The fallout from the YPF seizure

The players are taking sides as Argentina consolidates the ground it has taken

The fallout from Argentina's seizure of 51 per cent of its former state oil company YPF continues today, both in diplomatic and financial sectors.

The most immediate impact is that a deal to sell the company has fallen through. The Financial Times reports that Repsol, the Spanish company that held 57 per cent of YPF, was negotiating a deal to sell the company to the Chinese firm Sinopec. Now that Repsol owns 6, rather than 57, per cent of the company, that deal is obviously unlikely to go through.

The sale was being negotiated in secret, according to the FT's sources, because the firms hoped to present it to the Argentine government in its finalised state. The government holds a golden share in YPF, which means that any sales have to be approved by it.

To what extent Argentina will feel concerned about this is debatable. On the one hand, they nationalised the company without knowing all the details, but on the other, even if the takeover had gone ahead, it seems unlikely it would have changed the state's rationale for action. Repsol was already investing more into YPF than it was getting from it, and there is no reason to believe that Sinopec would have behaved differently.

The impact of the move on Repsol itself has been a 6 per cent overnight fall in its share price, but where it goes from here depends on how many concessions it manages to extract from Argentina. The company is demanding $10bn compensation for the move, but the government seems unlikely to fork it over, with the deputy economic minsiter saying:

We are going to determine [YPF’s] real value. We are not going to pay what [Repsol] say.

Unless Argentina volunteers to enter arbitration, as Repsol is demanding, the real action looks to be diplomatic. Surprising nobody, Britain has entered the debate on the side of Spain. William Hague criticised the move, saying:

This is the latest in a series of trade and investment related actions taken by Argentina which are damaging to business interests, and will undermine Argentina’s economy. We will work with Spain and our EU partners to ensure the Argentine authorities uphold their international commitments.

The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, hinted at further problems which Argentina could face as a result, telling El Pais:

In my opinion Argentina has shot itself in the foot. Argentina needs 36 billion euros in funding and it could see itself cut off from credit by international investors after this measure.

An editorial in the paper is similarly damning, writing:

The fact of the expropriation, threatened for months with the intention of undermining Repsol’s resistance and cheapening YPF’s shares, goes beyond a mere breakdown of the legal security one expects in a democratic country; it is an intentional betrayal of the agreement on reciprocal protection of investments signed by Spain and Argentina in November 1991, and initiates a period of grave uncertainty for Spanish companies in Argentina, and for all foreign investors there.

But the dissenting voices have started to come out of the woodwork. In the Guardian, Mark Weisbrot writes that Argentina has made the correct decision:

Now the government is reversing another failed neoliberal policy of the 1990s: the privatisation of its oil and gas industry, which should never have happened in the first place.

There are sound reasons for this move, and the government will most likely be proved right once again. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that currently owns 57% of Argentina's YPF, hasn't produced enough to keep up with Argentina's rapidly growing economy. From 2004 to 2011, Argentina's oil production has actually declined by almost 20% and gas by 13%, with YPF accounting for much of this. And the company's proven reserves of oil and gas have also fallen substantially over the past few years.

Weisbrot seems likely to stay in the minority, however. Given the disastrous effects of price controls on oil, the massaging of inflation figures (thought to be at 18-20 per cent, rather than the official 9-10 per cent) and the aforementined high investment by Repsol into YPF, Argentina is hardly a paragon of economic rationality.

A woman jogs past a sign referencing YPF in Argentina. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.