Streetwise Professor

January 23, 2018

Why Are ABCD Singing the Blues?

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:49 pm

It’s pretty clear that the major agricultural trading firms, notably the ABCDs–ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus–are going through a rough patch of tight margins and low profits.  One common response in any industry facing these conditions is consolidation, and in fact there is a major potential combination in play: ADM approached Bunge about an acquisition..

I am unsatisfied with most of the explanations given.  A widely cited “reason” is that grain and oilseed prices are low due to bumper crops.  Yes, bumper crops and the resulting low prices can be a negative for producers, but it does not explain hard times in the midstream.  Ag traders do not have a natural flat price exposure. They are both buyers and sellers, and care about margin.

Indeed, ceteris paribus, abundant supplies should be a boon to traders.  More supply means they are handling more volume, which is by itself tends to increase revenue, and more volume means that handling capacity is being utilized more fully, which should contribute to firmer margins, which increases revenues even further.

Greg Meyer and Neil Hume have a long piece in the FT about the potential ADM-Bunge deal. Unfortunately, they advance some implausible reasons for the current conditions in the industry. For example, they say: “At the same time, a series of bumper harvests has weakened agricultural traders’ bargaining power with customers in the food industry.” Again, that’s a flat price story, not a spread/margin story.  And again, all else equal, bumper harvests should lead to greater capacity utilization in storage, logistics, transportation, and processing, which would actually serve to increase traders’ bargaining power because they own assets used to make those transformations.

Here’s how I’d narrow down where to look for more convincing explanations. All else equal, compressed margins arise when capacity utilization is low. In a time of relatively high world supply, lower capacity utilization would be attributable to increases in capacity that have outstripped gains in throughput caused by larger crops.  So where is that increased capacity?

There are some hints of better explanations along these lines in the FT article.  One thing it notes is that farmer-owned storage capacity has increased.  This reduces returns on storage assets.  In particular, when farmers have little on-farm storage they must sell their crops soon after harvest, or pay grain merchants to store it.  If they sell their crops, the merchant can exploit the optionality of choosing when to sell: if they store at a local elevator, they pay for the privilege. Either way, the middleman earns money from storage, either in trading profits (from exploiting the timing option inherent in storage) or in storage fees. If farmers can store on-farm, they don’t have to sell right after harvest, and they can exploit the timing options, and don’t have to pay for storage.  Either way, the increased on-farm storage capacity reduces the demand for, and utilization of, merchant-owned storage. This would adversely impact traders’ margins.

The article also mentions “rivals add[ing] to their crop-handling networks.” This would suggest that competitive entry/expansion by other firms (who?) is contributing to the compressed margins.  This would in turn suggest that ABCD margins in earlier years were abnormally high (which attracts entry), or that the costs of these unnamed “rivals” have gone down, allowing them to add capacity profitably even though margins are thinner.

Or maybe it’s that the margins are still healthy where the capacity expansions are taking place. Along those lines, I suspect that there is a geographic component to this. ADM in particular has its biggest asset footprint in North America. Bunge has a big footprint here too, although it also considerable assets in Brazil.  The growth of South America (relative to North America) as a major soybean and corn exporting region, and Russia as a major wheat exporting region, reduce the derived demand for North American handling capacity (although logistical constraints on Russian exports means that Russian export increases won’t match its production increases, and there are bottlenecks in South America too).

This would suggest that the circumstances of the well-known traders that have more of a North American (or western European) asset base are not representative of the profitability of grain trading overall. If that’s the case, consolidation-induced capacity “rationalization” (and that’s a major reason to merge in a stagnant industry) would occur disproportionately in the US, Canada, and western Europe.  This would also suggest that owners of storage and handling facilities in South America and Russia are doing quite well at the same time that owners of such assets in traditional exporting regions are not doing well.

So I am not satisfied with the conventional explanations for the big ag traders’ malaise during a time of plenty. I conjecture that the traditional players have been most impacted by changes in the spatial pattern of production that has reduced the derived demand to use their assets, which are more heavily concentrated in legacy production regions facing increased competition from increased output in newer regions.

Ironically, I’m too capacity constrained to do more than conjecture. But it’s a natural for my Université de Genève students looking for a thesis topic or course paper topic. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge.



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January 21, 2018

Somebody Better Put a Tachometer on Lenin’s Corpse

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:50 pm

One of the most remarkable events–non-events, actually–of 2017 was the virtual total lack of any official Russian recognition of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The dilemma is particularly acute for Vladimir Putin, a proud Chekist–and, of course, the Cheka was the creation of the Revolution, and arguably essential to its survival.

But the Revolution’s legacy–including its anti-religious, anti-nationalist ideology, as well as tens millions of dead and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union–clashes with Putin’s current ideology of autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality 2.0.  Hence the low-key (bordering on no-key) recognition of the events of October, 1917.

Last week Putin attempted to square this circle with a truly Orwellian formulation: Communism was Christianity. No–really:

“Maybe I’ll say something that someone might dislike, but that’s the way I see it,” Putin said in an interview for the documentary Valaam, an excerpt of which was broadcast on Russia 1. “First of all, faith has always accompanied us, becoming stronger every time our country, our people, have been through hard times.

“There were those years of militant atheism when priests were eradicated, churches destroyed, but at the same time a new religion was being created. Communist ideology is very similar to Christianity, in fact: freedom, equality, brotherhood, justice – everything is laid out in the Holy Scripture, it’s all there. And the code of the builder of communism? This is sublimation, it’s just such a primitive excerpt from the Bible, nothing new was invented.”

Look, Lenin was put in a mausoleum. How is this different from the relics of saints for Orthodox Christians and just for Christians? When they say that there’s no such tradition in Christianity, well, how come, go to Athos and take a look, there are relics of the saints there, and we have holy relics here,” Putin concluded.

Somebody should look in said mausoleum to see if Lenin is spinning at about 1000 RPM at the the assertion that his creation and ideology were mere sublimations of primitive Christianity.  Ditto Marx’s grave in London.

Make no doubt that Putin is going all in on Orthodoxy: just note his recent frigid dip to celebrate the Epiphany.

Moreover, Putin is being very selective in his commemorations of Russian history. For instance, largely reviled by the Orthodox, Peter the Great is virtually absent. And now we see that he reinterprets the most epochal–and apocalyptic–event in Russian history, a Revolution that was driven by a hatred and rejection of orthodox, nationalist autocracy, as some sort of historical continuity.

This is all quite amazing. Evidently Putin does not believe that he can attack communism, Bolshevism, and Leninism outright, because they resonate with too many people–particular among his political base. But he is acutely aware of the tension between his current crypto-tsarist ideology and the militantly anti-tsarist ideology that dominated Russia for 75 years.  So in a very Soviet way he completely rewrites history to assert that black is really white.

When Putin says “that’s the way I see it” what he really means is: that’s the way Russians are supposed to see it–get with the program. Who are you going to believe, Putin or your lying eyes?


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January 10, 2018

Red on Red: Simpson vs. Browder

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:02 pm

Some time back I promised a post on Bill Browder. A hectic schedule and the holidays intervened, so though I’d collected loads of material, I didn’t have time to write a post. Events from yesterday–namely the release of the transcript of Fusion GPS head Glenn Simpson’s interview with Congressional investigators–make this timely, so I’ll try to summarize what I have concluded. Oddly, one conclusion is that when it comes to Bill Browder, Simpson and I are of like mind. On other matters no–but even there Simpson’s Browder testimony shows precisely why his opinions on Trump are suspect.

As for Browder, here are my conclusions in somewhat abbreviated form.

First, Browder assiduously cultivates the image that Diogenes’ search for an honest man would have ended had the old Greek met one Bill Browder. But in fact, his honesty, integrity, and scruples are highly questionable indeed.

The essence of the Browder as Hero narrative is that he was a lone crusader for honest business practices in Russia, and that he fought a corrupt and brutal establishment. In retribution, the establishment stole one of his companies in order to defraud the Russian government, and killed Browder’s loyal employee, Sergei Magnitsky when he had the temerity to challenge them. Bill Browder, martyr by proxy.

A review of his actual business dealings in Russia strongly suggests a very, very different story.

For one thing, Browder was engaged in the voucher privatizations of the 1990s. These were, without cavil, among the most monstrous acts of mass theft and fraud in modern economic history. They were the primitive capitalist accumulation that built many modern Russian fortunes (and filled more than a few graveyards). Any Dudley Do-Right who tried to operate in that environment would have been ground to dust within weeks, if not days. It was an extreme Darwinian environment in which the most unscrupulous and often most brutal prevailed. If Browder survived that–and indeed thrived–draw your own conclusions.

For another, Browder’s initial partner in Hermitage Capital Management (his investment vehicle in Russia) was Edmund Safra. Safra’s sketchy dealings are legendary. He always dismissed allegations about his shady business practices as antisemitic, but there are many other Jewish financiers who have not attracted the same criticism. Further, Safra was involved (through his Republic Bank) in a mysterious scheme to jet billions of dollars in cash to Russia during the 1990s–it was dubbed “the money plane.” Just what went on there is unknown, but it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Safra died under bizarre circumstances in Monaco in 1999. An ex-Marine who served as his nurse was convicted of murder, but few find that story plausible, or complete. One of the competing theories is that he was killed by the Russian mob. (There are so many suspects, that maybe the true story is something along the lines of Murder on the Orient Express–everybody did it.)

Regardless, voucher privatizations plus Safra is hardly the CV of a commercial saint.

Browder also claims that he tried to bring honest corporate governance to Russia. He points to his attempts to change Gazprom as an example.

A different story is far more plausible: Browder’s investment in Gazprom was an arbitrage play, pure and simple. Due to restrictions on foreign ownership of Gazprom’s Russian shares, those shares sold at a substantial discount to the ADRs traded outside of Russia. Browder found a way–legal he says, illegal say the Russians–to buy Gazprom Russian shares. This allowed him to capture the big discount.

Putting the legality of the structure that he used to buy the shares aside, making an arb trade like that can be very profitable, and thus very attractive. That’s why Browder and his investors wanted in. Given the farcical prospects for actually changing Gazprom’s governance, I’m pretty sure that the Corporate Crusader act that Browder put on was just a cover for his more mercenary motives.

And this is a general impression that I come away with after reading a lot about him. The whole Last Honest Man in Russian Investing shtick was a canny PR ploy that allowed his backers to distance themselves from the tawdry (and worse) reputation that investing in Russia had at the time. Browder was their beard that allowed them to pretend that they were in an honest relationship.

Browder has been prosecuted by the Russian government, both for tax violations and his purchase of Gazprom shares. He portrays these prosecutions as vengeance for his crossing the wrong people in his crusade for honest business practices in Russia. I have no doubt that his prosecution might have been selective, and indeed driven by vengeance–but maybe not as revenge for his honesty, but for his taking from the wrong people. Further, even if the prosecutions were selective (i.e., others doing the same but not prosecuted) and driven by vengeance, that doesn’t mean they weren’t justified–and perhaps even just.

I don’t have the basis to opine on the legality of the structure of his Gazprom purchases. But I can say that the Russian accusations regarding tax violations seem very plausible. These involved setting up companies that received tax breaks for hiring disabled veterans, but the Russians colorably show that he did no such thing.

The Russians also allege that he was in fact involved in the tax fraud that resulted in Magnitsky’s death. This allegation is far more speculative, and perhaps libelous–but it is not totally lacking in plausibility, especially in light of Browder’s track record.

Since getting kicked out of Russia in 2005, and since Magnitsky’s death, Browder has spent his life crusading against Putin and the Russian government. The centerpiece of his campaign is the alleged involvement of Russian government officials (tax officials mainly) in the theft of $230 million in tax refunds fraudulently obtained from a Hermitage company seized by the Russians, and the death of Magnitsky while in custody in an investigation of the theft.

Here it is evident that Browder’s relationship with the truth is, well, situational and transactional. The best evidence of this is his deposition in the Prevezon case in New York. Browder tried mightily to avoid being served, and here is one place where Browder and Simpson intersect: Simpson was part of the effort to serve Browder, on behalf of his (indirect) client, Prevezon CEO Denis Katsyv.

During that deposition, Browder admitted repeatedly that he had no evidence whatsoever to back some of his most lurid and damning allegations against those he alleges were complicit in the Russian tax fraud and the death of Magnitsky. For instance, he has claimed repeatedly that he could trace the ill-gotten gains from the tax fraud to specific individuals. In the deposition, he admitted he could not.

(Here Browder has something in common with dossier assembler Christopher Steele. Once in court testifying under the penalty of perjury, Steele was at pains to admit that the claims in the dossier were unsubstantiated, in contrast to his hair on fire representations to the FBI.)

This is particularly outrageous given the fury with which Browder attacks anyone who questions his dealings or veracity.

So my conclusion is: Browder is a con-man and a liar. If he tells you the sun rises in the east, buy a compass and wait for sunrise.

Glenn Simpson of dossier infamy is of the same opinion. Simpson did a deep documentary dive on Browder for Prevezon’s lawyers, Baker Hostetler, and came to many of the conclusions I outline above, and some more to boot. If you read the transcript of Simpson’s interview (not testimony) before Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, you’ll see what Simpson dug up and the basis for his conclusions.

Well, doesn’t this mean that I therefore have to give credence to Fusion GPS’s research on Trump? Quite to the contrary: the difference in the methods in the Browder and Trump matters is striking. When investigating Browder, Fusion GPS did a deep dive on documentary evidence in the US, Russia, and presumably Cyprus (where Browder registered companies). (See pp. 41-49 of the transcript. Simpson is so detailed in his description of what he did in the Browder investigation that the lawyer questioning him said “Thank you for the narrative answer.” LOL.)

In contrast, with regards to Trump, Simpson et al (a) read some books, and (b) commissioned the Steele investigation, which apparently just involved in talking to people (just who is a complete mystery) who passed on unverified and unverifiable gossip. The basis for Simpson’s claim that Trump had Russian mafia connections is that Trump had connections with Felix Sater who allegedly had connections with the Russian mob: similarly Paul Manafort.

Thus, whereas the foundation for Simpson’s opinions on Browder is rock-solid, that for his opinions on Trump are charitably described as quicksand.

Simpson’s statements also call into question his honesty. When asked when he had any Russian-speaking employees, he mentioned one guy–who happened NOT to be Nellie H. Ohr, wife of ex-DOJ Associate Deputy AG. We now know that Mrs. Ohr worked for Fusion. Sean Davis said on Twitter that this was an “interesting omission.” I said it was an interesting perjury.

Simpson also insinuated that the FBI had an independent source to justify FISA-ing Trump campaign personnel–and that this guy was a walk-in. When the transcript was released, a “source close to Fusion GPS” said nope. Never happened. He was referring to Papalopolous. Another strike for his credibility.

Simpson strains credulity past its breaking point when he claims that even though he had dinner with Natalia Veselnitskaya the night before and the night after her meeting with Trump Jr., the subject never came up (she was at the other end of the table, he doesn’t speak Russian and she doesn’t speak English–even though they apparently could communicate well enough for her to get him to help her obtain a visa). Simpson claims to have been shocked at the news. Please. Big investigative reporter turned PI/opposition researcher has no clue about a bombshell meeting even after spending hours with some of the principals? He didn’t even bother to ask through a translator (who Veselnitskaya must have had along) “hey, Natalia, whatcha been doing in New York?” Please.

So my rule for Simpson is the same as for Browder: unless he has the documents to prove it, don’t believe a word he says. He will distort the truth to advance his agenda.

The most entertaining part of this is the red-on-red nature of the battle. Heretofore Browder has been something of a hero among the anti-Trump set (yeah, I’m looking at you, Michael Weiss) because he is ardently anti-Putin, and Trump is supposedly Putin’s bitch. But Simpson has even better anti-Trump bona fides, for the dossier is directly anti-Trump, whereas Browder’s  anti-Putin stance is anti-Trump only via (an alleged) transitivity.

So given a choice between Browder and Simpson, most of the anti-Trumpers are going with Simpson, and either explicitly or implicitly dumping and dissing Browder.

Karma, Bill. Karma.

Browder being Browder, he will no doubt go after Simpson with all guns blazing.

I’m stocking up on the popcorn.

The left and the media (I repeat myself, yet again) may end up ruing their choice. Given the extremely dubious nature of the dossier and those who funded, created, and disseminated it, and the very great likelihood that it was used as the basis to engage in counterintelligence surveillance of Trump campaign personnel, I believe that the dossier will likely prove the greatest political boomerang in modern political history, and will end up braining those who threw it (which includes the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS/Simpson, the FBI and other US intelligence agencies, the media, and the “Resistance”). And if this happens, Bill Browder will be little more than collateral damage.

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December 27, 2017

Vova the Squeegee Man

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 4:21 pm

My old buddy Vova is making a rather forced and pathetic attempt to persuade rich Russians to repatriate the money they have invested (squirreled away) overseas:

President Vladimir Putin is using the threat of additional U.S. sanctions to encourage wealthy Russians to repatriate some of their overseas assets, which exceed $1 trillion by one estimate.

I call the attempt forced and pathetic precisely because Putin feels obliged to try to persuade, rather than dictate. And because he is offering inducements:

Putin said on Monday that Russia should scrap the 13 percent profit tax on funds repatriated from abroad and renew an amnesty from penalties for businesses returning capital.

And because he’s raising the bogeyman of western sanctions (from the Bloomberg piece):

“We and our entrepreneurs have repeatedly faced unjustified and illegal asset freezes under the guise of sanctions,” Peskov said on a conference call Tuesday. “The president’s initiative aims to create comfortable conditions for businesses if they want to use this opportunity to repatriate their capital.”

Heretofore, sanctions have limited the ability of the affected entities to tap western financing: they have not involved expropriation or the kind of piratical corporate and government behavior that has been seen in Russia. Investments abroad remain abroad despite the more hostile environment to Russian money in the west because it is still safer than it would be in Russia. That’s why Vova has to beg and bribe to try to get Russians to repatriate. And previous efforts have hardly been successful:

Russia rolled out a similar amnesty program during the worst of the conflict in Ukraine, which coincided with a plunge in oil prices that triggered the country’s longest recession of the Putin era. That 18-month initiative, the results of which haven’t been disclosed, “didn’t work as well as we’d hoped,” Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said. Unlike that plan, this one waives Russia’s 13 percent tax on personal income, according to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.

Note that the mere threat of western sanctions has not been enough: hence the tax waiver.

Insofar as piratical corporate behavior is concerned, I give you Igor Sechin, ladies and gentlemen. What do you think is more intimidating, Sechin plotting–and the system cooperating–to jail a troublesome minister for eight years, or what the US and Europe have done to sanctioned entities? Or his serial extortions of Sistema, which recently agreed to an “amicable” settlement with Rosneft/Sechin? Said “amicable” settlement involved the former paying the latter $1.7 billion dollars to settle a suit . . . over what is rather hard to say. I still don’t get the legal theory under which Rosneft even thought it was entitled payment for Sistema’s alleged past wrongs. Given that this occurred mere days after Putin called for an amicable settlement, it is pretty clear that he was taking Sechin’s side and telling Sistema to cave–and do so with a smile.

This is why Russian money will stay out of Russia, Putin’s pleas notwithstanding.

Another story gives you a partial explanation for Putin’s neediness: “Russia’s Reserve Fund to be fully depleted in 2017.” The rainy day fund is empty, and the outlook remains cloudy.

Thus, for all the hyperventilating about Putin the Colossus, the objective basis for his power is shaky indeed. He can be a pest and troublemaker, but he lacks the economic heft to be much more. Yet for selfish political reasons, Democrats, NeverTrump Republicans, and the media inflate his importance daily. Enough. Putin is rattling his tin cup, hoping that some rich Russians will drop some rubles into it. Maybe if the tax inducement isn’t enough, he can squeegee their windshields.

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December 3, 2017

Please Reconcile This: The Kremlin Is Hermetically Sealed to Outsiders, But They Told All to Christopher Steele

Filed under: Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

This article caught my eye last week: “At the epicenter of the Russian election manipulation story, reporters can’t report.”

As tensions rise, Ferris-Rotman finds reaching sources inside the government all but impossible. She says foreign correspondents based in Moscow can’t just pick up their phone and text or call an official.

“Russia is a very closed place,” she says. “It’s not like the U.S. where, you know, over years or over some time you can develop a source in the White House — someone who you can trust and that you trade information with. Basically (the Kremlin) is a sealed up institution and there’s no way for us to get into it. “

The Kremlin is a “sealed up institution,” but we are supposed to believe that Christopher Steele was able to get multiple sources within the Kremlin to repeat highly sensitive conversations involving the highest personages in the Kremlin, including Putin himself.

The dossier itself is bad enough, but its handling in the US–specifically by the FBI and the intelligence community–is downright sinister. This is even more evident after it was revealed that the FBI agent who was responsible for handling the dossier was a pro-Hillary/anti-Trump partisan who was fired by Mueller for exchanging anti-Trump texts with his lover, also an FBI agent. (Not that Mueller told us that this was why he was fired when it happened months ago. I guess he didn’t have time because he was so busy leaking.) Moreover, this same individual allegedly has been interfering with the House Intelligence Committee’s attempts to get to the bottom of the story of the dossier.

But there’s more: the same FBI official led the investigation of Hillary’s emails.

As the expression goes: the fix is in! Although here, it is necessary to use the plural: the fixes are in!

Boy, if only there was a Republican attorney general who could get control of a rogue FBI and get some answers about the dossier–how it was obtained, and how it was used by the FBI.



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Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:29 pm

Friday was a bonanza for dry cleaners, as the media and the political class collectively wet themselves in glee at the news that ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

Alas, their fondest desires ran well ahead of the reality–which is the norm for this lot.

As was the case with Manafort, Flynn plead guilty to lying but not to any underlying crime, least of all a conspiracy with the Russians. The most reasonable inference for this is that there WAS no underlying crime and no conspiracy.

Indeed, Flynn will testify that he lied about two conversations with the Russian ambassador, Kirlyak, neither of which was illegal or even unethical.

In the first conversation, he spoke not just to Kirlyak, but to the ambassadors of every nation on the United Nations Security Council, including Senegal, Egypt–and wait for it–Ukraine. The subject was not Russia, but the stink bomb of an anti-Israel resolution that the outgoing Obama administration supported  but the incoming Trump administration opposed.

And it was the incoming Trump administration, because this conversation took place in December, 2016.

Flynn allegedly contacted the ambassadors at the direction of Jared Kushner.

So this contact is about Israel, not Russia. Flynn talked to Russia only because Russia was on the UNSC. As it (or the USSR) has been since its creation in 1945.

But the breathless media coverage was almost all headlined “Flynn spoke to Russia,” insinuating that his plea showed that Trump was canoodling with Putin.

In econometrics, omitting variables leads to biased inferences. Here, omitting that Flynn also spoke to every other nation on the UNSC about an issue that had noting to do directly with Russia definitely led to biased inferences. And that was exactly the intention, which demonstrates the bad faith of virtually the entire journalistic establishment.

The other conversation was about Russia directly. Specifically, Flynn asked Kislyak that Russia not overreact to Obama’s out-the-door sanctions on Russia. Trump wanted to avoid an escalatory dynamic, which is perfectly reasonable, especially given the fact that Obama almost certainly levied these sanctions with the intent of making life difficult for Trump.

Since these events happened after the election, they did not advance the collusion narrative. The media and the political class dealt with this in two ways.

First, they just lied. Brian Ross of ABC News reported–and the rest of the media repeated–that Flynn was going to testify that he had spoken to Russians during the campaign. WRONG. He will merely say that the Trump team had discussed plans to improve relations with Russia post-election. Big difference.

But this is a classic case of Twain’s dictum about a lie getting around the world before the truth got its boots on. And isn’t it funny how all the lies are in the same direction?

This is in fact a huge benefit to Trump, because what better illustrates his assertions that the mainstream media is a firehose of fake news?

Second, they harrumphed about the Logan Act, a likely un-Constitutional historical curiosity dating from January 30 . . . 1799–and which despite its longevity has never resulted in an indictment, let alone a conviction. The law forbids private individuals from negotiating with foreign states in a dispute with the US. About its only relevance to today is that it was adopted in fevered political times (the wars of the French Revolution, which also spawned the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts) which bear some similarity to today’s febrile political climate.

Further, it is common–and indeed imperative–for incoming administrations to establish contact with foreign governments, including–and perhaps especially–those with whom the US is experiencing tense relations. Indeed, the Trump team received permission from the Obama administration to make such contacts, and an administration spokesman said publicly that Obama had no objection to such contacts, including specifically with Russia.

So if anything, the Flynn plea actually substantiates what Trump et al have been saying all along, and provides no evidence of pre-election collusion, let alone an illegal pre-election conspiracy.

The main conclusions here are: (1) Flynn was an idiot for lying about something that was perfectly legal and ethical, and (2) to avoid outbursts of idiocy, when the FBI comes knocking, don’t talk–there’s no upside, and a big potential downside.

As for the conspiracy theory that excites the imaginations of today’s McCarthyites and Birchers, it is a big fat nada. Zip. Zero.

But that will not deter them. They are so invested in this theory that nothing will disprove it in their eyes. They will react exactly the same to the next hyped non-event, and dry cleaners everywhere will cheer.

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November 23, 2017

Igor Is Not Available. Please Leave Your Name and Number, and He’ll Return Your Call as Soon as Possible.

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:27 pm

Who knew that Igor Sechin was such a shy and retiring type? He has been summoned thrice to testify at the Ulyukaev bribery trial, and thrice he has failed to appear. One time he apparently dodged the summons by hiding in his office, and having his staff refuse to accept it. The other times he has said his busy travel schedule precludes him from attending. He has been summoned yet again to appear on 27 November, but the judge in the case said that Sechin indicates that his schedule wilt allow him to testify before the end of the year.

What will his next excuse be? “Sorry. I’m washing my hair that day”? Alas, “I’m scheduled to have my mullet trimmed” is no longer credible.

So why is Igor so reticent? After all, it is because of him, and a sting in which he participated, that Ulyukaev is in the dock. I discussed the issue with a Russian who follows the situation closely–perhaps too closely for comfort, in fact–and we pretty much agree on three possible explanations.

First, embarrassment. Transcripts, then audio, and now video of the sting have been released. Sechin does not come off well in these, and his offer of sausages in a hamper has become something of a running joke in Moscow. Relatedly, Sechin’s behavior violates the norms of inter-elite interaction (sort of like violating the mafia code), and this is there for all to see.

Second, there have been inconsistencies in the prosecution story. Sechin may dread cross-examination that will expose the episode as entrapment or fraud.

Third, Sechin may be testing the limits of his power and autonomy, or deliberately flouting the rules to show that he is an untouchable.

Will we ever learn the truth? This being Russia, there is considerable room for doubt. But one thing we can be sure is not the truth is that Sechin is a respectable figure. He is either an arrogant thug who operates outside the law–or wants to do so. Or he is a buffoon who played out a charade–badly–in order to punish someone who tried to thwart him.

Come to think of it, I’m going with “both”.

And it is not that Sechin’s performance as head of Rosneft compensates for his buffoonish thuggery (or is it thuggish buffoonery?). Indeed, the last earnings report was a disaster, and there are still many questions about the whole Rosneft-Glencore-QIA-Intesa-VTB-CEFC-Ivan Doesky* deal, and just how money from that deal made it (or didn’t) to the Russian budget to fulfill Putin’s privatization promise.

Rosneft’s stock price has been lackluster, at best. Yet the company has been on an acquisition binge overseas. (And how is that Venezueula thing working out? Pouring money down a corrupt rathole–sheer genius! What strategic vision!)

Things have gotten so bad–and so impossible to ignore–that even Sberbank released a scathing criticism of the company:

In the 64-page research report, dated October 2017, Sberbank’s division Sberbank CIB called on Rosneft to change its strategy “markedly” after the energy company incurred huge debts following an acquisition spree at home and abroad.

“Rosneft has been touting its top-down efficiency effort, complete with Stalinesque tales about employees being confronted with charges of malfeasance at management meetings and marched straight into police custody,” the initial report said.

. . . .

The report’s authors, in a section titled “Rosneft: We Need to Talk About Igor”, also said Rosneft’s powerful Chief Executive Igor Sechin “almost single-handedly sets the company’s strategy”.

They calculated that since purchasing oil and gas producer TNK-BP for around $55 billion in 2013, Rosneft had spent a net $22 billion on acquisitions, “with no clear focus”.

“Assuming he remains in charge, the company will continue to pursue volume growth. In doing so, its heft will push it further out of Russia and perhaps further out of oil. This will only disappoint its shareholders,” the report said.


Actually, Sberbank wasn’t laughing, because Igor and Rosneft took extreme exception to the snarky criticism. Sberbank subsequently withdrew the report and reissued it, minus the offending language.

One can imagine what transpired in order to achieve that result.

Thus the management of the world’s largest publicly traded oil company (by volume, NOT by value, to be sure). Run by–indeed dominated by–a strategic imbecile who attempts to compensate for his managerial incompetence by strong-arming his domestic rivals into giving up their resources, and engaging in clownish masquerades to frame up those who have attempted to thwart him.

There are larger lessons here too. Keep Igor in mind whenever anyone shrieks about Putin’s fearsome juggernaut. If the management of a national champion in the largest and most important industry in Russia is any indication, the colossus has feet of clay–and a head of brick.

* And no, Donald Trump is not one of the Ivan Doeskys, dossier notwithstanding. I am referring to the unknown party or parties who (a) chipped in the difference between what Glencore, QIA, and Intesa cop to have paid, and the amount that Rosneft claim to have received, and (b) indemnified Glencore against loss.

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November 7, 2017

If the Dems Keep This Up, Ima Gonna Run Outta Popcorn

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:59 pm

The Democratic establishment has gone to DefCon One over Donna Brazile’s (so far only excerpted) blasts directed at the Hillary campaign. The biggest return salvo was in the form of an open letter signed by dozens and dozens, including notables such as Huma Abedin (Hillary’s constant companion, who frequently wore an outfit to match Hillary’s–yeah, I don’t want to know either), Robby Mook (campaign director), and–wait for it–Marc Elias (the Perkins Coie lawyer who was the intermediary between the Clinton campaign and Fusion GPS, which in turn was the connection to Christopher Steele of dossier infamy). The whole thing is a hoot, but this part totally cracked me up: “It is particularly troubling and puzzling that she would seemingly buy into false Russian-fueled propaganda, spread by both the Russians and our opponent, about our candidate’s health.”

I mean it had to be the Russians, right? Had. To. Be.

First, this is now the Democrats’ Theory of Everything: THE RUSSIANS DONE IT. Second, who could possibly have had any doubts about Hillary’s health? That nagging cough? Nothing! The fainting spell (or freezing episode) or whatever it was on 9/11/16? Just “overheating.” Brazil also points out some odd Hillary public behavior, most notably her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment, which led Brazile to wonder whether Clinton was so mentally out of it that she wasn’t aware that she was speaking in public, rather than at a closed event.

In other words, far more than the rest of us, Donna Brazile had the ability to observe closely Hillary’s health, and it raised grave concerns in her mind. Yet Hillary’s phalanx of flunkies denies Brazile’s first hand knowledge, and instead blames her concerns on Russian propaganda.

Unbelievable. The only thing Russian about this entire episode is the Hillary cabal’s obfuscation of her health issues, which brings back memories of the last days of Chernenko or Brezhnev.

For her part, Brazile has been nothing if not entertaining. First, she denied that the word “rigged” is in her book. Well, it is definitely in the Politico piece which is allegedly an excerpt, and everyone who read that concluded that Brazile was accusing the DNC of rigging the process against Bernie: if not, why the candles and the music to put her at peace before the confessional phone call to Sanders? But maybe her book has undergone a quick rewrite (perhaps like James Comey’s letter regarding Hillary’s server, which included the legally damning phrase “grossly negligent” before it didn’t). Or something.

Second, Brazile accuses the campaign leadership of being sexist, and treating her like a slave. Randy Mook in particular comes in for damning criticism. I’m not a big Brazile fan, but Mook is a first class creep, so it’s an easy call regarding whom to pull for here.

Third, she makes some rather odd statements about murdered campaign Seth Rich. This has sent conspiratorial minds–of which there are far too many these days–into paroxysms of theorizing.

There are many conjectures about Brazile’s motives. Self-protection is a leading candidate in the comments section. Shifting blame and making money are others. Revenge is also in the running. Another theory making the rounds is that she is attempting (perhaps at the behest of the Bernie branch of the party) to torpedo a potential Hillary! 2020 repeat. Yes, some think that Hillary is in fact scheming to run again. I can understand many Democrats’ horror at the thought–she would be a very serious contender to tie William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson as three time losers (though Stevenson, of course, only was the party’s standard bearer twice, losing the party’s nomination to JFK in 1960, as Hillary did to Obama in 2008).

I’m going with “all of the above.” I think this is a seriously overdetermined mixture of the personal and the political. Whatever it is, I hope she keeps on it. Though if she does I’ll have to restock the popcorn because I’m going through it like crazy.

Circling back to the Russia obsession. Have you noticed that the Russians are inveterate liars spewing disinformation everywhere, except when a Russian is dishing dirt on Trump, in which case they are telling the gospel truth? The dossier is one example: to the Dems and Never Trump Republicans, it is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rolled up into one. Another example is the recent story that the lawyer who met with Donald Jr., one Natalia Veselnitskaya, claims that Junior “hinted at a review” of the Magnitsky Act if Veselnitskaya could provide evidence in writing of Clinton skullduggery.

Did he give an exaggerated knowing wink? Or maybe he did the whole “grin, grin, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!”thing. I mean, seriously.

So since when did Veselntiskaya–a Russian!–become unimpeachably credible? Especially in light of numerous revelations suggesting that the Russians were (are?) not acting in a partisan way, but were (are?) merely intending to sow political chaos. In which case (a) they are succeeding beyond their wildest expectations, and (b) Huma and the Gang are accessories after the fact, and are compounding the chaos spawned by whatever Russian interference there was by overreacting to Russian interference.

Another revelation about Veselnitskaya came out today. In Congressional testimony in July, Bill Browder alleged that she hired Fusion GPS to conduct a smear campaign against Browder, a Russian bête noire.* Today it was reported that she met with Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson both immediately before and immediately after the Trump Tower meeting. You know, kinda like a briefing and debriefing. We also know that some time before this the Hillary campaign via Marc Elias had hired Fusion GPS to dig dirt on Trump (“opposition research” we’re told).

I don’t know about you, but to me that screams set-up. The Clinton-Fusion-Russia nexus is just too tight. (Note to the sickening hypocrisy. The outrage over the Trump Jr.-Veselnitskaya meeting is that he was looking for compromising material on Hillary. First, isn’t that just “opposition research”, per the Democrats’ defense of the Clinton hiring of Fusion? Second, for the people who hired dirt diggers par excellence-Fusion GPS–to get dirt on Trump from the Russians to wax indignant about Trump responding to offers of dirt on Hillary from Russians pegs the chutzpah meter–and mine goes to 11!)

So here’s where we are. Donna Brazile blasted Hillary and her campaign. Hillary’s henchpeople responded by saying that Brazile was a dupe for propaganda put out by those lyin’ no good Russkies. Meanwhile, the Hillary campaign hired a propaganda outfit with deep connections with the Russians, including Russians who just so happened to be in meetings that the Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself) claim compromised Trump. But to believe that, you have to believe that the lyin’ no good Russkies are telling the truth. Just this once!

Did I get that right? Pretty sure that I did. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

* Do not consider this an endorsement of Browder. In fact, I am not a Browder fan. I will detail the reasons for my distrust and dislike in an upcoming post.

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November 2, 2017

Donna Brazile Unloads on Hillary, and Gives SWP a Target Rich Environment!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:16 pm

Donna Brazile–a long time Democratic operative and DNC official–has a book coming out. And the excerpt in Politico is damning of the erstwhile leaders of the Democratic Party.

To me the most interesting reveal is that the Lightworker left the Democratic Party’s finances is an utter, absolute shambles:

Obama left the party $24 million in debt—$15 million in bank debt and more than $8 million owed to vendors after the 2012 campaign—and had been paying that off very slowly. Obama’s campaign was not scheduled to pay it off until 2016. Hillary for America (the campaign) and the Hillary Victory Fund (its joint fundraising vehicle with the DNC) had taken care of 80 percent of the remaining debt in 2016, about $10 million, and had placed the party on an allowance.

This fits with my image of Obama as Mr. Magoo, who cheerily drove along, always coming out ahead, while leaving carnage in his wake. We already knew about how Democratic officeholders at the state, local, and Congressional levels were scourged during the Obama administration: now we know he did the same to the Democratic Party’s finances.

This, in turn, left the DNC vulnerable to the Clinton mafia, who basically extended juice loans to the DNC. In return for financing the party to allow it to exist, Hillary’s campaign demanded, and received, control over its finances, and most of its key personnel choices. Hillary used this arrangement to launder campaign contributions in a way that clearly was intended to circumvent federal limits on donations to individual campaigns.

Oh, and “launder” isn’t my word choice: it’s Politico’s. Here’s how Brazile explains it:

“Gary, how did they do this without me knowing?” I asked. “I don’t know how Debbie relates to the officers,” Gary said. He described the party as fully under the control of Hillary’s campaign, which seemed to confirm the suspicions of the Bernie camp. The campaign had the DNC on life support, giving it money every month to meet its basic expenses, while the campaign was using the party as a fund-raising clearinghouse. Under FEC law, an individual can contribute a maximum of $2,700 directly to a presidential campaign. But the limits are much higher for contributions to state parties and a party’s national committee.

Individuals who had maxed out their $2,700 contribution limit to the campaign could write an additional check for $353,400 to the Hillary Victory Fund—that figure represented $10,000 to each of the 32 states’ parties who were part of the Victory Fund agreement—$320,000—and $33,400 to the DNC. The money would be deposited in the states first, and transferred to the DNC shortly after that. Money in the battleground states usually stayed in that state, but all the other states funneled that money directly to the DNC, which quickly transferred the money to Brooklyn [i.e., Clinton campaign headquarters].

“Wait,” I said. “That victory fund was supposed to be for whoever was the nominee, and the state party races. You’re telling me that Hillary has been controlling it since before she got the nomination?”

Gary said the campaign had to do it or the party would collapse.

“That was the deal that Robby struck with Debbie,” he explained, referring to campaign manager Robby Mook. “It was to sustain the DNC. We sent the party nearly $20 million from September until the convention, and more to prepare for the election.”

The states’ take for being the front for this fundraising scheme? “Yet the states kept less than half of 1 percent of the $82 million they had amassed from the extravagant fund-raisers Hillary’s campaign was holding, just as Gary had described to me when he and I talked in August.” One percent? Credit card companies collect more for processing payments.

Brazile claims that this was not illegal, merely unethical. I have no doubt that it was unethical. The legality is hardly obvious, given that it effectively allowed the Clinton campaign to blow through the $2,700 limit on individual contributions to campaigns. Blow through by a factor of 13. That’s all. No big deal, right?

Hillary, you might recall, claimed to be a stalwart supporter of campaign finance reform. But here she was playing a shell game that made a travesty of existing contribution limits.

And who is this “Gary”, you ask?

GiGi! That’s right. The Gary is none other than Gary Gensler. The Saint of the CFTC. Crusader for financial probity. Yet he was neck deep in a scheme that not only was a mockery of the campaign finance system, but which also effectively made the DNC the adjunct of the Clinton campaign during the primary season, when it was supposed to be non-partisan.

Ah, what ambition does to a man’s morals, eh there, Gar? Appalling. It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . .  but for the Secretary of the Treasury?

Brazile seems to cut Gensler some slack. After all, he didn’t negotiate the deal. He just counted the beans.

Like Al Capone’s accountant.

There’s one other terribly revealing thing about all this. No, not that Hillary is a grotesquely unethical and manipulative woman: that’s hardly news. What’s eye opening is that she was so insecure that she felt that she had to rig the Democratic primaries by suborning the DNC, and making it her creature.

Yet the woman who was so nervous about winning her own party’s nomination wants us to believe that the only way she wasn’t anointed as president must have been the nefarious doings of the likes of the Russians and Jim Comey.

And now that I mention the Russians, consider this. An alternative explanation for the release of the DNC emails is that it was the work of a disenchanted Bernie Bro, not a Russian hacker. I always thought this was plausible, and none other than stalwart Democratic operative Donna Brazile makes it eminently clear that Bernie supporters working in the DNC would have had every reason to be outraged, because their guy was getting shafted the way only the Clintons can.

So by going after Hillary, Donna Brazile has created a target rich environment for the likes of me. Not just Hillary, but Obama, Gary Gensler, and the Russians hacked the DNC conventional wisdom. And that was just an excerpt. I can hardly imagine what the whole book will bring.

I never thought I’d say this, but here it goes: Thanks, Donna!


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October 30, 2017

Michael Weiss: Stupid or Dishonest? I’m Going With “Both!”

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:18 pm

The usual suspects spent the weekend wetting themselves over the news of an impending Mueller indictment. This morning the eagerly anticipated event happened: Mueller indicted Paul Manafort and a heretofore nobody–Manafort’s former business associate Rick Gates.

BFD. The indictments had nothing to do with Trump, Trump’s campaign, or Trump collusion with the Russians. It involved Manafort’s concealment of his dealings with the Ukrainians (the ousted pro-Russia Yanukovych regime) and moneys associated therewith.

As Andrew McCarthy notes, the indictment seems shaky and overcharged, and a boon to Trump because it is an implicit validation of his assertion of no collusion. He further claims that the indictment is an attempt to pressure Manafort into cooperating.

Well, if that were the intent, it is likely that Mueller failed. Usually such cooperation would be negotiated in advance of an actual indictment, and the cooperator would then plead guilty to a reduced charge: that’s the negotiated quid pro quo. Here, it looks as if Mueller threw everything he had (which isn’t much) against Manafort, and then Manafort pled not guilty–hardly the actions of a cooperating witness.

As an aside, my friend, Houston attorney Tom Kirkendall, the most dogged follower of the Enron prosecutions, has told me that shaky overcharging in order to coerce witnesses is the MO of Mueller assistant Andrew Weissman, who was in charge of the Enron cases. Weissman is truly a piece of work, as detailed in this Rowan Scarborough article.

It is particularly interesting–and appalling–to note that Weissman was head of the DOJ Fraud Section that allowed a Russian the FBI (under Mueller’s and Comey’s directorships) had implicated in a vast bribery scheme connected to the Uranium One deal–including donations to the Clinton Foundation–to plead to a trivial charge (likely in violation of DOJ charging guidelines) with virtually no publicity. Quite a contrast, eh? Quite revealing that the one time where Weissman went against his normal MO resulted in the burying of a case that was highly damaging to the Clintons.

The most damning thing the Manafort indictment indicates is that Trump showed very bad judgment, and a serious lack of due diligence, in hiring Manafort. Another example of Trump’s injudicious choice of associates is one George Papadopolous, a Trump campaign advisor who pled guilty to lying to investigators. Throw in Carter Page, and it is clear that Trump’s campaign was so desperate to attract people that it scraped the bottom of the barrel and didn’t look too closely at what it dredged up. Trump is paying now for that carelessness.

The Papadopolous plea does provide some comic relief, however, for CNN’s Michael Weiss attempts to leverage it into evidence of Trump collusion with Russia. As with most Weiss efforts, it is a laughable failure, making up in gruesome wordiness for what it lacks in substance (or logic, for that matter).

Where to begin?

Well, let’s start with the biggest howler–a classic bait-and-switch. One wonders if Weiss is too stupid to recognize the fundamental logical defects in his argument, or thinks we are so stupid that we’ll miss it:

But “[o]n or about” April 26, 2016, Papadopoulous again met with the Professor in a London hotel. The complaint reads that the Professor told him he had “just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials” where he learned that the Russians “have dirt” on Hillary Clinton; “the Russians had emails of Clinton” — “they have thousands of emails.”

This date is important because The Washington Post only first reported on June 14, 2016, that the hackers working for the Kremlin had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. And while this correspondence, first published by WikiLeaks in late July, days before the Democratic National Convention, was distinct from Clinton’s personal emails and those she turned over to the FBI as part of the investigation into her use of a personal server to conduct government business while she was secretary of state, it nonetheless caused a scandal within the Democratic Party.

Did you see what he did there? The first quoted paragraph refers to “thousands of emails [of Clinton]” the Russians claimed to have in April. The second paragraph refers to Democratic National Committee emails, the leaking of which was reported almost two months later. Two very different things. Very different. The emails the alleged interlocutor for the Russians mentioned are NOT the emails that subsequently appeared on Wikileaks, meaning that Weiss is either to stupid to know the difference, or so dishonest that he is trying to obscure the difference in order to make a hit on Trump.

It’s trivially easy to see what was going on here. Everybody and his 5th cousin knew about Hillary’s secret server by April, 2016, and there was widespread speculation that the Russians (and the Chinese, and the Iranians, and your Aunt Fanny) had hacked it. The Russians were clearly trying to entice the Trump campaign by dangling the bait of Hillary emails.

This pretty much blows the collusion narrative to smithereens, eh? If Trump (or his campaign) was colluding with the Russians, why would as late as April the Russians have to use an intermediary to attract  Trump’s attention by claiming to have the widely-speculated about Hillary emails?

Obviously: they wouldn’t.

This is a piece with the Trump Tower meeting, where a Russian intermediary again attempted to attract Trump’s attention by claiming to have dirt on Hillary. Again, if the Russians were already providing information to Trump, that would have been completely unnecessary.

Note that the Weiss article makes it plain that the alleged Russian-connected source (who was not Russian, but presumably a Greek or maybe a Cypriot, and who mainly asserted tight connections) was willing to tell whoppers to convince Papadopolous of her ability to deliver the goods: she introduced Papadopolous to a Russian national who claimed to be Putin’s niece. Hilarious. Did she also claim to have connections with Marie of Roumania?

So, according to Weiss, the Russians told outrageous lies, but Papadopolous–and the Trump camp–were supposed to know that the claims regarding Hillary emails were gospel. Gospel I tells ya!

OK. Sure.

But the hilarity has just begun! Note that if the Russians were referring to Hillary emails, if Weiss believes the Russians were telling the truth (as his story requires) that would be an admission that Hillary’s server had indeed been hacked. Andy Kaufmann lookalike Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, who is more absurd than Andy ever was) has made a similar implicit admission.

I really think they are too stupid to have figured that out. LOL.

But there’s more! (Isn’t there always?) The Trump campaign spurned the Papadopolous offer. But it’s even better than that: the alleged mastermind of the Russo-Trump collusive scheme–Manafort himself–is the one who told Papadopolous to pound sand:

In the event, no meeting ever took place. CNN reported in August 2017 that it was in fact Paul Manafort who “immediately dismissed the idea of meeting with top Russian officials and advised Trump to do the same.”

Manafort “[i]mmediately dismissed.” Self-satirizing.

The cherry on top of this comic sundae is this:

Gibbs is quite right to stress in his affidavit that using “nongovernmental intermediaries,” such as academics and think tankers, is one way Russian intelligence advances the Kremlin’s interests overseas. And there’s recent precedence for this in London, as I’ve documented elsewhere.

Uhm, Mike–the US does that too. And I would add journalists to that list: no conjecture there, as this is a widely documented fact. Further, I am highly confident that you fall into the category of U.S. “nongovernmental intermediary” as both a think tanker and a journalist. Heck, maybe this pathetic excuse of an article is just another example of that.

I could go on, but eviscerating this piece (of what, I’ll leave to your imagination) is far too easy. I need a much bigger challenge. So should I shoot fish in a barrel or steal candy from babies?

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