Streetwise Professor

December 20, 2014

Can a Money Launderer Truly Come Clean?

Filed under: Energy,History,Politics,Russia,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

During his press conference, Putin made a very arch reply to a question about Khodorkovsky’s ambition to be president: “Of what country?”

Well, Khodorkovsky is making it clear that the answer to that question is “Russia.” He gives voice to his ambitions in an extended interview in the FT, and repeats his forecast that Putin’s main danger comes from within his “entourage”.

In some respects, Khodorkovsky’s re-emergence and frank statements of his political ambitions and his vision of himself as savior of Russia are a favor to Putin. Especially in times that bring back uncomfortable memories of the 90s collapse, the most notorious oligarch from that era makes a perfect foil for Putin. Breaking the oligarchs was one of the primary foundations of Putin’s reputation and popularity (with the war in Chechnya being another). What better way for Putin to remind Russians of why he is needed than the reemergence of Khodorkovsky?

And Khodorkovsky is definitely a very flawed vessel. Even if his prosecution and imprisonment was a travesty of justice, that’s not to say that he couldn’t have been convicted in a fair trial. For contemporary reporting, both Russian and non-Russian, makes it clear that Khordorkovsky was a ruthless operator who used every trick in the book to avoid taxation, and expropriate minority shareholders and creditors. This article from April, 2000 provides the chapter and verse.

Most of these tricks involved offshore shell companies that he owned. For instance, Khordorkovsky would engage in asset stripping, whereby assets of his Russian enterprises were transferred to the shell companies he owned. Another trick was stock watering, whereby his entities would issue large numbers of new shares of stock that were sold to his shell companies, thereby diluting the ownership of outside investors. He used these devices to great effect in the immediate aftermath of the  financial crisis. Non-Russian banks who had made loans to Khodorkovsky’s Menatep Bank collateralized by Yukos shares saw the values of these shares plummet when he stripped Yukos assets and watered the stock in a way that would have made Daniel Drew and Jay Gould blush.

Khodorkovsky was also the past-master at transfer pricing schemes, whereby output of his Russian companies would be sold to offshore entities at a fraction of the world price; the offshore entities would then sell at the world price. According to the Foreign Affairs article, during the first nine months of 1999, Yukos sold 240mm barrels of oil at about 10 percent of the world price to offshore entities, pocketing $800 million.

And of course, there is the way that he acquired Yukos, via the Loans for Shares deal, and the rigged auction that followed the (inevitable) government default on the loans.

Khodorkovsky was definitely not the hero of western investors back then. In fact, he was a villain.

For all this, Khodorkovsky exhibits little remorse. Arguably none:

I ask about the “loans-for-shares” auctions in 1995 when a handful of businessmen — the oligarchs — lent money to the near-bankrupt Russian state and received stakes in state businesses as collateral. When the state failed to repay the loans, the oligarchs sold the stakes to themselves at knockdown prices. Today the auctions are seen, I remark, as a kind of “original sin” hanging over Russian business.

“I wouldn’t entirely agree,” Khodork­ovsky says. At the time it looked, he continues, as if a Communist candidate would beat President Boris Yeltsin in the elections, which would have spelt the end of private business. Given the risks, no foreign investor was interested. So the shares were worth only what Russian investors would pay — in Khodorkovsky’s case, about $300m, for just under 80 per cent of Yukos.

. . . .

The tax “minimisation” schemes — selling oil through onshore tax havens — at Yukos that were the heart of the trials against him were known to the authorities and even senior ministers, he insists. “In tax law, it’s a crime in most countries if you’ve hidden something. But we didn’t hide anything.” [This remark is particularly disingenuous.]

Note that his justification of the loans for shares fails altogether to address the issue of the rigged auctions. If no other investors were interested, why were the auctions rigged in order to ensure that none could possibly win?

The unapologetic attitude towards not paying taxes is not new:

Khodorkovsky was robustly unapologetic. ‘ As long as the tax regime is unjust, I will try to find a way round it.’

What complicates the Khodorkovsky story is his apparent conversion in around 2000, when Yukos adopted GAAP accounting and western governance standards, and began hiring American managers, including Bruce Misamore as CFO. Was this a Road to Damascus conversion, or a calculated strategy to make the company attractive to western supermajors? Certainly this was the effect: at the time of his arrest, he was on the brink of selling a large stake in Yukos to either Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

His late-in-the-day embrace of western business practices and his persecution are relevant in evaluating his character and motives today, but his history cannot be overlooked. I for one am very skeptical that he has undergone a fundamental change. The failure to repudiate some of his more outrageous actions certainly raises doubts. Someone should address them.

There’s a possible candidate. One of the initiatives that Khodorkovsky funds in order to advance his agenda is Interpreter Magazine, edited by Michael Weiss. This is beyond passing strange, because Weiss has crusaded against Russian money laundering through the use of shell companies and transfer pricing schemes-the very techniques that his paymaster refined into an art 20 years ago. Interestingly, I can find no evidence that Weiss has subjected his patron to similar scrutiny. Not even an acknowledgment that the denizens of Londonograd that he excoriates are pikers compared to his pioneering patron, let alone an inquiry that could attempt to determine whether the man who emerged from prison a year ago is different from the man who went into prison in 2003, and who did the things that put him there.

This would be a truly valuable investigation, far more important than anything Weiss or Interpreter has done. This is particularly true given Khodorkovsky’s return to political life.

There is another strange twist here. Khodorkovsky has come out in opposition to sanctions, and in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea: he claims that returning it would be undemocraticthe act of a dictator. Given that Putin also claims to be carrying out the public will, this raises questions about how differently Khodorkovsky would act if he were in Putin’s place. It also raises questions about his commitment to the rule of law, which he claims to support.

In sum, Khodorkovsky is playing a political role. Indeed, he is holding himself out as the man who can put Russia on the path away from autocracy towards the rule of law and respect for civil society. He has a past. A very disreputable one, though one perhaps redeemed by reform and punishment. But one can never be sure that the past is truly gone. Given that the most scurrilous acts in the past involved money laundering and shell companies, you’d think that a journalist who has crusaded against those things would be the man to find out.

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December 19, 2014

Obama’s Press Conference: Bad Economics, Dissing a Friend, Embracing an Enemy

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:43 pm

Hard on the heels of Putin’s press conference, Obama held one of his own. Blessedly, it was shorter. That’s the only good thing I can say about it.

At least Putin’s pressers offer some entertainment, some of it intentional, some of it accidental. Obama’s appearances are as entertaining as a root canal performed to the accompaniment of fingernails on a blackboard.

I will limit myself to comments on two issues.

First, yet again Obama slagged on Keystone XL. And yet again, he delivered a disingenuous, economically ignorant attack on the pipeline:

“There is very little impact – nominal impact – on U.S. gas prices, what the average American consumer cares about,” Obama told reporters during an end-of-year press conference.

. . . .

“It’s good for the Canadian oil industry, but its not going to be a huge benefit to us consumers,” he said.

Obama stressed that the issue at hand for Keystone is “not American oil, it is Canadian oil.”

“That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks and it would save Canadian oil companies, and the Canadian oil industry enormous amounts of money if they could simply pipe it all the way down to the Gulf,” Obama said during his final press conference of 2014.

“It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers, it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers,” Obama said.

Where to begin?

  1. What the hell did the Canadians ever do to him? Does he hate them because they are members of the British Commonwealth? (And we know he loathes Britain.) It is truly astounding to see a president who is so solicitous of many thuggish regimes be so dismissive of a longtime friend and ally. Speaking about Keystone, Obama turns into an American Firster nativist, rather than his usual pose as Citoyen du Monde.
  2. Last time I checked, the oil would be refined-and value added to it-in American refineries.  That would benefit American oil companies, American workers, and the owners and employees of companies that supply the refineries. The money savings would be split between American and Canadian companies. But maybe because the refineries are located in Texas and Louisiana, which have repudiated Obama massively, that’s a bug not a feature. Or maybe Obama doesn’t understand that oil doesn’t magically transform itself into gasoline, diesel, etc.
  3. Or maybe Obama persists in the delusion that the oil will be exported, disregarding basic economics, common sense, and the analysis of his own State Department.
  4. There would be no impact on gas prices only if the supply of Canadian crude is completely inelastic: in this case, the quantity of oil produced and refined would be the same, regardless of how costly it is to transport it to market. If supply is somewhat elastic, lowering transportation costs increases output, which lowers product prices; moreover, holding output fixed, reducing transportation costs reduces the final product price. And perhaps most importantly, the alleged justification for stopping Keystone is the environmental damage Canadian heavy crude inflicts. But if supply is perfectly inelastic, there is no environmental benefit of raising transportation cost, because this will not affect the amount of oil produced, and hence will not affect the amount of CO2 it produces. (Not to mention that pipelines are a safer, more environmentally sound way of transporting this oil.) So if Obama is right about gas prices he is wrong about environmental benefits, and vice versa.

Unbelievable.

Come to think of it, I think that Obama’s real reason for opposing Keystone XL is that the Venezuelans would be the biggest losers. I am pretty sure he has much more of an affinity with Chavistas than Canucks.

Which brings me to the other issue: Cuba.

I am ambivalent about the embargo, or the lack of diplomatic recognition. I can argue either side. But there are many things about this initiative that make me uneasy.

For one thing, Cuba is in dire straits. This is where Venezuela comes in. The Bolivarian paradise has been carrying the Castros’ shambolic regime for years, but is now itself on the verge of economic collapse. Default is imminent, and at the current level of oil prices economic collapse is a real possibility. Venezuela is already cutting back support to the Cuban regime, and will cut it back further. Given that, the Castros are desperate, and Obama could have extracted a much better deal. A deal that would have given some benefit to the Cuban people, rather than bailing out the regime and allowing to continue its repression and depredations.

Obama’s rhetoric was also offensive, and at times historically ignorant. He characterized the embargo as a “failed policy.” Pretty rich for a serial failure to insult 9 previous presidents and 26 Congresses. He could have made an affirmative case for a new policy, and recognized the reasons for the previous policy, without such condescension.

Moreover, he made mention of the need to move beyond “the legacy of colonialism and communism.” Communism isn’t a legacy in Cuba: it is a daily reality. Insofar as colonialism is concerned, is Obama referring to Spain? Because he sure as hell can’t be referring to the US: Cuba was never an American colony. The Teller Amendment to the declaration of war against Spain in 1898 forbade the US from annexing Cuba. It was under US administration for four years, but achieved full independence in 1902. (Obama made the colonialism/communism remark in a discussion of Latin America generally, but this doesn’t really save him. Cuba is the only longstanding Communist country in Latin America; colonialism ended in Latin America in the 1820s; the US-via the Monroe Doctrine-kept out colonial powers in the 19th century; and colonialism is the least of Latin America’s problems, which tend to be very much home grown. In mentioning colonialism, Obama was just regurgitating a standard prog trope.)

Obama also engaged in his self-indulgent habit of making history all about him. He noted that Fidel Castro assumed power two years before Obama’s birth, and the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred soon before he was born. (Interesting that he uses the “I” word to refer to Bay of Pigs, but not Ukraine.) Who cares? What does this have to do with anything?  Does he have to bring himself into everything?

I’ve therefore decided that I will hereafter designate all dates by BO and AO: Before Obama and After Obama. Castro assumed power in 2BO. Bay of Pigs occurred in Year Zero. Obama elected in 47 AO.

The means by which Obama pursued this policy was also typically high handed, and failed to include or consult with anyone in Congress. And no, I don’t include corrupt tax scofflaw Charlie Rangel, who was photographed lounging like a beached whale in the Cuban sun after helping in the negotiations.

The means and the outcome of the Cuban opening also make me uneasy about deals with Iran.

I could go on, but I’ll close with one point. People have compared this to Nixon’s opening of China. Superficially, this is plausible. But there is a major difference.

Nixon could go to China because his stalwart anti-Communist credentials (which had won him the intense enmity of the left) made it credible that Nixon was acting in the interests of the US, rather than indulging his ideological preferences: if a McGovern or a Henry Wallace had attempted the same there would have been justifiable suspicions of their motives and the benefits to the US. In contrast, Che is worshipped has a hero rather than condemned as a psychopathic murderer in Obama’s political circles. His administration has taken a very benign approach to leftist Latin American regimes, including Venezuela and Nicaragua. This raises doubts about what his Cuba initiative will entail, and whether it will advance American interests or benefit the long-suffering and repressed Cuban people.

So to summarize Obama’s last press conference: he slammed a long-time ally and sucked up to a long-time enemy. Which pretty much summarizes his foreign policy, generally.

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December 18, 2014

The Madness of Tsar Vlad, Annual Press Conference Edition

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:13 pm

Putin gave his annual press conference today. It turned into a 3 hour and 10 minute marathon, which is pretty much par for the course.

Several times before I have pondered whether Putin is mad, or just feigning madness. I had been favoring the feigning alternative, but today’s event tilts the scales heavily to the “truly nuts” verdict (as @libertylynx has been arguing for some time).

Why do I conclude that? Here’s why:

You know, at the Valdai [International Discussion] Club I gave an example of our most recognisable symbol. It is a bear protecting his taiga. You see, if we continue the analogy, sometimes I think that maybe it would be best if our bear just sat still. Maybe he should stop chasing pigs and boars around the taiga but start picking berries and eating honey. Maybe then he will be left alone. But no, he won’t be! Because someone will always try to chain him up. As soon as he’s chained they will tear out his teeth and claws. In this analogy, I am referring to the power of nuclear deterrence. As soon as – God forbid – it happens and they no longer need the bear, the taiga will be taken over.

We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety. Why exactly is it unfair? So it is fair to snatch Texas from Mexico but it is unfair that we are working on our own land – no, we have to share.

And then, when all the teeth and claws are torn out, the bear will be of no use at all. Perhaps they’ll stuff it and that’s all.

So, it is not about Crimea but about us protecting our independence, our sovereignty and our right to exist. That is what we should all realise.

QED.

I think said bear is not snacking on berries and honey, but is grazing on magic mushrooms, for he is clearly hallucinating.

The paranoia is palpable: “someone will always try to chain him up! They will declaw and defang him!” Note too the explicit nuclear threat.

You know the “they” is the United States. The speech is shot through with paranoid and critical ravings about the US. Nothing is Russia’s fault. Certainly nothing is Putin’s fault. The country’s torments are attributable to the US, first and foremost.

The statement about “high-level officials” lamenting the unfairness of Russia having sole access to Siberia is also a shot at the US. Here Putin is recycling an urban myth that he first trotted out in 2007. In the telling, Madeleine Albright (a has-been high-level official) allegedly uttered these words. Here’s the story:

When Alexander Sibert told President Vladimir Putin that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had said Siberia held too many resources for Russia alone, Putin dismissed the statement as “political erotica.” Albright might have found “political fantasy” more appropriate.

Putin said he was not aware of the comment, Albright denies ever making it, and no one else seems able to provide any evidence that she did.

But this hasn’t stopped Putin and others from attributing these thoughts to foreign figures who they say wish Russia harm.

Sibert, 70, a mechanic who works at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk, brought up the purported statement in a question during Putin’s annual call-in show last month.

“I know some politicians entertain such ideas in their heads,” Putin replied, adding that Russia was able to and would protect its natural resources. [How does he know that? Just wait! All will be revealed.]

The only problem is that Albright, who is now a principal at the Albright Group strategic management and lobbying firm, denied through a spokeswoman that she ever entertained the idea.

“I did not make that statement, nor did I ever think it,” she said.

On Tuesday, Sibert was unable to provide a source for the alleged quote, or even a guarantee that he had heard it.

“I don’t know. I might have made a mistake,” he said by phone from Novosibirsk. “But I don’t think I did.”

But wait. It gets better!

In perhaps the strangest part of the story, there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter what Albright said — they know what she was thinking.

Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general who worked for the Federal Guard Service, said in a December 2006 interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his colleagues, who worked for the service’s secret mind-reading division, read Albright’s subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999. [So now we know how Putin knows what is in the heads of foreign leaders.]

[Read the rest of the story. It adds even more ludicrous details.]

In other words, Putin is regurgitating a story that was proved to be bullshit seven years ago. A story that he himself dismissed once as “political erotica.” (Weird choice of words, that, especially given that Madeleine Albright is involved <shudder>). A story allegedly based in part on the security services’ “mind reading division.” You cannot make up this stuff. Go ahead. I dare you to even try.

He flogged the tiresome story (which as fantastical as the Albright one) that Nato violated a pledge not to expand to the east:

It is not now that this happened. You are an expert on Germany and on Europe. Didn’t they tell us after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand eastwards? However, the expansion started immediately. There were two waves of expansion. Is that not a wall? True, it is a virtual wall, but it was coming up. What about the anti-missile defence system next to our borders? Is that not a wall?

You see, nobody has ever stopped. This is the main issue of current international relations. Our partners never stopped. They decided they were the winners, they were an empire, while all the others were their vassals, and they needed to put the squeeze on them. I said the same in my Address [to the Federal Assembly]. This is the problem. They never stopped building walls, despite all our attempts at working together without any dividing lines in Europe and the world at large.

I believe that our tough stand on certain critical situations, including that in the Ukraine, should send a message to our partners that the best thing to do is to stop building walls and to start building a common humanitarian space of security and economic freedom.

You have to hand it to Putin, he is generous, letting 300+ million Americans live in his head, rent free. But I for one hate what he’s done to the place.

There was also a weird interlude where a slurring reporter from Kirov asked why stores were more likely to stock Coke and Pepsi than kvas, the fermented, putrid Russian drink. (In the summer it is sold by vendors from large wheeled tanks that could well be used to hold diesel or pesticide at other times of year.) Putin made a crack suggesting the man was drunk, which was a faux pas because his slurring was due to multiple strokes, rather than overindulging the kvas as Putin suggested. Putin then slurred Coke: “I do not know whether Coca-Cola is a harmful drink, but many experts say it is [harmful] for children”. Whatever.

As for the substance of the speech, it was tediously unoriginal, a 280 minute spinning of the hamster wheel. The Ukrainian government was overthrown by a coup. Russia’s population is growing. Blah blah blah.

He gave no hint of backing down in Ukraine.

He did acknowledge economic difficulties (how could he not?) but minimized them. He actually suggested there is a pony in there somewhere in the economic manure pile in which Russia currently finds itself: it will give the country an opportunity to diversify.

Like we’ve never heard that before. Hasn’t happened yet. Won’t happen anytime soon. The hamster wheel will just spin faster.

Putin grudgingly conceded the crisis could last for two years, at most, but the country’s massive reserves would prevent catastrophe: the markets certainly disagree. After that, things will be hunky-dory:

However, it is equally certain – and I would like to stress this – that there will be what experts call a positive rebound. Further growth and a resolution of this situation are inevitable for at least two reasons. One is that the global economy will continue to grow, the rates may be lower, but the positive trend is sure to continue. The economy will grow, and our economy will come out of this situation.

How long will this take? In a worst-case scenario, I believe it would take a couple of years. I repeat: after that, growth is inevitable, due to a changing foreign economic situation among other things.

Growth is inevitable! Well, eventually the economy will grow, but by how much? Post-2009, growth has been moribund. Absent another reversal in energy price trends, growth after the current crisis is likely to be moribund as well, given that it is almost inevitable that the institutional and legal changes necessary to encourage growth will not be forthcoming while an aging Putin is in power.

In sum, Russia is ruled by an autocrat with a tenuous (at best) connection to sanity, and who is not going to change policy one whit despite almost total isolation abroad and looming economic catastrophe at home. An deranged autocrat with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world-a fact that he never misses an opportunity to remind us of. Since he will only get more insane, the next months and years will be fraught indeed.

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December 15, 2014

Is This Prosecution a Spoof of a Real Manipulation Case?

Filed under: Derivatives,Economics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:05 pm

Michael Coscia, the defendant in the maiden criminal manipulation “spoofing” prosecution, is calling for dismissal of the case on the grounds that the relevant Frankendodd language is “hopelessly vague.”  This is the obvious argument for him to make. The defendants in the BP propane criminal case walked because Judge Miller decided that the anti-manipulation language of the Commodity Exchange Act was “unconstitutionally vague” as applied to the facts of the case. In some respects, the blame for this goes back to the horrible CFTC decision in the case in re Indiana Farm Bureau. In any event, spoofing does indeed sound like a pretty damn vague allegation. Given that, it will be quite interesting to see whether the DOJ fares better in a Chicago courtroom than it did here in Houston in 2009.

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Ruble Rocket to Russia

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:55 pm

What a wild day. The Ruble weakened dramatically from the open this morning (15 December), falling about 2.5 percent. Then the Russian Central Bank intervened, spending a rumored $1 billion to prop up the currency. This caused about an 86 pip rally, but this lasted for mere moments, and then the Ruble rocketed lower, reaching 64.24 by the end of the day. That’s down a mere 10.22 percent boys and girls. (The weird thing about currencies quoted like the Ruble is that up is down.)

Here’s the ugly picture. You can see the little bitty (and very temporary) impact of the intervention at a little after 8am.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 7.26.48 PM

In other words, the RCB blew $1 billion for a blip. A billion here, a billion there, and you’re talking real money. In so doing, the RCB gifted those evil speculators whom Vlad inveighed against about $65 million in a few short hours. Merry Christmas!

Ominously, this decline was not a response to a similar decline in the price of oil. Although oil ended down on the day, it was rallying on news from Libya at the time that the Ruble was plunging. What precipitated it? One leading candidate is Friday’s announcement that Ru626b in Rosneft bonds could be used as collateral at the RCB: this approval came much more rapidly than normal. Thus, in effect, the RCB was lending rubles to Rosneft, using bond investors as cutouts. Rosneft felt obliged to issue a press release saying that “not a single ruble, raised within the bond issue, will be used to buy foreign currencies.” Note the weasel phrase: obviously rubles are fungible, so the loan frees up other rubles for Rosneft to sell. Meaning that this smacks of an RCB bailout of Rosneft. This is bad enough, but it could also foreshadow similar actions for other beleaguered Russian companies.

Then, in the very early hours of the 16th, Moscow time, the RCB announced a whopping 650 basis point increase in the interest rate, from 10.5 percent to 17 percent.

The initial effect has been to bring the Ruble back under 60. There is reason to doubt that this will last. First, previous rate increases-though not as big as this-had only a temporary effect on the relentless decline in the currency. Moreover, the rate rise will be highly contractionary, and a weakening economy will put downward pressure on the Ruble. Further, people draw inferences from central bank actions: perhaps the RCB is signaling a very serious fundamental weakness or an impending bank run or its belief that many Russian corporates will be dumping rubles to raise dollars and Euros; any of these signals would mean that its intervention could have the perverse effect of fueling a further decline. In addition, the rate rise does nothing to eliminate the need of Russian firms to obtain dollars to repay maturing debts.

Even if the rate intervention works in the sense of stabilizing, or even reversing, the collapse in the currency, this will come at a cost. As I noted, the effect of the rate rise will be highly contractionary. The government had already been predicting a recession. That is now a certainty, and it is likely to be a severe one. Especially if oil continues doing the limbo.

The RCB action reminds me of a fox chewing off its snared leg. The best of some very bad options.

The situation is obviously volatile, with many things going on (including pronounced weakening in other emerging market currencies and stock markets as well as the oil situation). Moreover, it will no doubt engender a political response, which will feed back onto the markets. How it will affect the increasingly paranoid Putin is hard to know. A climbdown (if credible) in Ukraine would do wonders for the Ruble, but methinks Putin is more likely to double down than climb down.

One prediction is safe: the next days will be memorable. Deserving of some memorable music: Rocket to Russia, by the Ramones.

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December 13, 2014

Khodorkovsky As a Russian Cincinnatus? Cynical Machiavellian is More Likely.

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:41 pm

It has been almost exactly a year since Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The ex-oligarch now lives an exile existence in Zurich. Of late, he has been much more vocal in expressing his views on Putin and Russia’s future.

Take for example this piece from Bloomberg that appeared yesterday. Khodorkovsky muses about Putin’s situation, given the oil price and sanctions-induced economic straits Russia finds itself in. He openly suggests that a coup is a real possibility:

“Putin has far less room to maneuver financially, which creates difficulties for him, and as a result the cost of any mistakes he may make could be critical,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview in Zurich, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. “For Putin, even $120 a barrel for oil is a problem because, with his system of rule, he can’t survive without the revenue from raw materials growing every year.”

. . . .

There’s at least a 50 percent chance that Putin won’t last the next decade, according to the former tycoon, who pins his hope on a coup by the Russian leader’s inner circle because in his view elections won’t bring about any transfer of power.

“I believe that the problem for Putin will come from within his own entourage,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “For my country, it would be better if things happened this way than through clashes on the streets, as a palace coup would spill less blood.”

Knowing Khodorkovsky’s background, it is plausible that he is playing a Machiavellian game here, ostensibly pontificating about possible outcomes, but really intending to bring about that outcome, and using his words to advance that objective.

One interpretation is that he is waging psychological warfare against Putin. Note his remark regarding Putin’s entourage. He is stoking Putin’s paranoia and attempting to start a clan war, and believe me, especially where Khodorkovsky is concerned, Putin is paranoid: his reactions to Khodorkovsky can only be described as Pavlovian, and don’t think for a nanosecond that Khodorkovsky doesn’t know that.

If the coup comes to pass, Khodorkovsky can ride in as the white knight. He is plainly volunteering for the role:

In a scenario that Khodorkovsky acknowledges isn’t more than an outside possibility, this could open the chance for him to come back to Russia to head a transitional government that would steer the country for two-to-three years before stepping down after a free and democratic vote.

How generous and public spirited of him. Of course, in Russian history “transitional governments” tend to be transitions between one autocracy and another. Further, I understand completely time inconsistency and (non-)credible promises: it’s likely that two-to-three years would turn into twenty-or-thirty. At the end of the second or third year, one can imagine the excuses: “My work is not finished. The enemies of the people are still there and will return if I leave.” I cannot see him as a Russian Cincinnatus.

In other words, when predicting the future (a reprise of 1917) he is saying what he wants to come to pass. He is trying to hurry that along, and the economic crisis (or impending economic crisis) is an opportunity for him. The old Russian revolutionary idea of “the worse, the better” could well apply here.*

Like Putin, Khodorkovsky is an opportunist. He perceives that current events have created that opportunity. (I think it is likely that his conversion to becoming an advocate for corporate transparency and western-style governance was also opportunistic, rather than a Road to Jerusalem conversion: he realized that was the way to make Yukos attractive to a western supermaj0r buyer/investor.)

All that said, I believe-and wrote here often-that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was a travesty of justice. Indeed, he was persecuted rather than prosecuted. His experience from 2003-2013 demonstrates the arbitrariness and evil of the Russian system under Putin.

But Khodorkovsky was not an angel. No man could have risen to where he did, and amassed the fortune that he did, in the Russia of 1990s without being utterly ruthless and without scruple. What probably set Khodorkovsky apart was that he is also incredibly intelligent. He is also very charismatic. I know two people who worked with him closely who are in awe of him. He clearly had a mesmeric influence on them. Putin’s palpable fear of the man also speaks volumes about his intelligence and personal magnetism. Ruthlessness married to charisma married to intelligence is a very dangerous combination.

Even if Khodorkovsky’s currently expressed sentiments are sincere, and he is not speaking out as part of a scheme to become Russia’s savior, if his scenario comes to pass it is highly doubtful that his lofty principles would survive a few months in power. A post-coup or post-revolutionary Russia would have no real institutions to check him. He would be surrounded by enemies. Russian politics has always been highly personalized and a-institutional. Every force would press him towards autocracy, personalized rule, and a cult of personality.

So as much as I sympathize with what he suffered, and as much as I would welcome the fall of Putinism, I don’t trust Khodorkovsky, nor do I think he is the man to lead Russia to the promised land, or even to its border. (And remember Moses never entered Canaan.) Indeed, I can readily see him using his martyrdom as a way of advancing his personal ambitions, and believe that many are blind to that possibility.

(Some of those who work for his foundation, and presumably believe in his agenda, are also passionate defenders of Urkaine against Putin’s predations. How can they be blind to his indifference to Ukraine?)

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Khordorkovsky is not attempting to influence events in Moscow from Lenin’s old neighborhood in Zurich. Perhaps he is just commenting as an intensely interested bystander to historic events.

If that’s so, he’s delusional. The idea that he would be welcomed as a leader who could achieve national reconciliation in the aftermath of a coup (let alone a revolution) is farcical. He is widely reviled in Russia. It would be interesting to see who is more hated: Gorbachev or Khodorkovsky. He is viewed as one of the pirates of the 1990s, indeed as the most dangerous of the lot. I would wager more people than not believe he got his just desserts in Chita (and elsewhere) after 2003. His only role could be as a behind-the-scenes wire puller.

What’s more, Khodorkovsky is delusional in his appeals to Russian liberals, and his appeals to the west to support Russian liberals. There are hardly any Russian liberals left in Russia. Maybe a few hipsters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few pathetic hangers on here and there. Indeed, Russian liberals are widely despised, and inextricably linked with the traumas of the 1990s. They are viewed as thieves themselves, or accessories to theft-including Khodorkovsky’s.  Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric has a far greater resonance than Khodorkovsky’s liberal language.

Reading some things he has said recently also make me wonder about his connection with reality. Notably this:

Is there hope of being able to effectively deal with this threat? There is, and it stems from the very nature of the Russian bureaucracy, which is generally rational and apolitical. There are many people in the Russian establishment who are sober-minded, think rationally and, on the whole, are oriented towards European values. But today these people are being forced to submit to a political will that has been formulated by a criminally corrupt minority whose only goal is to hold on to power.

Russian bureaucrats are “rational and apolitical”? Who knew? Venal and corrupt is more like it, and quite comfortable operating in an arbitrary autocratic system. After all, the Party of Crooks and Thieves is first and foremost the party of the bureaucratic nomenklatura. “Sober-minded”? That is risible, both figuratively and literally. And as for their “on the whole [being] oriented towards European values”, I don’t think I’ve read anything so absurd in some time. The Russian bureaucracy is Muscovite to the core.

Indeed, these statements (and most of the rest of the speech in which they are found) are so ridiculous that it must be that Khodorkovsky recognizes they are, and hence is willing to say anything to achieve some purpose. The goo-goo nature of his specific recommendations (e.g., the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges between Russia and Europe) only reinforce that impression.

In sum, I view Khodorkovsky in the role of the serpent. Putin is a malign force, but there is too much in Khodorkovsky’s past and character to have any faith that he will fundamentally change Russia.

The fundamental problem is that Putin is far more symptom than cause. He is the current personal manifestation of a national culture and political system and tradition. It is hard to imagine any way of leaping the chasm from personalized, autocratic governance to a system built on strong institutions and the rule of law. The fundamental paradox is that no man-Khodorkovskyor anyone else-is likely to be able to do that.

In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem: we have a Russia problem. We are likely to have it for, well, pretty much forever.  And Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the man to solve that problem, even if he is sincere in his statements that he wants to.

*This phrase is often attributed to Lenin, but is more likely traceable to Nikolay Chernyshevsky. It was used by Plekhanov in a newspaper article in July, 1917 that Lenin responded to.

 

 

 

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December 11, 2014

The Height of Absurdity: The Operation of the Government Hinges on Blanche Lincoln’s Brainchild

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 9:20 pm

There’s a whole lotta stupid in Frankendodd. A whole lot. The SEF Mandate is at the top of the list, but the “Swaps Pushout” isn’t far behind.

The Pushout was the brainchild of ex-Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. (NB: I understand the risks of using “brain” in the same sentence as “Blanche Lincoln”.) Blanche, she of the historic 21 point annihilation in the 2010 midterms.

In brief, the Pushout required federally insured banks to move-“push out”-some swaps dealing activities to separate subsidiaries that do not have access to federal deposit insurance. This does not apply to all swaps, mind you. Not even to the bulk of them (interest rate swaps, many CDS). But just to commodity derivatives (other than gold), equity derivatives, and un-cleared CDS.

I took particular interest in this because-again-it slammed commodity derivatives. It was one of several provisions (position limits being another prominent example) that explicitly targeted commodities. Apparently the belief is that commodity derivatives are uniquely risky and subject to abuse, which is just untrue.

Consider a dealer making a market in a commodity index swap. That swap is easily hedged in the futures markets. Ditto with a NYMEX lookalike gas or oil swap. Yes, maybe an unhedged commodity swap is riskier than your typical unhedged IRS, but so what? That’s not the way dealers typically trade (they typically run matched books, or nearly matched books), and capital requirements and other regulations mean that riskier positions incur additional costs that mitigate the incentive to take on excessive risks.

So commodity derivatives (or equity derivatives) don’t create exceptional risks that justify exceptional treatment. What’s more, creating stand-alone affiliates to handle this business entails additional costs. More people. Duplication of infrastructure. Additional capital. There are also scope economies (deriving in particular from capital efficiencies that arise from greater netting opportunities that arise from holding multiple, relatively uncorrelated, positions in a single book). Sacrificing those scope economies will lead to fewer commodity swaps dealers, which in turn makes hedging costlier and the market for these swaps less competitive.

In other words, like many parts of Frankendodd, the Pushout was all pain, no gain. And the pain, mind you, will be suffered not so much by the dealer banks, but by the firms in the real economy that use commodity derivatives to hedge their price risks.

That said, it never seemed to be that big a deal, given the relatively small scale of commodity derivatives and equity derivatives in comparison to IRS and other trades that banks were allowed to keep on the books of insured entities. Small beer compared to the rest of the havoc wreaked by the rampaging Frankendodd Monster.

But this obscure provision could be the one that brings on yet another government shutdown. The most hardcore lefties in the Senate (e.g., Elizabeth Warren) and the House (e.g., Maxine Waters) have drawn a line in the sand over the part of the “Cromnibus Bill” that would repeal the Pushout. If passed, “Cromnibus” would fund the government (except DHS) for the next year, thereby avoiding another shutdown.

But claiming that eliminating the Pushout would be an unconscionable capitulation to Wall Street, the lefties are going to the barricades, and threatening to bring DC to a grinding halt rather than let the Pushout bite the dust. This is not about substance, but symbolism. It is also about a defeated party carrying out a rearguard action on ground where its most rabid partisans can rally.

You cannot make up this stuff. Blanche Lincoln’s populist hobby horse, a desperate effort by a doomed politician, could be the pretext for yet another unproductive partisan confrontation that has virtually nothing to do with the more serious issues associated with funding the government for the next year. (If the Pushout hadn’t passed, would Lincoln have lost by 25 points or 15, rather than 21?) (I note that Gary Gensler worked very closely with Lincoln on Frankendodd: “During drafting sessions, Gensler sometimes sat at the table reserved for staff, advising its Democratic chairwoman, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.”)

Cromnibus raises very serious issues. The Swaps Pushout isn’t one of them. But rather than joining the debate on the real issues, or conceding their thumping at the polls, demagogic progs are screaming Swaps Pushout or Fight.

What a travesty.

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December 10, 2014

Judo Pays, Even When the Torrent of Rents Turns Into a Trickle

Filed under: Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:33 pm

As the capo di tutti capi of the natural state that is Russia, Putin’s primary responsibility is to distribute rents in order to secure political support. This is a relatively easy task when oil prices are high and the money is cascading in. Things are somewhat more challenging when the torrent turns into a trickle, as now.

Those closer to the tsar get taken care of: those less favored have to get by on scraps. Putin’s judo buddies-Gennady Timchenko and the Rotenbergs-are the closest to him, and they are continuing to live off of state largesse:

Having grown rich on government contracts during the boom in Putin’s Russia, friends of the president are benefiting anew as times grow tough. Lucrative orders keep rolling in for the favored few even as western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices push the economy to the brink.

The development has polarized Russia’s oligarchy and pitted Putin’s small circle against less well-connected rivals in a battle for money and privilege.

Companies linked to Rotenberg and another Putin confidant, Gennady Timchenko — both targeted by U.S. sanctions for their ties to the president — are landing a growing amount of state contracts. Together, they have won at least 309 billion rubles of work since U.S. sanctions were imposed in March, filings show. That figure — which works out to about $8.1 billion at the average exchange rate over the period — is 12 percent more than they received in all of 2013.

A Rotenberg-affiliated company is also about to secure a 228-billion-ruble order to build a bridge to Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, according to a high-ranking government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contract hasn’t been officially awarded.

Since the judo gang (and Sechin too) is getting a bigger slice of a shrinking pie, others are becoming resentful:

Executives who are used to prospering from government ties complain privately they are being elbowed aside. One Russian billionaire said Rotenberg and Timchenko have all but cornered the market in government contracts. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his companies’ chances of winning business.

The question is whether this discontent will coalesce into a an opposition that can challenge Putin’s rule. At present, I think that is not much of a threat, because if Putin is saving all the carrots for his friends, he keeps a tight grip on the knout to bash anyone who might dare to oppose him. The fate of Vladimir Yevtushenkov and Bashneft serves to concentrate the mind of anyone thinking of challenging Putin, and coordinating opposition from several grasping, suspicious, and short sighted oligarchs is extraordinarily difficult.

So the Putin system will wheeze along, making some enormously wealthy, and letting the devil take the rest.

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Regulators, Finally Getting a Clue

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

Global regulators are concerned, and apparently mystified, by the evaporation of liquidity in bond and stock markets:

Global financial regulators worry that banks are scaling back costly market making functions and that this could leave investors stranded, as well as squeezing funds to drive economic recovery, a senior official said on Tuesday.

. . . .

David Wright, secretary general of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), which groups market regulators like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Germany’s Bafin, said it was an issue that was being looked at.

“We have seen a ‘Houdini’ disappearance of market makers in general,” Wright added. “First of all we have got to establish the facts, look at the markets … and see if this is a big problem … It’s a new frontier-type issue. I think it’s partly caused by some regulation, but we need to know.”

Partly caused by regulation? What was your first clue, Mr. Wright?

Between the impending Volcker Rule and more stringent capital rules and limitations on off-exchange dealing in stocks, regulators have piled restriction on restriction on market making activities. And they are shocked that liquidity is drying up?

Reminds me of a guy standing with a gasoline can and a blowtorch, and wondering just how his house caught on fire.

The article focuses on Europe, but it’s an issue in the US too. And Canada:

The Bank of Canada warned that investors in the nation’s corporate bond market may be underestimating the difficulty of selling the securities in a market downturn, putting them at risk of greater losses.

Rising holdings of corporate bonds in mutual and exchange-traded funds could exacerbate price swings if the funds are forced to sell in a rout, the central bank said in its semi-annual Financial System Review. Some market participants also “believe” dealers are reducing market-making activity, or acting as the middleman between trades, which may make it harder to unwind large positions, the bank said.

“A potential deterioration of liquidity in Canadian corporate bond markets may not be fully priced in,” according to the report. “Market trends suggest that more sizable price swings might be observed in the future than previously, should investors seek to simultaneously unwind large positions.”

In the aftermath of the post-crisis regulatory bacchanalia, the regulators are finally coming to recognize the unintended consequences of their actions. They are starting to see-sometimes rather dimly, pace Mr. Wright-that regulations intended to make the system less risky are creating new risks.

I’ve used the analogy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice before. It’s as relevant now, as it ever was.

 

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December 8, 2014

VVP: Not Getting His Kicks On Brent $66

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Music,Politics,Punk,Russia — The Professor @ 9:19 pm

Brent traded with a 66 handle for most of today. I am sure that Putin was not getting his kicks on Brent 66.

But no worries. It didn’t stay there long: it’s now trading at a 65 handle.

Going down, down, down, in a ring of fire.

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