Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Perhaps you've heard of the recent natural gas shortages in Europe caused by Russia's decision to cut the supply. Gazprom is the leading gas utility and through various bailouts and sweetheart deals is a defacto entity of the Russian government. Like General Motors over here. Gazprom's reasoning behind turning off the taps was that the Ukraine owed them money so they weren't going to send their gas through Ukraine's pipelines until they were paid. Gas to most of the rest of Europe also flows through those pipelines, so reducing the pressure in the lines reduces the amount of heat everyone down the line gets. People are freezing. If this ever gets resolved and Gazprom turns the gas back on, my money's on them doing it all at once so it blows out the lines. It would be exquisitely Russian. Of course the real purpose behind all this is to show Europe the extent of Russia's reach. We have the power to freeze you and starve you. Do things our way, 'kay?

Ok, that's worrying, but it's Europe's problem. We have troubles enough over here, right? Not yet, apparently. The model Russia perfected with natural gas is now being applied to the steel industry. As in, our steel industry. Roman Abramovich is one of those Russian 'oligarchs' -- really rich young dudes with no past who seem to have risen from the waves on a clamshell. Amongst other holdings, he is one of two primary shareholders in the Evraz Group. They own steel mills. American steel mills. They've already renegotiated the existing sales contracts through the established business practice of tearing up the old ones and dictating new terms. So now every construction project that requires steel (that would be all of them) faces the prospect of paying the Russian government, since they've provided Abramovich with unsecured bailout funds to keep Evraz afloat. He's in a bit of a pinch right now, since Evraz is also trying to buy Delong Holdings Ltd., a Chinese steel maker.

A couple of other guys, Vladimir Potanin and Oleg Deripaska, plan to merge their mining company with Evraz, as well as with another couple mining companies and a producer of coal and steel. Russia's government would receive a quarter of the new company in exchange for paying off their debts.

They're going to take us without firing a shot. You could almost admire the efficiency of it.