Monday, March 12, 2007

Póquer Del Mentiroso

You may or may not have played "Liars' Poker" in your lifetime. Usually, it involves taking a dollar bill and trying to guess the number of ones, two, threes, etc across both bills. The game was also played in the last installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, albeit using dice rather than bills.

I digress. The point of the game is to bluff your opponent into either overestimating or underestimating what you hold in your hand. I bring this up, because I firmly believe that is what is happening here:
MANAMA/HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. oil services firm Halliburton Co. is moving its headquarters and chief executive to Dubai to better position itself to gain contracts in the oil-rich Middle East.

Texas-based Halliburton, which was led by Vice President Dick Cheney from 1995-2000, did not specify what, if any, tax implications the move might entail. It plans to list on a Middle East bourse once it moves to Dubai -- a booming commercial center in the Gulf.

"My office will be in Dubai, and I will run our entire worldwide operations from that office," said Chief Executive David Lesar at an energy conference in Bahrain on Sunday. "Dubai is a great business center."

Halliburton has drawn scrutiny from auditors, congressional Democrats and the Justice Department for the quality and pricing of its KBR Inc. unit's work for the U.S. army in Iraq.
Too, Halliburton has made enormous sums of money off the contracts it held with the United States government, contracts that will now be seriously jeopardized by this move. Which is why I think this may be a bluff on 'Burton's part.

Famously, you may recall this exchange from the 2000 Vice Presidential debate:
LIEBERMAN: Dick Cheney must be one of the few people who think nothing has been accomplished in the last eight years. [...]I think if you asked most people in America today that famous question that Ronald Reagan asked, "Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?" Most people would say yes. I'm pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you're better off than you were eight years ago, too.

CHENEY: I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Oh but it did:
- In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait in 1991, Halliburton crews helped bring 320 burning oil wells under control.
- In the early 1990s Halliburton was found to be in violation of federal trade barriers in Iraq and Libya, having sold these countries dual-use oil drilling equipment and, through its former subsidiary, Halliburton Logging Services, sending six pulse neutron generators to Libya. After having pleaded guilty, the company was fined $1.2 million, with another $2.61 million in penalties.
- In the Balkans conflict in the 1990s, KBR supported U.S. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary with food, laundry, transportation and other lifecycle management services.
- In 1995 Dick Cheney became chairman and CEO.
- In 1998 Halliburton merged with Dresser Industries, which included Kellogg.
Thus comes the liar's poker part. Halliburton can no more do without the US than the US can do without Halliburton. Granted, there are other companies, other transnational, transdisciplinary companies, that could take up the slack (Schlumberger and Bechtel come to mind) but that's like swapping an addiction to cocaine for heroin.

It's possible that they are serious in their threats, that they see a Democratic Congress gearing up to do very thorough investigations of Halliburton and its various subsidiaries, and will flee the country until the storm subsides. And it probably even calculated into the equation the fact that, for the forseeable future, Democrats would be in the forefront of making sure Halliburton gets no more government contracts at any level.

Given the enormous sums of money they've made (Dick Cheney conspicuously made $2 million for not even showing up for four years), one might believe that they've made a business decision that the goose has laid enough golden eggs for a while.

But I doubt it. Profits are important for stock prices and Halliburton is going to have a tough time making up the revenue shortfall from American contracts, even if this move now frees them to openly do business with rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Cuba (previously, this business was filtered through a Cayman Islands subsidiary, which then upstreamed money to the American entity).

The best strategy in Liar's Poker is to make the other guy make the mistake. Here's hoping Senator Dorgan and Congressman Waxman have played this game often enough.