$5 Billion Down the Drain
Russia’s Gazprom has finally thrown the towel on the South Stream pipeline, after spending $5 billion on it. This follows repeated attempts by the EU to shoot itself in the foot using its “competition rules” as a pretext. These nonsensical rules are employed as a pretext for a great many things, but the protection of consumers ranges most definitely at the very bottom of priorities. South Stream would have circumvented the Ukraine and brought Russian natural gas to a number of countries (many in the Balkans, plus Austria and Italy) which are nearly 100% dependent on Russian gas already. Germany presumably doesn’t care because, tada! – it gets its gas via “North Stream”. For unknown reasons the “competition commission” had nothing against that pipeline. One wonders why? We think the only European newspaper that came closest to the truth was the Italian paper La Republicca. While it (wrongly) blamed the decline in energy prices for the decision, it wrote in an aside:
“The latest jolt sweeps away South Stream. The maxi-pipeline – dear to Vladimir Putin, supported by the former Berlusconi government, opposed by the United States - will not be built”
The truth is, the EU’s “competition commission” rigmarole was a pretext for what is at its core a political, not an economic decision. The US opposes South Stream solely for geopolitical reasons, as it has zero commercial importance for it. The EU has neither valid commercial and nor indeed valid political reasons to oppose the pipeline. Europe has been buying energy from Russia even back when it was still part of the evil Soviet Union, the communist empire that was an actual enemy. And yet, as German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel remarked in an address (in which he admitted that German subsidies for various “alternative energy” nonsense needed to end), Russia has never reneged on its energy deliveries, not even in the most tense moments of the cold war.
A piece of South Stream in Bulgaria, now a memento of a missed opportunity
Photo credit: Gazprom
A Brief Technical Update
This is a brief addendum to our recent update on the gold sector. Since then, a few interesting things have happened. Initially, gold stocks bounced from the 61.8% retracement level of the preceding rally in spite of the fact that gold and silver weakened further. The action reversed however on Thursday, with gold and silver bouncing, while precious metals shares lost some ground again. The HUI failed at the 200 day moving average, and it remains to be seen if it once again turns into an impenetrable barrier (we believe it won't). The HUI-gold ratio has strengthened a bit recently. Note also the divergence between the HUI and the ratio that has developed at the most recent low.
HUI and HUI-gold ratio – divergence at the recent lows - click to enlarge.
HUI with Fibonacci retracement levels of the December-March rally – click to enlarge.
Ukrainian Hryvnia Crashes
Bank runs, lack of reserves, danger of default – these were the sound bites lately emanating from the post-revolutionary Ukraine. Amid reports of intensifying bank runs during which some 7% of all bank deposits have reportedly been withdrawn, Russia let it be known that it believes the Ukraine is on the brink of default. This has some weight, as Russia was poised to extend an emergency loan amounting to $15 billion to the Ukraine. Shortly after the government of former president Yanukovich and the opposition had agreed on a truce and just prior to the confrontation on Maidan square turning bloody, Russia had announced it would release a $2 billion tranche of the loan. One assumes that the Russians are well informed about the Ukraine's financial condition. Moreover, the new interim government already let it be known that it needs at least $35 billion in aid.
For more details on these developments see this write-up on the situation by Mish. On Monday we pointed out that the hryvnia had oddly failed to appreciate in spite of a sudden urge by investors to load up on Ukrainian stocks and bonds. Later on Monday, the currency started to move lower quite quickly. Come Tuesday, and the currency has basically crashed (and the move may not be over yet).
Read the rest of this entry »
Muslim Brotherhood Designated a Terrorist Organization
It has become quite a steep fall from grace. Within 18 months, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has moved all the way from winning the presidency and ruling the country to once again becoming outlawed. During the Christmas holidays the military council currently administering Egypt saw fit to declare the Brotherhood a 'terrorist organization'. Anyone taking part in demonstrations on behalf of the Brotherhood or otherwise supporting it henceforth faces a minimum of five years imprisonment. Its leaders face imprisonment for life, and perhaps even the death penalty. This includes former president Mohammed Morsi.
The pretext used for the promulgation was an attack on a police station (the Daqahliya Security Directorate in Mansoura) that killed 16 policemen and left an estimated 140 people injured. However, a different organization actually claimed responsibility for the attack, namely the Sinai-based radical Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. In August the Egyptian army let it be known that the group had been 'Reuters reports on the outlawing of the Brotherhood:', so we are evidently looking at a case of miraculous resurrection here (it's either that, or the army wasn't entirely truthful).
“The Egyptian government intensified its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday, formally listing the group as a terrorist organization after accusing it of carrying out a suicide bomb attack on a police station that killed 16 people. The move marked a major escalation in the army-backed government's campaign to suppress the Islamist movement that propelled Mohamed Mursi to the presidency 18 months ago but has been driven underground since the army toppled him in July. It gives the authorities the power to charge any member of the Brotherhood with belonging to a terrorist group, as well as anyone who finances the group or promotes it "verbally, or in writing".
"This is a turning point in the confrontation. This is an important tool for the government to close any door in the face of the Brotherhood's return to political life," said Khalil al-Anani, a Washington-based expert on the movement. The Brotherhood condemned the attack on Tuesday in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, north of Cairo. Earlier on Wednesday, a Sinai-based militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, had claimed responsibility for the attack that wounded some 140 people.
In Washington, the State Department also condemned the attack but urged Egypt to have an "inclusive political process." "We condemn in the strongest terms the horrific, terrorist bombing yesterday. There can be no place for such violence. The Egyptian people deserve peace and calm," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said but added: "We also note that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt condemned the bombing shortly after it occurred yesterday. We are concerned about the current atmosphere and its potential effects on a democratic transition in Egypt," she added.
The Brotherhood, which estimates its membership at up to a million people, was Egypt's best organized political force until this summer's crackdown. A political and social movement founded in 1928, it won five elections after the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
"The government decision aims to liquidate its political opponents," Mohamed Touson, a member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Al-Ahram online, a state-run news portal. Since Mursi's overthrow, the state has killed hundreds of his supporters in the streets and arrested thousands more. Mursi and other top Brotherhood leaders were last week charged with terrorism and plotting with foreign militants against Egypt. They could face the death penalty. A court ruling has also formally outlawed the group.”
The Outlook for Brazil
"What's the outlook for Brazil?" we asked our colleague Rodolfo Amstalden of Empiricus Research in Sao Paulo. It was raining outside. We were in his new digs, overlooking the fashionable Itaim district.
"That depends on who you talk to," he began. "But to us it looks terrible. We're warning investors to watch out for a 'perfect storm' that could flatten share prices on the Bovespa
"You have to realize that shares have lost 17% this year. And they're down 30% from their high set in 2008. But that doesn't mean they're cheap. The average P/E is still about 17 – not too far away from the US average. And here's what could happen in 2014…
"First, we're very sensitive to US monetary policy. And it's likely that the US Fed could begin to taper in 2014. Even if it doesn't, the fear of tapering is likely to send Brazilian stocks lower.
"Second, if you've been following the story closely, you may have learned that the government is on a spending spree and Brazil's bonds could be downgraded.
"They're currently two grades above the investment level threshold. So a single downgrade wouldn't hurt us much. But it could do a lot of damage to the stock market. And two downgrades, taking them below investment grade, might be catastrophic.
"To make things worse, there's a national election next year. Unless Brazil loses in the World Cup Soccer Championship next year, Dilma (current president Dilma Roussef) will almost certainly win. She's buying votes all over the country by giving money away. She's not going to be good for business or the stock market.
Devaluing from Afar
Hugo Chavez hasn't been heard from for a while. To be precise, he hasn't been heard from since December 11, when he underwent surgery in Cuba. However, he apparently still directs economic policy from his sickbed.
His most recent action was to make Venezuela the latest entrant in the 'currency war' by devaluing the official exchange rate of the Bolivar by 32%. Venezuela's inflation rate is at about 22%, and the new Bolivar exchange rate of 6.3 to the US dollar still has a long way to go until it reaches the black market rate of 19.53.
The main reason for the – quite unpopular – official devaluation appears to be the country's growing budget deficit. Venezuela's government mostly lives off the country's oil revenues. Ever since Chavez replaced the former management of the state-owned oil company with his cronies and confiscated the oil assets owned by foreign companies, oil production has been in free-fall, but oil sales still provide the biggest chunk of government revenue even so. By devaluing the Bolivar by 32%, the dollar revenue from crude oil sales will increase commensurately in Bolivar terms. Presto, budget deficit problem solved.
Greek Election Speculations
The upcoming election in Greece over the weekend has become subject to intense speculation. First a '' purported to reveal a lead for New Democracy in Sunday's election (no polling is allowed in Greece in the two weeks leading up to an election). However, political parties conduct their own polls and apparently it was thought politic to leak one:
„At this coming Sunday's elections, the centre-right Nea Dimocratia Party, led by Antonis Samaras and in favour of the Memorandum signed between Athens and its international creditors, should obtain 29% of votes, against 26% due to go to the far-left Syriza party, that intends to re-negotiate the agreements. These figures emerge from a poll carried out in secret by Nea Dimocratia and released in Athens last night.“
'Emergency' Invites Draconian Measures
In what the Atlantic magazine called 'one of Europe's dumbest moves yet', the euro-group finance ministers apparently let it be known via leaks what kind of contingency 'emergency measures' they are considering to implement in the event of a Greek exit from the euro area.
We are actually glad this has come out into the open, as this demonstrates the enormous price citizens are likely to pay in the end if the ongoing bailout charade fails. As always, a perceived emergency is getting to the point where it is ever more likely that it will be used as an opportunity to severely limit individual liberties and in this particular case interfere massively with peoples' property rights to boot – all 'for their own good' of course.
“European finance officials have discussed limiting the size of withdrawals from ATM machines, imposing border checks and introducing euro zone capital controls as a worst-case scenario should Athens decide to leave the euro.
EU officials have told Reuters the ideas are part of a range of contingency plans. They emphasized that the discussions were merely about being prepared for any eventuality rather than planning for something they expect to happen – no one Reuters has spoken to expects Greece to leave the single currency area. [that almost guarantees it will, ed.]
But with increased political uncertainty in Greece following the inconclusive election on May 6 and ahead of a second election on June 17, there is now an increased need to have contingencies in place, the EU sources said.
The discussions have taken place in conference calls over the past six weeks, as concerns have grown that a radical-left coalition, SYRIZA, may win the second election, increasing the risk that
Greece could renege on its EU/IMF bailout and therefore move closer to abandoning the currency. No decisions have been taken on the calls, but members of the Eurogroup Working Group, which consists of euro zone deputy finance ministers and heads of treasury departments, have discussed the options in some detail, the sources said.
Belgium's finance minister, Steve Vanackere, said at the end of May that it was a function of each euro zone state to be prepared for problems. These discussions have been in that vein, with the specific aim of limiting a bank run or capital flight.
As well as limiting cash withdrawals and imposing capital controls, they have discussed the possibility of suspending the Schengen agreement, which allows for visa-free travel among 26 countries, including most of the European Union. "Contingency planning is underway for a scenario under which Greece leaves," one of the sources, who has been involved in the conference calls, said. "Limited cash withdrawals from ATMs and limited movement of capital have been considered and analyzed."
Another source confirmed the discussions, including that the suspension of Schengen was among the
"These are not political discussions, these are discussions among finance experts who need to be prepared for any eventuality," the second source said. "It is sensible planning, that is all, planning for the worst-case scenario."
The first official said it was still being examined whether there was a legal basis for such extreme measures.” [thanks for the laugh, ed.]
Zwangswirtschaft Becomes Full-Blown Socialism
First make the company unprofitable by price controls, then blackmail it by revoking its concessions, then steal it – that seems to have been the playbook of Argentina's government regarding YPF Repsol.
President Christina Fernandez-Kirchner noted in her press conference on the seizure that
Argentina will manage YPF “professionally,” Fernandez said, adding that the country is one of the few that doesn’t control its own oil.
Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof will help De Vido to run the company, according to Fernandez.
Argentina is expropriating YPF for the “public good,” a government official said in yesterday’s speech.
No-One is Safe – A Fascistic 'Zwangswirtschaft' is Implemented
The government of Christina Kirchner is well-known for its interventionism, protectionism and disregard of property rights and freedom of expression. Anyone doing business in Argentina today or contemplating an investment in its stock market must realize that their property and assets could end up confiscated at anytime. Moreover, the high dividend yields of Argentine stocks are clearly no longer safe.
Even the many businesses that remain nominally the property of their owners are often subjected to some form of fascistic 'Zwangswirtschaft' in Argentina, with the bureaucratic interventions ranging from mild to extremely aggressive. This is to say, while business owners may still 'own' their businesses on paper, the government bureaus decide who may do what and when. Among the restrictions imposed by government are decrees that all export earnings must be repatriated, that numerous companies from oil producers to banks may not pay dividends but have to reinvest their profits in Argentina instead, and that farmers may only sell a certain percentage of their output abroad. On top of these decrees there are numerous additional restrictions on foreign trade, in the form of often ludicrous taxes on exports (for example, crude oil exports are subject to a 100% tax for every barrel that is sold above a price of $45/bbl.; agricultural exports are also subjected to high export taxes).
More Evidence of a Sharp Slowdown in China Emerges
As an update to our recent missive on China, there is now more evidence of a bursting property bubble as well as a more general economic slowdown.
BHP Billiton is reconsidering its planned as imports into China are declining due to falling steel production and a slowdown in car sales.
Meanwhile, house prices have lately been falling in 45 of 70 Chinese cities, with property sales in free-fall. As the FT Alphaville Blog reports on this, quoting from a Societe Generale report:
Financial Transaction Tax to Distract from Spain?
The Telegraph had an interesting article on the financial transaction tax, linking the attention it is now getting with a desire to detract from Spain's defiance regarding this year's deficit target. As always, Telegraph articles must be viewed with a bit of critical distance due to their tendency to contain a fair amount of hyperbole, but we thought the following snips were worth relating:
„So why – with Greece’s €130bn bail-out signed but probably inadequate and a raft of sinner states teetering under their debt loads – have European leaders said today’s summit in Brussels will focus on a bank tax?
Summit groupies will have seen this before: it can mean leaders have reached deadlock, need more time – and almost always that they need to butter up the northern European electorate.
In the face of any hurdle the FTT is the technocrats’ box ticking dream: look busy; raise money; smack banks; tackle a complex, cross-border issue; and kick over-achieving London while you’re at it.
So what are they hiding this time? In a word Spain. In a few words, the stirrings of a radical retaliation of “sinner states” against the German-led imposition of austerity and central rule.
At the beginning of March, leaders gathered in Brussels to sign their "non-negotiable" fiscal pact, binding all European countries (except Britain and the Czech Republic who opted out) to tough rules on budget discipline. Angela Merkel was tickled pink: the deal would last forever, she said.
But with sensational timing, Mariano Rajoy announced Spain would break the rules, immediately.
After days of silence, last night in Brussels finance ministers asked Spain to set a deficit target of 5.3pc. Not only is the figure a massive leap in Madrid’s direction, but the language was completely different too.
In a statement, the ministers expressed hope rather than demand: “The Spanish government expressed its readiness to consider this in the further budgetary process,” it said.
(emphasis added and we corrected a few typos)
Hungary Back At the Bailout Trough As Investors Go On Strike
Today Hungary's government came under renewed pressure, as yields on Hungary's government debt keep soaring and a treasury bill auction failed.
The government sold 35 billion forint ($140 million) of one-year bills, 10 billion forint less than targeted, data from the Debt Management Agency, known as AKK, on Bloomberg show. The average yield rose to 9.96 percent, the highest since April 2009, from 7.91 percent at the last sale of the same-maturity debt on Dec. 22.
The cost of insuring Hungary’s debt through credit-default swaps reached an all-time high and the forint touched a record low versus the euro after aid negotiations stalled because of new laws that threaten to undermine the independence of the central bank. Hungary needs a deal as soon as possible and is ready to discuss the conditions, Tamas Fellegi, the minister assigned to lead the talks, told reporters today.
“Fellegi’s comments are aimed at providing reassurance, but I think the market will adopt a seeing-is-believing approach,” Timothy Ash, a London-based economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, said in an e-mailed comment. “Market trust in this administration is now at rock bottom levels.”
More Meetings Are In The Works
In what could by now be termed a European tradition, the summit inflation seen last year seems set to continue. In 2011 the people involved in the attempt to curb the euro area's still evolving debt crisis lurched from one emergency summit to the next, providing an unexpected boon to euro-land's catering industry.
The is scheduled between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, these two unlikely captains of the euro ship, on January 9. It will be about discussing 'rules' – namely the rules that will, so it is said, help to 'enforce budget discipline in the euro area'. Needless to say, this hardly addresses the not inconsiderable problem that a number of countries in the currency union have seen their competitiveness eroded during the boom, remain mired in depression and continue to depend on a public sector vendor financing scheme via the famed 'TARGET2' balances between euro-system central banks.
More Articles of Interest:
- Rydex Ratio Goes Bananas
- New Junior Gold Mining Bear ETFs – Another Contrarian Signal?
- JC Juncker to Greece: “The Show Must Go On”
- Does QE Create “Deflation”?
- A Crash Course on Money (Part I)
- The “Near-Bubble”
- Modest Excesses
- The Russian Rubble
- The Next Crisis Will be Different from the Last
- What Do Central Banking and “Twerking” Have in Common?