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Several hours ago, and a day after the latest truce lasted about a few minutes before the the shooting returned and resulted in the bloodiest day of Ukraine’s protests so far, there was hope that the situation in Ukraine may finally be getting resolved, when Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich announced plans for early elections in a series of concessions to his pro-European opponents. As Reuters reported earlier, Russian-backed Yanukovich, under pressure to quit from mass demonstrations in central Kiev, promised a national unity government and constitutional change to reduce his powers, as well as the presidential polls. He made the announcement in a statement on the presidential website without waiting for a signed agreement with opposition leaders after at least 77 people were killed in the worst violence since Ukraine became independent 22 years ago. This comes in the aftermath of S&P’s announcement overnight that the Ukraine will default in absence of favorable changes.
So is this the favorable change that everyone has been expecting. Nope.
First, it was Russia’s turn to remind everyone that it is Russia’s decision whether or not it will allow the nations that has the bulk of its European gas pipelines crossing its territory to leave its sphere of influence. To wit, Russia announced that it plans to wait before issuing additional financial support to Ukraine’s govt under $15b package, FinMin Anton Siluanov says in interview in Hong Kong, adding that Ukraine’s central bank may be wasting intl reserves defending hryvnia. Almos as if Russia would like the Ukraine to become insolvent and thus even more dependent on its good graces.
And then it was Europe’s turn. As WSJ reported, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters that “A lack of credibility will hang over all negotiations with Yanukovych’s participation. It seems the atmosphere in Kiev, especially after the death of so many people, may prompt the people in the Maidan to say: ‘We won’t discuss anything anymore with Yanukovych’.… The situation is changing so dramatically that this [deal] doesn’t necessarily need to be accepted by the Maidan, which considering thousands of people there make it the main reference point in Ukraine. … It’s too early for optimistic conclusions.”
He also said Poland’s efforts in Ukraine are an “investment in our security.” “It seems an increasing number of Poles understand that for a secure Poland an independent Ukraine is needed,” he said.
“It would be naive to assume Yanukovych has any good will—there’s nothing behind him but the wall. I don’t know anyone in the world who could say he trusts President Yanukovych. …
“I understand people in the Maidan who say ‘We don’t trust this man’ and that his departure is a condition for this deal. Those people need to be understood—bodies of people killed the other night are still there.
“But in order not to jeopardize this effort, in spite of myself I’m saying: ‘President Yanukovych should be at the table.’”
It was unclear as of this moment whether Yanukovich was at the table but what is clear is the following:
- UKRAINE PACT SIGNING DELAYED, WSJ SAYS, CITING DIPLOMATS
- GERMAN, POLISH MINISTERS RETURN TO MEETING W/UKRAINE PRESIDENT
Did they take him out?
And some more details from Dow Jones:
- Signing of Anticrisis Pact in Ukraine Delayed — Diplomats and Officials
- Ukraine Opposition Leaders, EU Diplomats in Talks With Protesters on Pact Terms
- Polish PM Tusk: Some Protesters Seeking Immediate Yanukovych Resignation
- Poland’s Tusk: “There’s Nothing Behind (Yanukovych) but the Wall”
- Poland’s Tusk: “In Spite of Myself, I’m Saying Yanukovych Should Be at the Table”
In other words, no deal, as the confusion and escalation will go on, until either a CIA-installed, pro-Western puppet government is installed (with the aid of said West of course – see Victoria Nuland leaked phone conversation), or until the Ukraine taps out and demands unconditional help from Putin.
At this point there does not appear to be a middle ground.
Ukrainian lawmakers scuffle in the country’s Parliament after the speaker
delayed debate on a resolution to reduce the powers of President Viktor
Yanukovych. – Reuters
Submitted by Adam Taggart of Peak Prosperity,
Argentina is a country re-entering crisis territory it knows too well. The country has defaulted on its sovereign debt three times in the past 32 years and looks poised to do so again soon.
Its currency, the peso, devalued by more than 20% in January alone. Inflation is currently running at 25%. Argentina’s budget deficit is exploding, and, based on credit default swap rates, the market is placing an 85% chance of a sovereign default within the next five years.
Want to know what it’s like living through a currency collapse? Argentina is providing us with a real-time window.
So, we’ve invited Fernando “FerFAL” Aguirre back onto the program to provide commentary on the events on the ground there. What is life like right now for the average Argentinian?
Aguirre began blogging during the hyperinflationary destruction of Argentina’s economy in 2001 and has since dedicated his professional career to educating the public about his experiences and observations of its lingering aftermath. He is the author of Surviving the Economic Collapse and sees many parallels between the path that led to Argentina’s decline and the similar one most countries in the West, including the U.S., are currently on. Our 2011 interview with him “A Case Study in How An Economy Collapses” remains one of Peak Prosperity’s most well-regarded.
Chris Martenson: Okay. Bring us up to date. What is happening in Argentina right now with respect to its currency, the peso?
Fernando Aguirre: Well, actually pretty recently, January 22, the peso lost 15% of its value. It has devalued quite a bit. It ended up losing 20% of its value that week, and it has been pretty crazy since then. Inflation has been rampant in some sectors, going up to 100% in food, grocery stores 20%, 30% in some cases. So it has been pretty complicated. Lots of stores don’t want to be selling stuff until they get updated prices. Suppliers holding on, waiting to see how things go, which is something that we are familiar with because that happened back in 2001 when everything went down as we know it did.
Chris Martenson: So 100%, 20% inflation; are those yearly numbers?
Fernando Aguirre: Those are our numbers in a matter of days. In just one day, for example, cement in Balcarce, one of the towns in Southern Argentina, went up 100% overnight, doubling in price. Grocery stores in Córdoba, even in Buenos Aires, people are talking about increase of prices of 20, 30% just these days. I actually have family in Argentina that are telling me that they go to a hardware store and they aren’t even able to buy stuff from there because stores want to hold on and see how prices unfold in the following days.
Chris Martenson: Right. So this is one of those great mysteries of inflation. It is obviously ‘flying money’, so everyone is trying to get rid of their money. You would think that would actually increase commerce. But if you are on the other end of that transaction, if you happen to be the business owner, you have every incentive to withhold items for as long as possible. So one of the great ironies, I guess, is that even though money is flying around like crazy, goods start to disappear from the shelves. Is that what you are seeing?
Fernando Aguirre: Absolutely. Shelves halfway empty. The government is always trying to muscle its way through these kind of problems, just trying to force companies to stock back products and such, but they just keep holding on. For example, gas has gone up 12% these last few days. And there is really nothing they can do about it. If they don’t increase prices, companies just are not willing to sell. It is a pretty tricky situation to be in.
Chris Martenson: Are there any sort of price controls going on right now? Has anything been mandated?
Fernando Aguirre: As you know, price controls don’t really work. I mean, they tried this before in Argentina. Actually, last year one of the big news stories was that the government was freezing prices on food and certain appliances. It didn’t work. Just a few days later those supposedly “frozen” prices were going up. As soon as they officially released them, they would just double in price.
Chris Martenson: Let me ask you this, then: How many people in Argentina actually still have money in Argentine banks in dollars? One of the features in 2001 was that people had money in dollars, in the banks. There was a banking holiday; a couple of weeks later, banks open up; Surprise, you have the same number in your account, only it’s pesos, not dollars. It was an effective theft, if I could use that term. Is anybody keeping money in the banks at this point, or how is that working?
Fernando Aguirre: Well, first of all, I would like to clarify for people listening: Those banks that did that are the same banks that are found all over the world. They are not like strange South American, Argentinean banks – they are the same banks. If they are willing to steal from people in one place, don’t be surprised if they are willing to do it in other places as well.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Fernando Aguirre (36m:42s):
Editor’s Note: The following is the first installment of a three-part series on growing debt for Russia’s regional governments.
Since the 2009 financial crisis, the Kremlin has allowed Russia’s regions to take the brunt of the country’s economic decline in order to keep the federal government seemingly healthy, with a nominally small budget deficit and large currency reserves. But now most of Russia’s regional governments’ debt is so high, it is becoming dangerous for the federal government and big banks and could soon become unmanageable.
Russia is so large that the Kremlin lacks the resources to run each region of the country directly. Currently Russia is split into 83 regions of all shapes and sizes, which fall into categories of oblasts, republics, krais, federal cities and autonomous okrugs. Historically, the Kremlin has given regional leaders (mayors, governors, heads or republic presidents) the power to run their own regions and ensure loyalty to the Kremlin and stability for the country.
However, the Kremlin is constantly concerned with its control over the regions. The federal government’s ability to maintain the loyalty of each region has been tested often throughout history. For instance, dozens of regions attempted to break away after the fall of the Soviet Union, occasionally leading to wars such as those in Chechnya.
The central government’s control over the regions was demolished during the devastating financial crisis in 1998. Many of the regional heads defied the federal government in order to look out for their own regions’ survival. It was the second-worst regional breakdown in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was related directly to the chaos caused by that collapse. This is why the currently growing economic strains in the regions will be of great concern for the Kremlin.
The Regions’ Mounting Debts
Most of Russia’s regional governments have always had some level of debt, but resource-based export revenues have kept it mostly manageable since the 1998 crisis. However, since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, most of the regions’ debt has risen by more than 100 percent — from $35 billion in 2010 to an estimated $78 billion in 2014, and Standard & Poor’s has estimated that this will rise to $103 billion in 2015. Russia’s overall government debt — the federal and regional governments combined — is around $300 billion, or 14 percent of gross domestic product. This is small for a country as large as Russia, but the problem is that so much of the debt is concentrated in the regions, which do not have as many debt reduction tools as the federal government does.
Of the 83 regional subjects in Russia, only 20 will be able to keep a budget surplus or a moderate level of debt by 2015, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations. This leaves the other 63 regions at risk of needing a federal bailout or defaulting on their debt.
Currently, the Russian regions are financing their debt via bank loans, bonds and budget credits (federal loans, for example). Each region has to get federal approval to issue bonds, because regional bonds create more market competition for the federal and business bonds. Most of the banking loans to the regions carry high interest rates and are short term (mostly between two and five years). The federal loans come with much lower rates and longer repayment schedules (mostly between five and 20 years), so naturally federal credits and loans are more attractive for the local governments, though unprofitable for the federal government. The issuance of federal credits or loans to the regions in 2013 was limited; initially, Moscow said it would issue $4.8 billion in new credits to the regions in 2013, but only issued $2.4 billion due to its own budgetary restrictions. This is one contributing factor to the dramatic local-government debt increases.
The next contributing factor to the rise in regional debt is the overall economic stagnation that has plagued Russia since the 2009 financial crisis and subsequent stimulus aimed at pulling Russia out of the crisis. Despite high energy prices all year, Russia’s gross domestic product growth slowed dramatically in 2013 to 1.5 percent growth after an initial 3-4 percent growth target by the Kremlin at the start of that year. This is low compared to the 7-8 percent growth seen yearly in Russia in the mid-2000s. Most analysts believe the only way Russia’s growth remained positive was through its large energy revenues, which make up half of the federal government’s budget and 20-25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
There are a handful of reasons for Russia’s economic stagnation. First, investment in Russia was lower than expected in 2013. Fixed investment was down 1.8 percent year-on-year in the first 10 months of 2013, compared with a 9.1 percent year-on-year growth in the same period in 2012. Private sector outflows of capital were high in 2013, with a net outflow of $48 billion leaving Russia in the first nine months of 2013, compared with $46 billion for the same period in 2012. Moreover, the investment sentiment in Russia is poor at the moment, as the Central Bank of Russia has begun closing some 800 smaller banks in a consolidation. Many of those banks were regionally based, and their closure is making investment in the regions less attractive.
Lower investment, coupled with less corporate borrowing and a decline in demand in many sectors, such as metals, led to lower industrial production. In the first 10 months of 2013, industrial production was flat compared with 2.8 percent growth in the same period in 2012. Industrial production is region-specific in Russia; industry provides nearly the entire economy in some regions. Thirty-one Russian regions, including Komi and Barents, had negative industrial production indexes for 2013. This could get worse in 2014, as many of the metals giants are planning to continue shutting down plants due to a lack of demand and low prices. For example, the world’s largest aluminum producer, Rusal, is shutting down five aluminum plants in the Volgograd, Karelia, Leningrad and Urals regions and laying off tens of thousands of workers.
Another factor contributing to the regions’ rising debts is increasingly burdensome obligations to the federal government. Of the income generated in a particular region, only 37 percent of the income stays in that region and the rest goes to the federal budget. The federal government does return some of the funds to the region in the form of subsidies and intergovernmental transfers, but not more than 20 percent. The amount of income that the Kremlin has taken from the regions has increased 12 percent in the past three years (via increases in taxes and decreases in subsidizations), leaving less and less for the regions to work with.
There has also been a large outcry from the regional governments in response to a series of presidential edicts that Vladimir Putin declared when he was re-elected to his third term in late 2011. Putin ordered the regional governments to do a series of tasks, such as replace all dilapidated housing by 2014, and to raise regional and municipal salaries by 7-10 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent in 2015. The regions are calling these “unfunded mandates,” as the federal government is not helping the regions pay for these projects. Already, the Kremlin has had to postpone the housing replacement edict to 2016 due to lack of funding in the regions, but the salary edict remains in place and is estimated to cost the regions $56.6 billion over the next two years.
- Part 1: Russia’s Growing Regional Debts Threaten Stability
- Part 2: Russia’s 1998 Financial Crisis in the Regions: A Case Study
- Part 3: Russia Weighs its Options for Managing Regional Debts
The market just hit a fresh all time high today which means another major default must be just around the horizon. Sure enough, the FT reported moments ago that a Puerto Rico default “appears increasingly likely” and is why creditors are meeting with lawyers and bankruptcy specialists (most likely Miller Buckfire, fresh from its recent league table success with the Detroit bankruptcy) on Thursday in New York. The FT cited a restructuring advisor, supposedly desperate to sign the engagement letter with creditors and to force the bankruptcy, who said that “the numbers are untenable” and “to issue new debt the yield would have to rise and where they can’t raise new money they will have to stop paying.”
The untenability of PR’s cash flows results from a “debt service burden that requires paying between $3.4bn and $3.8bn each year for the next four years. As doubts grow about the ability of the commonwealth to service that debt, the cost of doing so will inevitably rise.”
For Puerto Rico bonds, such an outcome would not be exactly a surprise, most recently trading at 61:
The rest of the story is largely known:
If Puerto Rico is forced to take that step, the effects will ripple through the entire $4tn municipal bond market. Because the debt is generally triple tax free, in a world of zero interest rates demand is high and it is distributed widely, including in funds that imply they have no exposure to Puerto Rico.
But yields have gone up nevertheless – and prices down – suggesting the markets are increasingly nervous about prospects for repayment. Estimates on how much of that debt is insured range from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of total issuance.
“Everyone thinks they can get out in time,” the restructuring adviser said.
Puerto Rico cannot really raise taxes much more, since the debt per capita is more than $14,000, while income per capita is almost $17,000, a ratio – at 83 per cent – that makes California, Illinois or New York – each at 6 per cent – models of prudence. Meanwhile, at 14 per cent, the unemployment rate is twice the national average.
What would make a Puerto Rico default more interesting is that as in the case of GM, political infighting would promptly take precedence over superpriority and waterfall payments. According to the FT, “any radical step, which the local government denies considering, would involve significant legal wrangling. Congress could step in and create an insolvency regime, lawyers say, since it has comprehensive jurisdiction, but that too would give rise to partisan fighting. The Democrats would say that pension claims have priority while the Republicans would uphold the priority of payments to bondholders, citing the constitutional sanctity of contracts.”
Of course, since in the US a bond contract now is only worth the number of offsetting votes it would cost, nobody really knows what will happen. And so, we sit back and watch, as yet another muni quake appears set to hit the US, in the process obviously sending the S&P to higher, record highs.
In the meantime, keep an eye on bond insurers AGO and MBI which have taken on water in today’s session precisely due to concerns over what a Puerto Rico default would do to their equity.