A wounded economy

It is closer to crisis than the West or Vladimir Putin realise

Nov 22nd 2014 | From the print edition The Economist

VLADIMIR PUTIN is not short of problems, many of his own creation. There is the carnage in eastern Ukraine, where he is continuing to stir things up. There are his fraught relations with the West, with even Germany turning against him now.  There is an Islamist insurgency on his borders and at home there is grumbling among the growing numbers who doubt the wisdom of his Ukraine policy. But one problem could yet eclipse all these: Russia’s wounded economy could fall into a crisis.

Some of Russia’s ailments are well known. Its oil-fired economy surged upward on rising energy prices; now that oil has tumbled, from an average of almost $110 a barrel in the first half of the year to below $80, Russia is hurting. More than two-thirds of exports come from energy. The rouble has fallen by 23% in three months. Western sanctions have also caused pain, as bankers have applied the restrictions not just to Mr Putin’s cronies, but to a much longer tally of Russian businesses. More generally, years of kleptocracy have had a corrosive effect on the place. Much of the country’s wealth has been divided among Mr. Putin’s friends.

Everybody expects continued stagnation, but the conventional wisdom is that Mr. Putin is strong enough to withstand this. The falling rouble has made some export industries like farming more competitive. These exports combined with Mr. Putin’s import-blocking counter-sanctions mean Russia still has a small trade surplus. It has a stash of foreign-exchange reserves, some $370 billion according to the central bank’s figures. Add in the resilience of the Russian people, who are also inclined to blame deprivation on foreigners, and the view from Moscow is that Mr Putin has time to manoeuvre. People talk loosely about two years or so.

In fact, a crisis could happen a lot sooner. Russia’s defences are weaker than they first appear and they could be tested by any one of a succession of possibilities—another dip in the oil price, a bungled debt rescheduling by Russian firms, further Western sanctions. When economies are on an unsustainable course, international finance often acts as a fast-forward button, pushing countries over the edge more quickly than politicians or investors expect.

Putin a good man down

The immediate worry is the oil price. Mr Putin is confident it will recover. But supply seems set to increase, with OPEC keen to defend its market share.  American government agencies predict oil prices could average $83 a barrel in 2015, well below the $90 level Russia needs to avoid recession (and to keep its budget in balance). If global demand weakens—Japan has slipped into recession since the latest round of forecasts—the oil price could fall further. That would immediately prompt investors to reassess Russia’s prospects.  Then there are the debt repayments. Russia’s firms have over $500 billion in external debt outstanding, with $130 billion of it payable before the end of 2015, at a time when few Western banks want to increase their exposure to Russia.  Even firms that earn dollar revenues may struggle to pay their debts. Rosneft, an oil giant, recently asked the Kremlin to lend it $44 billion. Mr Putin has so far resisted, but he cannot let a company that is 70% state-owned and employs 160,000 people fail. There is a lengthening queue of troubled Russian firms.

Non-performing loans were rising even before interest rates were raised to 9.5% to defend the rouble. Meanwhile Russian banks are reliant on the central bank to replace deposits that their customers are understandably spiriting into dollars.  Directly or indirectly, many of these bills will end up with the Kremlin, which is why its reserves will be vital. They are evaporating: down $100 billion in the past year, following failed attempts to defend the rouble. And the book-keeping is dodgy. Of the reported $370 billion reserve pile, more than $170 billion sits in the country’s two wealth funds. Some of their assets are iffy, including various stakes in Russia’s state-owned banks and debt issued by Ukraine that Mr Putin’s own aggression is fast rendering worthless. One of the funds is earmarked for pensions. In reality, Russia’s government has perhaps $270 billion of hard cash that is accessible and usable without massive cuts elsewhere—less than its external obligations due over the next two years.

All this spells trouble for Russia, but Mr Putin’s marauding foreign policy could accelerate things. This after all is a man who has invaded other countries and lied about it. A deeper foray into Ukraine would lead to stronger sanctions by Western countries. Some of them, such as barring Russia’s banks from the SWIFT international payments system, could halt Russian trade altogether. A partial block on oil exports would fell the economy, as it did Iran’s. And the more trouble he faces, the more likely Mr Putin is to play the nationalist card—and that means more foreign forays, and yet more sanctions.

From Russia to Rio, without much love

Russia’s biggest recent economic crisis, in 1998, led to a government default.  This time a string of bank failures, corporate defaults and a deep recession look likelier. Even so the pain from these could spread abroad quickly, both to countries that rely on Russian trade (exports to Russia account for fully 5% of GDP in the Baltics and Belarus) and through financial ripple effects. Banks in both Austria and Sweden are exposed. And if firms in one badly run commodity-driven country start to default on their dollar debts, then investors will worry about others—such as Brazil.

If Russia’s economy looks likely to collapse, there will be inevitable calls in the West for sanctions to be cut back. This week Mr Putin pointed out that 300,000 German jobs depend on trade with his country. But Angela Merkel rightly stood firm. Actions, Mr Putin must finally learn, have consequences. Invade another country, and the world will act against you. And the same goes for the economy, too. Had Mr Putin spent more of his time strengthening Russia’s economy than enriching his friends, he would not find himself so vulnerable now.

DC Politics Corruption

The Post ran a profile about a local businessman/fundraiser, Jeffrey Thompson (who calls himself “The Governor”), who has been ensnared in a fundraising and/or abuse of power scandal. It relates to the recent mayoral campaign and contracts for Medicaid managed care plans. It’s a good look at a local corruption story. This, however, jumped out.

Once, during a fundraiser, Thompson held court at the Hay-Adams hotel, according to a political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing federal investigation. “I walked in, and there was Jeff at the head of the table. Beautiful china. All of a sudden, ding, ding, ding,” the consultant said, hitting a plate with a knife to demonstrate. “He had on a top hat — I swear. He took it off and said, ‘Gentlemen.’ He passed the hat around, and people filled it with checks.”

I have to point out that is clearly a breach of etiquette. One’s top hat is checked upon entry to the establishment.

Full story

Thursday Morning Edition

People keep asking what the OWS protesters want. Honestly, I don’t really know. But I do know what some of them are angry about, income inequality, student loan debt, unemployment, crony capitalism, and now that one has been critically injured in Oakland I think the movement, if that’s what they’re calling it, will face a critical test. Can they maintain their commitment to non-violence in the face of law enforcement and city leaders losing patience with their occupations? Also, winter and cold weather are quickly materializing, how will this factor affect their resolve? There is also concern among the protesters themselves that there are anarchists among their ranks which may undermine the peaceful image they’re trying to maintain.

The LA Time has a good rundown of the dilemma facing city officials and police departments across the country. I thought it was a little derelict though that they didn’t mention the Iraqi Vet who was critically injured in Tuesday nights clash with Oakland PD.

Looming large is the cautionary spectacle of Oakland. Police there arrested about 100 protesters before dawn Tuesday, using tear gas and riot gear to break up encampments — only to face a massive evening protest and threats of continued unrest from angry backers of the movement.

Leaders in other cities said they don’t want a repeat of that chaos, but it’s unclear how they will eventually oust protesters who refuse to leave.

Even in Los Angeles, where city leaders have greeted the demonstrators warmly, there are signs of protest fatigue and increasing anxiety about what happens next.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who earlier this month had ponchos distributed to rain-soaked Occupy L.A. protesters, said Wednesday that the encampment next to City Hall “cannot continue indefinitely.”

Villaraigosa has instructed city officials to draft a plan for another location for the demonstration.

Here’s a little more about the wounded protester and highlights of attempts to break up the occupation.

OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) – More than 1,000 activists protesting economic inequality reclaimed a downtown Oakland plaza late on Wednesday, a day after demonstrators were driven out and an Iraq war veteran was critically hurt in clashes with police.

The severe injury of Scott Olsen, 24, a former U.S. Marine who friends said served two tours of duty in Iraq, became a rallying cry among Occupy Wall Street supporters in Oakland and beyond as organizers urged protesters back into the streets.

Police kept their distance as protesters returned to the scene of Tuesday’s confrontations, while protesters largely avoided provoking them, although one activist defiantly set up a single, small tent in the square after midnight.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests, which began in New York City last month, take issue with a financial system they say most benefits corporations and the wealthy. They are critical of U.S. government bailouts of big banks, high unemployment and economic inequality.

Loosely organized protest groups have since sprung up across the United States and in countries around the world. Tensions were building in several cities where authorities have been treading a fine line between allowing peaceful protest and addressing concerns about trespassing, noise and safety.

In an early morning raid in Atlanta, police evicted dozens of protesters from a downtown park and arrested 53 who refused to leave. They were allowed to camp in the park for three weeks, but Mayor Kasim Reed said he decided to evict them because of fire code violations and crowd control issues.

Kristof discusses some of the issues he thinks are driving the protests.

That alarmist view of the movement is a credit to the (prurient) imagination of its critics, and voyeurs of Occupy Wall Street will be disappointed. More important, while alarmists seem to think that the movement is a “mob” trying to overthrow capitalism, one can make a case that, on the contrary, it highlights the need to restore basic capitalist principles like accountability.

To put it another way, this is a chance to save capitalism from crony capitalists.

But, in recent years, some financiers have chosen to live in a government-backed featherbed. Their platform seems to be socialism for tycoons and capitalism for the rest of us. They’re not evil at all. But when the system allows you more than your fair share, it’s human to grab. That’s what explains featherbedding by both unions and tycoons, and both are impediments to a well-functioning market economy.

Capitalism is so successful an economic system partly because of an internal discipline that allows for loss and even bankruptcy. It’s the possibility of failure that creates the opportunity for triumph. Yet many of America’s major banks are too big to fail, so they can privatize profits while socializing risk.

The upshot is that financial institutions boost leverage in search of supersize profits and bonuses. Banks pretend that risk is eliminated because it’s securitized. Rating agencies accept money to issue an imprimatur that turns out to be meaningless. The system teeters, and then the taxpayer rushes in to bail bankers out. Where’s the accountability.

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