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Belt and Road: Prospects for Sino-Armenian cooperation in the financial-banking sphere

Mher D. Sahakyan

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The main aim of this research is to analyze and present why and how China is trying to implement a plan with which it could become an independent financial pole. What kind of sources has Beijing gathered for financing BRI? Why and how should Armenia try to be involved in the financial sector of the BRI? What will Armenia and China get if they cooperate in the aforementioned sphere? why should China be interested in conversion of Chinese Renminbi to Armenian currency and why should it be interested in establishing a branch of any Chinese bank in Armenia?

 China is trying to influence the world economy through BRI, with which it is creating a financial and economic platform that can act independently from the West, so that in the event of a China-US confrontation, China would not be isolated. In turn countries which will create ties with China through BRI will get Chinese loans and investments.

In order to implement the aforementioned strategy, thanks to the work of the Chinese diplomatic corps, on October 1, 2016, Chinese currency was included in the Special Drawing Rights (SDR) valuation basket by the International Monitory Fund. 

From my point of view, one of the main aims of this step to strengthen the position of Chinese RENMINBI, which will provide an opportunity to Beijing to give loans and implement vast investment projects in states which are involved in the BRI, using its own national currency and in international trade grow the quantity of financial transfers with RENMINBI. Beijing also aims to reduce its dependence from the USD. As Chinese authors mention, “BRI will provide an opportunity to China to strengthen Renminbi role as a regional currency and afterwards as an international currency.

China’s investments in the framework of BRI rise the global meaning of Chinese initiative, as due to Asian Development Bank’s report, “Infrastructure needs in developing Asia and the Pacific will exceed from $1.5 to $1.7 trillion per year”.

In October 2015, China established “China International Payment Service (CIPS)”, which aims to make Chinese currency available at foreign banking systems and it will reduce also China’s dependence from “The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT)”. Dozens of international banks have already joined and can use Chinese CIPS. It is worth noting also the importance of Yinilan (银联- Union Pay) payment service. It provides states which are participating in BRI with an opportunity to make interbank and international bank transfers using Chinese currency.  

It is worth mentioning that already in the end of 2016 Chinese banks opened 62 branches in 26 states which participated in BRI. China officially mentioned in its “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” document, that China must rise exchange of currencies with the BRI participants, create and develop Asian bond markets.” For implementing aforementioned aims, China creates financial system, in which joint financial structures, foundations established by Beijing and partners, several Chinese banks are playing leading and crucial roles. It is expected that China’s government will invest $ 1 trillion in total in its BRI. The research of BRI’s financial system is important, as it provides an opportunity to states which have stable financial systems to be involved in BRI’s financial-economic system and get benefits.

Silk Road Foundation

Until 2018 the main financial investments in BRI have been made by Chinese companies. It is clear that both interests, and resources of Chinese companies are limited. Thus, for continuation of Chinese investments in the framework of BRI and for financing projects of the foreign countries as well, on December 29, 2014, Beijing established Silk Road Foundation. The Main aim of this foundation is to make investments and develop infrastructure, industry and financial systems. It has $40 billion capital.It is also worth mentioning that until May 2017 it has provided $ 4 billion for investments within the framework of BRI.

Asian infrastructure Investment bank

Special importance was also ascribed to the establishment of The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in January 2016.   It is worth mentioning that China was able to establish the AIIB under pressure from the US. AIIB authorized capital amounts to $ 100 billion.

According to Xi Jinping’s report, AIIB until 2017has provided $ 1.7bn for investments within the framework of BRI. From the South Caucasus, Georgia and Azerbaijan are members of AIIB. Representatives of these countries are also included in the Board of Governors. In 2016 November, Azerbaijan succeeded to receive $ 600 million from AIIB to build a trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, and Georgia received $ 114 million from the bank to build a bypass road.

On one hand, Armenia is a member of the EAEU, and on the other hand it is strengthening its cooperation with the EU. Yerevan also speaks about its commitment to strengthen cooperation with China in the field of transportation, in the framework of China’s BRI initiative. It is worth mentioning that to become a transit country in transportation corridors which unite different regions of the Eurasian continent, Armenia must at first develop and modernize its poorly developed transportation infrastructure. For this reason, Armenia is building the 556-kilometer North-South Road Corridor, which will start at the Armenian-Iranian border and stretch to the Armenian-Georgian border.In 2018 China’s lead Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is investing mainly in transportation infrastructures in BRI participant countries, published its “Transport Sector Strategy: Sustainable and Integrated Transport for Trade and Economic Growth in Asia”. The research of this strategy shows that its main aims fully coincide with Armenian North-South Road Corridor Investment Program which is being implemented by Transport Project Implementation Organization. My recommendation is that at first Armenia can try to stand Regional member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment bank and after get sovereign backed or non-sovereign backed loans for its state-owned noncommercial organizations, private organizations, and international organizations which works in the territory of Armenia, that they invest this money in Armenian North-South Transportation Corridor, which will significantly enhance Armenia’s capabilities to be involved in the Silk Road Economic Belt’s China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Belt.

I think that Armenia’s accession to AIIB will also allow to start negotiations for a possibility of getting a loan for the construction of the Armenian-Iranian railroad.

BRICS NEW DEVELOPMENT BANK

The other crucial step in this direction was the foundation of BRICS New Development Bank with the other members of BRICS. This international financial institution has its own monetary fund, and its main aim is to ensure the financial sustainability of its founders.

Within the period of 2016-2017 the Bank has approved a $ 3,4 billion credit line. The NDB aims to provide this amount for the development of communications, renewable energy, water purification, irrigation and other projects. It was confirmed that the initial capital of the NDB would be $ 50 billion, which would be shared by the Member States on a parity basis. It was also decided that the statutory capital of the bank should be raised to $ 100 billion. The NDB Center is located in Shanghai, China, with the ultimate goal of providing financial sustainability for its founders. In other words, the NDB will be financing most of the initiatives undertaken within the framework of BRI in China, Russia, India, Brazil and South African Republic.

Chinese banks financing BRI:

China Development Bank – 国家开发银行

Near the end of 2014th year the latest capital of the CDB reached the amount of 10.32 trillion Chinese Renminbi.

In 2014 the CDB has provided 1.56 trillion yuan for investments in foreign countries. The CDB declares that it serves China’s BRI and promotes the Chinese companies ‘Go Global’ policy. One of the CDB’s objectives is to deepen cooperation with foreign governments in financial institutions, industrial centers, infrastructures, finance, agriculture and energy. For example, the CDB has opened a $ 10 billion credit line for the ASEAN member states to develop their infrastructures. This line of credit can also be used by Chinese companies, which are going to build factories and develop industries in these countries.

The Export-Import Bank of China – 中国进出口银行

The Export-Import Bank of China is a state-funded and state-owned policy bank with the status of an independent legal entity.  One of the main goals of this bank is to promote China’s foreign trade and the normal course of investments, the development of economic cooperation with the outside world, and the support of Chinese organizations in the framework of the “Go Global” policy.

For example, in 2013, this bank provided $ 385 million loan to Kyrgyzstan to modernize Bishkek thermal power plant.

China Bank – 中国银行

In 2014 the CB actives reached $ 2.458 trillion. The Bank has announced that the 2016-2018 China will provide $ 100 billion to Chinese companies to finance projects abroad within the framework of BRI.

Industrial and Commercial Bank of China – 中国工商银行 (ICBC)

The ICBC is the largest bank in the world.  By the year of 2016, it has created 412 financial institutions in the world, 127 of which are located in the BRI countries. The ICBC declares that it will support the policy of Chinese organizations abroad.

In sum, China uses governmental, international and private financial resources for the successful implementation of BRI. It is worth mentioning that China combined the internationalization of the Renminbi with the globalization of the BRI initiative. For one thing, the implementation of BRI provides an added impetus and unique platform for continuation of the establishment of the Renminbi as an international currency, and for another, it fostersthe sustainable development of the financial sector of BRI outside of China, which provides an opportunity for China to turn into an independent financial pole.

Prospects for Sino-Armenian cooperation in the financial-banking sphere within the framework of the BRI

Taking into account international experience, based on which the CDB has agreed to provide Egypt’s SIBBANK  funding for financing Egyptian enterprises, and financial support to Singaporean and Chinese companies should be provided to invest in the framework of  BRI, I do believe, that it is possible to get a credit line from the Chinese banks for Armenian small and medium-sized businesses which are importing to Armenia Chinese high-technologies.

As a result, Armenia’s businessmen will be able to expand their business, with additional cash flows to Armenia, and China, in its turn, will be able to put its own money into circulation and increase interest in Chinese-made equipment and products in Armenia, which is a member of Eurasian Economic Union.

Armenian business companies can also start direct negotiations with Chinese companies for starting joint investments in Armenia, after the agreements between both sides’ entities in special projects, Chinese business companies can apply to the above-mentioned Chinese banks, that they provide them finances for investing in Armenian within the framework of BRI.

One of the best arguments for this hypothesis is the message of Xi Jinping to Chinese organizations, according to which the Chinese leadership is interested in the fact that Chinese companies are increasing their role in investing within the framework of the BRI, basing on the “Go Global” policy.

Assessment of the Establishment of a Chinese Bank in RA From the viewpoint of economic persistence of RA:

Internationalization of Chinese Renminbi provides a wide range of opportunities to countries with stable banking systems included in the BRI as they have the opportunity to engage Chinese banks in their own banking system or to establish intermediary banks operating in Chinese currency to provide a conversion of their currency by renminbi.

The following question arises: why should China be interested in conversion of Chinese Renminbi to Armenian currency and why should it be interested in establishing a branch of any Chinese banks in Armenia?

China will get an opportunity to trade with Armenia with Chinese currency, due to Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia bilateral, direct trade between Armenia and China is worth 490 million USD. With this step, the role of the Renminbi will be strengthened in the global financial arena. Additionally, if the Chinese side establishes a bank in Armenia, Chinese capital will be involved in the Armenian financial-banking sphere.  

The following question arises as well: what will Armenia get?

If a branch of one of the leading Chinese banks is opened or if Armenia and China establish a joint bank, the result will be significant financial investments in Armenia. The financial field of the country will be diversified, and if Dram-Renminbi conversion is introduced, bilateral trade between Armenia and China will be realized in their own currencies, thanks to which Armenian and Chinese businessman will no longer lose money in currency exchange.

According to our calculations, the Armenian side loses about $ 10mln annually due to the above-mentioned function, which can be ruled out if the Armenian banks are able to transfer their Chinese counterparts directly Renminbi. Chinese and Armenians living and studying in China and in Armenian will also benefit and be able to transfer Chinese currency to Armenia and to get money in the opposite direction without any additional losses of time and money.

China and Russia announced that they will try to deepen cooperation and reduce their tensions through the harmonization of the EAEU and BRI.Membership in the EAEU provides an opportunity to Armenia to defend its interests during negotiations with Big China more productively, as Armenia can first include the projects in the agenda of the EAEU in which it is interested, and after that, in from the name of the EAEU team, already from a strengthened position, introduce its projects to the Chinese side.

And the other recommendation is that that from time to time Armenia must invite Chinese businessmen and specialists to Armenia and offer them projects, which can bring bilateral benefit.

(*)Dr. Mher D. Sahakyan, The author of the book “Belt and Road Initiative and Armenia”, 2018, from which this essay is adapted. Translated from Armenian. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Economy

Why Wealthy Countries Must Step Up Their Contribution to Fight Global Poverty

Ferid Belhaj

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Member countries of the International Development Association (IDA), a part of the World Bank Group, are meeting shortly to discuss the 19th replenishment of IDA, which will set the agenda for assistance to the poorest developing countries for the three-year period starting in July 2020. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia contributed funds for the 18th replenishment for IDA, which covers the period July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020. It is critical that these countries — and others in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region who could potentially contribute — sustain and increase their presence and participation in this important international forum and support a global public good.

This coming IDA replenishment is an opportunity for MENA countries to make their contribution and presence felt. Starting in 2020, MENA will be the epicentre of several global discussions and events: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 members, Egypt is the chair of the African Union, the first World Expo in the region will be held in Dubai, the 2021 World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings will take place in Marrakech, and the region will see its first soccer World Cup in Doha in 2022. While these events are significant in their own right, a substantially higher financial contribution from MENA countries to IDA will demonstrate the region’s capacity to lead on long-term global challenges such as poverty reduction, inclusive growth, and climate change.

IDA was created in 1960 to provide ‘soft-loans’ — grant funding, concessional loans, debt relief — to the poorest developing countries who could not afford to borrow on the terms that could be offered by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). IDA has become one of the largest sources of assistance for the world’s 77 poorest countries and the foremost instrument to channel multilateral funding where it is needed the most and in the quickest and most efficient way possible. There is no bigger source of donor funds for basic services in these countries.

Since 1960, IDA has provided almost $400 billion for investments in over 100 countries. IDA’s support has paved the way toward equality, economic growth, job creation, higher incomes, and better living conditions. IDA’s work covers primary education, basic health services, clean water and sanitation, agriculture, business climate improvements, infrastructure, and institutional reforms. More recently, IDA has intervened in a big way to bring hope to people affected by conflict and violence, including in the MENA region. Of course, IDA is now prioritizing investments to deal with the worst impacts of climate change.

Since 2000, IDA has provided more than $88 billion in financial assistance to Arab and Muslim countries. In IDA18, more than 50% of the resources were allocated to 28-member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali are among the biggest beneficiaries of IDA. In the MENA region, Djibouti, Syria, and Yemen are IDA beneficiaries.

In Yemen, through its many contributions, IDA has played a critical role to provide relief and mitigate the long-lasting impacts of the country’s tragic conflict. Quite literally, IDA has saved lives! It has helped Yemenis fight diseases and famine. IDA helped train nearly 12,000 health personnel and immunize 6.9 million children (five million of them under 5 years old). Through an emergency program, IDA has helped ensure around 9 million vulnerable Yemenis have access to food and other basic necessities.

In Djibouti, from 2014–18, IDA provided essential services to 1.9 million people. Thousands of pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, and children under age 5 benefited from basic nutrition services. During the same period, over 24,000 women gave birth attended by a qualified health practitioner, up from just 1,000. IDA also helped immunize 78% of children before their first birthday in 2018, up from 33% in 2012.

The conflict in Syria, now into its eighth year, continues to take a heavy toll on the life of Syrian people and on the Syrian economy. The death toll in Syria directly related to the conflict as of early 2016 is estimated to be between 400,000 (UN, Apr 2016) and 470,000 (Syrian Center for Policy Research, Feb 2016), with many more injured, and lives upheaved. The conflict has internally displaced about 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children. Over 5.6 million are officially registered as refugees (UNHCR, 2019). In Lebanon, IDA is helping the country enrol 200,000 Syrian children in public schools. In Jordan, IDA assistance is creating 100,000 jobs for Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees.

Beyond the MENA region, from the conflict ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo to the earthquake affected Pakistan, or from Haiti and Nepal to Tajikistan and Myanmar, IDA is a strong development partner for the poorest countries. Building on its experience of supporting Syrian refugees and host communities, IDA has helped reintegrate displaced people in more than 10 countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Niger, and Pakistan.

International institutions, of which IDA is a recognized leader, remain important for some of the most lagging regions and communities in the world. Independent assessments have documented the tremendous benefits of IDA’s support for the development of poor countries. Many people are unaware that countries such as China, India, and South Korea were beneficiaries of IDA assistance in the past, but now they have become donors giving back to the international community.

Institutions like IDA deserve our utmost support because when misfortune strikes countries, the knowledge and financial resources of institutions such as IDA can save, protect, and nurture lives. These institutions can provide ideas for development strategies and funds for critical infrastructure. To eliminate extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity, institutions like IDA are a valuable ally for governments and citizens.

The World Bank Group is grateful for generous financial contributions to IDA from the international donor community. However, I believe that the more fortunate MENA countries can and must enhance their contribution to IDA. Some countries in the MENA region are among the wealthiest in the world. Their good fortune presents an opportunity for the MENA region to take on a leadership role in this important forum. It is also a wonderful opportunity to help those in need, which is fully in line with the region’s rich history of generosity towards the less fortunate.

IDA has a critical global mission — and its successes to date are only possible because of the generosity of its members. More substantial financial contributions to IDA are good for MENA’s standing in the international community. It is also the right thing to do.

 World Bank

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Economy

BRICS countries deem a single crypto currency

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Speaking on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, which took place in Brazil in mid-November, President of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev came up with a proposal to create a common crypto currency for servicing a unified payment system of the member countries. According to RBC, the idea of a unified payment system has already received the backing of the BRICS Business Council. The parties concerned held a heated discussion on the possibility of using a single digital currency for conducting payments.

Virtual currencies or crypto currencies, and the blockchain technology that underlies them have been major trends in the information technology market since the early 2010s. Experts deem the blockchain technology as revolutionary: we are talking about a distributed electronic database (a register, ledger), in which each “cell” contains information about all others. Cryptographic methods are used to ensure the functioning and protection of the “register”. Such characteristics of block chain technology as its distributed decentralized nature and the availability of information about all transactions make it useful in those areas of business where many participants are involved who are not able to verify the credibility of counterparties. Resources transferred via a blockchain cannot be blocked (or arrested), even temporarily, by anyone except their owner. Meanwhile, what remains a major problem of all private and corporate crypto currency projects is their credibility.

If a digital currency is issued by the state or a community of states, then most, if not all, problems private crypto currencies are faced with are solvable. In this case, the advantages of Bitcoin and the underlying block chain technology are preserved, while the risks, such as the anonymity and simplicity of uncontrolled cross-border operations, which evoke the anxiety of authorities around the world, are neutralized. The issue of crypto currency would make it possible for the authorities to assume control of the technology that can otherwise reinforce global speculators, and even, according to critics, undermine the very existence of states in their classical format.

Meanwhile, many capitals have been keeping a close eye on the growing concern of the US authorities over the prospect of a global spread of crypto currencies. Washington’s major fears are that the “foes of America,” be it states or non-state entities, will be able to create a financial network independent of the US dollar. In this case, the United States would lose the most important instrument of  non-military pressure that it uses to influence its opponents.

At present, more than 85 percent of all currency exchange transactions are made in dollars. All Washington has to do to block unwanted financial transactions is just  add suspicious individuals, organizations or states to the “black list” which is sent to all banks in the world. For fear of falling under sanctions or losing the ability to make payments in dollars, the overwhelming majority of financial institutions have until now been following the instructions of the American authorities. In May this year, Republican Brad Sherman submitted a bill which proposes to ban US citizens from buying or selling crypto currency. In July, a number of Congressmen from the Democratic Party drafted a bill that prohibits online platforms and social networks with an annual income of at least $ 25 billion from providing financial services and issuing crypto currencies. According to commentators, the authors of both bills make no secret of the fact that their initiatives are motivated by by geopolitical considerations. For one, Congressman Sherman argued during the hearings: “Crypto currencies must be nipped in the bud also because the lion’s share of our international influence is based on the fact that the dollar is the standard of the international financial system. For oil and other transactions, it is vital that they be cleared by the federal reserve … Crypto currencies undermine our international policy … ”.

According to RT columnist Max Keiser, an ever more number of countries are beginning to understand what influence the United States has on other states only because the dollar is the principal currency for commercial and intergovernmental settlements. In addition to gaining profit from the dominant role of the dollar in international trade, Washington possesses levers of influence that affect the policies of most countries through sanctions or threat of sanctions and are beyond the reach of anyone else. Keiser deems sanctions as an “act of aggression,” because, in his opinion, the dollar has long turned into a weapon. Not surprisingly, countries that value their sovereignty are looking for ways to minimize or completely neutralize America’s ability to exert pressure through denial of dollar transactions. Before the arrival of crypto currencies, gold was a major protective shield. Nowadays, national digital currencies are considered  a new powerful tool, devoid of many shortcomings of gold in terms of everyday use.

Given the circumstances, as reported by one of the most authoritative Russian resources in the field of crypto currencies, DeCenter, all BRICS members are either on the point of issuing digital fiat money, “or are looking into such a possibility.”  The BRICS countries are thereby following the global trend as the prospect of issuing digital currencies by central banks, the Central bank digital currency (CBDC), has been attracting the attention of governments in an increasing number of countries. On November 26, Vice President of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis spoke about plans of the European Union to launch a EU digital currency by the end of 2021. One of the problems that could be solved with the help of such a system, according to ECB Board member Benoit Kere, is putting an end to Europe’s dependence on US-based international payment services, such as MasterCard, Visa, Apple, PayPal and Amazon.

What could serve as an example for the rest of the BRICS members is the position of Beijing, which has changed its attitude to crypto currencies by “180 degrees” over the past few months. According to Leonid Kovachich of the Moscow-based Carnegie Center, “President Xi Jinping refers to blockchain as a breakthrough technology, while major Chinese media outlets are  talking at length  about the benefits of blockchain and urge the community not to miss the historic opportunity to challenge the global hegemony of the dollar.”

This fall, representatives of the People’s Bank of China said they were “considering the possibility of launching a digital yuan at an early date.” President of the Digital Currency Development Center of the Central Bank of China Mu Changchun has identified the basic criteria for issuing the crypto currency of the PRC. “CryptoYuan will not function only on the basis of blockchain, the issue will proceed in two stages: from the Central Bank to commercial banks and then into further circulation.” The digital yuan will replace the M0 aggregate, while the processing capacity of the payment system will be “up to 300 thousand transactions per second”. As an official currency, the digital yuan will be issued on a centralized basis and regulated by the government. The digital yuan is set to incorporate the best characteristics of crypto currencies, including minimum transaction time, “reliability, invariability and irreversibility”, and fiat money – its sovereignty and liquidity guarantees.

The fact that the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance are considering the possibility of introducing crypto currency in Russia was reported by Kommersant back in 2016. In June 2017, Deputy Chairperson of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation Olga Skorobogatova announced prospects for launching a national digital currency. Skorobogatova said Central Bank specialists had started work on a digital ruble project. Similarly to the digital yuan, it is assumed that the issue of the Russian virtual currency will be strictly regulated, its exchange for rubles and other currencies will be possible only on special electronic platforms and the identity of the crypto currency buyer will have to be established. According to DeCentre, the draft law on digital financial assets (DFA) was adopted by the State Duma in the first reading in 2018. However, amendments have been made and continue to be made since then, also regarding the very definition of crypto currency. 

Russian experts view the digital ruble as one of the options to respond to  the intensifying Western sanctions. As Iran’s disconnection from the SWIFT banking system at the request of the United States demonstrated, the creation of an interbank payment system that can replace SWIFT is “of paramount importance for the BRICS countries”. As an instrument for conducting mutual payments in such a system, the central banks could issue a limited volume of digital currency and all transactions in this currency will be registered in a single register and will be verified by agents appointed by the authorities of the BRICS countries. The use of a common crypto currency would make such a payment system universal and would safeguard payments against foreign sanctions.

In this respect, at the initial stage, the BRICS digital currency may not become a  payment instrument in the full sense of the word. A couple of years ago, Russian venture investor Evgeny Gordeev called for launching a government program to attract investments and ensuring the safety of capital at the blockchain level. Technically, such an investment mechanism would enable Russia’s foreign partners interested in investing in Russian assets to avoid the legal consequences of the sanctions that have been imposed on the Russian Federation in recent years. A member of the State Duma’s expert panel, Nikita Kulikov, believes that a common crypto currency that is currently being considered by BRICS experts could become a means of “fixating obligations”, a conversion tool, and an instrument to ensure the “autonomy of interstate remittances”.

Thus, as experts continue to speculate about the extent to which crypto currencies are capable of revolutionizing the entire system of financial relations, the changes that have occurred in the economic and monetary policies of some of the world’s leading states in recent years demonstrate that they are beginning to take crypto currencies more and more seriously regarding them as a useful tool to strengthen their national economic sovereignty.

From our partner International Affairs

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Economy

Is Russia Rich or Wealthy?

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Authors: Apurva Sanghi and Glenn-Marie Lange Vedemosti (Russia)

Which would you rather be: rich or wealthy? And what exactly is the difference?

Being rich is related to your regular paycheck: the monthly income you receive from your employer or your business. The fatter the paycheck, the richer you are. Being wealthy, on the other hand, is the value of all your assets: how much you have in savings in your bank account, your house, your car, and so on. The more of these assets you have, the wealthier you are.

Now you can be rich without being wealthy. But that will not be sustainable if you do not keep adding to your stock of assets. So, your economic well-being is a function of both your income and wealth.

What applies to you as an individual applies to a nation as well. Focusing only on national income, i.e. GDP, can be misleading. Wars or disasters increase GDP because reconstruction counts towards GDP, but this is in an accounting sense. Common-sense tell us they do not improve welfare of those affected. Yet policymakers and economists are obsessed with GDP. Perhaps it is because GDP is a relatively easy thing to measure. In our latest semi-annual report, we upgrade Russia’s growth numbers (1.2% for 2019, 1.6% and 1.8% for 2020 and 2021), which no doubt will generate much public attention but as mentioned above, can be misleading. Changes in income need to be complemented with a measure that captures changes in wealth. But how do you measure the wealth of a nation – especially one as large and diverse as Russia?

Our report aims to answer the question: “How wealthy is Russia” by measuring, for the first time, the country’s wealth from 2000–2017.  The analysis comprehensively measures four types of assets:

  • Produced capital: Russia’s buildings, bridges and infrastructure;
  • Human capital: the cumulative experience, knowledge and skills of Russians;
  • Natural capital: the lakes, forests, soil, air, water, oil and gas from which Russians derive a range of services;
  • Foreign capital: the net value of overseas assets owned by Russia.

The good news is that the typical Russian citizen was 1.8 times wealthier in 2017 than in 2000, with accumulated wealth of about 9 million rubles (or approximately US$ 153,000). The bad news is that this is only about a quarter of the wealth of a typical resident in member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Here is another question: which of the above four wealth components do you think comprises the largest share of overall wealth in Russia? It is not foreign capital; Russia simply does not own that many assets overseas. Is it natural capital? After all, Russia is blessed with abundant natural resources appropriately captured by the song in the famous 1936 Soviet film Circus: “Wide is my Motherland, Of her many forests, fields, and rivers!… From Moscow to the borders, From the southern mountains to the northern sea.” Or is it physical capital? From the shiny skyscrapers of Moscow to all the infrastructure spread around the world’s largest country — this surely must add up to a lot?

Well, the answer is neither of the above: rather, it is human capital – the cumulative experience, knowledge and skills of Russians – that comprises almost half of all Russia’s wealth, only then followed by physical capital (about a third), and natural capital (about a fifth). However, in comparison, the wealth composition of OECD countries on average is 70 percent human capital, 28 percent produced capital, 3 percent natural capital, and minus 1 percent net foreign assets (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Human capital comprises the largest share of wealth in Russia, but this is much lower than the OECD average

Here again, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that during 2000–2017, Russia’s per capita human capital grew massively at 80 percent, dwarfing growth in OECD countries and other commodity exporters. The bad news is that average annual growth has slowed from 4.7 percent in the 2000–2010 period to 1.8 percent during 2010–2017. Indeed, at this slower rate of 1.8 percent, it would take Russia almost 100 years to catch up with the OECD average. For Russia to grow wealthier, the policy focus is clear: increase both the returns to and share of human capital wealth.

Increasing returns to human capital, especially in education, ranges from improving the quality of vocational and college education throughout Russia’s regions to improving the 3 Cs of softer skills of Russian students: creativity, collaboration, and communication. One puzzle is why Russia’s human capital proportion of its total wealth (46 percent), is significantly lower than OECD’s (70 percent). After all, Russia’s education performance appears to be even better than the OECD’s in certain areas. For example, the proportion of the labor force with university degrees is higher in Russia than the OECD. And the quality of education as measured by certain global standardized tests is on par with the OECD. One possible explanation is that Russians are simply not earning adequate returns on their education.

Increasing the share of human capital would require a decrease in the share of something else. A good candidate for Russia would be natural capital; specifically, oil and gas related assets, which remain a significant part of Russia’s wealth. Russia’s large share of carbon-based wealth faces increased risk due to future price uncertainty and large-scale attempts at global decarbonization. Additionally, better managing Russia’s forests is an immediate priority and can also enhance Russia’s role as an “ecological donor” to the planet. As a rough estimate, Russia’s forests provide annual absorption of about 640 million tons of CO2 equivalent or around 30,000 billion rubles (over US$ 500 billion) over their lifetime.

After all, nothing lasts forever, so this abundance needs to be sustainably managed if Russia is indeed to be more than just a rich tale. Otherwise pursuing riches without building wealth would be a bit like building mansions on a foundation of sand.

World Bank

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On November 09th, 2019, Pakistan and India opened the first-ever visa-free corridor between the two countries to facilitate the pilgrimage...

Reports9 hours ago

Inequality threatening human development

Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a “new generation of inequalities” indicates that many societies are not working...

Newsdesk11 hours ago

The role of data and statistics for evidence based policy making

An international workshop on data and statistics for evidence-based Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) taking place at the headquarters of the...

Energy13 hours ago

Energy Production is Moving Upwards

The United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, and numerous research organizations working in consortium found in a recent report “the world’s...

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