to Europe.

That is: (1) Ukraine takes “more Europe” seriously, and enters into an agreement with the EU that would open up trade with an eye on Ukraine joining the union in the future, (2) Putin takes exception to this, and initiates a series of actions that culminate with the ouster of Yanukovych followed by the seizure of Crimea, and a hot war in Donbas, (3) the US Senate attempts to penalize Russian actions by sanctions, and (4) the Europeans scream bloody murder at US intrusion into their policy domain.

In other words, when forced to put their money (and their gas) where their mouths are, the Europeans jettison “more Europe”. And then turn around and slag the US for taking them at their word.

Hey, they can do what they want. And the US can do what it wants. Just spare me the sanctimonious bullshit about standing up to Russia, European solidarity, more Europe, and on and on. It’s all about the Euros, baby–€–and German € in particular. Every “principle” that supposedly earned Merkel the designation as Leader of the Free World went out the window in a nanosecond, once some big German companies were going to have to pay a price for those principles.

We can now bound from above the price of German principles. The upper bound is in the billions of Euros. I am sure that the true price is far lower than that.

Print Friendly

June 9, 2017

Jim Comey: The Perfect Boy Scout in the DC Troop

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 1:20 pm

In the past, I have called James Comey a weasel and a douchenozzle. I was wrong. I therefore extend a sincere apology to all weasels and douchenozzles.

Comey is far worse. He is the consummate swamp thing. A self-serving “public servant.” An appartchik whose ethics are purely situational, with the salient part of the situation being how it affects his interests, and his armour propre.

Comey’s testimony yesterday was breathlessly awaited, yet deeply disappointing to most of the breathless. Yes, he tried to smear Trump, with some success, but what he succeeded at best was smearing himself. By revealing the kind of man he really is.

The main revelations of the testimony were not damning to Trump: they were exculpatory. As Marco Rubio–Marco Rubio!–hardly a Trumpian–pointed out, the only thing about his private conversation with Trump that Comey didn’t anonymously leak was the fact that Comey had indeed told Trump on three occasions that he was not under investigation.

Rubio was wrong, actually: another thing that Comey conveniently left out of his leak was the fact that Trump encouraged him to go after “satellites” in his campaign who might have engaged in illicit activities in connivance with the Russians. That hardly sounds like a coverup, or pressuring Comey to stop investigating.

There is a legal requirement in the US that illustrates the wrong that Comey committed–the Brady Rule. No, it does not apply strictly here, because this is not a formal legal matter, but it reveals the principle. The Rule mandates that prosecutors reveal all exculpatory information. The Rule exists because without it, prosecutors could lie by omission. And that is exactly what Comey did in his leaks.

Comey said that he leaked in order to prompt the naming of a special counsel. The fact that he leaked selectively and left out exculpatory evidence shows that he did so in bad faith, and arguably out of malice at being fired. Comey’s revelation calls into question the basis for naming the counsel in the first place. Apparently he felt that the whole truth might not have produced the desired result. So he lied by omission.

The timing also calls into question the appointment. Comey did not leak–or make a public statement–when the allegedly suspect communications took place, as would have been necessary and appropriate had he believed that Trump’s behavior was so egregious that it demanded an independent investigation. The leaking took place after he was fired. This further strengthens the case that he acted out of spite due to an affront to his person, rather than a belief that the president had indeed committed an offense, or that those around him had done so. If he had believed so, he would have believed it at the time and acted on it. The fact that he waited until after he was fired is damning.

Comey said there were “a variety of reasons” for his decision to leak, rather than go public, either when he was Director or after his termination. What would those be, sir? The fact that by leaking anonymously you could do so selectively in a misleading way, and avoid being questioned and confronted so the public could learn the full story (which would cast doubt on the need for a special counsel)? The fact that by leaking, you could let the misleading story fester for days and become truth in the public mind though it was much less than the whole truth? The fact that leaking adds a certain frisson of excitement, and element of mystery, that intensify interest and attention?

I can’t think of a good reason–a truly publicly spirited reason. An honorable man would have manned up, and gone public. But James Comey is a back shooter.

There are other things in his testimony that reveal his essential nature. For instance, he said that he knuckled under when Loretta Lynch ordered him not to refer to the Hillary investigation as an investigation, even though he knew that she was ordering him to parrot the Clinton campaign characterization of the situation–not the reality.

Crucially, Comey said that he did not push back because he didn’t want to “die on that hill.” Meaning that he wanted to keep his job, and would put up with AG interfering in his performance of that job as long as he kept it. Presumably Comey would have remained silent about his conversation with Trump, as he did about his conversation with Lynch, had Trump kept him in place.

What Lynch said was actually more egregious than what Comey reports Trump said about easing up on Flynn. And it gets worse. Comey also stated that he believed that the Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton fatally compromised her in connection with the Hillary investigation. So he felt obliged to step in and act.

Well, Mr. Comey–isn’t the situation that you describe exactly one in which a special counsel would be warranted? A special counsel would be able to act more objectively than a compromised attorney general and Justice Department–and you believed they were indeed compromised. Yet you did not privately recommend to Lynch the appointment of a special counsel; nor did you call for one publicly; nor did you leak damaging information in order to create public pressure that would have forced Lynch to appoint a special counsel, as you did with Sessions. Instead, you intervened, protected Lynch–and kept your job.

This is yet more evidence that Comey’s leaks were malicious revenge for being fired, rather than an attempt to see justice done. The case for a special counsel was stronger when Lynch was AG, yet Comey did not make it nor attempt to manipulate the situation to lead to an appointment of a special counsel, as he did after he was fired by Trump.

I could go on, but the whole thing is so distasteful and the foregoing is sufficient to show what an appalling person James Comey is.

Trump of course is largely to blame for his predicament. His lack of a filter, impetuosity, suspect judgment, and garbled syntax give enemies, like Comey, ample ammunition to fire at him. Trump has paid a big political price for firing Comey, but given what the man has been revealed to be not just by his testimony yesterday, but his performance over the last two years, that is a price worth paying. For a devious, self-serving, ambitious, and arrogant man like Comey would have done far more damage to Trump had he remained in place, than he has done by his despicable conduct after being fired.

Comey is often described by DC people as a “boy scout.” That says a lot about what the Scout’s Oath is in the DC troop–in other words, it is about 180 degrees from the one recited outside the Beltway. Jim Comey’s oath was to do his best for Jim Comey, the country be damned.

Print Friendly

June 8, 2017

Rosneft Follies, Redux

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 1:16 pm

Sarah Mcfarlane dropped a long piece in the WSJ claiming that the already sketchy Rosneft-QIA-Glencore deal was even sketchier than it appeared at the time, hard as that is to believe. Specifically, according to Sarah (and Summer Said), Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, agreed in that Russia would repurchase the stake at a future date:

Moscow agreed with Qatar that Russia would buy back at least a portion of the stake from the rich Persian Gulf emirate, the people said. The Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities giant, formed a partnership to buy the 19.5% stake in Russia’s energy jewel at a time when Mr. Putin’s government needed cash.

The people with knowledge of the deal say the buyback arrangement was negotiated with involvement from Mr. Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Russia and Qatar saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge between countries that had taken up opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, the people said. One of the people said the buyback would happen in the next 10 years.

Color me skeptical. For one thing, Glencore is a principal in the deal, and it would have to sign off too: the story does not assert, claim, suggest, or imply that Glencore did so. Both Glencore and QIA vigorously deny the story, for whatever that’s worth, as do the Russians. (As an aside, a source in Russia tells me that Ivan Glasenberg refused to discuss anything about the deal recently. Why the UK authorities and the LSE are so willing to accept the extremely deficient disclosure by a major UK issuer relating to a major transaction is beyond me. Maybe they are trying to convince Saudi Aramco that if it lists in London, it can do pretty much anything anywhere, no questions asked! BP’s silence is also curious.)

For another thing, Putin saying “I’ll buy it back later” without a mechanism to determine price is meaningless. I smile when I think about the number of times going back to at least 2006 the Russians announced that they had almost completed a gas deal with China: all that remained to determine was the price! And this went on year, after year, after year.  In other words, no agreement on pricing means no real agreement.

This is pretty funny:

Qatar wanted its Rosneft stake to be temporary, the people said. The emirate believes it will profit from selling the shares back to Russia at a later date, the people said, betting that oil prices will rise and push up Rosneft’s share price. Qatar saw the political benefits of giving Russia access to quick cash as a sort of loan to address a budget deficit that had widened due to lower oil prices, the people said.

In the 7 months (to the day) since the deal was announced, this has turned out to be a bad bet: Rosneft’s stock is down about 12 percent in Euros. (It’s down about 18 percent in rubles.)

This raises some other crucial issues. The €2.8 billion that QIA and Glencore put down represents about 26 percent of the value of the deal. Meaning that about one-half of the equity cushion is gone. Thus, the indemnities and guarantees that the Russian banks provided Glencore (there is no clarity on whether they similarly indemnified the QIA portion of the loan, but its non-recourse nature suggests they did) are getting pretty close to being in the money. Given the recent bloodbath in the oil market there is a decent probability that the loan will be underwater in the near to medium term.

Intesa’s statement suggests that QIA is indemnified/guaranteed too:

An Intesa spokesman said the loan to the Qatar/Glencore partnership “is covered by a robust package of guarantees.” Intesa is trying to spread the risk of its loan by syndicating it to other banks, but a person familiar with the matter said the bank hasn’t yet found willing banks.

The syndication part makes me laugh. Um, you’re kinda supposed to arrange the syndication at the front end, either before the deal or shortly (I mean days) afterwards. Seven months later, when you have zero negotiating leverage because you already are wearing the entire loan? With about half the equity cushion gone? With the loans being backed by Russian banks that are (a) not in the most robust health, and (b) under a cloud due to Russian sins real, and recently, feverishly imagined? Yeah, that will be an easy sell! I’m sure other banks are just lining up for a piece of that!

In bocca al lupo, signori!

The story suggests that Putin pressured Sechin to stitch together this Frankenstein’s monster to address pressing budget issues. I have no doubt that this was done under duress, but less because of budget than because of prestige and reputation. Putin had said that a stake in the company would be privatized in 2016, and to a non-Russian buyer. So Putin put his reputation on the line, and Sechin had to come through.

But virtually all the downside risk resides in Russia (something I pointed out early). So although the deal (a) generated some cash inflow that did address some budget issues, and (b) provided some reputational benefits (for a few weeks, anyway), it did nothing to mitigate the Russian government’s exposure to Rosneft’s downside, but did give away the upside. In essence, Putin and Sechin got their PR play by giving away a put on Rosneft. That’s what enticed QIA and Glencore.

In other news from the bizarre world of Russian–and Rosneft specifically–transactions, the Rosneft/Sechin-Sistema litigation rolls on. Indeed, Sechin increased his demands by more than 50 percent, from $1.9b to $3b. My same Russian source says all of Russia is mystified by this, but he did provide a valuable tidbit.

What had mystified me was how Rosneft could go after Sistema when it bought Bashneft from the state. Well, apparently Igor was in such a hurry to complete the deal that Rosneft didn’t begin the audit/due diligence until after the deal was completed! 

Why was Igor in a hurry? My guess is that Putin had opposed Rosneft’s purchase in August, and changed his mind in September, and Sechin wanted to move before Putin changed his mind again.

Perhaps Igor was thinking that if the audit uncovered irregularities, he could get a Russian court to give him a mulligan and claw back the money. In which case, the current litigation might have been part of the plan (at least as a contingency) all along.

I’m still puzzled, though, because some of the things Sechin goes on about (e.g., the sale of Bashneft’s oilfield services business to a Sistema entity, and the subsequent contract between Bashneft and that entity for said services) was known about before. So maybe Igor is just throwing everything into the litigation claim, even when it doesn’t make any sense. After all, this isn’t being heard in a London court or arbitration in a European country: although this is an intra-Russian dispute, Sechin definitely has home field advantage.

Keep this all in mind whenever anyone (and now it seems that means pretty much everyone) tries to scare you about the Russian bogeyman. The follies of one of Russia’s premier companies, a so-called national champion, illustrate just what a ramshackle, and at times clownish, contraption the Russian state is. Putin does a great Wizard of Oz imitation, but when Toto pulls back the curtain as has happened with the Rosneft/Glencore/QIA deal, you’ll see that there’s a little man blowing a lot of smoke.

 

 

Print Friendly

June 4, 2017

Terrorism, Populism, and Elite Failure

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 1:02 pm

Yesterday witnessed yet another terrorist attack in Europe, leaving seven dead in London.

The London mayor, safe behind his massive security detail, assures that there’s no reason to be alarmed.

Easy for him to say. Revelers and pedestrians, not so much.

This kind of vapidity is of a piece with something that I’m sure we’ll hear yet again: People overreact to terrorism. After all, you are more likely to die in your bathtub or some such than be slain by a terrorist. So accept it! Don’t be alarmed! Nothing to see here.

For one thing, this banality about violence does violence to statistics. I’m pretty sure that the Saturday night partiers in London or the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo or the attendees at a concert in Paris or the celebrants in Nice or the schoolgirls at a concert in Manchester are not in demographic cohorts heavily represented in the statistics of bathtub slips and falls.

For another, there is a difference between a small risk willingly taken to achieve some other benefit and being subjected to the risk of political violence in return for no benefit whatsoever. I am perfectly aware that every time I get in my car to go somewhere, I might be killed in an accident. That is part of the full cost of driving, and when I decide to drive I do so because the benefit of the trip exceeds the full cost. I made that choice. Getting decapitated by a religious fanatic while going out for a drink should not be something that must be considered when evaluating the pros and cons of a night on the town. That is the result of a breakdown of public order, not a private misfortune to which everyone is prone.

But those aren’t the biggest reasons to object to the bathtub comparison. The biggest reason is that intuitively people recognize that there is a difference between political violence, a social phenomenon, and the ordinary risks of every day living. They recognize that political violence may start with small, isolated instances, and spin out of control. The history of humanity is a dreary litany of social and political violence, and people have an intuitive sense that if it is not contained, it can well metastasize and make life all but unbearable. People rightly dread the prospect of political violence, because if unchecked, its trajectory is almost always upwards not the other way round. That is categorically different from the random misfortunes inherent in everyday life, and people intuitively recognize it is categorically different, and therefore react differently to it.

In brief, people realize that if you don’t suppress political and social violence when it is a relatively modest problem, it will become bigger: and that if you can’t deal with it when it is a small problem, you will be totally overmatched when it grows.

It is particularly infuriating when such platitudes pour from the pieholes of pompous politicians, of whom the London mayor is only the latest, and by no means the most powerful–the recently elected president of France, and the departed and unlamented (by me, anyways) president of the United States have uttered similar “thoughts.”

The only principled argument for the existence of the state is that people exchange some liberties for security of their lives and property. The primary–and to a classical liberal, sole–reason for the state is to provide such protection. When it fails to do so, it has failed utterly in its mission. When those ostensibly responsible for governing trivialize these failures, it is unpardonable.

It is particularly unpardonable in places like France particularly, but almost as much in the UK, and increasingly in the US, where the state holds itself out as omnicompetent to rule over every aspect of citizens’ lives. As the saying goes: you had one job. You fail at that, yet you presume to tell us that we should trust you with everything from health care to occupational licensing to monetary policy to all the other goddam things you claim only the government can do?

The initial reaction of the increasingly horrid British PM, Theresa May, encapsulates–yet again–the elite failure that is the hallmark of the 21st century. May posits that it might be necessary to restrict–wait for it–the Internet. If you are going to constrain liberties further in your feeble attempts to provide security, mightn’t a little more targeted approach be better, Ms. May? Starting, say, with places like the Finsbury Park Mosque? Or the 1000s of individuals which your security forces have already identified as threats (and then apparently ignored until after they act on them)?

But oh no. That would be discriminatory. Can’t have that, can we? But indiscriminate approaches like restricting the Internet or subjecting everyone from toddlers to the senile to security theater at airports are both wildly over inclusive and wildly under effective, thereby entailing great cost with no remotely corresponding benefit. Which just makes the populace all the more alarmed by terrorism, because it makes them all the more convinced that their supposed betters in government are not serious people and do not have their true interests at heart.

The elites are frightened and befuddled by populism: they freaked out at Trump’s very populist reaction to the latest London attacks. They should not be confused in the slightest, but they just cannot admit the truth: that populism is a reaction to profound elite failure, which the elite gives evidence of every passing day. Understanding populism would require that they admit failure, which they adamantly refuse to do.

People fear terrorism when they see it growing and they see those charged with preventing it failing time and again, and consciously avoiding doing the sometimes messy things necessary to do so. That fear seems pretty rational, given the fundamental differences between political violence and the risks of normal life, no matter how frequently the better thans instruct us about mortality statistics.

Print Friendly

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress