Monday, March 30, 2009

Daily Sources 3/30

1. Jason Clenfield at Bloomberg reports that Japanese industrial production fell by 9.4% in February from January, as per the Trade Ministry. "Inventories fell an unprecedented 4.2%."
"There are signs a recovery may be stirring in the US, Japan’s biggest market. US orders for durable goods rose in February for the first time in seven months. Inventories of long-lasting durable goods fell for a second month and new home sales increased for the first time since July.

In Japan, the drop in inventories adds to evidence that the worst of the manufacturing slump may be over. Companies said they would increase production 2.9% this month and 3.1% in April, today’s survey showed."
2. Volkhard Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand at Der Spiegel recently conducted an interview with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar in which he addressed a wide range of issues, and indicated that as a member of OPEC Qatar's position was that oil should be at $40/b to help support a global recovery. Key excerpts:
"SPIEGEL: How do you believe oil prices will develop now?

Hamad: I think the oil price should continue (to stay) in the $40 range for at least one or two more years.

SPIEGEL: Why so modest?

Hamad: Because this way we can help the world out of this crisis. If the world economy recovers, it will be good for us, too. Automatically, the price of oil will go up again. I don't see why OPEC countries should continue to cut production just to keep the price of oil high. This will not affect the industrial countries alone, it will also hit poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Who will look after them?

SPIEGEL: That's not the kind of argument you often hear when talking to oil producers.

Hamad: Yes, but I believe this battle is a battle for the whole world. Everybody should be helping each other for the next two years."
Interestingly, the Emir appears to believe that Europe will not be as badly affected by the economic crisis as the US. The Emir also addressed the issue of the emerging natural gas cartel:
"SPIEGEL: Europe has staked its future on natural gas, but we are concerned about supplies. Can Qatar step in to fill the breach if Russia fails to deliver?

Hamad: We are selling gas to Italy, Spain, Belgium and, starting within the next few weeks, to Britain. I know that the Germans prefer to have their own gas supply, but I think our gas could come to Germany through another European country. However, this depends on the quantities we have on hand and the price.

SPIEGEL: Europeans are also worried about the creation of a so-called Gas-OPEC. Is there another cartel in the making that will be able to set prices at will?

Hamad: With OPEC they have a cartel. Why don't we have this gas cartel as well? And why don't we make a sort of agreement between consumers and producers? I wouldn't mind such a gas cartel, but it will take time because some countries today sell for high prices and others sell for low prices. It will be hard for those selling high to bring their prices down. So we will need time."
The Emir also stated unequivocally that Qatar would not stand with the US against Iran. But, similarly, he thinks it would be hard for the Arab countries of the Gulf to stand with Iran against the US. He further states that though he welcomes the Obama Administration's new timbre in its approach to the region, that the other conflicts in the region also need to be addressed. He indicates Qatar's continued support for the Arab Peace Plan of 2002, with qualifications:
"Hamad: I think Israel will not accept the return of the Palestinian refugees. But on the issue of dividing the city of Jerusalem (and turning over East Jerusalem to the Palestinians), I think they should accept it."
Which seems reasonably rational to me. He also addressed the issue of the ICC's arrest warrant for Sudan President al-Bashir:
"SPIEGEL: The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir. Why are you opposed to this?

Hamad: If anything happened to Omar al-Bashir and Sudan ended up in chaos, the whole of Africa would also sink into chaos. Sudan is a vast land with a lot of borders. Al-Qaida would be happy to see Sudan become like Iraq.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it time for the Arab world to finally do something about the Darfur problem?

Hamad: We have been mediating in Sudan for a long time, particularly because the groups in Darfur do not want the Arab League to get involved. My hope is that we do not see interference from some other Arab countries. We are confident. We need to give the parties time--we have to let them shout and issue their grievances, and finally we need to get the process of negotiations going and discuss the future of their country.

SPIEGEL: Al-Bashir is now in Doha to attend the Arab summit.

Hamad: I sent my prime minister to invite him."
The Emir is extremely frank for the duration of the interview--a must read.

3. Juan Cole at Informed Comment helpfully provided the USG Open Source Center's translation of the March 22nd speech of the Supreme Leader [more accurately Leader of the Revolution or LOTR] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in response to the overture made directly by President Obama. (The USG Open Source Center paradoxically does not just simply publish their efforts.) This section of the speech begins with a long recitation of historical offenses of the US--real and imagined. (For example, Khamenei indicates that the US green-lighted Saddam Hussein's initial attack on Iran, something I believe is not the case.) The LOTR is not respectful, ironically enough--even if predictably enough--in the way he addresses the President's speech. For example, the LOTR says
"They have the slogan of change. Where is the change? What has changed? Clarify this to us."
Which on one level is fair enough, but also just off kilter, given that the change promised was to the American people, not the Islamic Republic of Iran. He also has a rather different take on the world's reception of the new POTUS than I, insofar as the LOTR remarks that the US is "hated in the world."
"Today, you are hated in the world. You should know this, if you do not already. Nations set fire to your flag. Muslim nations across the world chant 'Death to America.'"
The last bit being true of few nations outside of Iran itself. Just prior to this the LOTR chooses to question whether or not the POTUS is indeed in charge in the US, which seems to me a rather pointed insult.
"I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the President, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?
He then manages to come quite close to calling the President a liar. (Remember, the US's official position in the IAEA is that Tehran is lying about its nuclear program.)
"You may say that you want to change policies, but not your aims, that you will change tactics. This is not change. This is deceit."
He also brings up the question of translation in a somewhat insulting way--and I might even be inclined to concede this point, so to speak, but Juan Cole, who is clearly a partisan of reconciliation seems to think this is a reasonable translation, so I imagine it is a fair representation.
"This is my advice to US officials, the President, and others. Listen well to these words, and have them translated for you. Of course, do not give it to the Zionists to translate for you. Consult healthy people, and seek their opinions."
(In fact, the government did release an official translation of bits and pieces of the speech in a summary in English here.) That noted, there are a few elements of the speech which could be regarded as an opening.
"But I would like to say that we have logic. Since the beginning, the Iranian nation moved with logic. Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation."
And he concludes the section of the speech dealing with the Obama Nowruz greeting with:
"If you go on with the slogan of discussion and pressure, saying that you will negotiate with Iran, and at the same time impose pressure, threats, and changes, then our nation will not like such words. We do not have any experience with the new US President and Government. We shall see and judge. You change, and we shall change as well. If you do not change, our people became more and more experienced, stronger, and more patient in the past 30 years."
This could be seen as an opening, though I would note that the change in tone was not reciprocated--and this is from a culture acutely sensitive to matters of politesse. I would also note that the key section which some argue represents an offering was not included in the official translation of key elements of the speech offered on the LOTR's website.

That said, some argue the move is a clear opening. Juan Cole's response is here, and he wrote
"The US corporate media mysteriously interpreted Khamenei's words as a rebuff to Obama, but in light of the phrase I just quoted, I can't understand how they reached that conclusion."
Given the points I mention above, I find it incredibly difficult to understand how it is that Dr. Cole "cannot understand how they reached that conclusion" and how it could even be characterized as "mysterious." In any case, Cole chose to frame the speech as a "grumpy old man's" response to the Obama overture in which he was making his first offer in what he expects to be a long period of haggling toward a grand bargain.

Farideh Farhi--a very well-respected Iran expert--also believes the speech was conciliatory, though she disagrees with the "grumpy old man" characterization and does not think that everything is on the table. Her take is:
"Clearly from [the LOTR's] view, engagement in talks must be accompanied with some concrete steps that show Iran that the United States is interested in a process and give and take and not a process based on 'either deception or intimidation.' Deception because the objective remains the same while the softer language is a mere tactical change. Intimidation because talks are combined with further squeeze of Iran."
It is worth reading the speech for yourself. Meanwhile, on Saturday Ernesto LondoƱo at the Washington Post reported that the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, will be removed from their camp near the Iranian border and that the leaders will be separated from followers who will be "de-brainwashed" or "re-educated" depending on your point of view. The question of US support for the organization is one of the major sticking points addressed by the LOTR's speech.

4. Stuart Williams at AFP reports that the World Bank forecasts that Russian GDP will shrink by 4.5% in 2009.
"The forecast is considerably more pessimistic than that of the Russian government, which is predicting a contraction of 2.2 percent in GDP in 2009."
5. Nadia Rodova and Stuart Elliott at Platts report that Surgutneftegaz informed the press today that it had purchased a 21.2% stake in Hungarian oil and gas company MOL from Austria's OMV.
"This price represents a 93% premium to Friday's closing price, a 27% premium to the 12-month average price, and a 19% discount to the 12-month peak price of Hungarian Forint 23,700, Renaissance Capital said in a research note."
6. Edward Hugh at Fistful of Euros reported Sunday that the Bank of Spain intervened to take over Caja Castilla La Mancha, whose losses are estimated to be as much as €3 billion. Spanish financial shares fell sharply today in reaction to the news.

7. Reuters reports that the Bank of England today released data showing that the number of new mortgages approved in the UK in February grew at the fastest rate seen since May 2008.
"Mortgage lending rose by £1.507 billion, almost double analysts' forecasts for an £800 million rise, and up from just over £1 billion in January."
8. Chris Baldwin and David Sheppard at Reuters report that Europe's oil refining sector is shutting down gasoline units, given the collapse in demand from the US. Topper refineries--simple refineries without additional sophisticated processing units which increase production of certain products like gasoline or diesel--account for about 1 mb/d of Europe's 16 mb/d throughput capacity are the most likely to be decommissioned. Traditionally European surplus gasoline production has often been shipped to the US, serving as an upper boundary, so to speak, on the price of gasoline.
"'Europe's oil demand may never reach its peak again,' Leo Drollas, chief economist at the Center of Global Energy Studies (CGES), said."
9. Eric Watkins at the Oil & Gas Journal reports that Habib Kagimu, chairman of Tamoil Uganda Ltd., has suggested that Kenya's Mombasa-to-Eldoret oil pipeline could eventually be extended to Uganda's Albertine rift basin, where several big crude discoveries have been made recently.

10. Shailagh Murray and Karen DeYoung at the Washington Post reports that at a Capitol Hill news conference slated for tomorrow a bill will be introduced to lift the travel ban to Cuba. If the measure were to pass it would be an extremely significant reversal of long standing US-Cuba policy.

11. Liz Capo McCormick at Bloomberg reports that the Fed purchased $2.499 billion of US treasuries in its third direct purchase of US debt. The number was much less than the market was anticipating given the size of the Fed's program as announced.

12. An extremely interesting article discussing whether Goldman Sachs deliberately manipulated the price of oil upwards in June-July 2008 in a short squeeze, by Christopher Helman and Liz Moyer at Forbes.

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