Streetwise Professor

April 13, 2020

Vladimir and Igor Tap Out and Turn Down the Oil Taps

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Energy,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:36 pm

A little more than a month ago, when the China virus was first wreaking havoc in the oil market, Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin demurred when the Saudis requested an extension of OPEC+ oil cuts. Furious, the Saudis retaliated by promising to ramp up oil production by more than 1mbpd, and prices truly cratered.

No problem!, said Vladimir and Igor. This is part of our master plan to destroy US shale! (Never mind such “logic” is right out of Economics for Mouth Breathers.) Furthermore, Russia has ample financial reserves, and its government can ride out a long stretch of low prices. (The Russian people? Ha! Demonstrating the state-centric nature of Russian policymakers.) The ruble crashed. No worries! In fact this is GREAT for Russian oil producers, because their costs are in rubles and the weakening of the currency cushions the impact of a lower dollar oil price on revenues. (The Russian populace? Again Vova and Igor DGAS.)

But despite the bold talk (which in some ways reminded me of the old story about G. Gordon Liddy holding his palm over an open flame to prove how he could take pain without cracking), the magnitude of the collapse, and the possibility that it would endure, obviously caused considerable consternation in the Kremlin.

The first indication was when the Russians claimed that the Saudis had taken their action to harm US oil producers, a complete flip for Russia’s bragging that that’s why they were taking the hard line.

In the past few weeks, Trump cajoled the parties to the bargaining table, and yesterday–after overcoming a Mexican holdout–the parties agreed to a deal. And what a deal it is, involving Russia agreeing to cut production by 2.5mbpd–almost 23 percent–an amount 4 times what they refused to accept a little more than a month ago. (I also note that it flies in the face of repeated Russian statements over years saying that it was operationally impossible for them to cut more than trivial amounts.)

The Russians had insisted on formal commitments from the US to cut. Trump–who brokered this deal–said that US production would fall due to price declines. (True dat–I’ll try to provide some estimates tomorrow.). The Russians said that wasn’t good enough (apparently demonstrating an ignorance of the limited ability of the US government to force output reductions)–they wanted mandated cuts. But in the end, the deal was done, absent any formal US commitments.

In other words, Putin and Sechin cried uncle. Hell, they tapped out like an MMA fighter in a chokehold. This makes a mockery of their bold front of a month ago. I think it reveals that they were truly shocked by the Saudi reaction, and were desperate to find a way out, but they didn’t want to show it. They needed some sort of fig leaf, and Trump gave them one.

Now this is being spun as some sort of Putin master plan to curry favor with Trump to gain negotiating leverage on other issues.

All together now: Suuuurrrre it is, Vova. Suuurrrre. Trump don’t owe you–you owe him.

I oppose the deal, despite the fillip it will provide to the US oil industry. Artificially boosting oil prices will harm already devastated consumer economies (including the US). Further, this will potentially rejuvenate OPEC post-crisis. Again that would be good for the US oil industry, but not for the US.

I also wonder whether Putin (and the Saudis) will come back later with proposals to get the US government to take measures to reduce output in a coordinated fashion. Just how that would be done is rather mysterious. The only plausible measure that I could think of would be some sort of tax (either on production, or on exports). But this would require Congressional action–it’s not something Trump or any president could negotiate unilaterally–and I don’t see that happening.

But that’s for the future. In the present, Putin and Sechin reaped what they sowed. They thought they could force the Saudis into bearing the brunt of supporting oil prices, while they could continue to produce at capacity. The Saudis responded like it was 1986, and the resultant collapse in prices brought the brilliant schemes of the KGB masterminds crashing down. In the end, they had to capitulate. No matter how hard they try to spin it, it’s obvious that they did.

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March 18, 2020

The Banality of Vova

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:19 pm

So forget all of that stuff about what workaround Putin was going to employ to remain de facto president for life: he has found a workaround to make himself de jure president for life.

It’s comical in a way. Start a process to amend the constitution of the Russian Federation. Get a respected Soviet-era fossil in the Duma, astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, to introduce an Orwellian Memory Hole amendment. Specifically, that anyone is eligible for two consecutive future presidential terms, thereby consigning Putin’s previous/current consecutive terms to the Memory Hole.

Then get Vova to address the Duma, and say (in effect): oh shucks, guys, I’ll accept if you insist. But only if the Constitutional Court agrees! Which is sort of like the organ grinder saying he’ll accept tips only if the monkey dances.

And, of course, yesterday the monkey danced.

The entire process has been completely banal, and lacking of the frisson that would accompany weighty constitutional changes in other countries.

This all transpired with a (predictable?) lack of response from the Russian populace. Likely because they know responding is worthless. If you know the game is rigged, what’s the point of protesting?

This raises only the question of why Putin went through such machinations in January. My conjecture is that those were mainly trial balloons. He clearly signaled that he was looking for a way to remain in power indefinitely. These signals were met with a collective shrug, except from a completely irrelevant opposition. Seeing this, Putin figured (IMO) that there was no political need for subterfuge: take the direct route and retain presidential power. Which also had the benefit of eliminating ambiguity about the distribution of power going forward.

So Russia shrugs, and Putin moves on: unlike an adage that Putin favors, he did not even hear any dogs barking. A further illustration of the maxim that nations get the leaders they deserve.

Insofar as the US is concerned, this is probably the best outcome. A succession struggle in a hostile nuclear power is not a happy prospect. And it’s not a bad thing when a self-proclaimed rival is in the hands of an aging man (in a country where men do not age well) whose mental powers will diminish and who will become more risk averse/conservative with age.

A banal Russia in the hands of a president who retains his powers as a result of an utterly banal process is not a good thing for Russians. But it is not a bad thing for the rest of the world.

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March 13, 2020

Wuhan Virus and the Markets–WTF?

What a helluva few weeks it’s been, eh boys and girls? By way of post mortem (hopefully?) rather than prediction, here’s my take.

Under “normal” circumstances, two factors drive asset valuations: expectations of cash flows, and the rate at which investors discount those cash flows. COVID-19–Wuhan Virus, to call it by its proper name–has has profound influence on both.

WV has caused a major aggregate supply shock, and an aggregate demand shock, and these amplify one another. The aggregate supply shock stems from shutdown of productive capacity due to social distancing. And people who aren’t working aren’t earning and aren’t spending, hence the aggregate demand shock.

These developments obviously reduce the income streams from assets (e.g., corporate profits). That’s a negative for stocks.

As an aside, these factors defy traditional policy prescriptions. Monetary and fiscal policy are focused on addressing aggregate demand deficiencies, i.e., trying to move demand-deficient economies (where demand deficiencies arise from price rigidity and nominal shocks) back to the production possibilities frontier. Supply shocks shrink the PPF. Pushing the PPF back to its normal state in current circumstances is a function of public health policy, and even that is likely to be problematic given the huge uncertainties (that I discuss below) and the dubious competence of government authorities (which I discussed last week).

The pandemic nature of WV also makes it the systematic shock par excellence. It hits everyone and every asset class, and cannot be diversified away. A big increase in systematic risk results in a big increase in risk premia, meaning that the already depressed expected cash flows on risky assets get discounted at a higher rate, leading to lower valuations.

A lot higher rate, evidently. Why? Most likely because of the extreme uncertainty about the virus. Data on how infectious it is, how many people have been infected, the fatality rate, how it will be affected by warmer weather, etc., are extremely unreliable. In other words, we know almost nothing about the salient considerations.

This is in part due to lack of testing, and to inherent defects in the testing: those who get tested are disproportionately likely to be symptomatic, exposed, or hypochondriacal, leading to extreme sample selection biases. The tests are apparently unreliable, with high rates of false positives and false negatives. The RNA tests cannot detect past infections. It is in part due to the novelty of the virus. Is it like influenza, and will hence burn out when temperatures warm? Or not?

Another major source of uncertainty is due to the fact that the initial outbreak in China was covered up by the evil CCP regime. (Which now, in an Orwellian twistedness that only totalitarian regimes can muster, is boasting that it will save the world. And which is blaming the United States for its own abject failures. Which is why I insist on calling it the Wuhan Virus–so go ahead, call me a racist. IDGAF.) Thus, data from Ground Zero is lacking, or wildly unreliable. (Ground One–Iran–is equally duplicitous, and equally malign.)

This huge uncertainty regarding a major systematic factor leads to even greater discount rates–and hence to lower stock prices.

And then there is the truly disturbing factor. These textbook causal channels (lower expected cash flows, higher discount rates) have in turn caused changes in asset prices that force portfolio adjustments that move us into the realm of positive feedback mechanisms (which usually have negative effects!) and non-linearities. This represents a shift from “normal” times to decidedly abnormal ones.

When some investors engage in leveraged trading strategies, big price moves can force them to unwind/liquidate these strategies because they can no longer fund their large losses. These unwinds move asset prices yet more (as those who placed a lower valuation on these assets must absorb them from the levered, high-value owners who are forced to sell them). Which can force further unwinds, in perhaps completely unrelated assets.

Not knowing the extent or nature of these trading strategies, or the degree of leverage, it is virtually impossible to understand how these effects may cascade through the markets.

The most evident indicators of these stresses are in the funding markets. And we are seeing such stresses. The FRA-OIS spread (known in a previous incarnation–e.g., 2008–as the LIBOR-OIS spread) has blown out. Dollar swap rates are blowing out. The most vanilla of spreads–the basis net of carry between Treasury futures and the cheapest-to-deliver Treasury–have blown out. Further, the Fed has pumped in huge amounts liquidity into the system, and these alarming spread movements have not reversed. (One shudders to think they would have been worse absent such intervention.)

One thing to keep an eye on is derivatives clearing. As I warned repeatedly during the drive to mandate clearing, the true test of this mechanism is during periods of market disruption when large price moves trigger large margin calls.

Heretofore the clearing system seems to have operated without disruption. I note, however, that the strains in the funding markets likely reflect in part the need for liquidity to make margin calls. Big margin calls that must be met in near real-time contribute to stresses in the funding markets. Clearinghouses themselves may survive, but at the cost of imposing huge costs elsewhere in the financial system. (In my earlier writing on the systemic impacts of clearing mandates, I referred to this as the Levee Effect.)

The totally unnecessary side-show in the oil markets, where Putin and Mohammed bin Salman are waging an insane grudge match, is only contributing to these margin call-related strains. (Noticing a theme here? Authoritarian governments obsessed with control and “stability” have a preternatural disposition to creating chaos.)

Perhaps the only saving grace now, as opposed to 2008, is that the shock did not arise originally from the credit and liquidity supply sector, i.e., banks and shadow banks. But the credit/liquidity supply sector is clearly under strain, and if parts of it break under that strain yet another round of extremely disruptive knock-on effects will occur. Fortunately, this is one area where central banks can palliate, if not eliminate, the strains. (I say can, because being run by humans, there is no guarantee they will.)

Viruses operate according to their own imperatives, and the imperatives of one virus can differ dramatically from those of others. Pandemic shocks are inherently systematic risks, and the nature of the current risk is only dimly understood because we do not understand the imperatives of this particular virus. Indeed, it might be fair to put it in the category of Knightian Uncertainty, rather than risk. The shock is big enough to trigger non-linear feedbacks, which are themselves virtually impossible to predict.

In other words. We’ve been on a helluva ride. We’re in for a helluva right. Strap it tight, folks.

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March 9, 2020

Why Are Equities and Oil Moving the Same Direction After an Oil Supply Shock?

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:42 am

The collapse in oil prices is completely understandable. The co-movement in equity and bond yields is harder to fathom.

As I noted in a previous post, the initial sell-off in oil was driven by corona-related demand declines. One thing interesting at the time was that equities did not respond similarly, which suggested that the prevailing view was that the situation would be contained in China. The last few weeks, equities and bond yields caught up, presumably due to the spread of the virus outside of China (especially in Italy).

The main oil-related news was a big supply shock–the prospect for higher Saudi and Russian output. But this should be positive for the economy overall, and thus for equities. There does not seem to be any new virus-related news that would lead to predictions of a sharp reduction in incomes and output. So, by itself, the oil supply shock should not cause a large sell-off in equities and big buying of bonds. But that is what we are seeing.

One can imagine other channels, e.g., losses on oil positions causing liquidation of equity positions. But the oil markets likely aren’t large enough to trigger such a reaction, and this channel would require those who are long equities to be long oil too–and in a big way in both.

Focusing on the oil supply shock in particular, I wonder if Putin and the Russians expected the furious Saudi reaction. The ruble is down 5+ percent today. Amusingly, Russian cat’s paw Zerohedge is claiming that Putin is all copacetic with this, saying that Russia can survive $25/bbl oil prices for a decade.

This is putting a brave face on things. And those with long memories will recall similar statements during the 2008-2009 collapse–statements that proved laughably false.

It is also interesting to note that Russian expressions of confidence relate to the state budget. Maybe the fiscal frugality has indeed positioned the government to live lean. The populace, not so much. But that’s very revealing about the mindset of the Russian ruling class: it is all about the state, utterly state-centric, and largely dismissive of the citizenry. And it has been so, as long as there has been a Russia.

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March 8, 2020

There Will Be Blood

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:59 pm

As a coda to the post on the bloodbath in oil. I remember how many Smart People claimed that Putin’s alliance with MbS’s Saudi Arabia was an act of strategic genius! Genius I say! The move of a 4 dimensional chess grandmaster. A move that went a long way to achieving Russian dominance in the Middle East, at the expense of the US.

Er, no. Like almost all of Putin’s moves, it was an act of short term opportunism, and one that was built on a foundation of sand (appropriate, given the locale). MbS was being equally opportunistic, and his and Putin’s short-term interests aligned. But cartels–and this was little more than a cartel with a little geopolitical gloss–are inherently unstable, and the interests of the colluders are inherently in conflict. Inevitably such condominiums collapse.

Inevitably.

And so has this one. It was merely a matter of time, and what the proximate cause of the collapse would be.

There was no enduring alignment of interests that would provide the basis for a strategic realignment. There was a momentary alignment of interests between oil ticks. A market shock (extremely unexpected, no doubt) smashed the delicate structure to pieces.

The furious Saudi reaction to the Russian move demonstrates how fleeting Putin’s gains were. MbS is well and truly pissed, and looking to take revenge.

The only question that remains is: who will drink whose milkshake?

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Erdoğan Harvests the Fruits of His Strategic Genius

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:20 pm

Apropos my earlier post on Erdoğan’s strategic brilliance, after Turkey’s army inflicted some serious damage on Assad’s armed forces, the Russians evidently made it clear that he would not be allowed to have his way in Idlib. So Erdoğan scuttled to Moscow, and emerged with a ceasefire agreement (not that he wanted one) which basically brought his campaign to a screeching halt.

The optics tell all. The fact that Erdo had to go to Moscow for one thing. But it was worse than that. Putin really rubbed the would-be sultan’s nose in it.

The same week a delegation from Zimbabwe–yes, Zimbabwe–visited Putin in the Kremlin. The entire delegation was seated. There was no statuary in sight.

When the Turkish delegation visited, all except Erdoğan were forced to stand. In front of a statue of Catherine the Great, no less, which had been moved into the room specifically for the Turkish delegation.

Catherine, of course, waged war against the Ottomans during her entire reign, and seized vast territories from them. Catherine epitomizes Russian domination of Turkey. As Russians well know–as do Turks.

After leaving the Turks to shuffle cravenly before Catherine’s bronze gaze for a few moments, Putin beckoned them to approach with a dismissive wave of his fingers, like he was calling his dogs. He was trying to humiliate. He succeeded.

Erdoğan has been flailing desperately for US and European support to counter Russia. Trump acknowledged that Turkey and Syria were fighting, but said he didn’t care.

In so many words: You’re on your own, Erdo! You made your bed with Putin, hope you stocked up on the KY.

The refugee gambit has only infuriated the Europeans. Not as if they would be willing to risk confronting Russia anyways.

Yes. Quite the genius Erdo is. Quite the genius.

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Note to VVP: US Shale’s Pain Does Not Equate to Russia’s Gain. Predatory Pricing Is Futile.

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:03 pm

Oil is crashing, with WTI trading at a 33 handle, down 20+ percent since Friday.

The first leg down in oil prices was caused by the coronavirus demand shock in China. This most recent free-fall is a response to Russia’s refusal to agree with OPEC to extend the existing OPEC+ cuts, and deepen them in response to the demand decline; and the Saudis’ reaction to the Russians, specifically, to put the output pedal to the metal.

The Saudi reaction to the Russians is a classic cartel defector punishment strategy. The Russian demurral is more difficult to understand. One story circulating is that Putin wants to punish US shale. If so, he’s a fool. And worse, a fool who fails to learn from the foolishness of others, e.g., the Saudis whose predatory pricing strategy in 2014-2016 failed miserably.

Yes, cratering the price of oil will inflict pain on US shale producers. They will suffer financial losses, and will curtail drilling and output. But US pain does not equate to Russian gain. Russia will incur substantial losses from prices in the 30s–and more pain if prices go into the 20s, as is possible. But Russia will not recoup this pain with future gains. If and when they (and OPEC) decide they’ve had enough, and curtail output to raise prices, US output will respond accordingly.

US rocks can outwait Putin. Yes, reduced activity will damage the shale supply chain, and it will take some time to recover, but as the Saudis found out in 2016, the flexibility of the US oil sector allowed it to rebound extremely rapidly when prices rose. The resource remained. The human capital remained. When OPEC+ went into effect, US oil output soon exceeded the pre-2014 price crash levels, which sharply limited the upside for the Saudis and Russians.

I am currently putting finishing touches on a paper which, among other things, demonstrates the futility of the Saudi strategy in 2014–and the Russian strategy (if that’s what it is) today. I document learning-by-doing economies in the US shale sector. If these economies are big enough, lost output today due to predatory Saudi or Russian behavior translates into lower US productivity in the future. That means that Saudi/Russian price cutting today raises their rivals’ costs in the future, which could lead to higher future Saudi/Russian profits then.

But the empirical estimates show that the US productivity losses due to foregone learning are very small, and hardly allow the predators to recoup the huge costs they incur from their predatory strategies. Putting the Saudis and Russians together, $10/bbl price cuts today cost them on the order of $230 million/day: $20/bbl cuts cost them around $460 million/day. There is no way that the higher future cost of US oil production due to lost learning opportunities will allow the predators to recoup these losses in the future by raising the ceiling that US shale puts on world oil prices.

Predatory pricing strategies are almost always futile. They are definitely futile with regards to the US shale sector. If Putin is indeed pursuing a predatory path, he is cutting off his own nose to spite his face.

So go ahead, Vova. Knock yourself out.

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February 29, 2020

The Sultan’s New Clothes

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 12:28 pm

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imagines himself to be a modern Ottoman sultan. Presumably he has in mind, say, Suleiman I (“The Magnificent”), but if he keeps it up he is more likely to be a reincarnation of Osman II.

The first object of Erdo’s imperial ambitions is nearby Syria, all but destroyed after 9 years of civil war–not that it was a paradise before 2011. Erdoğan supported the Muslim Brotherhood/Sunni jihadi anti-Assad forces early on, and worked hard to overthrow Assad. He failed: the Russian intervention in particular turned the tide in favor of Assad.

Erdoğan’s air force shot down a Russian SU-25 in November, 2015. This led to a tense standoff with Putin, and given the correlation of forces, Erdoğan was forced to back down. This led to a rapprochement with Russia, resulting in gas deals and most importantly an agreement to purchase S-400 air defense systems.

This mightily irritated the United States. Tensions between the ostensible Nato allies were already high in the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup, which Erdoğan blamed in large part on the US because of its giving asylum to erstwhile ally and subsequent arch enemy, Fethullah Gülen: Erdoğan believes that the coup was a FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) plot.

Relations between Turkey and the US had been fraught since Erdoğan’s decision (when he was prime minister) to deny the use of Turkey to stage the 4th Infantry Division for the offensive against Iraq. Things have gotten progressively worse, as Erdoğan’s Ottoman pretensions have become progressively more grandiose. Moreover, the war on ISIS, which required the US to rely on the Kurds–the only force in the region that can fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag–further aggravated the relationship, because Erdoğan considers all Kurds terrorists too.

In sum, Erdoğan has been burning his bridges with the US for years. Decades even.

But now he needs us. The war in Syria has turned sharply against Turkey’s jihadist (Al Qaeda, actually) allies. Regime forces have made steady gains against the last rebel stronghold, Idlib. To try to stave off complete defeat, Erdoğan sent Turkish army units into the neighboring country.

Assad has responded predictably. He has bombed and shelled Turkish army outposts, killing dozens: last week, an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers.

Assad’s calculus is quite simple and quite rational. He knows Russia has his back. Push comes to shove, if Erdoğan launches a full-scale offensive against Syrian Arab Army forces and their supporting militia units, Putin will almost certain order Russian forces (air forces in particular) to strike hard at Turkish units. So Assad has no compunctions about bombing Turkish forces. Indeed, he has an incentive to do so because this may bring the Russians in even more forcefully on his side.

Caught in a trap of his own making, Erdoğan is now spinning desperately–and pathetically–to find a way out. Amusingly, yesterday he asked Putin to “step aside” in Syria. Quite a plan there, Erdo! I’m sure Vova will graciously respond to your request!

Erdoğan is now appealing to the US for help–after years of chest thumping denunciations of the country. Most amazingly, he asked the US for Patriot air defense systems–presumably to shoot down Russian airplanes. (This further convinces me that the real purpose for the S-400s is to use against his own air force in the event of another coup.)

The Pentagon is adamantly opposed to this–good! But elements of the (Deep) State Department insanely and inanely want to accede to this request. FFS:

A senior State Department official is at odds with the Pentagon over sending additional military equipment to help Turkey fight against Russian-backed Syrian government forces, four people familiar with the matter tell POLITICO.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, has been pressing the Defense Department to send Patriot missile defense batteries to Turkey to help it repel the Syrian government’s assault in Syria’s Idlib province, the people said. But Pentagon officials are worried about the global ramifications of a move they see as reckless.

Just to be clear: Jeffrey wants to run the risk of an armed confrontation with Russia to protect “rebels”–who happen to be, to a man, Sunni jihadis who are basically just rebranded Al Qaeda.

I have still to hear a remotely persuasive argument as to why the US should give a tinker’s damn about Assad winning in Syria, especially since the alternative is Al Qaeda in all but name. To risk a confrontation with Russia over this is beyond insane.

Erdoğan is also playing the refugee card in an attempt to force the pusillanimous Europeans to intervene on his behalf. What they would do–or are even capable of doing–is a mystery. But Erdoğan is desperate, and flailing about in the hope something or someone will save him.

All he is succeeding in doing is making the Europeans even more sick of him than they already are. Oh, and risking a naval conflict with Greece. As if he didn’t have enough fights on his hands.

Oh, and as if he didn’t have enough problems, Erdoğan has intervened militarily in the only country in the Middle East that could make Syria look at least somewhat functional–Libya. Moreover, he has intervened in opposition to the faction that Russia supports, thereby aggravating Putin either more, and making it less likely that Putin will “stand aside” in Syria.

There’s an acronym in the military–PPPPPP. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. Turkey’s new sultan is obviously unfamiliar with this. He plunged into Syria with little thought, and apparently no prior planning regarding Russian and Syrian countermoves, and his ability to counter those countermoves. And predictably, piss-poor performance has been the results.

It will be interesting to see how the US responds. Presuming that Trump overrules the lunatics in the State Department, I am guessing that the administration will give Erdoğan lip service, but leave him twisting in the wind.

Which raises the question of the political reaction within Turkey. A humiliated Erdoğan should be politically vulnerable, but he has succeeded in de-fanging the military and so the historical response to political failure in Turkey–a coup–is probably out of the question. The opposition in Turkey is divided, and its national leadership is hardly inspiring. The country is divided between the Rumelian fringe and the Anatolian heartland. Erdoğan still has strong support among the religious portions of the populace, especially in Anatolia. Meaning that I expect that he will be weakened, but will survive.

Indeed, I anticipate a crackdown on the opposition. The threat to dispossess the opposition CHP of its stake in İşbank  is perhaps a harbinger of such a move.

Watching Erdoğan’s pathetic, incompetent performance also highlights the pathetic, incompetent performance of the United States’ foreign policy elite, which viewed him as a harbinger of an enlightened political Islam that would prove a model for improved governance throughout the region.

They sure can pick ’em, can’t they?

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January 25, 2020

Riddle Me This: If All Roads Lead to Putin, Why is the Boot of US Sanctions on the Windpipes of Putin’s Pals?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 12:04 pm

If you thought the Trump-Putin narrative was put out of our misery by Robert Mueller’s drooling performance back in May, you’d be wrong. The Democrats try to resuscitate it daily: one of Nancy Pelosi’s mantras is “all roads lead to Putin.”

Adam Schiff and Gerald Nadler brought up Russia repeatedly in their drone strike of an impeachment presentation before the Senate. And by drone strike, I don’t mean something explosive, like blowing up Soleimani: I mean they droned on and on and on.

Schiff demonstrated just how little he and his ilk actually know about Russia and Putin. Schiff drew laughs when he said Trump had made a religious man out of Putin:

“‘Thank God,’ Putin said, ‘Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in U.S. elections, now they’re accusing Ukraine,’” Schiff said.

One may question the sincerity of Putin’s public religious displays, but one cannot dispute that he has repeatedly and consistently expressed religious sentiments, utilized religious symbolism, and has attempted to increase the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian life. All long before Donald Trump was even a candidate. But apparently Schiff and the idiots who laughed with him (rather than at him) have a mental image of Putin as a godless commie. But we’re supposed to take their alarums about Trump and Putin seriously.

This continuing attempt to bring the Trump-is-Putin’s-puppet narrative back to life is utterly futile. They would have better luck giving CPR to King Tut’s mummy.

It is futile because it is completely untethered from reality. Trump administration policy towards Russia has been as harsh, or harsher, than Obama administration policy (even after the farcical “Reset”). Nordstream II is one example. Perhaps the best example is the suffocating sanctions that have been imposed on some of Putin’s inner circle and closest friends.

My friend Ivan Tkachev, a journalist at RBC, has been writing about the sanctions issue. This recent piece looks at the implications of the Finnish court decision against one of Putin’s closest friends, his judo buddy Boris Rotenberg.

If you aren’t familiar with it, RBC is one of the last–if not the last–major independent news outlets in Russia. It is definitely not a Kremlin organ, or a monkey to an organ grinding Putin. Putin tolerates it, as many canny authoritarians do, because he wants information that comes from outside the echo chamber. RBC is supposedly at the top of Putin’s reading pile every morning.

As an illustration of Ivan’s independence–and courage–he put idiotic western journalists (who swallowed the Sechin/Rosneft/Putin line) to shame in his coverage of the farcical Rosneft “privatization.” (I made a modest contribution to Ivan’s reporting, but I did it from the safety of Houston–not Moscow.)

So Ivan is not one to carry the Kremlin’s water, or that of oligarchs like Rotenberg, by exaggerating or distorting the severity of the Trump Treasury Department’s sanctions. Read the article, and you see that this sanctions regime places a heavy boot on the windpipe of people like Rotenberg, Deripaska, and Viktor Vekselberg:

2. It turns out that Russian oligarchs blacklisted under the US sanctions regime are cut off from the entire Western financial system, not just the American one. There are many examples of this ‘toxic’ extraterritorial effect of US secondary sanctions. For instance, Vekselberg’s and Oleg Deripaska’s frozen bank accounts in Cyprus; frozen dividends on Bank of Cyprus shares owned by Vekselberg; forced sales of private jets by the Rotenberg brothers and Deripaska. If we take into account that Chinese banks (despite the mythologised Russian-Chinese friendship) are extremely cautious about working with blacklisted Russians (as representatives of Russia’s Central Bank admitted in late 2018), it turns out that Russian oligarchs blacklisted under US sanctions are isolated from virtually the entire global financial system.

3. Moreover, the risk of secondary sanctions does not depend on the currency in which payments to or from SDNs are made; in the context of primary sanctions US dollar payments are a decisive factor, but secondary sanctions can be imposed regardless of the currency. In the case of Rotenberg, attempts were made to transfer payments in euros but the banks refused to execute the transactions.

The gravamen of the article is that banks around the world–even Chinese ones–are petrified by the scourge of secondary sanctions. If you want to do business in the US, or in dollars with anyone, you will not deal with anyone on the sanctions list in dollars–or in dinars or bolivars or . . . in bubblegum cards or wampum.

Indeed, although the sanctions formally restrict only “significant” transactions with those under ban, what counts as “significant” is in the eye of the US Treasury. The risks to a bank are so great that it’s wiser to engage in no transaction at all–even something as trivial as processing payment of a Rotenberg’s electric or trash bills.

Just as one may question the sincerity of Putin’s religiosity, one may question whether this administration’s sanctions on prominent Russians close to Putin reflect Trump’s sincere beliefs. But one cannot question that these sanctions exist, and are extremely punishing to the Putinites that they target.

But people like Pelosi and Schiff don’t even question: they pretend that they don’t exist. And this demonstrates that there is no doubt whatsoever about their insincerity, and fundamental dishonesty.

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January 16, 2020

Putin’s New Plan: Assuring That All Roads Continue to Lead to Him–In Russia, Anyways

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:13 am

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin (to whom, of course, all roads lead–just ask Nancy) proposed (which is equivalent to announcing) major changes to the Russian constitution. The most important element of his plan is a reduction in the powers of the presidency that has so assiduously built up over the past decades.

This is of course due to the fact that Putin is barred from another term in office, and resorting to some dodge like the “castling” maneuver that made the hapless Dmitry Medvedev president for a term would be too problematic even for Putin. So he is basically saying: “If I can’t be president, no one will be.”

This is not to say that Putin is going away, of course: far from it. He is basically playing a divide-to-rule strategy. The plan splits up the president’s powers, assigning some to the Duma and likely others to the heretofore advisory State Council. Furthermore, he imposes constraints on who can become president, eliminating anyone who has lived abroad in the last 20 years or holds dual citizenship. Since this group includes a wide swath of the Russian elite, the plan culls the heard of potential serious challengers to him, challengers who would likely attempt to reassemble the powers of the presidency were they to assume it.

This fragmentation of power plays perfectly to Putin’s strengths. Even in the current system his primary role, and source of power, is managing contending clans within the Russian elite. He is the balancer, the mediator. The mafia don ruling over squabbling mafiosi.

Fragmenting power actually increases the demand for mediation services. Under his plan, he will remain the essential man, and indeed become even more essential because under it there will be more disputes and more disputants.

So Pelosi’s phrase is apt, though her application to Trump is not: in Russia, all roads lead to Putin, and this new plan is designed explicitly to keep it that way.

Perhaps the diminution of his formal powers will impede his effectiveness as a mediator. But maybe not: a strong case can be made that he’s not a successful balancer because he’s president, but he’s president because he’s a successful balancer. The need for someone to play that role, and his unchallenged effectiveness in playing it, will remain. The formal appurtenances are of secondary importance.

In other words–no surprise here–Putin is designing a system that will perpetuate his role in a highly personalized, de-institutionalized political system.

Many Russians will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, as this reduces the uncertainty surrounding his leaving the presidency in 2024. But their relief is only temporary, as this merely kicks the can down the road, and as we know, roads in Russia are horrible.

That is, this plan only defers answering the question: who replaces Putin? Maybe this maintains stability while he is alive–and sentient–but his life will end, and his physical and mental powers are likely to decline substantially before that time. What then?

The post-Putin transition was almost guaranteed to be a chaotic and vicious power struggle because of the highly personalized and de-institutionalized nature of the system he created. If anything, his proposed alternative is even more personalized and de-institutionalized because he will play the same functional role, but in an even less formalized structure. This, combined with the creation of new fiefdoms (e.g., by empowering the Duma) is likely to make the succession struggle even more fraught.

As the old commercial said: you can pay me now, or pay me later–with the implication that paying later will be far more expensive. So it will be in Russia, as in oil filters.

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