Friday, August 29, 2014

29/8/2014: While New Financial Sanctions Loom

When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold… These days, America is more pointing than sneezing, and Europe is heading for the bite rather than a cold. The bite of sanctions against Russia.

Yesterday, at an advisory call I highlighted the details of potential impact that deeper financial sector sanctions against Russia can have on Russian banks and investment. You can read more on the topic here:

In my view, the damage can be heavy. And this was based on the US proposals being aired around to ban Russian banks' access to short-term funding and derivatives markets.

Today, the UK joined the chorus of 'throw Russian financial system into the dark ages'.

Let's start from the latter.

The UK is planning to push EU leaders to ban Russian access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication system, commonly known as SWIFT. If SWIFT access for Russian banks is interrupted, the impact will be big. Cross-border banking will become excruciatingly expensive and limited for Russian companies and banks, including all companies and banks - whether sanctioned explicitly, or left off the list of sanctions to-date. Trade flows and payments will be disrupted too.

Russia has been preparing for this already, having announced back on August 7 that it is working on creation of the domestic system for banks transfers and data transmissions.

Swift is a 'worldwide' system because it is used worldwide, covering 215 countries, but the company is incorporated under the Belgian law and as such is a hostage to the EU, which did block Iranian banks' access to the system back in 2012. This raises a major point for the stability of the global financial system: a major technical part of it is a de facto subject to the political choices of the EU.

If Russia succeeds in developing its own system (and it is hardly nuclear science to put one together) and, as planned, if it were to wire China into it too to cover settlements in yuan and ruble, there will be two repercussions that the UK leadership is not considering:

  1. Much of flows between Russian banks and flows with other partnering banks will fall outside the normal international system that offers some transparency; and
  2. The system can create a new competitor to SWIFT - a competitor outside the regulatory net of the Western authorities. 

Meanwhile, the US is pouring over its own 'solutions'. As was reported earlier this week, the US is looking into limiting derivatives trading (including commodities options and futures, plus currency derivatives) and short-term loans for Russian corporates and banks.

So far, sanctions have impacted only longer-term debt issuance by the companies listed explicitly on the sanctions list, but also cooled off other Russian corporates' access to the US and European debt markets, despite them not being on the list. Bloomberg reported earlier this week that  Russian companies placed only USD4.1 billion of bonds abroad since mid-March 2014, which is less than a fifth of issuance in the same period last year.

Combined, the two approaches will impose a significant cost onto Russian economy. More importantly, the measures will disrupt legitimate, non-sanctioned (to-date) ordinary day-to-day business conducted by Russian companies. They will also put pressure on Russian funds outside the country, including ordinary savings, small business funds and investments. The sanctions, if passed, will have to be matched by Russia, and it is very hard to imagine what the co-measurable response can be.

Bigger issue, of course, is that sanctions are not only unproductive in achieving the Western goal of stopping Russian engagement in Ukraine, but are actually counter-productive. Ukraine is a geopolitical conflict theatre today, not an economic one. And the conflict goes across three core points:

  1. Russia's security in the face of encroaching Nato - including the 2002 Nato-Ukraine Action Plan, the 2005 Intensified Dialogue, the 2008 Bucharest declaration that effectively invited Ukraine to join Nato "when it wants to join and meets the criteria for accession"and so on - all temporally pre-dating December 2013.
  2. Russia's sense of humiliation suffered over the last 24 years, compounded by the endless nationalist and Russophobic rhetoric emanating from a number of Eastern European countries and promoted by the West in the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s, including tolerance of the EU over the third-rate citizenship status for Russian-speaking 'minorities' in some Accession States, and
  3. The failed state of Ukraine.

I am not going to expand extensively on any of the above points, let the historians deal with them, but it is clear that none of them have anything to do with economic conditions in Russia. However, all of them are being only reinforced by the sense of political and popular consolidation that is sweeping across Russia today, triggered in part by the sanctions. The current leadership of Russia is actually being helped, not harmed by the sanctions precisely because their imposition and acceleration continue to remind ordinary Russian people that points (1) and (2) are valid. They need no reminder that point 3 is valid as millions of Ukrainians work in Russia, trying to make some sort of a future that is simply infeasible in Ukraine itself.

In a nutshell, anyone who knows Russian history also knows that Russian culture, history, social institutions - all rest on the foundations of securing unity in adversity. The more adversity you throw Russian way, the greater consolidation the Russian system will achieve.

Time to smell the roses, folks. The West will not [rightly] put its own boys-in-uniforms into Ukraine to protect the Maidan Government. The West [for want of funds and will] will hardly even pay the cost of rebuilding the Ukraine. The West [for lack of capability absent any serious Federalist reforms in the country] is not going to create a functional state out of the failed one. Ukraine is not Latvia or Estonia. Expecting a functional democracy to emerge in a large state fragmented by linguistic, ethnic, cultural, historical and social divisions of the magnitude that prevail across the Ukraine without some sort of a Federal state not anchored in chauvinistic nationalism exercised by either side is naive. Iraq is a model here, not Czechoslovakia.

Time to smell the roses, folks. Time to do something along these lines:

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