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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.

On Monday, Prime Minister Putin acknowledged to the State Duma that Russia's economy contracted by 7 percent in the first quarter. Misery may love company, of course, but it will be small comfort to most Russians that many other countries are doing just as badly or even worse. For instance, Japan's gross domestic product dropped by 12.1 percent and the U.S. GDP declined by 6.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and these figures are likely to repeat in the first quarter of 2009. In fact, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and private analysts are playing leapfrog in recent weeks as one after another project increasingly depressing forecasts for the rest of 2009 and even beyond.

This catch-up effect between the reality felt by businesses and workers and those sifting through lagged data will no doubt lead to further downward revisions to forecasts in Russia and elsewhere, despite some tentative signs that the world economy is not about to fall off a cliff. In Russia, it may turn out that the first quarter really was the bottom and recovery may be lurking as 2009 progresses. Forecasters may have to reverse and catch up all over again later this year.

But there is no room for complacency. If we have learned one key lesson from this global crisis, it is that our economic models, based upon theories such as rational expectations and efficient markets, are flawed. Economists have been humbled, and they are thus less confident in predicting the timing and even direction for economic prospects.

That said, even if our sophisticated models are largely discredited, a combination of casual empiricism, common sense and some premodern thinking can still be useful in trying to understand what is happening in Russia.

Before despairing, we should recall a few truths:

  • When things get cheap enough, people will start buying again. This will be true of oil prices, the ruble exchange rate and share prices of Russian companies. We may have already hit bottom - or maybe not. In a globalized, interdependent economy, it is premature to say that Russia is now a bargain. There are too many other factors at play. We will only know for sure well after the fact.
  • All countries are in this together, even if the timing and extent of their respective recessions may differ by national characteristics. This is not a replay of Russia's 1998 financial crisis. Prudent countries like Germany and Japan have been hit even worse than new debtors like the United States and Britain. Russia was somewhat immune until late in the game, but plunging oil prices and the evaporation of global credit caused an inevitable collapse. Only time, savings and reduction of debt levels will restore personal and corporate balance sheets in the United States, much of Europe and other heavily indebted countries.
  • There are no magic bullets. It doesn't matter if you are a neo-Keynesian, a monetarist or from the Austrian school, there are no easy fixes to the wrenching, inevitable adjustment. The Group of 20, G8 or IMF cannot assert some form of divine intervention. Governments are taking steps to cushion the pain, but no matter how effective these measures are, it will take time to cure the crisis. And Russia is certainly no exception. Like all governments, it faces only hard options. In the meantime, a Keynesian fiscal stimulus program that will turn last year's 4 percent budget surplus into a projected budget deficit of 7.4 percent of GDP this year will have to carry us through to the other side of this vicious business cycle.
  • Russia can live - and even thrive - with cheaper oil. Just five years ago, an oil price of $37 per barrel seemed not only reasonable but was considered consistent with high economic growth, like the 7.3 percent increase in GDP that we saw in 2004. What has changed since then is that high inflation in Russia, 60 percent cumulatively, has implied that the real exchange rate (adjusted for inflation) had appreciated by more than 40 percent before the Central Bank embarked on its seemingly successful managed currency depreciation between November and January.
  • In Russia, there is no balance of payments crisis. On Friday, the Central Bank announced that the current account surplus shrank to $11.1 billion from $38 billion in the same period a year earlier, but at least it is still running a surplus. Capital outflows have slowed significantly over the quarter, and by March, Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Alexei Ulyukayev said the bank had bought up about $10 billion to avoid a precipitous strengthening of the ruble. A positive current balance and restrained capital outflow even after debt repayments should lead to a net increase in foreign exchange reserves in 2009.
  • Russia does not face major debt problems. Fears about the country's debt are exaggerated, and they do not approach the levels seen in Eastern Europe. Household debt at 9 percent of GDP is extremely low, and even corporate debt of 50 percent of GDP is not high in the global context or relative to profits and assets. Therefore, Russia does not face the huge solvency problem that Western countries face. Individual oligarchs, banks and companies are exposed, of course, but there is no systemic weakness. Foreign exchange assets are much higher than debt. With the peak of foreign debt repayments already passed, Russia should have no systemic difficulty in repaying the $122 billion due over the next 12 months.
  • Russia's foreign exchange reserves are not at risk. The gross international reserves of $388 billion held by the Central Bank at the end of March were about the same level as two months earlier despite net capital outflows of $38 billion. The Central Bank has not intervened to support the ruble rate, and it has even purchased dollars repeatedly in recent weeks. Money supply seems to have stopped falling in March, and since the trend in monetary aggregates is closely correlated with the real economy's performance, this may be a reason for believing that the worst is over. Assuming oil prices do not drop and inflation is reduced soon to single digits, the ruble should continue to be stable.
  • Russia's reserves were not wasted. It seems that the $200 billion drop in reserves since summer was mostly a transfer to the private sector that enabled it to reduce indebtedness and build up liquid foreign assets. The reserve decline of $130 billion in the fourth quarter can be almost fully accounted for in this way.

For Russia, the months ahead will be difficult enough without the scaremongering by observers who are playing catch-up. Our economic models may be faulty, and this is all the more reason to keep certain truths in mind as we navigate the bad news to come.

Martin Gilman 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’.

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.

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.