OPEN DISCUSSION: Russia’s Economy In The Next Global Crisis

The response to the last global crisis only consisted of kicking the can further down the road, and the chickens are showing signs of coming home to roost. Of particular note: (1) the recent upwards spike on bond yields for Italy and Spain*; (2) The political paralysis in the US that may (conceivably, if unlikely) shut down government on August 2nd and send it into default; (3) oil prices are again inching up to the levels that coincided – and some argue significantly contributed to – the last recession; due to the realities of peak oil and rising Chinese demand, there is little to be done about this.

Question for consideration: How will Russia be affected by a possible Greece-style scenario unfolding in Italy, Spain, or even the US? (More generally, how do you think the next global financial and economic crisis is going to play out? What effects will it have on the Eurozone, US dollar’s status as reserve currency, etc?).

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions (if I did I’d be out there getting rich not writing this post). However, I can offer a provisional framework that may help you think about this issue.

Russia Positives

  • Very low sovereign debt; fiscal books are more or less balanced.
  • High oil prices… for now.
  • A moderately paced recovery has almost returned output levels to peak-2008.
  • Households far less reliant on borrowing to finance consumption than in typical developed nations.

Russia Negatives

  • Dependence of the budget on oil prices. 
  • In 2008, one of the main causes of the sudden collapse in industrial output was the draining of liquidity. Russian industrial groups had relied on Western financial inter-mediation for accessing capital. From August, this suddenly dried up as the crisis exploded and global investors scurried to the “safe haven” of US Treasury bonds. So several related questions for today:
  1. To what extent has the Russian private and quasi-state sector reduced this dependence on foreign credit since 2008? (My impression: by a bit, but not fundamentally so).
  2. In the case of a global credit crunch, will Russia be spared? On the one hand, its macroeconomic fundamentals are very good (RELATIVELY speaking); on the other hand, this was the same case in 2008 and widespread sentiments that Russia was a “haven of stability” patently didn’t work out.
  3. To what extent will the fact that the next crisis will likely be one of sovereign collapses benefit Russia relative to other countries? After all in 2008 investors parked their savings in the bonds of countries perceived to be stable; above all, US bonds. This was because this was a primarily financial / banking crisis and sovereigns remained solvent. This calculus may be fundamentally different in the next crisis. Where can the safe haven investor invest? Euro bonds are out of the question. No bond vigilantes have yet appeared for US Treasuries, but surely with the chronic inability to cut the deficit this will eventually change? The yuan isn’t convertible… for now.
  4. So only commodities are left as a major investment vehicle (which benefits Russia), HOWEVER… big sovereign defaults will force the world economy back into recession, lower oil demand, and relieve pressure on commodities leading to a collapse of their prices – which is bad for Russia. Alternatively, prices may remain high if investors remain big on commodities and Asian demand quickly makes up for any shortfall in developed country demand for commodities – which is good for Russia. Which of these two forces will win out?
  • Dependence on credit for consumption. Credit based purchases were beginning to play a huge role in Russian consumption in 2007-2008; this was cut off and constitutes another main cause of the depth of its 2009 recession. This dependence on credit for consumption is already creeping back in 2011, though it has yet to reach the levels of early 2008.
  • Stampede effect. Despite aforementioned good fundamentals, many institutional investors have rules to abandon EM’s if a global financial crisis strikes (regardless of the specifics of the country in question). To avoid losses, other investors are forced to flee too.

Go, discuss.

* At the beginning of this year I speculated which of the “dominoes” among the PIGS, the US, and Japan would fall first when the global economic crisis resumed. Perhaps the PIGS will prove to be the weakest link after all.

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