Outside The Box: Notes On Russia

Russia and its redoubtable president, Vladimir Putin, have been much in the news lately. The latest flurry came when Putin was taken out behind the woodshed at the G20 conference in the Philippines last weekend over his recent moves to inject more Russian troops and arms into Ukraine.

For today’s Outside the Box we have two pieces that deliver deeper insights into the situation with Russia and Putin. The first is from my good friend Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. You probably caught my mention of Ian’s presentation at the institutional fund manager conference where we both spoke last weekend. He had some unsettling things to say about Russia; and so when he followed up with an email to me on Monday, I asked if he’d let me share the section on Russia with you. Understand, Ian is connected, and so what you’re about to be treated to here is analysis from way inside. (He’ll be presenting at our Strategic Investment Conference again next April, too.)

Then we turn to a piece that my friend Vitaliy Katsenelson published last week in his monthly column in Institutional Investor. I need to preface this one by mentioning that Vitaliy was born in Murmansk, Russia, where he lived until age 18, when his family emigrated to the US. Fast-forward 23 years, and today Vitaliy is Chief Investment Officer for Investment Management Associates in Denver and author of the highly successful Active Value Investing: Making Money in Range-Bound Markets and The Little Book of Sideways Markets. That’s quite a journey, and Vitaliy has some very strong feelings about the country he left as well as the one he came to. In his intro to today’s piece he admits,

[This is] one of the most emotionally taxing things I ever wrote. A few days ago my wife looked at me and said, “When are you going to be done with it; this article is bringing you down.” She was right.

But I think you’ll agree that when Vitaliy recently subjected himself to a 7-day news diet of nothing but Russian media, the better to comprehend current Russian attitudes, he resurfaced with some valuable insights.

And I can’t leave our deliberations on all things Russia and Putin without mentioning again Marin Katusa’s new book, The Colder War, which I featured in Outside the Box two weeks ago. It’s a compelling survey of the history and dynamics of world energy markets and the role that Putin seeks to play in them.

Geopolitically, the world seems to be a calmer place as we head into the Christmas season, with the significant and glaring exception of Russia. And remember, falling oil prices will seriously impact an already stressed Russian economy.

But before we turn to the eye-opening if somber notes below, I want to share with you a fabulous story from my friend Art Cashin, who is one of the world’s great raconteurs. I make sure to have dinner with Art whenever I’m in New York. In addition to his wisdom concerning the markets, he simply has the best stories. The last dinner (also attended by Barry Ritholtz and Josh Brown) was at an establishment called Sparks, an old New York watering hole and famous steakhouse not far from Grand Central Station.

Art shared the following story with us and had us in tears. Back in the day, the New York Stock Exchange was a mighty interesting place with a very curious cast of interesting and interlocking personalities. It has calmed down some over the decades, but the stories … well, let’s just let Art tell it.

For years, one of the communal tables at the Luncheon Club would issue a group challenge. They would all set a target for losing weight by some date a couple of months out. The one who weighed up furthest from their target had to buy dinner for the others.

In 1985, the loser was Maurice (Monk) Meyer of Henderson Brothers. Among the others were Jack (Jackie D) D’Alessandro, Pat McCarthy, Bill Fitzpatrick, and Roger Hochstin.

They decided to turn the event into a sort of a Christmas party and scheduled the dinner for the week before Christmas. They made reservations at Sparks Steakhouse.

As the day approached, there was an unexpected development. Mafia kingpin Paul Castellano was gunned down, along with his driver, on the sidewalk outside Sparks.

Nevertheless, the show must go on.

When the fated date arrived, the group decided to meet at the Luncheon Club bar for some rehearsal cocktails. They rehearsed for a couple of hours and then headed for Sparks.

As they arrived, around 7:00, there were some early hints it might be a bumpy evening. When they walked in, the hostess asked if they had reservations. “Only about the food,” snapped Pat McCarthy. That was followed by the maître d’ asking where they’d like to sit, only to hear Roger say, “In the non-shooting section, please.”

Once they were seated, they ignored the menu and ordered more cocktails and several bottles of wine. For the next three hours, they ignored the pleas of several waiters and the maître d’ to order some food to go along with the wine and drinks.

In the meantime, Roger may have been getting bored. He noticed another table with six Japanese men in their twenties and one older man, who looked maybe 60.

Somehow, Roger found a Chinese takeout menu from Chou Lu in his pocket. He put his napkin over his arm as though he were a waiter and went over to the table of Japanese men and began reading the menu in a form of broken Chinglish that would have embarrassed even the producers of the old Charlie Chan movies. Things like “Pork Flied Lice.”

Ironically, only the older man spoke English, and he seemed to think it was a wonderful joke. He told Roger that Roger’s table seemed to be having a wonderful time and asked if he might join it briefly.

Roger brought him over and introduced him around. There was a pleasant exchange for about 15 minutes and then Jackie D asked him where in Japan he came from. They man replied – “Actually, I’m from Okinawa.” Bill Fitzpatrick darkened and said, pointedly, “My favorite uncle was killed on Okinawa by you people during the war.” The man quickly excused himself.

Pat McCarthy reminded Bill that he had not had an uncle in the war. Jack turned to Pat and said, “That doesn’t matter; Bill went through the barrier about two drinks ago.”

Anyway, the waiter finally prevailed upon the boys to order entrees by 10:00. Meanwhile, Maurice was sinking fast. He had come out despite a bad case of the flu, since he was the designated payer. It quickly became evident that Meyer would not make it much past 10:30. He called for the check.

As they were about to help Meyer to his feet, Jackie D noticed that McCarthy had had his untouched entrée put into a doggie bag. Not wanting to be outdone, Jackie reached down and put his medium rare petite filet in his inside jacket pocket without benefit of a doggie bag.

At the coatrack, Jackie attempted to help Meyer get his overcoat on. In doing so Jack lifted his own hand high and out. That swept his jacket off to the side, revealing a shirt dripping with blood from the medium rare filet in his pocket.

Perhaps recalling Castellano’s recent fate, one woman at a table spotted Jack’s shirt and screamed, “My God! He’s been shot!”

Everybody in the restaurant hit the deck, including the maître d’ and our adventurous group. When everyone got back to their feet, the maître d’ told the boys they were never allowed back – collectively or individually.

In a huff, the boys headed off to the John Barleycorn.

Art can go on all night with stories like that. You really should put them into a book, Art.

You have a great week. I am off to the gym, where The Beast will continue to try to whip this poor old body into some similitude of shape.

Your still smiling from all the great stories analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box 
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 


Notes on Russia

By Ian Bremmer
Nov. 17, 2014

the russians are taking every opportunity to escalate an already plenty hostile relationship with the united states and some selected allies. the g20 summit was particularly negative on that front, with russian president putin bringing along some warships to australia, while canadian prime minister stephen harper led a rope line of western leaders calling putin a scoundrel and a liar. putin left early, claiming a need to catch up on sleep and some other business to attend to.

I had a chance to talk with some senior russians last week, including two advisors to the kremlin. they explained that putin expected his offer of a ceasefire in southeast ukraine would be sufficient to get the americans to tolerate a status quo, while bringing the europeans to the table with some sanctions reductions. that didn’t happen: instead a coordinated harder line policy stayed in place, while the americans and germans looked set to put more sanctions in place unless the russians actively backed down. despite mounting economic pressure on the europeans, the frozen conflict/long game the kremlin was playing didn’t look like it was going to succeed.

and so the kremlin moved backed to escalation, dramatically expanding their direct military presence in the region – confirmed by nato and the typically-conservative osce, denied by the russian government – and announcing plans to build up troops in crimea. they’re preparing both sides to consolidate their territory, initially through taking the port city of mariupol...potentially then a land-bridge between eastern ukraine and crimea and beyond (odessa being the most obvious place). the most likely path is the kremlin now looking for provocations to “go further” – they’ve already expressed a level of outrage around the ukrainian government severing economic ties to the separatist region – then the fiction of ceasefire is erased and the russians/separatists take more territory. ultimately, whatever the formalized “governance” structure, the kremlin is moving towards making crimea and southeast ukraine a single place.

there’s very little the ukrainians can do. the ukrainian military will remain badly outgunned, and the local populations in the region remain fairly anti-kiev, even if they’re skittish about the notion of russian takeover. we’ll see a pickup in international calls to provide arms for the ukrainian military, but they’ll be rejected, most particularly by the united states. at best we’ll see a step up in intelligence and training support, to little consequence.

putin’s military efforts are also stepping up outside ukraine: the “unknown” but clearly russian submarine off sweden, a russian nuclear armed exercise during an intelligence meeting in denmark; bomber patrols in the gulf of mexico. they’re all bluster, but a clear message to america and its allies...and pose a far higher potential for accidents – one scandanavian airlines flight recently made an emergency alteration to its flight path when a russian military jet suddenly appeared in front of it.

the likelihood of moscow backing down in this environment is near zero. the sanctions aren’t having a meaningful impact on the russian economy (yet) and the popularity of the kremlin isn’t taking a hit. the speech from former soviet general secretary mikhail gorbachev – no fan of putin, but clearly pointing the finger at the west for russia’s troubles – makes that clear. and it’s getting harder for the americans to find an out. german chancellor angela merkel continues to be the best opportunity for compromise, but her relationship with putin is now only barely functional (the kremlin advisors i spoke with said this was the single biggest misstep from putin to date – they believed his bilateral conversations with her were too aggressive and led merkel to feel misled; neither believed the relationship could be salvaged near-term). and so russians are now presuming the sanctions environment will be there for the long haul, and are thinking about the longer term economic implications.

i’d now say that’s meaningful before we get to russia’s 2018 elections: further sanctions causing steep recession leading to unrest in the regions, which begins to metastasize to the cities. that would spook russian elites, some of whom could split from the kremlin. the key early warning indicator would be meaningful defections of any insiders to the west. but critically, we’re at least a year or two away from that. by which time ukraine has been economically devastated, while the strategic shift of russia-china is thoroughly entrenched.

Putin’s World: Why Russia’s Showdown with the West Will Worsen

By Vitaliy Katsenelson
Institutional Investor, Nov. 17, 2014

My father, Naum Katsenelson, painted this watercolor, “Dolls Become Humans,” two years after we came to the United States in 1993. This is the only “thematic” picture my father ever painted.

If you look at the picture carefully you’ll see the silhouette of Lenin in the clouds (representing the past). On the far left there is a Stalin doll and a line of people going to prison. Across from Stalin on the right there is a doll of Brezhnev (you’ll recognize him by his large, distinct eyebrows). On the building on the right there is an image of Gorbachev. Look carefully at the faces in the foreground (representing the present and the future): as they get closer to you they become more humanized – transforming from dolls into humans. The man in front of the woman draped in the American flag is my father; the boy with the Star of David on his chest is me.

This was an aspirational picture. In 1993 the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia’s future looked bright – although it was in chaos, it was a democracy. The dolls here are an analogy for robots, suggesting uniformity of thought. As I was composing this I called my father and asked him if he’d paint the same picture today. He said, “No. Today’s picture would look very different.”

I spent three months aggravating over the following article. It was one of the most emotionally taxing things I ever wrote. A few days ago my wife looked at me and said, “When are you going to be done with it; this article is bringing you down.” She was right.

I grew up hating America. I lived in the Soviet Union and was a child of the cold war. That hate went away in 1989, though, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. By the time I left Russia in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, America was a country that Russians looked up to and wanted to emulate.

Twenty-three years later, a new version of cold war is back, though we Americans haven't realized it yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After Russia invaded Crimea and staged its referendum, I thought Vladimir Putin's foreign excursions were over. Taking back Crimea violated plenty of international laws, but let's be honest. Though major powers like the U.S. and Russia write the international laws, they are not really expected to abide by those laws if they find them not to be in their best interests. Those laws are for everyone else. I am not condoning such behavior, but I can clearly see how Russians could justify taking Crimea back – after all, it used to belong to Russia.

I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly support and not be outraged by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV – Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn't seen in more than 20 years – and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means "Truth." Here is what I learned:

If Russia did not reclaim Crimea, once the new, illegitimate government came to power in Ukraine, the Russian navy would have been kicked out and the U.S. navy would have started using Crimean ports as navy bases. There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, nor were there ever any there. If any Russian soldiers were found there (and there were), those soldiers were on leave. They went to Ukraine to support their Russian brothers and sisters who are being abused by Ukrainian nationalists. (They may have borrowed a tank or two, or a highly specialized Russian-made missile system that is capable of shooting down planes, but for some reason those details are not mentioned much in the Russian media.) On November 12, NATO reported that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. The Russian government vehemently denied it, blaming NATO for being anti-Russian.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was not downed by Russia or separatists. It was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by Ukraine or a NATO plane engaged in military exercises in Ukraine at the time. The U.S. has the satellite imagery but is afraid of the truth and chooses not to share it with the world.

Ukraine was destabilized by the U.S., which spent $5 billion on this project. As proof, TV news showed a video of Senator John McCain giving a speech to antigovernment protesters in Kiev's Maidan Square. It was followed by a video of Vice President Joe Biden visiting Ukraine during the tumult. I wasn't sure what his role was, but it was implied that he had something to do with the unrest.

Speaking of Joe Biden, I learned that his son just joined the board of Ukraine's largest natural gas company, which will benefit significantly from a destabilized Ukraine.

Ukraine is a zoo of a country, deeply corrupt and overrun by Russian-haters and neo-Nazis (Banderovtsi – Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing Russians and Jews during World War II).

Candidates for the recent parliamentary election in Ukraine included Darth Vader (not kidding), as well as a gay ex-prostitute who claims to be a working man's man but lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion.

I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself that Putin's Russia doesn't have a free press. The free press that briefly existed after the Soviet Union collapsed is gone – Putin killed it. The government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers. What Russians see on TV, read in print and listen to on the radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.

Before I go further, let's visit the definition of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary: "The systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view."

I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable democratic force that would always let the truth slip out through the cracks in even the most determined wall of propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you'd be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.

Russian's propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters. Here is an example: Russian TV shows footage of schools in eastern Ukraine bombed by the Ukrainian army. Anyone's heart would bleed, seeing these gruesome images. It is impossible not to feel hatred toward people who would perpetrate such an atrocity on their own population. It was explained to viewers that the Ukrainian army continued its offensive despite a cease-fire agreement.

Of course if you watched Ukrainian TV, you would have seen similar images of death and despair on the other side. In fact, if you read Ukrainian newspapers, you will learn that the Ukrainian army is fighting a well-armed army, not rebels with Molotovs and handguns, but an organized force fully armed by the Russian army.

What viewers were not shown was that the cease-fire had been broken before the fighting resumed. The fact that Putin helped to instigate this war was never mentioned. Facts are not something Russian TV is concerned about. As emotional images and a lot of disinformation pump up your right brain, it overpowers the left, which capitulates and stops questioning the information presented.

What I also learned is that you don't have to lie to lie. Let me give you an example. I could not figure out how the Russian media came up with the $5 billion that "America spent destabilizing Ukraine." But then I found a video of a U.S. undersecretary of State giving an 8.5-minute speech; at the 7.5-minute mark, she said, "Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 … [the U.S. has] invested more than $5 billion to help Ukraine." The $5 billion figure was correct. However, it was not given to Ukraine in three months to destabilize a democratically elected, corrupt pro-Russian government but over the course of 23 years. Yes, you don't have to lie to lie; you just have to omit important facts – something Russian TV is very good at.

Another example of a right-brain attack on the left brain is "the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine." Most lies are built around kernels of truth, and this one is no different. Ukraine was home to the Banderovtsi, Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and Russians during World War II.

Putin justified the invasion of Crimea by claiming that he was protecting the Russian population from neo-Nazis. Russian TV creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun by Nazis. As my father puts it, "Ukrainians who lived side by side with Russians did not just become Nazis overnight."

Though there may be some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the current government is liberal and pro-Western. Svoboda – the party whose members are known for their neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rhetoric – did not get even 5 percent of the votes in the October election, the minimum needed to gain a significant presence in parliament. Meanwhile the TV goes on showing images of Nazis killing Russians and Jews during World War II and drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine today.

What also makes things more difficult in Russia is that, unlike Americans, who by default don't trust their politicians – yes, even their presidents – Russians still have the czarist mentality that idolizes its leaders. Stalin was able to cultivate this to an enormous degree – most Russians thought of him as a father figure. My father was 20 when Stalin died in 1953, and he told me that he, like everyone around him, cried.

I keep thinking about what Lord Acton said: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Putin we scorn today was not always like this; he did a lot of good things during his first term. The two that stand out the most are getting rid of the organized crime that was killing Russia and instituting a pro-business flat tax system. The amount of power Russians give their presidents, however, will, with time, change the blood flow to anyone's head. Come to think of it, even Mother Teresa would not have stood a chance in Russia.

A few weeks ago Putin turned 62, and thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his birthday. (Most Americans, including this one, don't even know the month of Barack Obama's birthday.)

In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has to hear it at least six times. Putin's propaganda folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens get to hear how great their president is at least six times a day.

We Americans look at Putin and see an evil KGB guy who roams around the country without a shirt on. Russians are shown a very different picture. They see a hard-working president who cares deeply about them. Every news program dedicates at least one fifth of its airtime to showcasing Putin's greatness, not in your face but in subtle ways. A typical clip would have him meeting with a cabinet minister. The minister would give his report, and Putin, looking very serious indeed, would lecture the minister on what needed to be done. Putin is always candid, direct and tough with his ministers.

I've listened to a few of Putin's speeches, and I have to admit that his oratory skills are excellent, of a J.F.K. or Reagan caliber. He doesn't give a speech; he talks. His language is accessible and full of zingers. He is very calm and logical.

Russians look at the Putin presidency and ask themselves a very pragmatic question: Am I better off now, with him, than I was before he came into power? For most the answer is yes. What most Russians don't see is that oil prices over the past 14 years went from $14 to more than $100 a barrel. They are completely responsible for the revival of Russia's one-trick petrochemical economy. In other words, they should consider why their economy has done better the past decade, and why it may not do as well going forward. Unless Putin was the one who jump-started China's insatiable demand for oil and other commodities that drove prices higher, he has had very little to do with Russia's recent "prosperity."

I place prosperity in quotes because if you take oil and gas riches away from Russia (lower prices can do that with ease