A woman enters a bank which re-opened near a barricade in central Kiev on 25 February, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Investors hesitate as Ukraine teeters on the precipice

In recent days Ukrainian bonds suffered the worst selloff on record and the stock index fell 2.8 per cent

As central Kiev has descended further into violence, the complexity of the divisions - beyond a simple fissure between east and west - have become apparent.

The focal point of the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 was simple: Viktor Yushchenko was the legitimate winner of the presidential election and the people went onto the street to protest the rigged ballot that gave Yanukovych the presidency. Protests were peaceful, the movement had a single figurehead and the objective was clear.

The situation in 2014 is far more complex. Demonstrations were triggered by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a wide-ranging association agreement with the European Union - a decision the western media attributed to pressure from Russia.

This obviates the role ill-informed EU policy played. In demanding a final, all or nothing, response from Ukraine, a country in need of emergency funding, Yanukovych was left with little room for manoeuvre. President Vladimir Putin was offering cash. The EU was making promises and in so doing, Brussels misplayed its hand.

Branding Yanukovych as "pro-Russia" ignores the competing pressures within Ukrainian politics, particularly when he has taken significant steps to strengthen relations with the west. Ukraine is one of Europe’s most promising energy frontiers and hosts Europe’s third largest shale gas reserves. In November 2013 Kiev signed a production sharing agreement (PSA) with Chevron of the US, worth up to USD 10 billion, to explore for and produce shale gas in the Oleska field in western Ukraine. This was followed in January 2014, with the signing of a similar deal with Royal Dutch Shell for the Yuzivska field in the east of the country.

Conventional oil and gas exploration deals are also being signed. Ukraine agreed a PSA with an ExxonMobil-led consortium to exploit a field of the western coast of the Black Sea.

The signing of such deals with western oil majors is a significant departure from what has gone before. Even under Yushchenko’s pro-western leadership after the Orange Revolution, western companies were largely shut out the country’s energy sector, or put off by uncertain legislation.

Yanukovych, who became president in 2010, in contrast, has been more pragmatic in terms of opening the hydrocarbons production to the west. Efforts have also been made to significantly improve the legislative environment.

Despite this evolution, Ukraine has limited room for political and economic manoeuvre, a fact the EU appears to have ignored during negotiations. Irrespective of the international orientation of its leaders, the Ukraine remains heavily dependent on Moscow for its gas supply, with Russian imports accounting for 60 per cent of consumption. In retaliation for the Orange Revolution, Moscow raised gas prices and cut off supplies in 2006 and 2009, amid pricing disputes. The agreement that ended the 2009 cut-off left Ukraine paying some of the highest prices in Europe.

Unless Ukraine is able to develop its shale gas reserves and wean itself off dependence on Russian energy this cycle of economic vulnerability will continue.

Investors are ditching assets; punishing Ukraine for the protests. In recent days Ukrainian bonds suffered the worst selloff on record and the stock index fell 2.8 per cent. Yields on government bonds maturing in June reached an all-time high of 34 per cent, trading a yield on the 2014 note traded a record 23 per cent about the rate on debt maturing in April 2023.

Ukraine is grappling with a record current-account deficit and foreign reserves are at the lowest level since 2006. The country has USD17 billion of liabilities coming due, excluding interest, through the end of 2015 and at the time of writing Moscow has delayed a USD2 billion purchase of Eurobonds citing "technical delays".

The EU is threatening sanctions, a move that will have limited short-term impact and will do little to end the bloodshed, particularly if Putin opens his cheque book.

In the medium term, Ukraine’s gas reserves and agricultural output have the potential to make it a relatively wealthy country. In the short term, investors are panicking, sending the economy to the brink of a precipice.

The insurance market has all but closed its books to new Ukrainian risk. While there is relative optimism around Ukraine’s prospects over a six month time horizon, in the immediate term underwriters and investors want to minimise their exposures.

It is unclear where the protests go from here. Yanukovych won a relatively free and fair election and it could be considered a loss for democracy if he is forced from office. If he succumbs to pressure who should replace him? The opposition, unlike 2004-05, cannot offer an undisputed successor. It is a disparate grouping with several figureheads, radical elements and no clear leadership.

The departure of Yanuckovych does not provide a viable solution. There is widespread concern in Ukraine about the level of corruption in government. Even if Yanukovych is removed from office corruption will not necessarily diminish. A big question is how intrinsically entrenched Russian business interests are within Ukrainian politics and commerce, as these systemic flaws pose the greatest threat to the development of a democratic system.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide