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Regular version of the site

Great expectations

Y. Gavrilenkov speaks on the global economic crisis and Russian economic recovery for the Moscow Times. He believes that Russian response should differ from the policies adopted by other governments.

Global economic and financial news remain disappointing. There are no signs of economic recovery, and expectations of negative growth for the global economy this year have only risen. Meanwhile, an increasing number of observers expect further contraction of world equity markets. Amid mounting efforts to pump more liquidity into the financial system, governments are becoming increasingly vocal about the need to strengthen regulation of the financial sector, a quite understandable but nonetheless populist move. Debates mostly center on the need to change and strengthen the role of the International Monetary Fund or create a superior regulator. Such proposals are implicitly based on the assumption that an "ultimate regulator" with perfect knowledge of the system and sufficient authority can be established in principle. But little is said about the need to improve the quality of regulation.

I have expressed doubt about such ideas in the past. If international financial institutions, which are supposed to have all of the necessary information, money and authority at their disposal, have failed to predict a number of crises in the developed world - above all in the United States - then who can guarantee that a new regulatory entity will perform any better? The debate on the new financial architecture should instead shift from the need to create a perfect global regulator toward greater responsibility on the part of governments and international financial organizations in establishing more transparent and mutually acceptable rules of the game, such as guidelines for macroeconomic policy.

Ultimately, it was central banks and governments that created an environment where private financial institutions were "encouraged" to take excessive risks. After all, the roots of the crisis can be traced to the government's negative real interest rates and growing budget deficits that create the illusion of an abundance of money. Why can one be so sure that the same regulators will suddenly achieve perfection or at least become more efficient?

I believe that most serious macroeconomic problems usually originate from flawed macroeconomic policies rather than the activities of private financial institutions, for which it becomes not only tempting, but even reasonable in some sense, to take excessive risks and create complicated and risky financial products when money is easily available. The soaring growth in money substitutes such as institutional money funds helped to inflate balance sheets, particularly on the assets side. This, in turn, helped with obtaining increasingly more credit, thereby inflating the liabilities side. As a result, the system became overleveraged. Ratings agencies only aggravated the problem by rubber-stamping those money substitutes with high ratings.

Thus, central bankers in many developed countries - above all the United States - lost control over growth in the money supply in recent years, helping private financial institutions create money. Interest rate differentials stimulated borrowing in a low interest rate environment and transfers to countries with higher rates. Even though no virtual money was created in this fashion, excessive moves in exchange rates also generated potential sources of instability

Overall, there is a growing consensus that the "balance sheet recession" will last a long time. This term, first coined by the U.S. Federal Reserve in 1991 and popularized in Richard Koo's 2003 book "Balance Sheet Recession" describes a severe economic contraction caused by a sharp drop in assets prices that leads prudent companies to pay down debt at the expense of business expansion. In his book, Koo explains Japan's prolonged stagnation of the 1990s as a classic balance sheet recession. You can draw certain parallels between balance sheet recessions and the current global economic crisis in which banks keep absorbing cash aid from governments but continue to behave like "zombies" - that is, not lending until their balance sheets are restored. Given the size of the problem and the depth of the global financial system, this process may last for years, in which time global growth will remain poor.

Across countries, however, the situation may differ. Russia is among those countries that can overcome the current problems much faster. First of all, Russia is mostly a pipeline exporter, and the elasticity of pipeline exports is not as high as that of, say, automobiles. That said, on the exports side, Russia was mainly hit by falling prices and only to a lesser extent by decreased volumes. Adjusting the exchange rate, which has largely already occurred, should do much to stabilize the balance of payments and money markets. Hence, I believe that Russia's recession is not only externally influenced, but largely a homegrown phenomenon originating from the slow reaction of the authorities.

I also believe that Russia's response to the current problems should differ from the policies adopted by other governments. The Russian economy was already overstimulated by excessive budgetary spending and foreign borrowing, and these trends need to be moderated. Meanwhile, I think that the current exchange rate will help keep the current account in surplus while helping to address capital account problems, such as repaying foreign debt.

Russia is the only country among the Group of 20 with double-digit inflation, and this remains one of the country's most serious problems. Russia's key dilemma is how to contain inflation while allowing the Central Bank to cut its benchmark interest rates. Meanwhile, in an environment of soaring Central Bank lending in recent months, the relatively cheap and abundant supply of rubles was converted into foreign cash, thereby shrinking the money supply. This stands in contrast to what occurred in other countries, where many banks loaded up on toxic assets. This was never a problem in Russia.

Given that Russia's financial system is not as deep as those in other countries - the total ruble money supply fell to around $330 billion as of Feb. 1 - Russia's version of the balance sheet recession should last for a much shorter period of time.

Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, for the Moscow Times

See also:

Uncertainty in the Global Economy

On October 9th, a seminar on the state of the global and monetary economy took place at the Higher School of Economics. Evgeniy Yasin shared his thoughts on this topic.

What will Capitalism in the 21st Century be Like?

On September 24th 2011, Craig Calhoun, new Director of the London School of Economics, gave an open lecture at the HSE International College of Economics and Finance on ‘Social and Political Challenges Facing Global Capitalism’.

G. Yavlinsky The Hidden Cause of the Great Recession (And How to Avert the Next One). New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2011

This book directly confronts uncomfortable questions that many prefer to brush aside: if economists and other scholars, politicians, and business professionals understand the causes of economic crises, as they claim, then why do such damaging crises continue to occur?

Russian Economy: Instability as a Tradition

On February 15th Mr. Odd Per Brekk, Senior Resident Representative of the International Monetary Fund in Moscow, gave a master class at the HSE on ‘What the global economic crisis means for Russia’.

Gilman`s starting points of recovery

Martin Gilman, a former senior representative of the International Monetary Fund in Russia and the HSE professor appeals to learn one key lesson from current global crisis.

Martin Gilman, the Head of the SU-HSE Centre for Advanced Studies, comments Russia’s anti-crisis efforts within G20 framework

By now almost everyone on the planet has felt to one degree or another the most virulent global economic crisis since the Great Depression. Its largely unanticipated destructive force has humiliated once-mighty financial institutions and companies, humbled economists, devastated investors, scared consumers and challenged public authorities around the world.

Financial Armageddon II Can Be Avoided

Martin Gillman the SU HSE Professor and the HSE Center for Advanced Studies Head comments to The Moscow Times on the financial crisis and the Russian economic situation.