2. Eurointelligence reports that Le Monde has a story on the recent four country tour of the Austrian finance minister, Josef Pröll, to Bucharest, Sofia, Kiev and Zagreb in support for a €150 billion plan to support the eastern European economies. He has been arguing that the Austrian financial sector is solvent. However, as Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism notes, Austrian banks have apparently lent as much as €230 billion, or 70% of Austrian GDP, to the ex-Soviet bloc. She quotes at length from a piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the UK Telegraph:
"Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, said Eastern Europe has borrowed $1.7 trillion abroad, much on short-term maturities. It must repay–-or roll over-–$400 billion this year, equal to a third of the region's GDP. Good luck. The credit window has slammed shut. …Ms. Smith reports that the Austrians are allegedly confident that Berlin will bail them out. Meanwhile, today Eurointelligence reports that the Narodowy Bank Polski said it was difficult to justify entering the European monetary union, pushing the zloty to its lowest level since joining the EU, and presumably exacerbating the losses of those banks invested in the country. Laura Cochrane at Bloomberg reports that emerging-market stocks today took a beating on the growing fears around the eastern European economic troubles, led by eastern European mining and financial companies.
'This is the largest run on a currency in history,' said Mr Jen.
In Poland, 60% of mortgages are in Swiss francs. The zloty has just halved against the franc. Hungary, the Balkans, the Baltics, and Ukraine are all suffering variants of this story. As an act of collective folly – by lenders and borrowers – it matches America's sub-prime debacle. There is a crucial difference, however. European banks are on the hook for both. US banks are not.
Almost all East bloc debts are owed to West Europe, especially Austrian, Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks. En plus, Europeans account for an astonishing 74% of the entire $4.9 trillion portfolio of loans to emerging markets. …"
3. Andrei Batrak, Martin Doerry, Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp of Der Spiegel conducted an interview of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently, where he evinced optimism regarding US-Russian relations. In part his optimism is an outgrowth of the crisis; apparently in his view wealth created the luxury for certain conflicts to bloom:
"Lavrov: We can no longer afford the luxury of little geopolitical games, because we all face challenges that directly affect our citizens. So we should no longer ideologize problems, we should instead honestly express our own national interests, understand the legitimate interests of our partners, and have no more hidden agendas, where one thing is said while something else is done behind someone's back. The signals that we are receiving indicate that our Western partners are aiming for the same objectives."He also indicated that Russia has already agreed to allow the transit of supplies to US troops in Afghanistan, though I infer that Moscow may look for some further quid pro quo for permitting the transit of munitions.
"SPIEGEL: Let's look ahead. The war in Afghanistan is the greatest foreign policy challenge that the new US administration faces. Russia must also have an interest in preventing the West from failing in the Hindu Kush. How can you help?Lavrov was Russia's Ambassador to the UN from 1994 until he was appointed Foreign Minister in 2004 by Vladimir Putin. Worth reading in full.
Lavrov: In April 2008, we signed an agreement with NATO concerning the transit of nonmilitary goods over Russian territory to Afghanistan. Up until now, such agreements have only been made with Germany and France, and recently one was concluded with Spain. In late January, the US asked us to apply the NATO agreement as the basis for supplying the American contingent. We immediately consented and have also agreed with NATO to make Russian military transporters available to the peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan. We could also work more closely together to curb drug trafficking."
4. Pamela Constable at the Washington Post reports that Islamabad has announced it has agreed with the Taliban to introduce sharia courts into the Swat valley.
"'There was a vacuum . . . in the legal system. The people demanded this and they deserve it,' said Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the North-West Frontier Province. The new system will include an appeals process, something the Afghan Taliban justice system did not allow for."
Jane Perlez at the New York Times reports that the new accord puts into effect agreements made by Benazir Bhutto in the early 1990s and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. The agreements to put in place sharia courts had never been honored. Despite the clear desire for a means of legal redress of issues, the lawyers movement appears to regard the decision as a jurisdictional challenge.
"'This means you have surrendered to a handful of extremists,' said Athar Minallah, a leader of a lawyers’ movement that has campaigned for an independent judiciary. 'The state is under attack; instead of dealing with them as aggressors, the government has abdicated.'"That said, historically the modern nation state was been built in part via competing jurisdictions, and the general desire for rule by law is something that it is in the US interest to encourage. (see The Law in Pakistan.) That said, the Associated Press reports that NATO immediately criticized the decision, with spokesman James Appathurai saying:
"It is certainly reason for concern. We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse."5. India's Economic Times reports that today Russia and China signed a $25 billion energy deal whereby Beijing would lend $15 billion to Rosneft and $10 billion to Transneft in return for 20-years supply of 300 kb/d.
"Russian crude will be supplied through a long-delayed pipeline project agreed to late last year. The pipeline, which extends from western Siberia to the Pacific coast, is to be linked to China from the Siberian city of Skovorodino, 70 kilometers (44 miles) north of the Sino-Russian border."The deal is very similar to the $6 billion loan CNPC provided Rosneft to purchase remaining Yukos assets in 2005. Meanwhile, Michelle Wiese Bockmann at Lloyd's List reports that Lukoil Trading and Shipping Supply chief executive Gati Al-Jebouri told journalists that the company expects to supply more crude to the international markets, given a reduction in domestic consumption.
6. Carola Hoyos at the Financial Times reports that Christophe de Margerie, Total SA CEO, told the media that he doesn't believe the world will ever be able to produce more than 89 mb/d of oil. It was not clear from the story whether Mr. Margerie included biofuels or NGLs in his definition of oil. He noted that in the current financial environment, national oil companies--which control about 70% of the world's proven reserves--will have a hard time financing new investments. He expects more than 1.5 mb/d of potential supply from the Canadian oil sands and Venezuelan Orinoco belt to have been shut in by low prices. Hoyos implies that Margerie expects prices to rebound in the medium term, which make some sense of his decision to focus on development in Venezuela as opposed to Brazil as per reports on Friday. (see Daily Sources 2/13 #9.) Meanwhile, Simon Romero at the New York Times reports that Hugo Chávez's referendum to abolish presidential term limits passed over this weekend. If the economic indicators recently published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research are facts, then it is easy to see why.
"- The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7% in 5.25 years, or 13.5% annually.The source primarily used in the CEPR paper is the Banco Central de Venezuela. That said, the paper argues that one shouldn't look at the time prior to the government's reorganization of PdVSA as a guide to economic performance. Perhaps, but Caracas can only loot PdVSA for so long--consumption driven growth provided by subsidies via oil revenues and nationalizations can only run as long as production remains normal and there are remaining oil companies willing to make large investments in the country. The nationalization of a national oil company's project would probably put an end to any international interest whatsoever.
- Most of this growth has been in the non-oil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.
- During the current economic expansion, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54% of households in the first half of 2003 to 26% at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72%. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does take into account increased access to health care or education.
- Over the entire decade, the percentage of households in poverty has been reduced by 39%, and extreme poverty by more than half.
- Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.
- Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person more than tripled from 1998-2006.
- From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than one-third. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access. - There have been substantial gains in education, especially higher education, where gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999-2000 to 2007-2008.
- The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3% to 7.8%. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.
- Over the past decade, the number of social security beneficiaries has more than doubled.
- Over the decade, the government’s total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3% of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8% of GDP.
- Inflation is about where it was 10 years ago, ending the year at 31.4%. However it has been falling over the last half year (as measured by three-month averages) and is likely to continue declining this year in the face of strong deflationary pressures worldwide."
Joshua Partlow at the Washington Post has an especially interesting article emphasizing the legal nature of the leftist turn in South America.
"[F]rom the Venezuelan charter in 1999 to the new constitutions in Ecuador last year and Bolivia last month, a team of Spanish legal scholars influenced the conception, drafting or implementation of the documents, which have stirred domestic class tensions and harmed relations with the US government. The leader is Roberto Viciano Pastor, an author and constitutional law professor at the University of Valencia whose technical, and some say ideological, assistance in writing the constitutions is generating new scrutiny across South America."The effort to win political dominance via democratic appeals to revamp the legal landscape--whatever the criticisms of the protagonists and their true intentions--demonstrates an interest in legitimizing change via established rule of law, and in itself should be encouraging. Partlow quotes Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who said last month:
"What we have achieved in these last years was, in truth, the result of the deaths of many people, many young people, who decided to take up arms to bring down the authoritarian regimes in Chile, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Brazil, in almost all the countries. They died, and we are doing what they dreamed of doing--and we have won this by democratic means."Vis-a-vis the on-going struggle with Exxon-Mobil, Platts reports that Exxon today announced it had a 103% replacement rate for oil produced in 2008. Most of those bookable barrels come from Canada's oil sands--which require expertise to exploit similar to what is found in Orinoco. But, in news consistent with Mr. Margerie's predictions, Matthew Cook at Platts reports that federal agency Statistics Canada announced over the weekend that Canadian oil production fell 3.31% to average about 2.68 mb/d in 2008.
Meanwhile, Spencer Swartz at Dow Jones reports that IEA chief Nobuo Tanaka told reporters:
"If OPEC is aiming at rapid increases by cutting supply maybe it would not be good for economic recovery. We think OPEC countries should take a closer look at the market and make a flexible decision."And Luke Pachymuthu at Reuters reports that Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told journalists that OPEC should make further cuts should prices not recover. Such noise should be taken with more than a grain of salt, given that Iraq is not subject to OPEC supply quotas.
7. Shobhana Chandra at Bloomberg reports that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s general economic index fell to minus 34.7% in January from minus 22% in December. The index measures manufacturing activity in New York.
8. Phred Dvorak at Real Time Economics posts the extremely worrisome story that Littler Mendelson, a leading employment-law law firm consulted on roughly half of all layoffs in the US, is currently working on roughly an additional two million layoffs this quarter.
"Applying his admittedly unscientific methodology, Mr. Mathiason estimates the US could lose around three million jobs from January through March, or one million a month."Worth reading in full.