Tag Archives: sanctions against Russia

Strangling China with Hong Kong: the Politics of Fear

The U.S. determination  that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, will have significant implications for the city’s exporters and businesses.  Sensitive U.S. technologies could no longer be imported into Hong Kong, and the city’s exports might be hit with the same tariffs levied on Chinese trade.

But the act doesn’t cover the far more extensive role Hong Kong plays as China’s main point of access to global finance.  As of 2019, mainland Chinese banks held 8,816 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($1.137 trillion) in assets in the semiautonomous city, an amount that has risen 373% in the last decade…. China’s banks do much of their international business, mostly conducted in U.S. dollars, from Hong Kong. With Shanghai inside China’s walled garden of capital controls, there is no obvious replacement.

While the U.S. doesn’t directly control Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, Washington has demonstrated its extensive reach over the dollar system, with penalties against Korean, French and Lebanese financiers for dealing with sanctioned parties. The U.S. recently threatened Iraq’s access to the New York Federal Reserve, demonstrating a growing willingness to use financial infrastructure as a tool of foreign policy.  Even though the U.S. can’t legislate Hong Kong’s ability to support Chinese banks out of existence, the role of an international funding hub is greatly reduced if your counterparties are too fearful to do business with you.

Putting the ability of Chinese banks to conduct dollar-denominated activities at risk would be deleterious to China’s ability to operate financially overseas, posing a challenge for the largely dollar-denominated Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. It would also put the more financially fragile parts of the country, like its debt-laden property developers, under strain.  China’s hope to develop yuan into an influential currency also centers on Hong Kong’s remaining a viable global financial center—more than 70% of international trade in the yuan is done in the city.

Excerpts from Mike Bird, How the US Could Really Hurt China, WSJ, May 290, 2020

Who is Afraid of the United States?

In 2018 America imposed sanctions on about 1,500 people, firms, vessels and other entities, nearly triple the number in 2016. The past six months of 2019 have been particularly eventful. America began imposing sanctions on Iran in November, and in January on Venezuela, another big oil exporter. On May 9th 2019, for the first time, it seized a ship accused of transporting banned North Korean coal.

Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March 2019advisers to the un, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it. Boats turn off their transmissions systems to avoid detection. Oil is transferred from one ship to another in the middle of the ocean—ships trading on behalf of North Korea find each other in the East China Sea using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. Captains disguise a ship’s identity by manipulating transponder data to transmit false locations and identity numbers of different vessels.

Such methods have helped Iran and Russia transport oil to Syria, American officials say. In 2018 North Korea managed to import refined petroleum far in excess of the level allowed by multilateral sanctions. The situation in Venezuela is different—technically, America’s sanctions still allow foreigners to do business with the country. But fear that sanctions will expand mean that traditional trading partners are scarce. Nicolás Maduro’s regime this month found a shipowner to transport crude to India, according to a shipbroker familiar with the deal, but Venezuela had to pay twice the going rate.

Businesses keen to understand such shenanigans can be roughly divided into two categories. The first includes those who can profit from grasping sanctions’ impact on energy markets, such as hedge funds, analysts and traders. A squadron of firms is ready to assist them, combing through ship transmission data, commercial satellite imagery and other public and semi-public information. They do not specialise in sanctions, but sanctions are boosting demand for their tracking and data-crunching expertise.

A main determinant of Venezuela’s output, for instance, is access to the diluent it needs to blend with its heavy crude. A firm called Clipper Data has noted Russian ships delivering diluent to vessels near Malta, which then transport it to Venezuela. Kpler, a French rival, uses satellite images of shadows on lids of storage tanks to help estimate the volume of oil inside. Using transmissions data, images, port records and more, Kpler produces estimates of Iran’s exports for customers such as the International Energy Agency and Bernstein, a research firm—including a recent uptick in Iranian exports without a specific destination (see chart).

The second category of companies are wary of violating sanctions themselves. They need assistance of a different sort. Latham & Watkins, a firm that advised the chairman of EN+, which controls a Russian aluminium giant, as he successfully removed the company from America’s sanctions list this year, has seen a surge in sanctions-related business. Refinitiv, a data company, offers software which permits clients to screen partners and customers against lists of embargoed entities. Windward uses machine learning to pore over data such as ships’ travel patterns, transmissions gaps (some of which may be legitimate) and name changes to help firms identify suspicious activity. Kharon, founded last year by former United States Treasury officials, offers detailed analysis of anyone or anything on sanctions lists.

HIde and Seek: Sanctions Inc, Economist, May 18, 2019

Foreign-Funded NGOs as Foreign Agents

Since Russia annexed Crimea last year, it has become almost impossible for scientists in Russia to buy anything in the United States or Japan that has a dual purpose, said physicist Alexander Shilov, who works in the Institute of Laser Physics in Russia’s scientific hub of Akademgorodok, or Academy Town — part of Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk…The U.S. and EU sanctions were designed to halt exports to the Russian defense sector. When announcing a new round of sanctions in July 2014, the European Union noted specifically that they “should not affect the exports of dual-use goods and technology” to Russia for “non-military use.” In reality, many Western companies were so spooked by the sanctions and the penalties they could face for violating them that the door was shut completely, the scientists say….

What’s more, foreign-made equipment is now less affordable for Russian scientists because of the depreciation in the Russian ruble, which lost nearly half of its value since the Crimean annexation.

The scientists’ plight has been compounded by the Kremlin’s own crackdown on Russian private funding of science, stemming from suspicions of Western influence. The government this year labeled the Dynasty foundation, Russia’s largest source of private funding for science, a “foreign agent” — which makes the group vulnerable to an array of surprise checks and audits. It is a Cold War term that carries connotations of spying. The foundation fell afoul of the officialdom because its Russian founder funds the organization from money transferred from his foreign bank accounts.  “If Dynasty was named a foreign agent, then everyone who had contracts with Dynasty is an accomplice of a foreign agent,” said Shilov. “We are all spies now.”

The government has become increasingly suspicious of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, seeing them as potential agents of a hostile West. Russia has brushed off the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, saying that Russia has plenty of resources to replace banned imports with its own production.

Excerpts from  NATALIYA VASILYEVA5, Russian scientists squeezed by sanctions, Kremlin policies, Associated Press, July 20, 2015

Fighting U.S. Sanctions: national payment systems

International payment operators Visa and MasterCard have started processing domestic payments inside Russia’s new national processing system, launched in response to U.S. sanctions against Moscow that saw cards from several Russian banks blocked in 2014. Observers see the creation of the National Card Payment System as the first step towards an autonomous financial system in Russia.

“The national system has already been introduced, quickly and at a little cost, and it has fully resolved the problem of payments inside the country,” says Sergei Khestanov, professor of finance and banking at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.  If Visa and Mastercard do not fulfill the requirements of the Central Bank, they will have to pay a security deposit, whose size will be linked directly to the turnover of the credit card systems. Morgan Stanley estimated the figure at $950 million for Visa and $500 million for MasterCard.

According to Khestanov, processing Visa transactions through the national system should be viewed as a compromise: The Russian government’s control of the transactions will strengthen, but the international systems will continue to operate in Russia.  “The potential of the development of the Russian cashless payment market is still enormous,” explains Anton Soroko, an analyst at Finam Investment Holding.,,,For the time being, experts are avoiding any clear-cut predictions of success, and say that Visa’s protocols are more complex than MasterCard’s. “We will see if this will be successful only after the infrastructure assumes the full burden,” says chief analyst at UFS IS Ilya Balakirev.

The next stage should be the Russian national payment system’s issuance of plastic cards, which is slated for December 2015.The picture is further complicated by the emergence of Asian operators as an alternative to western payment systems. Immediately after the introduction of sanctions against Russia by the U.S., the Chinese bank card system UnionPay entered the Russian market in April 2014, followed in March 2015 by Japan Credit Bureau (JCB). By 2017 Russia is planning to issue about two million UnionPay cards and three million JCB cards.

Excerpts from Alexei Lossan, Visa and MasterCard join Russia’s National Card Payment System, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Apr.  2, 2015

U.S. Sanctions: Abusing SWIFT

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) provides a network that enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.  SWIFT is not an international organization.  It is instead a cooperative society under Belgian law and it is owned by its member financial institutions…

But the network’s very usefulness means it is increasingly being cast in a new role, as a tool of international sanctions. In 2012 it was obliged, under European law, to cut off access for Iranian banks that had been subjected to sanctions by the European Union. Now there are calls for Russian banks to be banned from SWIFT in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A group of American senators is arguing for the measure, which could be inserted into a broader bill on sanctions against Russia that has a good chance of being passed in the next session of Congress. The European Parliament passed a resolution in September calling on the EU to consider mandating a cut-off…European governments are divided, with Britain and Poland among the keenest.

The earlier SWIFT ban is widely seen as having helped persuade Iran’s government to negotiate over its nuclear programme. The ban was one of the first sanctions Tehran asked to be lifted, points out Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank. Though some of the banks blocked from SWIFT managed to keep moving money by leasing telephone and fax lines from peers in Dubai, Turkey and China, or (according to a Turkish prosecutor’s report) by using non-expelled Iranian banks as conduits, such workarounds are a slow and expensive pain. And the sanctions prompted Western banks to stop conducting other business with the targeted banks.

The impact of a reprise on Russia’s already fragile economy would be huge. Its banks are more connected to international trade and capital markets than Iran’s were. They are heavy users not only of SWIFT itself but also of other payment systems to which it connects them, such as America’s Fedwire and the European Central Bank’s Target2. Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, has reported that more than 90% of transactions involving Russian banks cross borders.

Foreign firms that do business in Russia would suffer, too. Countries that trade heavily with Russia, such as Germany and Italy, are therefore none too keen…

SWIFT’s own rules allow it to cut off banks involved in illegal activity, and it has occasionally done so. But if it ends up being used frequently for sanctions, it could come to be seen as an instrument of foreign policy…Already there are calls for it to be used in other conflicts: pro-Palestinian groups have recently sought for Israel’s banks to be shut out, for instance. And as China’s economic clout grows, might it want Taiwanese banks excluded?

Another risk is that using SWIFT in this way could lead to the creation of a rival. Russia’s central bank is pre-emptively working to develop an alternative network; China has also shown interest in shifting the world’s financial centre of gravity eastward. Earlier this year it co-founded a BRICS development bank with Russia, India, China and South Africa, and its UnionPay service, set up in 2002, has loosened the stranglehold of MasterCard and Visa on card payments. If China and other countries that feared being subjected to future Western sanctions joined the Russian venture, it might become an alternative to SWIFT—and one less concerned with preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism…

America’s current crop of senior Treasury officials are similarly cautious, despite being vocal proponents of sanctions in general. SWIFT is a “global utility”, says one, and using it for sanctions should be “an extraordinary step, to be used in only the most extraordinary situations”. Blocking access to SWIFT, he frets, could mean that traffic shifts to networks that are less secure and easier to disrupt—and thus make life easier for criminals and cyberterrorists, including those in rogue governments. Against those who threaten global security, a SWIFT ban is a powerful and proven weapon. But it is also a risky one.

Financial Sanctions: The Pros and Cons of a SWIFT Response, Economist,  Nov. 22, 2014