Russia’s Top Economist Needs to Face Reality
Published: October 24, 2008 (Issue # 1419)
On Friday, the government reported that growth in gross domestic product for September slowed to 0.4 percent. On Monday, however, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia, Brazil, India and China “will remain the locomotive of the world economic growth for the next few years.”
On Sept. 3, I wrote in this column, “A sudden zero growth would not be surprising, and leaders like Putin are not prepared to face reality.” Now zero growth has already been achieved but Putin remains in denial, even though as prime minister he is the chief economist in the country.
In fact, Russia will be lucky if it faces nothing worse than stagnation. A substantial decline in GDP next year is an acute possibility. Do not believe all these forecasts that as recently as a month ago predicted 6 percent or 7 percent growth next year. Each forecast is lower than its predecessor. Let us instead discuss the forces at hand.
As elsewhere in the world, the Russian banking system has frozen up because of rising international interest rates and an elimination of trust. Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatyev said two weeks ago that he expected 50 to 70 banks to go under. Others fear more than 200 banks might collapse. That would keep the credit market frozen for quite some time and lead to a contraction of loans, regardless of what the Central Bank does.
The second blow has already hit real estate development, a sector that is particularly dependent on credit. Investment is still increasing, but the growth rate has declined to 8 percent from 24 percent during the same month a year ago in September. You can see for yourselves how many cranes are standing still at construction sites in Moscow, and most large real estate and construction companies are considered to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Their stock prices have fallen 82 percent this year. If construction is halved, that alone would reduce GDP next year by nearly 3 percent.
The third strike has hit commodity prices. Since their admittedly brief, sharp peak in July, both steel and oil prices have halved because of the sudden slowdown in the world economy. In addition, energy production is already stagnant, and export volumes are declining. Russia’s crude oil exports fell by 5.9 percent during the first eight months this year. Steel exports are set to plummet, as China has turned from a steel importer to a major exporter. Domestic demand will decline with construction. Commodities, which represent roughly a quarter of Russia’s GDP, cannot possibly expand next year. But they may contract somewhat, especially steel production and construction materials.Pages:  [2 ]