The North Korean Economy Explained

There is an excellent podcast available through the FT Alphachat Series featuring Matt Klein’s interview of Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has spent a significant amount of time studying the North Korean economy.

The background information included with the podcast is also worth reading. This section in particular struck a chord with me:

The North Koreans depended on subsidies from the Soviets to survive, particularly the ability to buy oil and refined petroleum products at “friendship” prices. As the Soviet economy creaked under the combined weight of the war in Afghanistan, low oil prices, and the perceived need to match America’s defence buildup, these concessions started to disappear. By the late 1980s the North Koreans were paying more to the Soviets than they were getting.

One of the downsides of the North Korean obsession with self-sufficiency was that the country ended up with the most industrialised agricultural sector in the entire world. The only way the North could hope to feed itself without imports was to bathe the soil in fertiliser and other chemicals. (Of course, that required imports of energy from the Soviets, but apparently that was okay…) The North Koreans also expanded farmland by cutting down trees, which eventually led to soil erosion, silted rivers, mudslides, and floods.

All of this meant that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the North Koreans extremely vulnerable to food shortages. In the mid-1990s these shortages combined with the failures of the North Korean state to efficiently distribute the food they had and secure enough food from abroad through aid and imports. The result was a famine that killed about 3-5 per cent of the North Korean population — around 1mn people. (Regular listeners will think of Cuba’s “special period”, which killed far fewer people but had similar causes.)

Without spoiling the podcast here are a couple of high level takeaways from my POV:

Centrally planned economies do not work. In the cases of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba, central planning, at its best, manged to produce substandard consumer goods. At its worst, central planning actively contributed to the deaths of millions through the misallocation of resources. The misallocation of agricultural resources has proven particularly devastating.

These lines from the 1965 film version Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago are fairly evocative:

Don’t be too impatient, Comrade Engineer. We’ve come very far, very fast […] Do you know what it cost? There were children in those days who lived off human flesh. Did you know that?

Autarky does not work. North Korea is probably the closest thing we have to a true autarky. And yet, even in its much diminished state the North Korean economy is still not a true autarky! Initially it was dependent on the Soviet Union. Now it is dependent on China.

Markets do work. The Soviet Union, China and North Korea each developed market-based solutions to the massive inefficiencies created by centralized economic planning. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (later abolished by Stalin).  In China, it is the advent of a “socialist market economy” (which, unfortunately, has evolved into a massive kleptocracy). In North Korea, market-based solutions to famine arrived in the form of small scale, informal trading relationships, as well as a black market for food.

There is much more than this in the podcast, however. So do give it a listen.

Gazprom vs. Sanctions

Source: Gazprom

In the interest of full disclosure, I am long Gazprom ADRs. This post is written for entertainment purposes only and is not a recommendation to buy or sell any Gazprom-related security. Readers should consult a financial advisor before buying or selling any security. An advisor will be able to make a recommendation while taking the investor’s unique circumstances into consideratiom. Now, on to the show…

Hear that frenetic popping sound? Kind of like a firing squad executing a an opposition politician? Actually it is the sound of the Russian oligarchy uncorking champagne. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, was recently ranked #1 in the 2017 S&P Global Platts Top 250 Global Energy Company Rankings, dethroning reigning champion Exxon Mobil.

Gazprom is a fascinating entity for any number of reasons. Chief among them is that it is majority controlled by the Russian state, is a behemoth of an integrated oil and gas company and is therefore an instrument of Russian geopolitical strategy. Here are some fast facts from the 2016 Annual Report:


There is common misconception in the United States that sanctions on Russia somehow really matter. And sure, they matter at the margins. Certainly if you are a Russian oligarch they may impede your ability to make extravagant purchases. Sanctions make it harder and more expensive for Russian companies to do certain things. Project finance wrangling in particular can be a pain.

But remember – Russia via Gazprom controls nearly 20% of global gas reserves and maintains a relatively low cost position. This is something of an economic moat and if you are Russia/Gazprom it gives you options. For example, running export pipelines into China, and developing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export hub in proximity to Southeast Asia.



It is hardly a coincidence that in 2016 Gazprom closed a EUR 2 billion credit facility with the Bank of China (the 2016 Annual Report trumpets this as “The largest deal in the Company’s history in terms of the amount of financing attracted directly from one financial institution”). The company also held investor day events in both Singapore and Hong Kong earlier in 2017. Why? Per a Gazprom press release:

The region is of strategic importance for Gazprom’s development. The Company aims to foster an increased cooperation with its Asian partners and strives to diversify its investor pool and financing sources, with a primary focus on Asia-Pacific’s potential. Specifically, 52 per cent of the Company’s loans in 2016 were provided by Asian banks, which shows that they have a high level of confidence in Gazprom.

Translation: “Ready access to Asian capital markets allows us to reduce our dependence on US and European companies and institutions for financing, just in case we lose access to western capital.”

So here is a lesson in incentives: trade restrictions like sanctions will only bite insofar as no one of means has a strong incentive to violate them. Otherwise someone or some entity is going to come in and arbitrage those restrictions. Critically, ideological incentives do not count. History is replete with examples of people and entities abandoning entrenched ideological positions when it will benefit them economically. In many cases, simple greed will do the trick.

This old Bronte Capital post provides an elegant historical example:

A typical Marc Rich & Co trade involved Iran (under the Shah), Israel, Communist Albania and Fascist Spain. The Shah needed a path to export oil probably produced in excess of OPEC quotas and one which was unaudited and hence could be skimmed to support the Shah’s personal fortune. Israel – a pariah state in the Middle East – wanted oil.  Spain had rising oil demand and limited foreign currency but was happy to buy oil (slightly) on the cheap. Spain however did not recognise Israel and hence would not buy oil from Israel – so it needed to be washed through a third country. Albania openly traded with both Israel and Spain. Oh, and there is an old oil pipeline which goes from Iran through Israel to the sea.

So what is the deal? The Shah sells his non-quota oil down the pipeline through Israel and skims his take of the proceeds. Israel skim their take of the oil. Someone doing lading and unlading in Albania gets their take and hence make it – from the Spanish perspective – Albanian, not Israeli oil. The Spanish ask few questions. The margins are mouth-watering – and they all come from giving people what they really want rather than what they say they want. We know what the Shah wanted (folding stuff).  We know what Israel wanted (oil). We know what Spain wanted (cheap oil). Who cares that Spain was publicly spouting anti-Israel rhetoric. [Similar trades allowed South Africa to break the anti-Apartheid trade embargoes.]

[…]And when the Shah fell?  Oh well – Pincus Green – an American Jewish businessman – gets on the plane to Iran and does a similar deal with the Mullahs – who – despite their rhetoric will sell oil down a pipeline through Israel – and will allow Israel to skim their take. Trading through the American embargo – well that is just another instance of getting around restrictions and profiting (very) handsomely.

The Gazprom-China relationship isn’t nearly as complex as these Marc Rich & Co. transactions. China has not agreed to the sanctions regime imposed on Russia by western countries. China and the rest of developing Asia simply need cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas. Gazprom is able to meet that need, and will be happy to have the Chinese as a source of project finance.

The political kerfuffle surrounding Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Europe revolves around similar dynamics. Eastern European states such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia rightly fear dependence on Russian gas as it gives Russia powerful leverage over their economies and therefore their political independence. German industry, meanwhile, would much prefer cheap Russian pipeline gas to more expensive LNG imports.

While today’s headlines herald booming US LNG exports, independent research implies US exports will eventually need to price significantly higher to cover producers’ full marginal costs (including capex, liquefaction & shipping — after all it is not cheap to send tankers full of LNG halfway around the world):LNG_Transportation_Costs (1).PNG



So again economic incentives outweigh any warm and fuzzy notion of European solidarity. The result is a running trade case that has been winding its way through the EU bureaucracy for years.

And meanwhile the Nord Stream pipeline project grinds on…