Sun. May 26th, 2024

Grabbing Russian Assets: Yay or Nah for the US?

Samantha Parker By Samantha Parker May19,2024 #finance

Congress’s aid package encourages the president to seize frozen Russian reserves to support Ukraine. But the legality and desirability are both questionable.

REPO Act Lets Biden Boost Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal writer, Robert B. Zoellick, says REPO Act Lets Biden Boost Ukraine

Now that Congress has approved assistance for Ukraine, the Biden administration should forge a long-term economic and military plan that will sustain that country in its war of attrition.

If the U.S. continues to dribble out support, it would be making a huge mistake. American public support is likely to wane, and the Europeans are absorbed with internal debates. The nature of the war has changed—militarily, technologically and economically—over more than two years. President Biden’s reactive approach reflects his senatorial style: He waits for events, issues statements and fails to seize the initiative. Congress is giving him one last chance to be a wartime leader.

The aid package’s hidden gem is the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians Act, or REPO. It encourages Mr. Biden to transfer frozen Russian reserves to a trust fund for Ukraine. Members of Congress from both parties recognize that taxpayers want Mr. Biden to use an estimated $300 billion of Russian money to sustain Ukraine economically before asking Americans to pay more. The administration has hesitated to take this step but must do so now.

Last year Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen justified inaction by raising concerns about how such transfers might affect the value of the dollar and the euro. But two years after freezing the Russian reserves, the dollar is stronger and the euro is fine—in part because the alternatives are poor. China’s yuan isn’t a trustworthy reserve asset. The world would be safer if countries realized that their foreign reserves would be imperiled if they invade the neighbors.

U.S. leadership would be welcomed by Central and Eastern Europeans, the Baltics, Nordics and some in Brussels. In every European security crisis for more than 70 years—Berlin in the 1960s, Euromissiles in the ’70s and ’80s, the unification of Germany and Europe in 1989-90, the Balkan wars—the U.S. had to push for allied action. During Mr. Biden’s decades in the Senate, he yearned to lead, not just talk about foreign policy. Now is his moment.

Zoellick Flat Out Wrong

The world would be much safer if the US minded its own business. It was US meddling in Ukraine, encouraging it to join NATO that led to the destruction that followed.

This does not excuse Putin, but it fully explains what happened. The US was meddling on the internal affairs of Ukraine and Russia and it backfired as is the usual case.

Second, the US the needs to be concerned of blowback for weaponizing he dollar.

Questionable Legality and Policy

Lost in Zoellick’s editorial BS is the simple fact that the legal grounds for the US or EU to confiscate Russian assets are questionable at best.

Second, even if one stretches the legal grounds, is it a smart thing to do?

Some Tips for Congress on How to Seize Russian Assets

Lawfare discusses both points in Some Tips for Congress on How to Seize Russian Assets

As I’ve written previously for Lawfare, the prospect of seizing Russia’s frozen assets raises serious legal and policy questions. In the United States, there are few historical precedents for such action and no established case law. At the international level, it would almost certainly require some progressive development in how states traditionally approach certain fundamental legal doctrines, like countermeasures. And many economic policy experts worry that weakening the extensive legal protections that the United States usually provides to foreign sovereign (and especially central bank) assets could discourage other foreign governments from continuing to tie themselves so closely to the U.S. economy, contributing to a broader trend of “de-dollarization” that threatens to weaken the U.S. economy and undermine the future effectiveness of U.S. sanctions. None of these factors is necessarily prohibitive, but they warrant careful consideration as policymakers make the difficult decision about whether and how to proceed.

Following its 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russia restructured its economy to insulate itself from the possible effects of Western economic sanctions and related measures. Unsurprisingly, a major part of this effort was to move most relevant assets beyond the reach of the United States. As a result, only a small portion of Russia’s frozen assets—as little as $5 billion—is reportedly within the reach of the United States. Most of the frozen funds are instead in the custody of foreign banks, predominantly in Europe, with the lion’s share held by Euroclear, a Belgium-based financial services company. This makes coordinated action with these governments essential if a meaningful portion of the $300 billion total in frozen Russian assets is going to be made available to Ukraine.

In theory, the United States might be able to compel foreign branches of U.S.-connected banks to deliver foreign-held Russian assets to the United States for seizure, a step that could increase the volume of assets within the United States’ reach (though it’s not clear by how much). The House version of the REPO for Ukrainians Act may hint at this possibility by expressly including foreign branches of U.S. banks within the scope of its seizure authority. That said, when the Justice Department explored this possibility in relation to Iranian assets during the Iran hostage crisis, it concluded that such a step may be more costly than it seems: Under the Supreme Court’s 1952 decision in Cities Service Co. v. McGrath, any banks that complied and were found liable for damages in foreign courts could in turn bring Takings Clause claims against the U.S. government, putting much of the final bill on the U.S. taxpayer. In short, there is no easy end-run around multilateral cooperation where the relevant assets lie overseas.

At a minimum, proceeding unilaterally in a way that reticent European allies may well see as unlawful seems like a poor way to persuade them to follow suit. But a multilateral approach would also help protect the United States’ own broader economic and policy interests. The greatest risk that comes with seizing Russian assets is that foreign governments will no longer see the United States as a safe jurisdiction in which to hold their own (particularly central bank) assets.

The most significant legal question raised by proposals to seize Russia’s assets is to what extent Congress has the legal authority to authorize the executive branch to seize foreign government assets. While not entirely unprecedented, seizing a foreign government’s assets is a step that Congress has rarely taken and that federal courts have not squarely addressed. In entering this unfamiliar legal terrain, Congress should be careful to rely on as narrow a claim of legal authority as possible. Not only will this contribute to a stronger legal case, but it will avoid the perception that Congress is ready and able to seize foreign state assets in other circumstances as well, which could unnecessarily contribute to the de-dollarization trend.

While there is ample case law supporting the proposition that Congress can authorize the president to seize foreign government assets, it applies only to a very particular set of circumstances: wartime. Chief Justice John Marshall first recognized this ability in his 1814 opinion in Brown v. United States, wherein he rooted it in both international law—which also allows for certain property seizures in wartime—and Congress’s constitutional authority to “make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water[.]”

The key takeaway from this history is that seizing Russian assets is not well-trodden legal territory. Peacetime seizures of foreign government assets have been pursued only a few times, each for the very different purpose of compensating U.S. nationals for their expropriated property. 

Among the latter is the Takings Clause, which generally requires that the United States provide compensation where it takes private property for public use. While Brown and its fellow wartime precedents are a recognized exception to this requirement, the Supreme Court has firmly held that it applies to foreign individuals and corporations during peacetime. When analyzing a possible peacetime seizure of Iranian assets in 1980, the Justice Department posited that the Takings Clause would not apply because foreign government property was not private property within the scope of its meaning. The Supreme Court has never considered the question, though it has not interpreted the Takings Clause quite so narrowly in subsequent cases. 

Given this legal uncertainty, Congress’s best strategy is to limit its actions to those that can be justified under either legal theory. Here that most likely means tying Congress’s actions as closely as possible to wartime precedents while limiting their focus to the property of foreign states (namely Russia). The former is not an easy task, as there are very good policy reasons why neither Congress nor the Biden administration want to suggest that the United States is at war with Russia (which it is not). But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly triggered a major foreign policy crisis of the sort often associated with armed conflicts in the past. Given this, asserting the authority to seize foreign government assets in response—particularly where they will be used to address the crisis in a manner consistent with international law, as is the case with wartime seizures—would arguably be a limited expansion of Brown and related case law. At the same time, only seizing foreign state property—something not strictly required under Brown—will also allow Congress to argue in the alternative that the Takings Clause isn’t applicable.

The goal should be to provide the necessary authorization to accomplish the objective of seizing Russia’s frozen assets while being minimally disruptive to the legal status quo as it applies to foreign states more generally. By contrast, providing a broader authorization than is necessary may in turn implicate the interests of more foreign states in ways they find concerning, increasing the incentive to disengage with the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, the current House version of the REPO for Ukrainians Act falls prey to this temptation, as it authorizes the seizure of not just Russian assets, but those of any “affiliated aggressor state” determined by the president to have “provid[ed] significant material assistance to” Russia or Belarus. What this will mean in practice is anyone’s guess. Will it apply to China, a backer of Russia’s that is also a major investor in the United States? Or to India, Israel, or Turkey, allies of the United States that keep ties with Russia and haven’t joined multilateral sanctions efforts? Or to any country that still pursues any trade with Russia, which includes most of Europe (as well as the United States itself)? If such a provision were enacted, all of these foreign governments would have substantially greater reason to fear that their assets might become subject to seizure and thus would have a strong incentive to move those assets out of the reach of the United States. Nor would acting on this authority be easy to square with international law. For these reasons alone, such an open-ended provision should not be included in any authorizing legislation

Finally, both current versions of the REPO for Ukrainians Act take the unusual step of asserting that “[t]he confiscation of Russian sovereign assets … shall not be subject to judicial review[,]” except by “any private individual or entity … asserting due process claims[.]” The goal appears to be to avoid litigation challenges, particularly from Russia, its central bank, and other affected state-owned entities. No doubt this is intended to expedite seizure efforts by avoiding the delay and expense that litigation can entail. But it’s far from clear that such a provision is likely to be effective. Instead of avoiding possible legal issues, Congress should aim to resolve them and clarify the applicable legal regime as quickly as possible—a goal it can better achieve by expediting judicial review instead of trying to avoid it altogether.

Dangerous Precedent

Reuters reports Russia Says Seizing its Frozen Assets Would Set Dangerous Precedent

Any move by the United States to seize frozen Russian assets would be illegal, set a dangerous precedent and be challenged in court, the Kremlin said on Monday, promising that it would retaliate.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Saturday passed a $95 billion legislative package providing security assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that included a measure for the potential transfer of seized Russian assets to Ukraine.

A top Russian lawmaker on Monday said Russia now has grounds to confiscate Western assets after the U.S. legislation was passed. Moscow has already placed some Western assets under temporary management and forced scores of asset transfers from foreign to domestic buyers at discounts of at least 50%.

I agree with Russia for reasons eloquently stated by Lawfare.

Russia Seizes $440M JPMorgan Funds

In retaliation for the REPO act, Russia Seizes $440M JPMorgan Funds

A Russian court ordered the seizure of $439.5 million in funds from JPMorgan Chase’s bank accounts in Russia that the largest American lender froze after the Ukraine invasion, according to a court filing.

The Russian court ordered the seizure of all funds in JPMorgan’s Russian accounts as well as “movable and immovable property,” including the bank’s stake in a Russian subsidiary, according to a court order published by the Arbitration Court of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region.

In a complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan, JPMorgan described VTB’s attempt to recover the money in Russia as a “blatant breach” of its agreement to have disputes addressed in New York.

Well la de da.

The move by Russia is a warning shot to the EU. Russia will confiscating (as oppose to freeze) any EU assets tied up in the EU.

What Does China Do With a Dollar That’s No Longer Risk Free? Buy Gold?

On Match 18, 2022, I asked What Does China Do With a Dollar That’s No Longer Risk Free? Buy Gold?

The reason for this topic has to do with the Fed’s unprecedented decision co confiscate Russia’s foreign currency reserves.

Not only was the action unprecedented, it was illegal.

The Federal Reserve Act mandates that the Federal Reserve conduct monetary policy “so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.”

Nowhere does the act give the Fed the right or power to confiscate the reserves of sovereign nations.

But that is exactly what the Fed did. If the Fed can do this to Russia, who else?

My conclusion now is the same as then. I pinged Michael Pettis at China Financial Markets who replied:

“I expect that this will continue as far as the official reserves go but, as you know, the hard part of reducing the US dollar component of your reserves is figuring out what the alternative should be, and with such high and growing reserves (once you include the indirect reserves at the state-owned banks) that is a very difficult question to resolve.”

De-dollarization is still difficult. But the US forced de-dollarization on Russia. So it can be done. Some Chinese and Indian merchants have reasons to do de-dollarize as well.

Note that I said “merchants”.

This is different from expecting entire countries from adopting the BRIC currency which does not even exist yet.

The Yuan Will Not Replace the US Dollar, Nor Will It Be Backed by Commodities

Don’t confuse a diminishing role for the US dollar with it’s demise as the global reserve currency.

I discussed this on August 25, 2023 in What Would it Take for a BRIC-Based Currency to Succeed?

Let’s call the BRIC-based currency a “Brick”. One measure of “success” would be use as a reserve currency in a significant percentage of global trade.

A second measure of “success” involves sanction avoidance. The second measure is far more likely to succeed for many reasons. …

Increasingly, the US is giving every nation on the planet a need for sanction avoidance.

The result is easy to see: The US Threatens to Sanction Companies That Don’t Give a Damn

Weaponization of the dollar may help Ukraine if the EU is foolish enough to go along. But it will not help the US or the EU.

Samantha Parker

By Samantha Parker

Samantha is a seasoned journalist with a passion for uncovering the truth behind the headlines. With years of experience in investigative reporting, she has covered a wide range of topics including politics, crime, and entertainment. Her in-depth analysis and commitment to factual accuracy make her a respected voice in the field of journalism.

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2 thoughts on “Grabbing Russian Assets: Yay or Nah for the US?”
  1. As an American citizen, I believe that seizing frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine is not only justified but necessary. President Biden should take decisive action through the REPO Act to help Ukraine without burdening American taxpayers further. It’s time for the U.S. to show strong leadership and make a significant impact in the ongoing crisis.

  2. If the U.S. continues to dribble out support, it would be making a huge mistake. American public support is likely to wane, and the Europeans are absorbed with internal debates. The nature of the war has changed—militarily, technologically and economically—over more than two years. President Biden’s reactive approach reflects his senatorial style: He waits for events, issues statements and fails to seize the initiative. Congress is giving him one last chance to be a wartime leader.

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