As a country that has experienced a number of harsh economic shocks throughout its history, Russia constantly lives in anticipation of a new crisis. Recently, however, economists and investors around the world have been actively discussing the possibility of a crisis as a fairly likely scenario in the near future. Are there any real grounds for these discussions? And what might the consequences for Russia be?
Objective and Subjective Problems of Global Economy
The three main global economic powerhouses – the United States, the European Union and China – are all currently facing serious (albeit different) problems.
At first glance, it would appear that the U.S. economy is in excellent shape: GDP has been growing faster than the average for developed countries over the past several years, unemployment is low and continues to decline, and the stock market keeps setting new records. However, everybody agrees that this positive phase of the business cycle has lasted for too long and should end soon for objective reasons. A similar situation was observed in the United States in the mid-2000s, which gave rise to a popular optimistic belief in the omnipotence of macroeconomic policies that make it possible to overcome the cyclic nature of economic dynamics. These illusions were dispelled by the “Great Recession,” the most significant global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nowadays, most economists believe that the current steady growth has been stimulated by measures (from the milder monetary policy to efforts aimed at bringing jobs back to the country) whose flipside is sure to manifest itself soon.
The EU economy has yet not fully recovered from the aftermath of the Great Recession. One unpleasant development that Europe has faced in 2019 has been the evident slowdown in the GDP growth of Germany, which has been pulling the European economy forward for several years.
China’s economy has been slowing down for many years now, even though its growth rate remains relatively high at over 6 percent annually. A number of serious problems are worsening against this background, such as excessive corporate debts (of at least 260 per cent of GDP); the spread of “zombie companies” which are effectively non-competitive but are artificially kept afloat for the sake of the jobs they provide and their formal contribution to manufacturing; and signs of a cyclical slowdown. In addition, some experts believe that if the United States keeps true to its threat to introduce import duties on Chinese commodities, China stands to lose a hefty sum of between 0.5 percent and 1.0 percent of its GDP.
Given that the three economic powerhouses account for over one half of global production and play a defining role in the financial markets, the aforementioned problems alone are cause enough to be concerned about the stability of the global economy. Under current conditions, the danger is aggravated by the fact that problems experienced by each of the three giant economies instantaneously spread across the world and hit everyone including even the most remote countries. In better times, this globalization trend may be positive, as each individual economy’s growth generates a demand for the products of other countries, thus stimulating global production. However, in anticipation of an economic recession, the situation resembles a ship with all its bulkheads removed, so a breach in any of its compartments may sink the entire ship.
In addition to the abovementioned objective challenges, there are also artificial problems that arise from discord between the economic giants. The global leaders have recently been actively exchanging threats and blows. This process is mostly down to the behavior of the United States, which is trying to reinstate what it views as fair rules of the game in the world economy. The list of Washington’s demands, primarily of China, is long: dismantling unjustified barriers to U.S. commodities, observing intellectual property rights, switching to a market-based exchange rate of the yuan, and so on. The resultant trade and currency wars hamper mutually beneficial trade while also (and more importantly) making the economic situation less predictable and therefore very risky. This, in turn, leads to a decline in trade, investment, and production.
The main instrument that central banks use to mitigate the negative effects of fundamental factors and “economic wars” is to ease monetary policies. However, in the current situation, this brings only limited results: history tells us that an economy may react positively to switching from restrictive to stimulating measures, but its reaction to a further easing of an already mild policy is very insignificant. In addition, carrying on with excessively mild monetary policies for any protracted period of time robs central banks of their last available ways to kick-start the economy should it grind to a halt.
It is difficult to predict exactly when the current relatively favorable situation in the global economy will worsen dramatically. A year ago, many economists confidently stated that a new crisis would break out in the first half of 2019. The date was later moved back to the second half of this year, and now experts are talking about 2020. This does not mean that the forecasters are not competent enough to make such predictions, rather than the issue is objectively complex.
First, investor behavior is subject to changing moods and “herd behavior.” So-called “self-fulfilling prophecies” play a key role in crisis mechanisms, when crises develop more as a result of the expectations of market players than due to real circumstances. In the face of danger, investors become particularly wary of any early signals in order to switch to safe assets before share prices fall. In general, we may assume that a new crisis could emerge very swiftly, suddenly, and come from an unpredictable direction.
Second, and no less importantly, economic leaders are guided by a range of diverse motives, which makes their behavior difficult to predict. It appears that in its trade disputes the United States is not only protecting its immediate economic interests but also fighting to secure its role as the leader of the global economy in a situation when China has already overtaken it in terms of GDP incomparable prices (in terms of purchasing power parity). On the other hand, President of the United States Donald Trump has to take the upcoming presidential election into account: he cannot afford to see the stock market plummet ahead of the polls.
Given the existing conditions, we may assume that the current relatively tranquil and favorable state of the global economy will most likely worsen considerably in the next 18 months to two years. In fact, this could happen much earlier, but the probability of such a scenario is considerably lower. Let me put it this way: in my opinion, the chances of the “bad times” happening within the next six months do not exceed one to five, even though such a development cannot be absolutely ruled out.
The next question is what form these “bad times” will take: that of a relatively benign “soft landing” or of a “hard-landing.” In the former case, we should expect a slowdown of the global economy and trade, a drop in stock markets, and capital flight to the most stable or trusted countries. In the latter case, the consequences may prove much more serious, including a global GDP slowdown, a series of defaults and bankruptcies and skydiving prices of raw materials.
As things stand, the “soft-landing” scenario appears more probable, at 60/40.
Consequences for the Russian Economy
Formally, the Russian economy appears to be prepared for a crisis. Russia has a relatively low public debt, significant gold and foreign currency reserves, and a budgetary “safety cushion” in the form of the National Wealth Fund. Coupled with a significant double surplus (a positive external balance plus a surplus budget), this gives the country a safe margin of macroeconomic safety. However, practice indicates that such a margin may mitigate the consequences of economic shocks, but does not eliminate them entirely.
Russia was able to use its reserves during the 2008–2009 and 2014–2015 crises, which helped to considerably mitigate the social consequences of the recessions. This is in stark contrast to the 1998 crisis when such reserves were virtually unavailable to the state. In 1998–1999, real average wages in the economy shrank by nearly a third and pensions dwindled by over 40 percent. This contrasts with 2009 when income losses proved much smaller and the level of pensions even grew. At the same time, despite Russia’s available macroeconomic reserves, production volumes noticeably declined in the course of the latest two crises. This can be explained by insufficient levels of confidence among the business community: in crisis situations, business relies on itself and, until the situation becomes clear, lowers investments and reduces discretionary expenses on materials and components.
On the whole, given that external turbulence affects the Russian economy through two main channels (through trade, which is affected by declining prices of oil, gas and metals and by shrinking demand for all exports; and through finance, which is affected by an increase in net capital flight), we may predict that a global economic recession or crisis will result in a slowdown of Russia’s GDP, a slump in the rouble exchange rate, a hike in inflation and a reduction in real incomes. Employment will suffer to a lesser extent: the Russian labor market is rather flexible, which allows for minimal layoffs and subsequent fast recovery of employee numbers. Unlike Greece and Spain, where unemployment hit 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively, after the Great Recession and currently stands at 19 percent and 15 percent, respectively, unemployment in Russia during the same period only grew to 8 percent and declined to below the pre-crisis level by 2012.
The consequences of external shocks grow ever weaker for the Russian economy over time, as the country is improving the quality of its macroeconomic policy (including thanks to the 2014 transition to a floating exchange rate). That said, much still needs to be done if the Russian economy is to become even less dependent on external factors:
- Diversify industrial production by reducing the share of raw materials in exports.
- Improve the real ability of the real sector to react to market pricing signals in order to take full advantage of the lower exchange rate;
- Increase the confidence of businesses in the current economic policy.
Of course, these targets can only be achieved in the long term.
From our partner RIAC
GCC Countries Back on Path to Economic Growth after Contraction Due to the Pandemic
Following a year of economic distress, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are expected to return to an aggregate growth of 2.2% in 2021, according to the latest issue of the World Bank Gulf Economic Update (GEU) titled “COVID-19 Pandemic and the Road to Diversification”. This growth is buoyed by the global economic recovery, projected at 5.6% and the revival of global oil demand and international oil prices.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the decline in global oil demand and prices dealt the GCC countries a health crisis and a commodity market shock causing a GDP contraction 4.8% in 2020.
Fiscal deficits are projected to persist for most over the forecast period, however. The three countries with the largest deficits in 2020 – Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman – are projected to remain in deficit throughout 2021-23, but at narrower ratios to GDP in 2023 than during the economic downturn in 2020.
According to the GEU, the oil supply cutbacks and the four-year-low average oil price of US$41.30 per barrel slashed the group’s goods and services exports by 8.1% in real terms and turned the current account surplus of 6.8% of GDP in 2019 into a deficit of 2.9% of GDP in 2020.
Non-oil GDP is proportionately larger now in all the GCC countries than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but much work remains to be done. Many are still highly reliant on oil and gas exports, which remain over 70% of total goods exports in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and on oil revenues, which exceed 70% of total government revenues in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.
“While the GCC has done a lot in the last year to contain the effects of the pandemic on their economy, including procuring vaccinations early on, they must continue to reform their public sector finances,” said Issam Abousleiman, World Bank Regional Director of the GCC Countries. “The region needs to strengthen their competition policies to harness the benefits of telecommunications and the digitalization of economic activity.”
The sixth issue of the GEU focuses on fiscal revenues and structural reforms including strategic investments in digitalization and telecommunications, which can help enable more economic diversification.
Promoting private sector development remains at the core of national and regional economic diversification efforts. The GCC managed to complete only two state-owned enterprise privatization transactions and only two public-private partnership (PPP) agreements in 2020, but it was a difficult year for commerce and investment anywhere.
Also, advancing the telecommunications frontier is a strategic investment sector for diversification and post COVID-19 recovery, that will serve the GCC well. Past investments in the sector accorded the GCC sizable benefits during the pandemic as quarantines, lockdowns, and restrictions forced public health surveillance, wholesale and retail commerce, public and private education, banking and financial services, and private and government office work onto digital channels. Strategic investment in advanced telecommunications technologies, including 5G, is underway in the GCC. But beyond capital spending on infrastructure, the telecommunications sector would benefit greatly from improvements in the legal, regulatory, and competition frameworks under which service providers operate.
GCC Countries Outlook
Bahrain: Bahrain will continue to rely on fiscal support measures in 2021 to overcome the economic contraction in 2020. GDP growth is expected to reach 3.3% in 2021 and remain at the same pace during the medium-term.
Kuwait: Oil exports will continue to drive Kuwait’s growth dynamics. Economic growth is forecast to rebound to a moderate 2.4% in 2021, before ramping up to an average 3.2% in 2022-23.
Oman: Oman’s economy is forecast to recover in 2021, albeit at a moderate 2.5% growth rate as a sizable infrastructure investment program gains momentum. Medium-term growth is projected to average 5.3% over the forecast period.
Qatar: Qatar is forecast to post a strong growth rebound with LNG demand in South and East Asia underpinning medium-term prospects. Qatar’s economy is projected to grow by 3% in 2021 before accelerating to 4.1% in 2022 and 4.5% in 2023.
Saudi Arabia: Firmer global oil demand will support Saudi Arabia’s economic recovery in 2021 with GDP growth expected to reach 2.4% in 2021. Medium-term growth is projected to average 3% over the forecast period.
United Arab Emirates: The UAE is expected to swing back to growth in 2021, estimated at 1.2%, before accelerating to 2.5% in 2022 and 2023 driven by government expenditures and the staging of Expo 2020 in October 2021.
Passing the Test of the Covid Pandemic
For love of domination we must substitute equality; for love of victory we must substitute justice; for brutality we must substitute intelligence; for competition we must substitute cooperation. We must learn to think of the human race as one family.– Bertrand Russell
The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.– Bertrand Russell
The COVID pandemic delivered a blow to the world economy through multiple channels. The labour supply was adversely affected by record high mortality rates, which may also deliver longer-term effects. With respect to economic policy, rather than stimulating greater cooperation the pandemic resulted in additional restrictions and greater proclivity towards self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Another channel was the negative impact on travel and labour mobility, as well as services and small business development.
More generally, the Covid pandemic proved to be a major test for the national, regional and international systems of governance. The international system as well as regional institutions proved to be unprepared and ill-equipped to address the blows of the crisis. At the national level the economic system was tested with respect to the governance system, the resiliency of the health care system as well as the trust of the population in the policies of the authorities (in particular the receptiveness of the calls for vaccination).
In the sphere of international cooperation the shortcomings of the current framework are illustrated by the lack of common efforts across countries in developing and providing vaccines to the global community. A straight-forward and sensible solution in the context of the current crisis would have been to widen the possibilities for the population to get access to a greater array of vaccines – this would in turn raise the participation rate of the population in vaccination. Equally as sensible would be joint efforts across countries in working on more effective vaccines. Instead, there is the intensifying “vaccine protectionism” and efforts to undermine trust in the vaccines created in “competitor countries”.
There is also a lot more that the international community could do to provide assistance to the least-developed economies. In 2020, official development assistance (ODA) by member countries of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) (comprises developed economies, including the EU and the United States) amounted to USD 161.2 billion, representing 0.32% of their combined GNI. Initial estimates indicate that within total ODA, DAC countries spent USD 12 billion in 2020 on COVID-19 related activities. As a result, ODA assistance in 2020 increased by 3.5% compared to 2019 and reached its highest level ever recorded. Such an increase, while important in view of the challenges faced by developed economies themselves, falls short of the rising needs of the least developed countries that were hard-hit by the sharp fall in FDI and remittance inflows due to the pandemic-induced restrictions. It has to be noted also, that ODA levels declined in 13 out of 30 members of DAC in 2020.
One of the key initiatives in the context of the assistance of the G20 countries to heavily-indebted developing economies was the provision of debt-relief to cope with the shock of the COVID pandemic. According to the OECD the total debt relief extended by advanced economies in 2020 amounted to USD 541 mn. At the same time, according to China’s Ministry of Finance, the Export-Import Bank of China as well as the China International Development Cooperation Agency have suspended debt service payments from 23 countries totalling more than USD 1.3 bn. Overall, the total debt relief provided by China to developing countries under the G20 framework reached USD 2.1 bn, which is the highest among the G20 members in terms of the size of the deferred funds.
Apart from ODA and debt relief there are also gaps in areas such as trade policy, most notably with respect to the lingering (and at times rising) protectionism affecting least-developed economies during the outbreak of the pandemic. The recent World Bank study of the implications of restrictive trade policies during the COVID crisis underscored that least-developed economies could be among the hardest hit. The response of the international community needs to be focused on improving developing countries’ market access, as well as the supplies from developed economies of medical equipment and technologies for national healthcare systems.
In the end, “enlightened self-interest” and “invisible hands” as guiding principles have not served the global community well. If the challenge of the current pandemic is ever to be decisively surmounted, it is going to be through a joint response. The hope is that this common effort will be transformational for the global community and will lead to emergence of new pathways and institutions for international cooperation. The changing “superstructure” of technological and material advances will necessitate an evolution in the “base” of human values. The effects of the current pandemic as well as the rising pile of other global imbalances and vulnerabilities are a reflection of the disconnect between the heights of the technical and material advances/ambition and the shaky foundation of the weakening values of international cooperation.
The important point to realize in the context of the current crisis is that it is not a one-off stumbling block on the road to greater prosperity in the future. There are just too many vulnerabilities and road-bumps along the current path that necessitate an outright rethink of the development itinerary. This relates in particular to risks such as cyber-security, inequality and environment/energy security. These fragilities are the opposite side of the advances made by the global community in areas such as computer-science, economic modernization and higher rates of industrialization in the developing world. Further ambitions along these important trajectories will increasingly call for ways to strengthen ethical standards and international cooperation.
From our partner RIAC
Half a Decade On – Reflecting on Russia’s Unsung Successes
In 2016, as the incoming World Bank lead economist for Russia, I started writing about Russian economic issues. It is now time to bid goodbye. As a professional analyst of the Russian economy over the last 5 years, I can summarize my experience in one sentence: things in Russia are never as bad as they seem, but they are never as good as they can be, either.
Just in the last 6 years, Russia has managed to attain remarkable macro-stability. Inflation, which was in double digits, is in now in manageable territory. The country is less reliant on oil and gas today than 5 years back. These are no small achievements. On the other hand, as I – and many others have written – sagging potential growth holds progress back. But these issues are well-known. In this final column, I would like to recognize three lesser-known Russian developmental successes that often fly under the radar screen.
First is Russia’s increase in life expectancy – from 65.3 years in 2000 to 72.7 years in 2018. This has been mostly due to a drop in the number of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases (i.e. diseases that are not infectious or contagious such as heart attacks and stroke) and external causes (such as road accidents and homicides). Mortality rates for both adults and particularly children have also been decreasing since the 2000s. Even more recently, infant mortality decreased by 36 percent from 2011 to 2017 and maternal mortality decreased by 49 percent in the same period. While the pandemic engulfs us all, it is worth taking a longer-term perspective to recognize legitimate improvements in Russia’s life expectancy.
Second is Russia’s progress in financial literacy. Russia is no stranger to financial crises. While governments anywhere and everywhere have the primary responsibility in preventing and managing them, an important factor that is only being recognized is the need for individuals to become more informed about making financial decisions.
As an early adopter, Russia has recognized the benefits of financial literacy, and made remarkable strides in increasing literacy across both adult populations and school children. This is thanks to both top-down efforts by the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Russia, and bottom-up ones, which have included tapping into schools, libraries, and other community platforms to reach a large and diverse segment of the population. Indeed, Russia was ranked the first among 132 countries in the Child & Youth Finance International Global Inclusion Awards in 2016. It also ranks in the top 10 of G-20 countries for financial literacy.
Third is Russia’s progress in improving its tax administration. The history of taxes in Russia hark back to medieval times, with Prince Oleg imposing the first known “tribute” on dependent tribes. Catherine the Great is known to have said “Taxes for a government are same as sails for a boat. They serve to bring her faster into a harbor without flipping over by their burden”.
Building on lessons learnt over centuries, Russia today is at the global forefront of tapping technology and real-time source data and has managed to shift from a culture of tax evasion to tax compliance. Tax non-compliance, notably in value-added taxes, for instance, has shrunk from double digits a few years ago to less than 1 percent today, with minimal human involvement. Russia’s success in modernization of its tax services is not as well known as it ought to be, but global interest is slowly but steadily growing.
Surely, these achievements are not the end of the road. When it comes to life expectancy, male life expectancy is behind female life expectancy by almost 10 years, and this gap needs to be shrunk. Financial literacy, consumer protection, and safeguards for privacy and data protection need to keep pace as cryptocurrencies and digital fraud become more commonplace. And gains in tax administration may be washed out without complementary tax policies. Yet, these unsung successes deserve more recognition, both within and outside Russia.
One of the more unusual analysis the World Bank undertook was to figure out how wealthy is Russia. We found that Russia’s wealth lies not in its abundant natural resources (as important as they are), or its physical infrastructure (as mighty as some of it may be). Rather, Russia’s wealth derives from the ingenuity and creativity of its people. Indeed, almost half of all Russia’s wealth derives from its human capital — the cumulative experience, knowledge, and skills of Russians. Only then is it followed by physical capital (about a third), and natural capital (about a fifth). Anecdotally too, I can reaffirm that to be the case. In my interactions with students in various universities and high schools, I have witnessed their keen engagement, their sharp and pointed questions, their sense of humor, and above all, a passion to improve their country. I am indeed privileged to have played a small role in this journey.
PS: There is one other area I would like to draw your attention to, and that is climate change. While the politics are what they are, the science and economics are undeniable. In Russia, in addition to federal initiatives, it is encouraging to see positive signs emerging from within Russian regions, such as Sakhalin and Murmansk, which are vying to become carbon-free zones. As I had written earlier, the one mistake not to make about Russia is to treat it as a single unit of analysis. Doing so would be like being unaware that a Matryoshka doll is not empty! Indeed, Russian regions may be at the forefront of addressing climate change and we might be in for a (pleasant) surprise – this space is therefore worth keeping on an eye on.
First appeared in the Russian language on Kommersant.ru via World Bank
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