The week of February 28: Where sanctions may lead, inflation’s next turn, antitrust, and much, much more.
If Putin had hoped for a successful, surgical strike against Ukraine, he must be disappointed. He may well also have been taken aback by the West’s reaction to the invasion. Its run-up was accompanied by the usual disunity within both NATO and the EU, but both NATO and the EU have closed ranks, and taken far stronger action than many (including me) had anticipated, particularly perhaps in Germany. Contrary to expectations, the possibility that Russia might cut off supplies of its natural gas has not been a brake (so far) on the European response, even if sanctions (so far) have been crafted in a way that allows Russia to keep exporting oil and gas and to be paid for it.
But these are still early days. Even as Russian oil and gas continue to reach European and American customers, the pre-existing surge in energy prices has been boosted by the uncertainties of war. The benchmark gas price (Dutch TTF) for Europe reached $221 (~ €200) per MWh, an all-time high, at one point on Thursday (which would be equivalent to an oil price of roughly $360 a barrel). That compares with around €18 at the beginning of 2021. Meanwhile, the U.S. oil price (WTI) stood at around $110. That’s up from around $65 a year ago. The price just before the pandemic hit was a little over $60.
Essentially, the markets are anticipating that we are moving straight from the post-pandemic supply/demand shock to a Russia-led supply shock, bad news (once again) for the consumer (we could be heading for $5 a gallon at the gas pump) with grim implications for inflation.
The impact of potential interruptions in the commodity flows from Russia and Ukraine doesn’t stop there. Take a look at what has been happening to the wheat price. Wheat futures have shot through $10 a bushel, about double where they were before the pandemic. Wheat prices had been rising for quite some time before the Ukrainian crisis, and there could be worse to come.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could devastate global grain markets so deeply that it’s likely to be the biggest supply shock in living memory.
That’s according to Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. Tens of millions of acres of grain production are at stake, he said Wednesday on Twitter . . .
Ukraine and Russia together account for more than a quarter of the global trade in wheat, as well as a fifth of corn sales. Prices for those staple crops are soaring on concerns over supply disruptions at a time when global food prices had already reached record highs.
Oh, yes (via Bloomberg):
Ben Riensche, who farms 16,000 acres in Iowa, would be ecstatic to get $80 per acre selling his corn. But it’ll cost him $240 an acre to feed the plants with nitrogen, triple what he’s used to paying. And that’s not counting what he’ll spend on two other important fertilizers, phosphate and potash, which he says have each doubled in price since he purchased supplies for his 2021 crops . . .
Russia is a major low-cost exporter of many kinds of crop nutrients. “No other nation has the same breadth of readily exportable fertilizer supply,” says Alexis Maxwell, an analyst with Bloomberg’s fertilizer analysis and news publication Green Markets. “Their fertilizers move to all continents.”
I wrote about other areas in which the West is vulnerable to interruptions in Russian supply here.
In the course of an article written for The Economist just before the invasion (but published just after it had begun), Dmitri Alperovitch had this to say about how Russia might respond to tough Western sanctions:
In the economic sphere, Russia can limit the export of strategic resources to the West, including grain, fertiliser, titanium, palladium, aluminium, nickel and timber — to say nothing of possibly calamitous limits on oil and gas exports. Consider that Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertiliser, without which food prices around the world would rocket. Over 70% of neon gas — used in the sophisticated laser-etching technology needed for manufacturing most semiconductors — comes from Ukraine. Russia could easily stop its supply in the event of war . . .
The purpose of these measures would be to inflict swift and significant economic pain on America and Europe by exacerbating already spiking inflation — now about 7.5% in America — while simultaneously placing even more stress on Western supply chains. Already these have been pushed to breaking point by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course all of these measures will be enormously expensive for Russia itself. But in the face of severe economic sanctions — and while still having access to $630bn in foreign reserves that can buoy the Russian economy for a few months at least — Mr Putin will probably try his luck and hit back.
That’s yet to happen, but, sooner or later, Putin, calculating that the West does not have an appetite for the sustained costs to it of Russian economic retaliation, may indeed start turning the screws (Alperovitch has, incidentally, some broader comments on escalation that are well worth reading). Putin’s decision to do so may be accelerated by the freeze on a good portion of those foreign reserves, something that Alperovitch does not seem to have anticipated. I know that I didn’t.
In some respects, those may prove to be the most consequential sanctions of all, and not just for the obvious reasons.
In a must-read article for the Wall Street Journal, Jon Sindreu ponders their implications:
“What is money?” is a question that economists have pondered for centuries, but the blocking of Russia’s central-bank reserves has revived its relevance for the world’s biggest nations — particularly China. In a world in which accumulating foreign assets is seen as risky, military and economic blocs are set to drift farther apart.
After Moscow attacked Ukraine last week, the U.S. and its allies shut off the Russian central bank’s access to most of its $630 billion of foreign reserves. Weaponizing the monetary system against a Group-of-20 country will have lasting repercussions.
The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis scared developing countries into accumulating more funds to shield their currencies from crashes, pushing official reserves from less than $2 trillion to a record $14.9 trillion in 2021, according to the International Monetary Fund. While central banks have lately sought to buy and repatriate gold, it only makes up 13% of their assets. Foreign currencies are 78%. The rest is positions at the IMF and Special Drawing Rights, or SDR — an IMF-created claim on hard currencies.
Many economists have long equated this money to savings in a piggy bank, which in turn correspond to investments made abroad in the real economy.
Recent events highlight the error in this thinking: Barring gold, these assets are someone else’s liability — someone who can just decide they are worth nothing. Last year, the IMF suspended Taliban-controlled Afghanistan’s access to funds and SDR. Sanctions on Iran have confirmed that holding reserves offshore doesn’t stop the U.S. Treasury from taking action. As New England Law Professor Christine Abely points out, the 2017 settlement with Singapore’s CSE TransTel shows that the mere use of the dollar abroad can violate sanctions on the premise that some payment clearing ultimately happens on U.S. soil . . .
[T]he entire artifice of “money“ as a universal store of value risks being eroded by the banning of key exports to Russia and boycotts of the kind corporations like Apple and Nike announced this week. If currency balances were to become worthless computer entries and didn’t guarantee buying essential stuff, Moscow would be rational to stop accumulating them and stockpile physical wealth in oil barrels, rather than sell them to the West. At the very least, more of Russia’s money will likely shift into gold and Chinese assets.
Indeed, the case levied against China’s attempts to internationalize the renminbi has been that, unlike the dollar, access to it is always at risk of being revoked by political considerations. It is now apparent that, to a point, this is true of all currencies.
The risk to King Dollar’s status is still limited due to most nations’ alignment with the West and Beijing’s capital controls. But financial and economic linkages between China and sanctioned countries will necessarily strengthen if those countries can only accumulate reserves in China and only spend them there. Even nations that aren’t sanctioned may want to diversify their geopolitical risk. It seems set to further the deglobalization trend and entrench two separate spheres of technological, monetary and military power.
There are two things to say about all this (well, there are many more, but let’s focus on two for now). The first concerns Sindreu’s almost casual acceptance of the idea that a “deglobalization trend” is underway, an assumption that is indeed correct. That the West is now being forced to recognize that globalization (a phenomenon it has done so much to encourage) will not overwhelm forces it had believed belonged to the past means that the fragmentation of the global economy is likely to accelerate. China and Russia have been reorienting themselves away from globalization for a while, but if the West joins in, the creation of two (or more?) distinct “spheres of technological, monetary and military power” will come far closer to reality.
The second point to underline is that such an evolution will, as Sindreu implies, be helped along by the way that the U.S. has been weaponizing, one way or another (for reasons that can range from fighting crime to fighting Putin) the almost universal acceptance of the dollar as a store of value. That the greenback is the reserve currency is one of the foundations of American power (not least because of the way that it allows this country to finance itself). But the more that the U.S. uses the dollar as a weapon, the more (over time) it will undermine the willingness of others to put their faith in it, with consequences that, to say the least, could be self-defeating.
The Capital Record
We released the latest of our series of podcasts, the Capital Record. Follow the link to see how to subscribe (it’s free!). The Capital Record, which appears weekly, is designed to make use of another medium to deliver Capital Matters’ defense of free markets. Financier and NRI trustee David L. Bahnsen hosts discussions on economics and finance in this National Review Capital Matters podcast, sponsored by National Review Institute. Episodes feature interviews with the nation’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs, investment professionals, and financial commentators.
In the 56th episode David is joined by Oren Cass, the executive director at American Compass and the former policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, who has created a name for himself in recent years for his critique of certain aspects of “market orthodoxy.” David and Oren enjoy a fruitful and constructive conversation on globalization and seek to unpack the right path to human flourishing within the mechanism of a market economy. There is plenty they disagree on, some surprising (and unsurprising) elements of agreement, and most of all, an earnest desire to engage in fruitful dialogue. And yes, there will be a sequel to this initial discussion soon.
The Return of the Regional Seminars
National Review Institute is back on the road with its biennial Regional Seminars. This year’s series, titled “Creating Opportunity,” will feature panel discussions and one-on-one conversations that make the moral and practical case for free enterprise.
Notable speakers include William B. Allen, David L. Bahnsen, Jack Brewer, Dale R. Brott, John Buser, Veronique de Rugy, Kevin Hassett, Pano Kanelos, Rich Lowry, Karol Markowicz, Andrew C. McCarthy, Andrew Puzder, Amity Shlaes, Kevin D. Williamson, and, less notable, me.
We hope you will join us. You can learn more and purchase tickets here.
Thomas L. Rhodes Fellowship
The Rhodes Fellowship is made available to a new or recent college graduate, up to age 25 (when initially applying) who shows interest and capability in writing on, broadly speaking, current affairs, but with a focus on finance, business, taxation, fiscal policy, economics, and the workings of the free market.
Interested? More details here (scroll down).
The Capital Matters week that was . . .
Earlier this month, we learned that the U.S. trade deficit rose to record levels, soaring at an annual growth rate of 27 percent. Predictably enough, many reporters expressed concern about U.S. dependence on foreign countries. This is nothing new. Journalists have been spinning this same story in the same way for years, confusing their readers and wrapping the trade balance in a shroud of mystery. Why the confusion and mystery concerning America’s negative external balance? After all, the U.S. has run a negative external balance every year since 1975, and the sky has not fallen.
This wrongheaded mercantilist view of international trade and external accounts has its roots in watching how individual businesses operate. A healthy business generates positive free cash flows — revenues exceed outlays. If a business cannot generate positive free cash flows on a sustained basis, take on more debt, or issue more equity to finance itself, then it will be forced to declare bankruptcy.
Typically, most people employ this general free-cash-flow template when they think about the economy and its external balance. For them, a negative external balance for the nation is equivalent to a negative cash flow for a business. In both cases, more cash is going out than is coming in.
But this line of thinking represents a classic fallacy of composition . . .
We need to understand SWIFT, but not because it is vital for the uninitiated to grasp what the system does to facilitate commerce and finance. Nor is the point to chide Biden and our allies over their avoidance of a total exclusion of Moscow from SWIFT, which would be a truly punitive measure — a fact illustrated by the besieged Ukrainian government’s zealous lobbying for such an exclusion.
The salient point here is why the West won’t — indeed, can’t — fully cut Russia off.
Throughout Putin’s reign, even as he has mauled his neighbors, murdered and imprisoned dissenters, subjugated his people, and abetted other anti-Western regimes, our government and our allies have encouraged themselves and their economies to become intertwined with and even dependent on Russia . . .
That variant of “socially responsible” investing known as ESG (companies are measured against various environmental, social, and governance guidelines) has, to put it mildly, its problems, not least that the standards it sets can be, how to put it, a little mysterious.
“JPMorgan is set to remove Russia from the environmental, social and governance (ESG) versions of its emerging market bond indexes, while it continues to review the country’s ejection from its widely used emerging debt benchmarks.”
Only a cynic would think that the reason for this move may owe just a little to PR — and to the fact that these securities have become very hard to trade.
It’s still not unreasonable to ask, however, what that paper was doing in that index in the first place . . .
The sanctions against Russia in response to its heinous act of aggression against Ukraine are still a work in progress, with the elimination of access for selected Russian banks from the SWIFT network that governs international financial transactions as the latest move. To be sure, the limited actions already taken have roiled markets, but it is far past the time for half measures, especially since financial innovations such as digital currencies have made traditional sanctions less effective. In the Trump White House, the staff spent an enormous amount of time working on and enforcing sanctions against Iran that were remarkably effective. Russia under Putin, clearly, cannot be trusted to stop its aggressions when the Ukraine war is resolved. It is essential that the Trump playbook be opened up and applied to Russia, and Belarus for that matter, for helping to enable the aggression . . .
It will be quite some time before we can judge just how effective the sanctions now being applied to Russia will be. It may not be so long before we see what Russia does in response. Looking at the ruble’s slump and the long lines outside Russian banks, it’s easy to think that the country, and thus possibly the regime, is in deep trouble. But, in part, that underestimates the resilience of the ‘silent majority’ (seemingly an important source of Putin’s support) outside the biggest cities, who have missed out on much of the prosperity enjoyed in a Moscow or St. Petersburg. Times have always been tough; if they become a bit tougher, well . . .
There’s an old saying about the need for a long spoon when supping with the Devil. There’s another about rats and a sinking ship.
I can’t think why they have just come to mind.
The Financial Times:
“Accenture axed its entire 2,300-person business in Russia on Thursday while McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group moved to suspend all client work there, as the world’s largest professional services groups join western companies’ flight from the country.
Days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, McKinsey and BCG had said they would not work for Russian government entities but had stopped short of dropping other clients, including state-owned groups.”
Without wishing to be impolite, that does seem to have been a rather fine distinction . . .
Russia, Ukraine & Energy
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer got his facts wrong while dismissing West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin’s call for the United States to ramp up domestic oil production.
“What do you make of Senator Manchin’s proposal to have more domestic oil production?” a reporter asked Schumer. “And is that not running afoul of many Democrats concerned about the environment?”
“The U.S. is a major oil producer; we only get 1 percent of any imports from Russia,” Schumer replied. “The bottom line is this: The real problem with increased gas prices is gouging and monopolies. Democrats are focused on those two issues.”
In fact, Russian imports accounted for 8.2 percent of all U.S. oil imports from June 2021 until November 2021 . . .
It was entirely predictable that the unhealthy dependence of some EU countries on Russian natural gas was something that Vladimir Putin might try to exploit. It was so predictable, indeed, that, in making his decision whether to attack Ukraine, Putin probably calculated that the fear of an interruption in Russian gas supplies might limit the European response to an invasion. So far, it’s fair to say that Europe’s reaction has been more robust than he might have expected, particularly in Germany, but we are, I suspect, only in the early stages of what may be a long struggle.
It was also entirely predictable that climate warriors in the media would take aim at those in the oil and gas sector who made the case that the best way to break this unhealthy dependence is to expand oil and gas production in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere in the West, an argument so obviously correct that it had to be trashed . . .
Cass offers what looks like a gentle industrial policy guided by social scientists worried about work. But it results in something worse, a tinkering through the state for special interests, precisely the kind of tinkering that prompted Smith’s criticism of mercantilism. Two decades ago, University of Chicago Booth School of Business economists Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales wrote a compelling critique of Cass’s position: While government should be an umpire to ensure the workings of competition and market forces, as Smith argued, private interests will inevitably compete behind the scenes in a self-interested manner to influence outcomes. Rajan and Zingales worried in particular about an alliance between struggling incumbent firms (for whatever reason) and unemployed or disaffected workers. Once we start making exceptions as Cass suggests, their alliance can turn the “umpire state” toward a “protectionist state,” generating some winners with many more losers — the economy as a whole — from lower living standards.
The avoidance of government tinkering is not just practical, but also moral. Part of Smith’s intellectual assault on mercantilism was to attack the power of special interests. Taking Rajan and Zingales a step further: Once government explicitly starts tilting the playing field of commerce, various businesses or trades will band together to use government as a tool to redistribute income to themselves at the expense of the public. As described in a different way by Nobel laureates James Buchanan and George Stigler, these interest groups make economists inherently skeptical about many forms of economic regulation as benefiting special interests, not the public at large. Smith depended upon the process of competition to drive the invisible hand, not on individual competitors. He defended business as an organization for exploiting new opportunities, markets, and ways of doing things, but his work — as with that of economists to follow — was “pro-market,” not “pro-business” in the sense sometimes touted by conservative politicians . . .
Investors who subscribe to the disciplines of ESG (that variant of “socially responsible” investment in which investors look at environmental, social, and governance concerns, and then decide to invest in China and Russia) can, at times, be remarkably — and, to the naïve, mysteriously — flexible. On other occasions, such investors can be absurdly rigid when it comes to defining what is or is not “socially responsible,” not least when it comes to the weight they should give to geopolitical realities in coming to their conclusions.
The attitude toward fossil fuels now displayed by some major investors reveals either no awareness of, or a remarkable indifference to, the advantages that ESG (indirectly) has handed/is handing Russia and China, something for which, over the longer term (a time horizon that ESG investors stress) is unlikely to benefit their clients. It won’t be so good in the short term, either.
But ESG is not just confined to climate issues, although it can sometimes seem like it.
Take armaments, and, by extension, defense . . .
The largest ocean carriers in the world are cutting off Russia. MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, ONE, and Hapag-Lloyd have all announced that they are temporarily suspending service to and from Russia in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Doing so is not required by sanctions from any country. The ocean carriers made the decision on their own. MSC and Maersk made exceptions for shipments carrying food, medical equipment, and humanitarian aid. CMA CGM said it would be suspending all service due to safety concerns . . .
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is using its administrative tribunal to block mergers with dubious justification. For years, the agency has been pushing the limits of its enforcement powers and exerting undue authority over private businesses.
One of the most potent and controversial tools at the agency’s disposal is its in-house court, a forum in which the FTC plays the role of judge, jury, and prosecutor. The commission has been using these administrative-review proceedings as a strategic tool to invalidate legitimate business transactions and effectuate a more invasive enforcement regime. Take the case of Illumina and its acquisition of Grail in September 2020, wherein the FTC’s aggressive use of its tribunal effectively silenced opposing viewpoints, stifled innovation, and undermined due process . . .
More fundamentally, emphasizing repeatedly that there are “only four” major beef companies raises the question: How many major beef companies should there be? Biden’s answer, implicitly, is “more than four,” but it’s not really clear why or how we should go about increasing the number of companies.
If there were five major beef companies, would Biden be happy? What if we split all of them in half so there were eight? In quarters to get 16? When doing antitrust, we don’t just count companies or look at market share anymore to decide whether to break them up or not. We look at whether companies are restricting output, raising prices above the market rate, and whether new firms can enter an industry . . .
From the Government and Here to Help
I ripped open the envelope and out tumbled two Covid-19 rapid antigen tests but no explanatory materials. After a few seconds, it hit me. These were the tests I had ordered online from the government five weeks earlier after President Biden promised every American household could order up to four free at-home tests.
The tests’ arrival epitomized the Biden administration’s shambolic pandemic response. When Biden — who had promised in 2020 to “shut down the virus” — announced on December 21, 2021, that his administration would purchase and distribute 500 million rapid, at-home tests to Americans, it was already too little too late. And when my tests were delivered weeks later, cases of the Omicron variant — which had spread unabated throughout the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations — were already plummeting . . .
Health-care-assistance programs such as Medicaid are supposed to be nimble and help vulnerable and low-income people get essential services without financial ruin. That’s difficult, though, when doctors are afraid to accept Medicaid patients for fear of dealing with a sprawling and far from friendly bureaucracy. According to a study released last year by researchers from the University of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, nearly 20 percent of initial claims submitted to the federal insurer face at least partial rejection. In comparison, only about 5 percent of claims submitted to private insurers were not paid in full.
The study’s authors acknowledge that these figures might not be fully comparable, but the wide disparity highlights the very real complaint of doctors that Medicaid is too complicated with too many middlemen. Sometimes these are managed-care organizations or independent review boards imposing standards on state Medicaid plans, but all of these layers create extra complications for physicians trying to get a simple reimbursement for care rendered . . .
If he didn’t lie, in his first State of Union address, President Biden at least misled. The target of the mendacity? The economic effects of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Act. If you listen to the president’s speech, you’d think that the 2017 tax legislation’s passage presaged a widening of inequality and a decline in middle-class wages. But the opposite, in fact, happened. A “trickle-down” tax bill passed in 2017. Then, inequality declined and middle-class incomes rose . . .
During the SOTU address, President Biden listed many of the policies he wanted to implement, including many that were blocked in the Senate when Build Back Better failed to gain any traction. It wasn’t lost on most people, including Senator Joe Manchin. When asked by reporters about whether spending $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion would lower costs and cool inflation, he said, “I’ve never found out that you can lower costs by spending more.”
He is not buying it. Me neither . . .
[O]ne feature of crypto is precisely that it transcends national borders and thereby provides a possible route for those who want to escape their government’s actions against them. It also provides an escape for people against the economic consequences — such as a collapsing domestic currency — that arise, for example, because of sanctions imposed by foreign governments. In my mind, that’s a good thing. Let’s remember that not every Russian using crypto is complicit in Putin’s attack on Ukraine. We should be careful to not lump ordinary Russians in with their ‘leader’ . . .
In his State of the Union address, President Biden belatedly recognized that the country had an inflation problem, although he was very careful not to assume any blame for that problem. He has done so at the very time that the Russia–Ukraine crisis and the start of an interest-rate-hiking cycle make it all too likely that the real problem the country will soon be facing will be one of stagflation, which is the painful combination of high inflation and stagnating output.
Worse still, from the perspective of those of us focused on state policy, Biden’s proposals threaten more of the blunt-force federal interventions that have exacerbated the very ills they claim to cure, all while undercutting state and local leaders who currently enjoy significantly more public trust than do federal agencies and officials.
Take, for example, the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that funds roads, bridges, rural broadband, and other items popular among everyday Americans. If allowed to run the course traditional for such laws, these funds might have aided a great many communities. Biden’s activist agency officials, however, can’t resist the temptation to creatively interpret the law’s terms in order to advance their Build Back Better agenda. Guidance trickling out of their offices reveals that standard formulas for allocating highway funding to states will be altered to reduce local decision-making and flexibility; enforce cumbersome environmental reviews that focus on climate change; prioritize electric cars; and impose race, gender, and other quotas at every stage from planning to bricklaying . . .
A second useful nugget Yardeni tosses out to his readers is the distinction he draws between capitalists who succeed because of their vision and market savvy and those who succeed because they have learned how to manipulate the political system. “Capitalism,” he writes, “comes in two flavors: entrepreneurial capitalism and crony capitalism. The former tends to be highly competitive, the latter, not so much.” Crony capitalists, Yardeni continues, “are selfish. They form associations and hire lobbyists and lawyers to protect their businesses from upstart competitors. Political power is an important part of their business model. Buying political influence matters more to them than winning the game in a competitive market with a level playing field.”
In a rational world, “crony capitalism” would be called by more accurate names: “rent-seeking” or, better yet, “corporatism.” But, of course, this is not a rational world, and today, some of the most successful “capitalists” in the West are advocates of this variety of corporatism. These crony capitalists refer to the grifts they run by placid, “progressive” names like “stakeholder capitalism” or “environmental, social, and governance investing” (ESG). And then there’s the innocuous-sounding “common prosperity,” a central feature, allegedly, of the most recent shift in China’s economic policy . . .
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