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Op-ed

10 Reasons Why the Russian Economy Will Falter

by Anders Aslund, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Op-ed in the Moscow Times
September 3, 2008

© Moscow Times


August 8 stands out as a fateful day for Russia. It marks Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's greatest strategic blunder. In one blow, he wiped out half a trillion dollars of stock market value, stalled all domestic reforms, and isolated Russia from the outside world.

Russia's attack on Georgia, its small democratic neighbor, was bad enough, but its recognition of two conquered protectorates as independent states has been supported only by Hamas, Belarus, Venezuela, and Cuba. Putin is turning Russia into a rogue state.

Russia has gone through a grand economic recovery, but its strength must not be exaggerated. In current dollars, its gross domestic product has increased almost ninefold in nine years, but even so, it accounts for only 2.8 percent of global GDP. At present, its per capita GDP of $12,000 is a quarter of the US level. While this is impressive, much of its catch-up potential has been exhausted.

Russia's foreign aggression has strengthened the authoritarian regime, and this has ended all hopes for substantial reforms at a time when they are needed the most.

The official government target is to reach half the US per capita GDP by 2020. It is possible to achieve that goal, but it would require carrying out extensive economic reforms during the next 12 years. The problem, however, is that Russia's foreign aggression has strengthened the authoritarian regime, and this has ended all hopes for substantial reforms at a time when they are needed the most.

To understand Russia's economic dilemma, we need to consider the causes of the country's growth over the last decade and the current challenges. The dominant cause of growth has been European or capitalist convergence, which Russia has enjoyed thanks to Boris Yeltsin's hard-fought introduction of a market economy, privatization, and international integration. The country's short economic history can be summed up as: All good comes from private enterprise. The government's contribution has been to keep the budget in surplus and reduce taxation.

A second cause of the high growth has been the huge free capacity in production, infrastructure, and human capital after the collapse of communism. The recovery was also coupled with remonetization, as Russia has enjoyed one of the greatest credit booms of all time. With the rise of the new capitalist service sector, a huge structural change has spurred growth. Together, the systemic and structural changes amount to a gigantic catch-up effect that all postcommunist reform countries have experienced. The average annual real growth in former Soviet states from 2000 to 2007 was 9 percent, but it reached only 7 percent in Russia.

The third factor behind Russia's growth is the most spurious—namely the oil price windfall since 2004. While it has boosted the country's budget surplus, current account balance, and currency reserves, it is likely to have damaged its policy badly, as the elite focused on the distribution of oil rents rather than on the improvement of policy. As a consequence, Russia has seen no economic or social reforms worth mentioning for the past six years.

Moscow's current economic dilemma is that the old sources of growth will soon be exhausted. Undoubtedly, some capitalist convergence will continue, but it is bound to slow down.

Unfortunately, it is easy to compile 10 reasons why Russia is likely to have lower growth in the near future than it has had for the last nine years.

  1. Internationally, one of the greatest booms of all times is finally coming to an end. Demand is falling throughout the world, and soon Russia will also be hit. This factor alone has brought the Western world to stagnation.

  2. Russia's main problem is its enormous corruption. According to Transparency International, only Equatorial Guinea is richer than Russia and more corrupt. Since the main culprit behind Russia's aggravated corruption is Putin, no improvement is likely as long as he persists.

  3. Infrastructure, especially roads, has become an extraordinary bottleneck, and the sad fact is that Russia is unable to carry out major infrastructure projects. When Putin came to power in 2000, Russia had 754,000 kilometers of paved road. Incredibly, by 2006 this figure had increased by only 0.1 percent, and the little that is built costs at least three times as much as in the West. Public administration is simply too incompetent and corrupt to develop major projects.

  4. Renationalization is continuing and leading to a decline in economic efficiency. When Putin publicly attacked Mechel, investors presumed that he had decided to nationalize the company. Thus they rushed to dump their stock in Mechel, having seen what happened to Yukos, Russneft, United Heavy Machineries, and VSMP-Avisma, to name a few. In a note to investors, UBS explained diplomatically that an old paradigm of higher political risk has returned to Russia, so it has reduced its price targets by an average of 20 percent, or a market value of $300 billion. Unpredictable economic crime is bad for growth.

  5. The most successful transition countries have investment ratios exceeding 30 percent of GDP, as is also the case in East Asia. But in Russia, it is only 20 percent of GDP, and it is likely to fall in the current business environment. That means that bottlenecks will grow worse.

  6. An immediate consequence of Russia's transformation into a rogue state is that membership in the World Trade Organization is out of reach. World Bank and Economic Development Ministry assessments have put the value of WTO membership at 0.5 to 1 percentage points of additional growth per year for the next five years. Now, a similar deterioration is likely because of increased protectionism, especially in agriculture and finance.

  7. Minimal reforms in law enforcement, education, and health care have been undertaken, and no new attempt is likely. The malfunctioning public services will become an even greater drag on economic growth.

  8. Oil and commodity prices can only go down, and energy production is stagnant, which means that Russia's external accounts are bound to deteriorate quickly.

  9. Because Russia's banking system is dominated by five state banks, it is inefficient and unreliable, and the national cost of a poor banking system rises over time.

  10. Inflation is now 15 percent because of a poor exchange rate and monetary policies, though the current capital outflow may ease that problem.

In short, Russia is set for a sudden and sharp fall in its economic growth. It is difficult to assess the impact of each of these 10 factors, but they are all potent and negative. A sudden, zero growth would not be surprising, and leaders like Putin are not prepared to face reality. Russia's economic situation looks ugly. For how long can Russia afford such an expensive prime minister?


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