Russia: A tale of two crises

Russia: A tale of two crises

Katinka Barysch
03 July 2009

by Katinka Barysch

Russia’s economy has been hit hard by a triple whammy of capital outflows, collapsing oil prices and falling global demand. In the first three months of the year, output was down by 10 per cent compared with a year earlier. The retail boom that had fuelled growth in recent years has turned into a slump. The output of the manufacturing sector is contracting at a rate of over 20 per cent year on year. Construction is in deep recession. The current-account surplus has melted away.

However, the latest economic indicators suggest that the economic contraction is at least slowing. The oil price has recovered to over $70 a barrel. Surveys show that credit conditions are easing and managers are a bit less gloomy. Capital outflows have slowed. So has inflation, which has allowed the central bank to finally cut rates. International reserves, although down from 2008 peaks, still stand at $410 billion. The government is making plans for recapitalising some of the country’s banks.

Investors still remember the rapid, V-shaped recovery that followed Russia’s last financial crash in 1998. In the following nine years, the Russian economy grew by an average of 7 per cent a year. Will Russia be able to pull out of trouble this quickly again?

On the plus side, Russia’s government finances are in incomparably better shape than they were ten years ago. Back then, it was short-term public borrowing that triggered the crisis, ultimately forcing the government into default. Since then, the budget has shown a healthy surplus, allowing the government to stash away $140 billion in a reserve fund. So although revenue has collapsed (half of it comes from the oil and gas sector), the authorities have room for fiscal manoeuvre. Public spending will also have a bigger impact on the economy, simply because the Russian state is much bigger than it used to be (federal budget revenue was 13 per cent of GDP back in 1998, today it is over 20 per cent, according to Erik Berglőf from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development).

Also, in 1998 the Russian economy had only just returned to growth, following years of severe post-transition recession. Now, after ten years of uninterrupted expansion, fewer Russians are living hand to mouth and many should be able to draw on savings to tide them over the most difficult period.

However, there are also reasons to expect the current crisis to be more severe and drawn-out. The 1998 crisis mainly affected emerging markets. This time, the recession is global, which means that no country will be able to export its way out of trouble. (Russia exports mainly raw materials, as well as some metals, timber and heavy industrial goods. But it is the collapse in demand for non-oil exports, such as steel products, that is causing the most trouble since these are often produced in isolated one-industry towns.)

Depressed global demand also means that the rally in oil prices is likely to be short-lived. After 1998, the oil price climbed steadily from around $10 a barrel to a peak of $140 last summer. Many forecasters expect oil prices to linger around $50-60 this year and next – not disastrously low but not enough to fuel a strong Russian recovery either. Moreover, Russia’s economy today is much more dependent on oil and gas sales than it was in 1998. Back then, oil and gas sales accounted for 44 per cent of export revenue, now the share is over two-thirds. Many manufacturing and services industries are directly or indirectly linked to the resource sector.

Perhaps the biggest difference lies in the role of banking and borrowing. Although both crises originated in the financial sector, in 1998 this sector was still so small that its collapse barely affected the wider economy. Then, credit to firms and households stood at 9 per cent of GDP; today it is over 40 per cent.

In recent years, much more of that borrowing came from abroad so the drying up of global liquidity in 2008 hit Russia hard. The World Bank estimates that in 1998-99, the reversal in foreign capital flows amounted to less than 2 per cent of Russian GDP. In 2008-09, it was close to 12 per cent of GDP.

Domestic banks cannot take up the slack because a rising share of bad loans will constrain their ability to start lending again. The health of the banking sector is difficult to assess. Official numbers show that the share of non-performing loans has climbed from 1 per cent at the start of the year to 4 per cent today. Given the sorry state of Russian industries, this is still an implausibly low number. Independent assessments put the share of bad loans at anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent.

As a result of these factors, the Russian economy is likely to take longer to come out if its slump than it did ten years ago. The World Bank predicts a contraction of almost 8 per cent this year, but some forecasters thinks even this is too optimistic and they question whether Russia will be able to make even timid recovery in 2010. Most economists agree that Russia stands little or no chance of returning to the 7-8 per cent growth rate that it enjoyed before the crisis struck

The big question is what the changed growth outlook will mean for Russia’s internal stability and the government’s willingness to implement economic reforms. In 1998 Russians expected very little from their leaders in Moscow. They were positively surprised when the Putin administration after 2000 started to implement some useful reforms, such as simplifying the tax system and cleaning up regulations.

Since then, Putin’s muscular rhetoric, combined with Alexei Kudrin’s sound macro-economic management, have raised expectations. The people that took to the streets in Russian cities in recent weeks and months did not so much protest against government policies as demand government help. The government could react either by getting serious about modernising and diversifying the economy. Or it could resort to economic nationalism and populist spending increases. So far, there is more evidence of the latter than the former. Prime Minister Putin has personally instructed companies to clear wage arrears and criticised shops for overcharging struggling families. On June 29th, he told the managers of Russia’s biggest banks that they should not go on summer holiday before they have significantly increased lending to the corporate sector (he even gave them a numerical target of $16 billion). With this kind of crises response, Russia’s growth prospects could end up being lower not only in the short term, but for many years to come.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.