While everyone was gushing over the spectacle on TV of a pro-HFT guy and anti-HFT guy go at it, yesterday afternoon we reported what was by far the most important news of the day, one which was lost on virtually everyone if only until this morning, when we reported that "Monetary Blockade Of Russia Begins: JPMorgan Blocks Russian Money Transfer "Under Pretext" Of Sanctions." This morning the story has finally blown up to front page status, which it deserves, where it currently graces the FT with "Russian threat to retaliate over JPMorgan block." And unlike previous responses to Russian sanctions by the West, which were largely taken as a joke by the Russian establishment, this time Russia is furious: according to Bloomberg, the Russian foreign ministry described the JPM decision as "illegal and absurd." And as Ukraine found out last month, you don't want Russia angry.
The biggest U.S. bank thwarted a remittance from the Russian embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan, to Sogaz Insurance Group “under the pretext of anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the United States,” the ministry said yesterday in a statement on its website. Sogaz lists OAO Bank Rossiya, a St. Petersburg-based lender facing U.S. sanctions over the Ukrainian crisis, as a strategic partner on its website.
Interfering with the transaction was an “absolutely unacceptable, illegal and absurd decision,” Alexander Lukashevich, a ministry spokesman, said in the statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced the action against Bank Rossiya last month as part of a broadening of sanctions that targeted government officials and allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose associates own Rossiya. The embassy’s transaction was for less than $5,000 dollars, a person with knowledge of the dispute said, asking not to be identified because such transfers aren’t public.
Did JPMorgan just move the second Cold War into semi-hot status? Very possibly:
“Any hostile actions against the Russian diplomatic mission are not only a grossest violation of international law, but are also fraught with countermeasures that unavoidably will affect activities of the embassy and consulates of the U.S. in Russia,” Lukashevich said.
As we reported yesterday, for now the JPM party line is to plead ignorance, as it does not want to incur the wrath of the US government, because apparently lying to Congress is less of an issue than transacting with Russian oligarchs.
JPMorgan could still process the embassy payment if U.S. regulators approve, the person familiar with that dispute said.
“As with all U.S. financial institutions that operate globally, we are subject to specific regulatory requirements,” New York-based JPMorgan said in a statement. “We will continue to seek guidance from the U.S. government on implementing their recent sanctions.”
Russia’s Finance Ministry has done business with JPMorgan. It picked the lender to improve the country’s standing among U.S. credit-rating firms. Putin said in 2011 the rankings given to Russia were an “outrage” that increased borrowing costs for domestic companies and the government. JPMorgan also was among banks selected to advise Russia on a 1 trillion ruble ($28.5 billion) privatization program.
There's that. And then there's this, which we also said yesterday:
Wait, did JPM just take a unilateral action, not mandated by the state department (because nowhere in the Russian sanction list does it say putting a freeze on Russian bank transfers), and refuse to process a simple money transfer? Why? And if indeed JPM is doing this, how long until all other US banks, most of which are just as allegedly criminal in dealing with offshore sources of illegal money, follow suit and leave Russia entirely in the world when it comes to USD-backed transactions.
Because what JPM may have just done is launch a preemptive strike which would have the equivalent culmination of a SWIFT blockade of Russia, the same way Iran was neutralized from the Petrodollar and was promptly forced to begin transacting in Rubles, Yuan and, of course, gold in exchange for goods and services either imported or exported.
One wonders: is JPM truly that intent in preserving its "pristine" reputation of not transacting with "evil Russians", that it will gladly light the fuse that takes away Russia's choice whether or not to depart the petrodollar voluntarily, and makes it a compulsory outcome, which incidentally will merely accelerate the formalization of the Eurasian axis of China, Russia and India?
Once again: watch this space carefully - should more western commercial banks (here's looking at you Citigroup, Bank of America, and Citi, and of course "money launderer to criminals everywhere" extraordinaire HSBC) just say no to more Russian hot money, things get really interesting.... if for nothing else, then certainly the ultra-luxury end of the Manhattan real estate market.
Finally, we certainly can not be the only ones looking forward to the epic battle prospect that is Vlad "Shootin" Putin vs JP "Fail Whale" Morgan. Especially if it involves more such sudden moves in gold as what just happened.