Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Russia: Is the sovereign rating useful?

September 8, 2010

 

Does Russia’s sovereign rating tell us any more than the oil price?

Fitch Ratings today published a press release revising the “Outlook” on its “BBB” rating of Russian government bonds to positive from stable (see a Fitch press release below).  Rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch – have been under fire since their high structured real estate ratings were downgraded rapidly during the recent financial crisis, suggesting that these ratings were wrong and therefore not a useful guide to investors.  Over the last two years, financial regulators have had their plates full preventing a 1930s-style banking collapse.  As a result, though they would like to kick the rating agencies in the pants to shake out the mediocrity, they haven’t had the time.  Are credit ratings useful? 

Yes and no.  Sometimes rating agency analytical reports are good, comparatively unbiased guides to the safety of bonds from sovereign governments and corporations, especially relative to investment bank reports.  However, the ratings themselves are sticky and often follow changes in creditworthiness (sudden ones anyway) rather than lead them.  Rating agencies don’t want to stick their necks out.  Conflicts of interest (agencies are paid by the bond issuers) are not to be dismissed, though somehow there is a more arms-length analytical relationship between bond issuers and the agencies than between the same and the investment banks, who fall over themselves to extol the virtues of clients that issue debt or equity.

Furthermore, sometimes a bond issuer’s profile is so tied to the price of a commodity (say, oil) that an investor is better off tracking the commodity price than bothering with ratings.  This is the case with “Rising Power” Russia.  Russia’s economy has long been dominated by energy exports.  Little has been done to diversify the economy in the way that its BRIC peers — China, Brazil and India — are diversified.  Energy prices rise and Russia’s ratings improve, and vice versa.  Yet the agencies go to great lengths to spell out the details of Russia’s credit profile in their reports.  As I said, sometimes the reports are good, especially for an econ nerd; but, the rating actions themselves – the reason agencies are paid so handsomely — can be of little use.

With oil prices rising rapidly over the last decade, Russia’s sovereign ratings rocketed from near-default levels (CCC) in 2000 to investment grade levels (BBB) today.  The ratings peaked at BBB+ from 2006 to 2008, when the price of a barrel of oil topped out at around $140 before collapsing to near $50 during the dog days of the global economic crisis in the fall of 2008.  That’s coincidentally when Fitch put Russia’s ratings on a Negative Outlook, before lowering the ratings to BBB in February 2009.  Since then, oil prices have clawed back to around $75 per barrel, and Fitch has again moved the Rating Outlook, first to Stable and then today to Positive.  This is all well and good, but the oil price was nearly as useful a guide as the ratings over this time frame, just as it was in 1998 when Russia defaulted on its bonds amid oil prices in the neighborhood of $10 a barrel.  Yes, the rating reports are informative, but if the agencies are to be more useful to investors (and society), they should try harder to predict financial developments and have their ratings lead, rather than follow, these developments.  And, they should show some skill at this before the regulators get around to kicking them in the pants.   

FROM FITCH RATINGS TODAY:

  Fitch Affirms Russia at ‘BBB’; Revises Outlook to Positive   
08 Sep 2010 8:04 AM (EDT)

Fitch Ratings-London-08 September 2010: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed Russia’s Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at ‘BBB’. The Outlooks for the Long-term IDRs have been revised to Positive from Stable. At the same time, Fitch has affirmed Russia’s Short-term foreign currency IDR at ‘F3’ and the Country Ceiling at ‘BBB+’.

“The Russian economy is recovering after being hit hard by the global financial crisis. The outlook revision to positive reflects Fitch’s belief that the decline in inflation, shift to a more flexible exchange rate policy, sizeable repayments of private sector external debt, stabilisation of the banking sector and rising foreign exchange reserves should serve to reduce the country’s financial vulnerabilities,” says Ed Parker, Head of Emerging Europe in Fitch’s Sovereigns team.

Real GDP grew by 5.2% year-on-year in Q210, having contracted by 7.9% in 2009. Fitch forecasts growth of 4.3% in 2010 GDP and 4% in 2011 and 2012 – broadly in line with estimated potential. Recovery appears to be fairly balanced, and is supported by the rebound in oil prices, rising real incomes and stabilisation of financial confidence and capital flows.

The private sector has strengthened its balance sheets, where vulnerabilities had built up in the boom years. It repaid a net USD80bn in external debt in the two years to June 2010, including USD51bn of short-term debt, reducing its refinancing requirements and foreign currency exposures. Banks are liquid and have high reported capital ratios of around 19%. Asset quality appears to have stabilised, though Fitch estimates total problem loans at about 25% (including restructured loans at extended maturities and off-balance sheet exposures). A sizeable current account surplus, which Fitch forecasts at 4.6% of GDP in 2010, is helping Russia to rebuild its foreign exchange (FX) reserves, which have risen by USD92bn from their low in Q109 to USD476bn – the third-highest in the world – providing a formidable buffer against shocks. Russia is a large sovereign and overall net external creditor, the latter equivalent to 24% of GDP at end-2009, compared with a net debtor position for the ‘BBB’ range median.   

Inflation has declined to 6.1% in August, from double-digit rates 12 months previously. The Central Bank of Russia has shifted to a more flexible exchange rate and independent monetary policy regime, with positive real interest rates, which has the potential to help reduce inflation, dollarization and the risk of financial instability. However, the Central Bank of Russia has yet to build up a track record in this area.

Russia’s public finances have deteriorated over the past two years, though remain a rating strength. Fitch forecasts the budget deficit at 4.7% of GDP in 2010. Moreover, the budget balances at an oil price of around USD100pb, highlighting its vulnerability to a severe and sustained oil shock. However, general government debt is low, at only 10% of GDP at end-2009, compared with the 10-year ‘BBB’ range median of 35%. Moreover, the government has USD127bn (9% of GDP) in its sovereign wealth funds (1 September 2010), providing substantial financing flexibility, as demonstrated in 2009.

Weaknesses that weigh on Russia’s sovereign rating include its poor governance, institutions and corruption; a weak business climate that constrains investment, diversification and growth; exposure to commodity prices (and therefore the global economy); and a history of high and relatively volatile inflation.

In terms of potential triggers for future rating actions, a tightening of fiscal policy that significantly reduces Russia’s non-oil and gas budget deficit and its vulnerability to oil price shocks could lead to an upgrade. Material structural reforms that improve the business climate, banking sector and governance could also lead to an upgrade. A longer track record of implementing a more flexible exchange rate policy and anchoring inflation at the mid-single digit rate could put upward pressure on the ratings; as could a material strengthening in the external balance sheet. Conversely, a severe and sustained drop in oil prices could lead to negative rating action.

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India’s infrastructure bottlenecks

June 16, 2010

An excellent New York Times article yesterday discussed how democratic politics and bureaucracy in India prevent the elimination of infrastructure bottlenecks, especially in transportation.  The article focused on India’s railway system, where freight rates are expensive, travel times excessive, and traffic volumes inadequate to the task of fostering strong economic growth…of the pace we see in China.

It is an interesting comparison — China vs. India, one which would require more time and space to adequately address than this blog can provide.  For the moment, I will raise the long-standing dichotomy between two development models — the authoritarian and the democratic.  In Latin America, analysts have often underscored the success of the Pinochet model in Chile, whereby a brutal authoritarian regime from 1973-90 swept away roadblocks and bottlenecks caused by democratic politics, unleashing that country’s growth potential and allowing it to develop more rapidly than many of its historically more democratic neighbors.  Moreover, with a sound economy in place, Chile was able to make the transition to a functioning democracy with two relatively cohesive coalitions of the right and left.  Yet there was a cost in terms of social cleavages, human rights abuses, and at times political stability.  Throwing people out of helicopters is not civilization.

General Augusto Pinochet and friends, the junta that ruled Chile from 1973-90.  Source:  http://acalzonquitao.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/_pinochet_junta.jpg
General Augusto Pinochet (seated) and friends, the junta that ruled Chile from 1973-90. Source: http://acalzonquitao.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/_pinochet_junta.jpg

Arguably, Russia and China have followed the Pinochet model, Russia after the economic disaster created under failed democrat Boris Yeltsin.  China has done quite well with this model, but nervous Chinese leaders understand that unrest, if not social upheaval, is always a possibility in China if the political monopoly fails to consistently deliver the economic goods.  India labors under a vibrant, if at times inefficient and somewhat corrupt, democracy.  Nevertheless, Indians know that if a government fails to deliver economic growth, they can “throw the rascals out” at the next election.  This introduces a measure of political stability into the system, which is often lacking in authoritarian regimes.  And, given India’s enormous ethnic and religious cleavages, it is perhaps this vibrant democracy that prevents the country from tearing itself apart.  Slow trains and slow growth — the price Indians pay for stability (and decency)?

Image above:  General Augusto Pinochet (seated) and friends, the military junta that ruled Chile from 1973-90.  Source: http://acalzonquitao.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/_pinochet_junta.jpg

Medvedev: Glasnost and Perestroika all over again?

November 13, 2009

Russian President Medvedev and his mentor, Vladimir Putin.  Note: this is not a photo from Medvedev's speech this week.  Source: www.russiablog.org

Not so fast.  President Medvedev has resounded the main themes of reform for some time now, without his government (or, rather, Putin’s) following through.  See a NYTimes article from yesterday on President Medvedev’s annual address to the Russian nation, as well as a report on the matter below in a CSFB Emerging Markets report.

Reducing Russia’s humiliating dependence on energy exports and the role of state enterprises in the economy, and adding flexibility to labor markets and greater pluralism to Russia’s proto-democracy were all laudable goals mentioned in his speech, delivered at the Kremlin with Putin in attendance.  Mere platitudes devoid of concrete measures, critics say.  Maybe so, but the first step toward change is talking about it openly. 

Russia may have a positive future and a greater potential to join Fukuyama’s end of history in terms of being a functioning liberal democracy and market economy than other authoritarian countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, to mention a few, where the lack of nascent democratic institutions distinguishes them (though Iran has a few).  Russia looks a bit like the Iberian, Greek and Latin American authoritarian regimes just before their transitions to democracy in the 1970s-80s; these societies yearned for the freedoms and prosperity of the West.  One day, Russia will join Europe and the West, if Europe and the West will have them.  Institutions such as the EU and NATO remain closed to Russia.  Remember what Kissinger said about NATO expansion — alliances have to be against somebody.  That way of thinking has to change in the West, and then maybe Russia will accelerate Medvedev’s reforms.    

From CSFB today:

Sergei Voloboev
+44 20 7888 3694
sergei.voloboev@credit-suisse.com
President Medvedev’s annual state of the union address yesterday contained criticism of past economic policies and some specific economic and political reform proposals. With a reference to his “Russia, Forward!” article published on 10 September, Medvedev has called for the country’s comprehensive modernization, based on democratic principles. Referring to the reasons for Russia’s particularly painful economic contraction during the recent economic crisis, the president mentioned the economy’s primitive structure, “humiliating dependency” on raw materials and general reliance on export receipts, appallingly low competitiveness of Russia’s manufacturers, as well as insufficient efforts to adopt a new growth model. Medvedev stated that even though the situation in the banking system has stabilized, it remains weak and insufficiently capitalized.
Medvedev mentioned the following specific directions for economic reform:
– further reform of the financial sector, which needs to be brought in line with the modernization requirements;
– a long-term reduction in the size of the state sector (from about 40% at present);
– transformation of state corporations operating in competitive environments into joint stock companies and liquidation or sale of all other such corporations by 2012; and,
– introduction of tax benefits for innovation-related activities and of a transition period to higher levels of mandatory insurance contributions.
– The president has offered a detailed view of the needed technological modernization, including the following:
– urgent commencement of technological modernization of the entire manufacturing base;
– creation of a modern technological centre – a Russian Silicon Valley;
– introduction of energy-saving equipment, bulbs, meters for use by utility services;
– wider application of space technology in the telecommunication industry;
– introduction of supercomputers;
– universal access to broadband Internet;
– development of strategic information technologies; and,
– a three- to four-month limit on granting approvals for new investment projects.
Encouragingly, the address contained specific proposals aimed at easing access to Russia’s labour market for qualified foreign workers, including a simplified visa regime and issuance of long-term visas, adoption of a more uniform approach to recognising foreign higher education diplomas and other educational degrees. Medvedev also mentioned certain measures in the area of political modernization, including a gradual phasing out of constraints on activities of small political parties and allowing such groups to occasionally participate in parliamentary meetings.
Overall, Medvedev’s policy address was fairly robust in criticising Russia’s recent economic policies, but it was predictably short on specific details on how to implement and observe the proclaimed reform objectives. It should nevertheless encourage the liberal-oriented part of Russian public that became very concerned about Russia’s democratic principles in the aftermath of the flawed municipal elections in early October. Representatives of the business/ investor community have likely noted the commitment to streamline the tax system further but were probably disappointed about the lack of more specific details.
October fiscal data points to rebalancing of revenue sources. This morning’s regular set of monthly fiscal data (for October) contained few surprises. There was another large monthly deficit (RUB179bn, 4.9% of monthly GDP, after 4.6% of GDP in September), taking the 12-month deficit to 6.5% of GDP from 5.5% in September. The monthly revenue/GDP ratio edged up to 18.4% of GDP from 18.3% in September on the annual basis; revenues fell to 17.5% of GDP from 18.0% in the previous month. Total expenditure was 23.3% of GDP, up from 23.0% in September and rose to 24.0% of GDP on the 12-month rolling basis from 23.4% in September.
An interesting observation on the composition of revenues in October: the data shows a weaker energy component of revenue (8.1% of monthly GDP, vs. 9.6% in September), while non-energy revenues (which have been declining progressively since June) jumped to 10.4% of monthly GDP from 8.7% in September. Overall, the data continue to point to a very large deficit for the full-year 2009, but its magnitude now looks likely to be materially lower than the government had anticipated (close to 7% of GDP rather than 8.3% assumed during the drafting of the 2010 budget).
The first official estimate for Q3 2009 GDP was better than the government’s provisional estimate. Rosstat reported yesterday that Q3 2009 GDP fell 8.9% yoy (after Q2 GDP was down 10.9%). This was better than the Economy Ministry’s previous 9.4% estimate for Q3. The statistics office has not provided a seasonally adjusted QoQ growth estimate, saying only that growth was 13.9% qoq in volume terms. Any seasonal adjustment would not be very reliable this year because of a structural break in series, but it is now clear that the original government estimate of 0.6% qoq SA growth in Q3 will be surpassed significantly (not adjusting for working day differences, we would estimate that qoq SA growth in Q3 was close to 3% – a very strong result, just slightly weaker than the 3.5% qoq growth in early 1999, after the economy bounced back from the H2 1998 meltdown).

Photo above:  Russian President Medvedev and his mentor, Vladimir Putin.  Note: this is not a photo from Medvedev’s speech this week.  Source: www.russiablog.org

Emerging Europe has fiscal problems, says Fitch

October 29, 2009
Emerging Europe: Fiscal woes  Source: www.d-orland.com
Emerging Europe: Fiscal woes Source: http://www.d-orland.com

Fitch Ratings published a report this week analyzing the fiscal deterioration taking place in 21 countries in what it calls “Emerging Europe,” which includes three sizable economies — “rising” power Russia’s nearly $1.7 trillion economy, struggling Turkey’s $745 billion economy, and Poland’s nothing-to-sneeze-at $525 billion economy. Like much of the rest of the world, Emerging Europe juiced its economies with fiscal stimulus packages due to the Great Recession, and therefore, needs an exit strategy over the medium term to this fiscal deterioration. 

Fitch rates Russian sovereign debt at BBB with a Negative Outlook (likely to be downgraded within two years); Turkey’s BB- with a Rating Watch Positive (likely to be upgraded, albeit from a low level, within the next three months); and, Poland’s debt A- with a Stable Outlook.

Fitch expects Polish GDP growth to languish before rebounding to about 3% in 2011; Russian growth to creep back above 3%; and, Turkey’s to move back to around 4% per year.  Government deficits in all three will remain sizable at between 3-6% of GDP per year, though quite small next to America’s 10% this year.  Poland’s government debt will rise to nearly 60% of GDP by 2011; Russia’s government debt remains very, very small (at below 15% of GDP); and Turkey’s will rise to nearly 50% of GDP before plateauing.  These levels are still modest relative again to U.S. levels approaching 90% in the coming years.  Poland’s and Turkey’s current account balances (a measure of trade) are in deficit, though forecast by Fitch to be below U.S. levels, which should exceed 3% of GDP in the coming years.  Russia, of course, as an energy exporting powerhouse, remains in surplus on its current account.

Central European economies, including Poland’s, are expected to move out of recession nicely, driven by links to the euro area, especially to the reviving German economy.  Baltic and Balkan states are rebounding less nimbly, according to the Fitch report.

A number of countries have been assisted by sizable IMF financing, including Turkey, Hungary, Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Romania, Serbia and the Ukraine, not to mention that Poland obtained a $20.5 billion Flexible Credit Line with the IMF.    

Have a look at the Fitch Press release on the report below. 

Fitch: Public Finance Concerns Move to the Fore in Emerging Europe
29 Oct 2009 4:00 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-London-29 October 2009: Fitch Ratings says in a new report that although external financing risks have eased somewhat for many countries in emerging Europe (EE) during recent months, rising government deficits and debt ratios mean that sovereign rating dynamics remain negative.

“Worst fears of a systemic economic and financial meltdown in emerging Europe have receded as global output has started to recover and financial conditions have eased, driven by the massive global fiscal and monetary policy stimulus, rescue packages led by international financial institutions and, in many countries, impressive economic resilience,” says Edward Parker, Head of Emerging Europe Sovereigns at Fitch.

“However, major challenges remain due to the scale of the negative shocks to hit the region; the costly legacy of the crisis, notably rising public debt ratios; and the uncertain “exit” from the crisis, recession and accommodative policy settings; while a relapse in one of the more vulnerable countries could trigger ripples across the region,” says Mr Parker.

Concerns over public finances have moved to centre stage. Fitch forecasts the impact of the recession – in some cases augmented by fiscal stimulus measures, lower oil prices and bank bail-outs – to widen the average budget deficit to 5.9% of GDP in 2009 from 1.1% in 2008, before narrowing to 4.6% in 2010. It expects the average government debt/GDP ratio to rise to 36% at end-2010 from 23% at end-2007. Failure to implement credible medium-term fiscal consolidation could lead to rating downgrades. In many countries, social pressures and elections will make it harder to implement austerity measures. This is fertile territory for political shocks. For countries reliant on IMF-led programmes for fiscal and external financing and for underpinning economic confidence, failure to stick to programme conditions poses additional risks to macroeconomic stability.

Fitch has revised its forecast for 2009 EE GDP to -6.1% from -4.6% in its June forecast round, owing to an even steeper drop than anticipated in output in H109. This contrasts with just -0.1% forecast for emerging markets as a whole. It forecasts only Azerbaijan and Poland will avoid recession, while Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine will suffer double-digit declines in GDP. However, it has revised up its 2010 growth forecast to 2.6% (from 1.5%), owing to the unwinding of the deeper 2009 contraction and more supportive global conditions. Indeed, it estimates EE GDP rose by about 1% q-o-q in Q209, after plummeting 7% in Q109, led by a rebound in Turkey. But weak investment, rising unemployment, moderate capital inflows and credit growth, fiscal consolidation and a rebuilding of balance sheets point to a subdued recovery.

External financing and currency risks, which were the primary vulnerability of many countries in EE in the initial phase of the crisis, have eased somewhat, though remain material. This reflects a rapid reduction in current account deficits (CADs), substantial multilateral assistance, a boom in sovereign external issuance (USD19bn year to date) and relatively resilient private-sector roll-over rates. Fitch estimates the region’s gross external financing requirement (CAD plus medium- and long-term (MLT) amortisation) at USD304bn in 2009 and 2010, down from USD363bn in 2008.

In contrast to the rally in EE government bond prices, sovereign ratings dynamics remain negative, albeit at an easing pace. Following 11 notches of downgrades of foreign-currency Issuer Default Ratings in Q408, there were two downgrades in Q109, three in Q209 and only one in Q309. The balance of Outlooks and Watches has improved slightly since August 2009, but 12 countries are on Negative and only one on Positive. Fitch expects future rating actions to be driven more by country-specific developments than general trends.

The full report, entitled “Emerging Europe Sovereign Review: 2009”, is available on the agency’s website at http://www.fitchratings.com

Contacts: Edward Parker, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7417 6340, David Heslam, +44 (0)20 7417 4384; Eral Yilmaz, +44 (0)20 7682 7554.

Russia: Fitch Ratings Pessimistic on Sovereign, Banks

August 18, 2009

Fitch Ratings, one of the three global rating agencies, published reports this week on the state of play in Russia.  The government of Russia’s BBB rating was affirmed, but the Outlook for the rating (i.e., where the rating is likely to go in the next two years) remains negative.  Russia has been more negatively affected by the global downturn than other Emerging Markets (with GDP down over 10% annualized in the first half of this year).  Fitch quotes these reasons why:

“First, it [Russia] was highly exposed to the shocks to global commodity prices and cross-border capital flows, which were of the order of 25% of GDP. Second, monetary policy was overly loose, external borrowing and domestic credit growth was excessive, and the economy was overheating prior to the crisis. Third, vulnerabilities were exacerbated by structural weaknesses including an undiversified economy, a weak banking sector, high inflation, FX mismatches on private sector balance sheets, weak institutions and a difficult business climate – which the authorities failed to address sufficiently during the boom years.”

In addition, Fitch banking analysts expect non-performing loans at Russia’s banks to top off at 25% of total loans, up from 14% in June.  Under its “pessimistic” scenario, Russia’s NPLs rise to 40% and losses amount to 24% of total loans.  Press releases on the Sovereign and the banks are below.

” Fitch Affirms Russia at ‘BBB’; Outlook Negative   04 Aug 2009 7:12 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-London-04 August 2009: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed the Russian Federation’s Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default ratings (IDR) at ‘BBB’ with Negative Outlooks. At the same time, the agency has affirmed the Short-term foreign currency IDR at ‘F3’ and the Country Ceiling at ‘BBB+’.

“The Russian economy and sovereign balance sheet have been severely affected by the global financial crisis and, despite signs of economic and financial stabilisation since March, risks to creditworthiness remain on the downside,” says Edward Parker, Head of Emerging Europe in Fitch’s Sovereigns team.

Russian GDP contracted 10.1% y-o-y in H109, a far worse performance than in other larger emerging markets, and foreign exchange reserves (FXR) have fallen by around USD200bn over the past 12 months. The severe impact of the global crisis on Russia reflects three sets of factors. First, it was highly exposed to the shocks to global commodity prices and cross-border capital flows, which were of the order of 25% of GDP. Second, monetary policy was overly loose, external borrowing and domestic credit growth was excessive, and the economy was overheating prior to the crisis. Third, vulnerabilities were exacerbated by structural weaknesses including an undiversified economy, a weak banking sector, high inflation, FX mismatches on private sector balance sheets, weak institutions and a difficult business climate – which the authorities failed to address sufficiently during the boom years.

Fitch forecasts Russia’s real GDP to decline 7% in 2009, before increasing 3.5% in 2010, helped by the inventory cycle, base effects, higher oil prices and a large fiscal stimulus. However, the length and depth of the recession is a downside risk and will have implications for bank asset quality, public finances and, potentially, political pressures on the Russian authorities. Fitch views the banking sector as a key credit weakness. In its base case, the agency projects impaired loans to increase to 25% of total loans by end-2009, requiring recapitalisation of at least USD22bn in addition to the USD24bn injected since Q308. The central bank faces a challenge in providing sufficient liquidity to the banking sector, while reducing inflation to single-digits and avoiding excessive rouble volatility.

The Russian private sector faces maturing external debt payments of USD137bn this year, which may be difficult to refinance in current market conditions. Fitch estimates the roll-over rate was 64% in Q109. Capital outflows and the dollarisation of household bank deposits have eased since the completion of the rouble devaluation process in February, but could re-emerge in the event of renewed financial stress. Nevertheless, overall the country has a strong external liquidity position, with FXR of over USD400bn, and it is a net external creditor to the tune of 17% of GDP at end-2008, compared with a net debtor position for the ‘BBB’ range ten-year median of 13%.

Public finances are a key sovereign rating strength. General government debt was only 8% of GDP at end-2008, well below the ‘BBB’ range 10-year median of 35%. Moreover, Russia has an aggregate USD184bn in its Reserve Fund (RF) and National Wealth Fund (at end-June, equivalent to around 15% of projected 2009 GDP) providing a strong liquidity position to finance budget deficits and to run counter-cyclical fiscal policy. However, Fitch forecasts the recession, fall in oil prices and anti-crisis measures to cause the federal budget to swing from a surplus of 4.1% of GDP in 2008 to a deficit of 8.5% in 2009 and 6% in 2010. Even with a return to the eurobond market next year, this will cause the RF to be depleted in 2010 and require significant fiscal consolidation over the medium-term.

A renewed deterioration in global economic prospects, oil prices and risk appetite leading to a material weakening in the sovereign balance sheet or macroeconomic instability could result in another downgrade (Fitch downgraded Russia’s ratings by one notch on 4 February 2009). Negative shocks from the banking sector or elevated financial pressures from low roll-over rates on external debt or large-scale capital flight would also be negative for the ratings. Furthermore, a failure to narrow the budget deficit, and a consequent rapid increase in government debt and depletion of the sovereign wealth funds could lead to downward pressure on the ratings in the medium-term. In contrast, a material easing of a combination of these risks could see the Outlooks revised to Stable.

Contacts: Edward Parker, London, Tel: +44 (0)20 7417 6340; David Heslam, +44 (0)20 7417 4384.

Media Relations: Peter Fitzpatrick, London, Tel: + 44 (0)20 7417 4364, Email: peter.fitzpatrick@fitchratings.com.”

“Fitch Ranks 57 Russian Banks by Loss Absorption Capacity  
14 Aug 2009 5:07 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-London/Moscow-14 August 2009: Fitch Ratings released a report today ranking 57 rated Russian banks based on their loan loss absorption capacity. Fitch considers this capacity to be currently weak at 10 of the banks reviewed, although most of the 10 could likely rely on capital support from shareholders, and moderate at a further 14.

The extent of Russian banks’ asset quality deterioration, their loss absorption capacity and contingency recapitalisation plans are likely to be the main drivers of rating actions over the next 12 to 18 months. Fitch-rated banks reported an average 14% impaired loans (5% non-performing and 9% restructured) at 1 June 2009, up from 10% (3% and 7%) at 1 March.

“However, management figures prepared at a still relatively early stage of the credit downturn are unlikely to fully capture the eventual full extent of asset quality problems,” says Alexander Danilov, Senior Director, Fitch’s Financial Institutions group in Moscow. “The gradual deterioration of banks’ asset quality metrics is likely to continue during the second half of 2009 and into 2010.”

Fitch had previously stated that it expects impaired loans at Russian banks to reach 25% in a base case scenario, resulting in ultimate loan losses of 12.5%. Under a more pessimistic scenario, impaired loans could reach 40% resulting in loan losses of 24%.

Fitch ranked the loan loss absorption capacity of the 57 rated Russian banks to demonstrate their relative vulnerability to loan losses. The agency assessed the banks’ loss absorption based on the maximum reserves to loans ratio they could have sustained at 1 June 2009 without breaching minimum regulatory capital requirements. However, Fitch notes that a lower or higher loss absorption capacity, as defined by this measure, does not automatically mean that a bank is more or less vulnerable to potential loan impairment, as credit losses at individual banks may significantly diverge from Fitch’s average sector assumptions.

For 10 of the 57 banks – VTB24, Rossiya, Bank of Moscow, Swedbank (Russia), VTB, Moscow Bank for Reconstruction and Development, AK Bars, Rosbank, Orgresbank and Unicredit (Russia) – the maximum reserves/loans ratio is below 10%, and Fitch thus regards these banks’ loss absorption capacity as currently weak. However, Fitch notes that the capacity of two of these banks – Bank of Moscow and VTB – should strengthen significantly as a result of upcoming equity injections, and that most of the other eight banks also have relatively strong shareholders, which the agency would expect to contribute new capital in case of need. Fourteen of the banks reviewed had moderate loan loss absorption capacity (a maximum reserves/loans ratio of 10%-15%), while capacity was significant at 14 banks (15%-20%), solid at 11 (20%-32%) and strong at eight (more than 32%).

Banks’ loss absorption capacity has increased significantly in recent quarters as they have received new capital, albeit mainly in the form of subordinated debt, and cut back on loan growth. However, this capacity still remains moderate on a sector basis relative to potential credit losses.

“The recently approved government programme to support banks’ tier 1 capital, if successfully implemented, could help to make recapitalisation a manageable process,” says James Watson, Managing Director, Fitch’s Financial Institutions group, “Defaults would still be possible, in particular at banks with major asset quality or corporate governance failures, although recent government actions suggest a determination to avoid destabilising, unmanaged failures at larger institutions.”

The report, entitled ‘Russian Banks: Measuring Their Loss Absorption Capacity’, focuses mainly on asset quality deterioration trends and banks’ loss absorption capacity. It follows and expands on the July 2009 presentation, entitled ‘Asset Quality Problems Weigh on Russian Bank Ratings’, which provided a summary of Fitch’s sector wide credit loss expectations and recapitalisation requirements. The report and presentation are available at http://www.fitchratings.com.

Contacts: Alexander Danilov, James Watson, Moscow, Tel: +7 495 956 9901.

Media Relations: Marina Moshkina, Moscow, Tel: +7 495 956 9901, Email: marina.moshkina@fitchratings.com; Hannah Warrington, London, Tel: +44 (0) 207 417 6298, Email: hannah.warrington@fitchratings.com.”

Russia-Turkey deal: the Czars would be jealous

August 7, 2009
Peter the Great sought a warm-water port on the Black Sea.  Source:  www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/
Peter the Great sought a warm-water port on the Black Sea. Source: http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/

The NYTimes published an article today detailing a set of energy deals concluded between Russia and Turkey in Ankara, with Prime Ministers Putin and Erdogan present.  The deal was with Russian energy giant Gazprom, allowing state-owned Gazprom access to Turkish territorial waters, a benefit Russian czars and party chairmen since Peter the Great (pictured above — who ruled Russia from 1682-1725) have sought by force (or threat of force).  Now, in true “Western” fashion, Russia, Inc. is signing a business contract that provides benefits to Turkey as well.  Turkey desires to become an energy hub and has obtained a Russian commitment to build a pipeline across its territory.

The Times article explains how Western interests have competed with Russia for energy agreements with Turkey in order to avoid Russian dominance of the Eurasian energy pipeline system, and the consequent vulnerability of energy-hungry Western Europe.  Russia has used pipeline cutoffs before for political purposes, e.g. with the Ukraine.

Turkey for its part, with a less pro-Western government than heretofore, headed by the moderate Islamist AKP party, probably does not mind playing what the Brits over a century ago called, “the Great Game,” or the Great Power competition in the East.  Has Vlad the Great bested Peter??

The Russians are Coming…

August 4, 2009

Russian subs off East Coast echo 1960s Hollywood comedy...  Source:  Google Images

The NYTimes reported today that Russian subs were spotted nearly 200 miles off the East Coast of the United States, echoing the 1960s comedy, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, in which a Russian sub accidentally runs ashore off the coast of Massachusetts, causing an international incident and not a few laughs.  By the mid-1960s, lampooning the Cold War was acceptable and probably a good release for Americans, who only a few years before endured the war scare of the Cuban missile crisis.  The phrase — the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming — first attributed to Truman’s Secretary of Defense Forrestal in 1949, came into common U.S. usage to reflect the anxiety about the rise of the Soviet Union since WWII.

Now, the Russians are really coming, if not rising.  The Times article suggests that these Russian naval maneuvers could signal irritation with U.S. policy — U.S. duplicity, from the Russian point of view, speaking out of both sides of the mouth, with good cop Obama flying to Moscow to press the “reset” button, and bad cop Joe Biden running off his mouth in the Ukraine and Georgia.  Not only did the Vice Mouth compliment the beauty of Ukrainian women (who does he think he is, the Beatles?), he gave verbal support to these countries’ claims to joining Western institutions, including NATO.  This mischief-making in Russia’s near-abroad is no reset, especially in Russian eyes, even though Biden, with his gleaming pearly whites, is a more acceptable Cheney than Cheney.

Worries about Russia’s tightening relations with Venezuela, with arms and energy deals and Chavez due for a visit to Moscow in the near future, are well-founded and smack of the chess moves of the Cold War.

Barack Obama: Naif or Visionary?

July 7, 2009

President Obama in Prague earlier this year calling for nuclear disarmament.  Source:  www.guardian.co.uk

Slip back for a moment to the early 1980s.  The Reagan administration was talking about a winnable nuclear war.  Reagan himself called the MX missile the “Peacekeeper Missile,” a powerful multiple warhead nuclear weapon some interpreted as an effort to obtain a “first-strike capability.”  Orson Welles, that powerful cinematic presence, ambled up to the podium, with the assistance of a cane, on a sunny day in Central Park in June 1982, to address thousands in the Nuclear Freeze movement.  Activists opposing Reagan’s foreign policy, including this blogger, marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in 1981, chanting “No draft, no war, U.S. out of El Salvador!!”  When mounted police trotted alongside the marchers, some began chanting, “Free the horses!”  It was the 1980s, but we wished it was the sixties.

Obama has said he came of age during the Reagan presidency.  So did I.  For many years, I wore a T-shirt I purchased at the Nuclear Freeze rally that had a picture of our blue planet on it, with words above, “Don’t Blow It!”

Barack Obama, spending his last two college years at Columbia University, wrote an article in 1983 profiling two anti-war groups on campus, which is attached and currently making its way around the web.  In addition, he wrote a paper for a poli sci class, for which he received an ‘A’, on how he would negotiate nuclear weapons reduction with the Russians.   This week he will have a chance to implement that paper.  Dreams come true for some of us.

A NYTimes article today explains how Obama’s thinking on nuclear weapons has evolved over the years since that article and poli sci paper.  It suggests that at core he, like Reagan ironically, wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet.  (Read his Prague speech on the matter.)  Yet today, he’ll settle for negotiations with the Russians for nuclear weapons reductions and for efforts at non-proliferation. 

He is a remarkable fellow, our president, with so much confidence and affability that he convinces people to do things.  This is a presidential quality.  A quality W woefully lacked.  I am impressed by the fact that the Russians, in advance of Obama’s trip, have agreed to allow U.S. military overflights to resupply NATO in Afghanistan.  Gobama!!

I just hope that over the years since the early eighties, Obama has come to grasp the complexities and ironies of interstate relations and the way nuclear weapons factor in to whether states make war or peace.  A study of these issues can be emotionally-unsatisfying, especially to a utopian wishing to put an end to the “twisted logic” of national security, bemoaning the “academic discussion of first versus second strike capabalities,” and attempting to confront “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in this country.”  It’s okay, Mr. President, we all wrote like that in college.  

For the record, militarism is what happened in pre-World War I Germany, as the German General Staff, backed by the Kaiser, virtually hijacked that country; it is not at all what has taken place in America since George Washington turned down the opportunity to become a military dictator. 

The question is, now that Barack Obama is the leader of what he called in 1983 the “military-industrial interests, as they add to their billion dollar erector sets,” can he make the best decisions on weapons systems and force posture that will make the world safer?   

Although nuclear weapons are a horrible reality, they have arguably reduced great power conflict since the end of World War II.  While we hate having this threat hanging over us, it is one of the ironies of being human that it is exactly this threat of mutual destruction that has deterred nuclear-armed states from going to war.   So, President Obama’s goals of reducing nuclear weapons and staunching proliferation make sense, but we must be very careful when talking about nuclear disarmament.  The reality is that if all the peace-loving major powers disarmed, the technology remains out there, the genie is out of the bottle.  Some nasty power some time in the future (need I name names?) could and would build such weapons.  Would we have a deterrent to their use or threatened use of such weapons at that time? Could we develop one quickly? We must tread carefully in this area.  The disarmament and arms control efforts of the liberal democracies in the thirties occurred against the backdrop of Germany’s secret arms buildup, leaving them unable to confront Hitler in 1939.

Furthermore, those of us who opposed the Reagan arms buildup must admit that what Reagan (and George Kennan and Paul Nitze) had hoped would happen happened!  We bankrupted the Soviet Union through an arms race, and that nasty dictatorship withered away.  Was it worth the risk?  Maybe not.  The risk of nuclear war probably increased during the eighties because of the subtle shift in the balance of first strike/second strike capabilities, what Student Obama scorned in 1983.  If rasher men had been running the Soviet Union at the time, they could have interpreted Reagan’s commitment to the MX missile and other weapons systems, in conjunction with statements by such luminaries as Cap Weinberger, as an effort to obtain a first strike advantage, an ability to wipe out your adversary in a first strike so as to sustain only a modest second strike against yourself.

Back to today, the disagreement that Obama has had with his Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, over whether to modernize our nuclear arsenal, warrants careful consideration.  As the guy calling for nuclear arms reduction and wishing to build alliances through the power of America’s example, Obama does not want to build new “erector sets,” especially when he’s announcing expensive domestic spending initiatives.  Yet it is important for the U.S. to stay at the technological edge in military preparedness, especially as regards weapons that improve defense and deterrence.  I’m not saying that Gates’s initiative is the right one, only that policy makers must choose which technologies will be critical to America’s security and a safer world.  Yet Obama’s priority seems to be, simply, to not build any more nukes.  

The NYTimes article speaks about a class on presidential decision-making at Columbia that was formative for Student Obama, in which he wrote a paper on how to conduct nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians.  I took a course around the same time at Tufts University that was formative for me, called War and War Prevention, taught by Stephen W. Van Evera, now a professor at MIT and author of an important book, Causes of War:  Power and the Roots of Conflict, that I hope Obama and his national security team have studied.  The book’s conclusion: policies that strengthen a nation’s capacity to defend itself, rather than conquer other nations, make the world safer by convincing leaders the world over that conquest is difficult.  So, disarmament doesn’t usher in a safer world, arming with the right armaments, defensive armaments, does.  The book also suggests that misperceptions about this “offense-defense” balance have been a leading cause of wars throughout history, notably the catastrophic World War I.  Therefore, transparency, policy clarity and the disinterested analysis of national security by people outside government would reduce the risks of misperception. 

Ironically, nuclear weapons have bolstered the defense, by discouraging would-be attackers.  It is a depressing thought that the most horrible weapon in history has had a silver-lining, just as the most hopeful prospect – disarmament – has helped cause war.   For a greater understanding of why human affairs involve so much contradiction, we must, alas, turn to Mr. Freud, who last century theorized that two instincts drive human beings – the love and death instincts.  The love instinct (libido) drives us to build and the death instinct to destroy.  President Obama is definitely a builder.  He should just relegate his utopian visions to their proper place on the back burner, so that he can take a hard look at defense policy, formulating one that will promote American security and peace in the world.  The Van Evera book is a starter…

From BRIC to BIC…or even IC?

June 8, 2009

BRIC leaders meeting last year.  Source: www.corporate-eye.com

The Economist published an article this week suggesting that Russia’s slide into recession this year – due to lower oil prices, capital flight, weak banks and greater state involvement in the economy — could mean the fabled BRICs will become BICs. Of the four BRICs that made it into Goldman’s arbitrary moniker for major emerging market economies, Fitch Ratings forecasts only China and India will grow this year. Does that mean the BRICs should actually be the ICs? Does Brazil’s shrinking economy also knock Latin America’s largest country out of this select group? Somehow IC doesn’t sound as good as BRIC. Before the global financial crisis, some had said that Brazil had hit a BRIC wall, due to its much worse economic growth performance. I guess that would have been RIC, right?

Fitch Ratings forecasts Earth’s economy will contract 2.7% this year, driven by a nearly-unprecedented shrinkage of the major advanced economies by 3.8%, much worse than the zero growth of the 1975 and 1982 global recessions. Russia is likely to contract by about 3%, Brazil by a little over 1%, while China and India expand by 5-6% each (slow for these countries). Russia’s contraction is driven by its dependence on energy exports, the price of which has fallen markedly since highs last year. However, should the recent push upward in the price of a barrel of oil to nearly $70 persist, Russia’s contraction this year could be more muted.

As noted, Russia is also buffeted by weak banks, capital flight and the heavy unmet external financing needs of the private sector. In addition, as The Economist points out in an article likening Putin’s Russia to the Ottoman Empire, the greater intrusion of the state in the economy and the corporatist corruption of Putin and his men have stymied, though not uprooted, private entrepreneurship in Russia.

The comparison between Russia and Brazil is interesting. Fitch rates Russia’s sovereign debt “BBB” with a Negative Outlook, and Brazil a notch below at “BBB-” with a Stable Outlook (the Outlook reflects the likely direction of the rating within two years). India is also rated “BBB-” with a Stable Outlook. And China, in a class by itself with its $1.8 trillion in reserves – perhaps Goldman’s next appellation should simply be C – is rated “A+” with a Stable Outlook.

But as I said in a previous note about Moody’s, ratings are notoriously sticky. Brazil is looking better than Russia these days. Its economy is more market-oriented and better structured. Its exports are much more diversified. Its domestic market is stronger, as are its banks. Its only negatives vis-à-vis Russia are: its higher government debt, though its deficits are lower than Russia’s because the latter relies on volatile oil to balance its books; and, Russia’s stronger external balance sheet, i.e. excess of foreign exchange reserves over money it owes foreigners. However, Brazil’s balance between external assets and liabilities is near zero — pretty darn good — so I’m not sure Russia is so far ahead on this front. India likewise has a heavy government debt burden and fiscal deficits (both larger than Brazil’s).

India’s and Brazil’s fiscal woes emanate out of their tradition of coalition politics, a dynamic described in an earlier post. India now has the potential to improve its fiscal performance, given the strength of the Congress Party after last month’s elections. Congress should require less pork to distribute to keep its coalition together. India likewise has external assets in excess of liabilities, but not to as great an extent as Russia. Both Brazil and India benefit from a relatively closed economy (at least during a global meltdown) and a strong domestic market. (China’s openness to trade has become a major vulnerability in this crisis.) So perhaps the ratings of both Brazil and India should equalize with or even best Russia’s. Let’s wait and see.

Fitch regularly publishes an interesting report on banking sector risks across the countries it rates. The last one came out May 11, 2009. They assign a letter grade and a number rank based on the health of a country’s banks and vulnerability to shocks. The letter grade (A-E) is an average of the credit quality of the nation’s banks. The number (1-3, 3 being the worst) reflects the vulnerability of the country’s banks to financial shocks from asset prices (including real estate), excessive growth in bank lending, and exchange rate movements. The risk indicators for the famed BRICs are as follows:

Brazil C-3

Russia D-3

India C-2

China D-1

By this measure, India may be the least vulnerable to a banking crisis. China’s score of 1 for financial shocks is good, but may change given the breakneck growth in bank lending of late. China’s banks are fairly weak, given heavy policy lending to state-owned enterprises. Russia’s banks are also weak and prone to shocks. Fitch’s banking sector indicators were always much better in the advanced industrialized countries than in emerging markets in the past. In late 2006, the US and UK were both B-2, and now they’re both C-3, same as Brazil. Some powers rise and some powers fall.  My email is roger.scher@gmail.com.

Rising Powers Update…

May 18, 2009

China and the U.S. inextricably linked.  Source:  NYTimes Magazine

A lot is going on in the Rising Powers at the moment, so why not begin the week with a survey of key developments and important news articles? 

On China, there was an excellent article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times Magazine, explaining quite clearly the symbiotic linkages between the economies of China and America and the challenging tasks both governments face to correct the imbalances in trade and finance that have underpinned the current global financial crisis.  I applaud Leonhardt’s mentioning Ben Bernanke’s past and present near-blaming of America’s debt-driven trade deficits on China’s savings glut.  I first heard Bernanke make this argument at a Merrill Lynch dinner in 2005 where he was keynote speaker and was angling to be Bush’s nominee for Fed chairman.  According to Bernanke, then Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, America’s twin deficits were not the problem; abysmally low American household savings were not the problem.  It was the global savings glut that kept interest rates low in the U.S.  Global capital sought the superior returns of U.S. assets.  It was up to other countries like China to adjust, not the U.S.  The Special of the Day at the Federal Reserve dining room these days is crow.

I disagree with one point made in the Leonhardt article.  He quotes China expert Nicholas Lardy saying that China’s massive current account surpluses were accidental; the Chinese “fell into it.”  As head of Asian Sovereign Ratings at a global rating agency during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, I recall Chinese officials observing the financial dominos falling all over Asia at that time.  They saw governments, from Korea to Thailand, failing to follow a policy of targeting higher foreign exchange reserves.  As a result, I believe the Chinese became determined to run up their surpluses and to bank them, so as never to go hat in hand to the IMF like their neighbors had to do.

Also on China, a Foreign Affairs article called “The G-2 Mirage,” penned by Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal, argues that prospects for the G-2 cooperatively managing world affairs are not great, given conflicting values and goals, even less so now that Obama is in power.  I heard Economy argue this point in a political salon I attended.  In contrast to Bush, Obama’s team will stress with China reducing greenhouse gases and improving human rights, which could get in the way of coordinating economic policies and solving problems around the world, notwithstanding the best intentions of Tim Geithner.

On an optimistic note regarding China, in a world where relations between (and within) states have been deteriorating (whether it is in Pakistan and Afghanistan, between Russia and NATO, or between Iran and its neighbors), it is encouraging to see China and Taiwan improving relations.  An Economist article discusses the announcement in late April by China Mobile that it would buy a Taiwanese mobile operator.  Taiwanese capitalists have long invested in the Mainland, but Taiwan has restricted Mainland investment in its economy.  With its economy now faltering, Taiwan has liberalized its investment rules vis-a-vis the Mainland.  This is part of a mutual thawing of relations since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT party, which advocates closer cross-straits relations, replaced the controversial President Chen Shui-bian, of the pro-independence DPP party, last year. Yet the Taipei Times reports that Sunday tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of two Taiwanese cities to show anger at President Ma’s pro-Beijing policies.  Organizers had hoped for hundreds of thousands.

In India, contrary to what most pundits had expected, the incumbent Congress Party did very well in national elections and will easily form the next government.  It seems Indians voted for who they believe will run the economy and look after the poor best, not who will take the hardest line on terrorism (the BJP).  Likewise India’s smaller and regional parties had a poor showing overall.  I argued in an earlier post that an election resulting in political fragmentation, characterized by a surge of support for the smaller parties, could lead to higher government deficits and debt.  Let us see if a government dominated by the Congress Party can fulfill its election promises without a deterioration in sovereign creditworthiness.  What is clear is that President Singh is now a giant on the Indian political scene, much like Barack Obama; and, with a likely 260 seats, he needs just 12 more from other parties to govern.

Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel will meet Monday with President Obama in Washington.  A must-read ahead of this meeting is a NYTimes op-ed by Jeffrey Goldberg, correspondent for The Atlantic, in which he explains what motivates Netanyahu and the consequent challenges Obama will face in dealing with him.  I had extensive meetings with Netanyahu over the years he was finance minister, and there is nothing in Goldberg’s piece that I would disagree with. While it would not be correct to say there has been a deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Israel since the election of Obama in November and Netanyahu in February, the expectation is that they will not see eye-to-eye in the same manner Bush and Olmert did.  However, an AP article quotes Defense Minister Barak suggesting that Netanyahu, who has lowered expectations about his appetite for negotiations with the Palestinians, will reaffirm his country’s commitment to a two-state solution.  This will be a sort of “gift” to Obama, but will there be a quid pro quo?  A commitment to heavier sanctions on Iran on the part of America?  How can Obama promise that?

In the presidential election in Iran, reformist candidates have been knocking Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and ruining relations with the West.  If there is any hope that a reformist can win in Iran with Khamenei lurking behind the scenes, would this presage a détente with the West?  The trouble with this hope is that it may in fact be the case that both reformists and hardliners in Iran are intent on building a nuclear weapon.  Perhaps the only way to stop one, therefore, if that is what in fact the West wants to do, is to sharply curtail the country’s access to petroleum markets worldwide, which is a highly unlikely event.

And in Pakistan, the UN estimates one million people have fled their homes, due to fighting between the government and the Taliban.  Likewise U.S. targeted killings continue, with criticism, including in this country, mounting.  And, a New York Times article on Sunday quoted Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirming that the government of Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.

In Brazil, hundreds of thousands remain homeless after floods ravaged the northeast, and the government is being criticized for not doing enough, reminiscent of criticism of the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina.

And Friday, Russia and other nations could not agree on a proposal to extend peacekeeping monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to stay in Georgia beyond June 30.

The world takes one step forward and two steps back…