Everything intended to hurt Russia is actually helping to reform the country's economy.
This article originally appeared at Global Economic Trend Analysis
A round of punitive sanctions designed to cripple the economy. A collapse in the price of its key commodity. A currency in freefall and a central bank hiking rates to emergency levels while a corrupt, authoritarian government embarks on foreign adventures at potentially huge expense. For the whole of 2014, the Russian economy was the most toxic in the world, with one calamity coming hard after another.
But here is something nobody expected. In the first quarter of this year, Russia was doing a bit better than anyone could have forecast. We learned last week that the economy managed to grow by 0.4% in the latest quarter, compared to the zero growth or the outright recession that most economists had penciled in. The ruble is the best-performing currency of the last three months. Even the Moscow stock index has started to recover.
In reality, sanctions and a fall in the oil price might have been the best thing to have happened to Russia since the invention of double-glazing. Why? Because the problem for a country rich in resources and well-educated, creative people has been an over-reliance on energy, and a tight-knit kleptocracy that distributes the wealth it generates. It has failed to create its own industrial economy.The predictions of collapse have turned out to be wide of the mark.
Putin is still in power, and still in possession of Crimea. Nor is there much sign of anything more than short-term damage. A 0.4% quarterly growth rate is not fantastic, but it is better than France, and roughly the same as Germany or Japan.
True, the forecasts are for gross domestic product to fall for this year — the IMF suggest it will contract by more than 3% — but those may well turn out to wrong as well. What is certainly true is that the economy has not been devastated.
The interesting question, however, is whether it might actually be strengthened. That might sound odd. But the main problem for the Russian economy over the past decade was an over-reliance on oil revenues, and a state-led kleptocracy, which stifled the emergence of a productive domestic economy.
The big reason might well be what plenty of analysts over the years have described as “the curse of oil.” The black stuff generates lots of easy money, and by filling the state coffers with cash, it makes it relatively easy for a corrupt, authoritarian regime to entrench itself in power. That has been seen in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Putin’s Russia was no different.
Without oil, Russia will have to develop its own industries. And with sanctions slowing down imports, there will be space for entrepreneurs to move into. The state will become less powerful, because it will have lower oil revenues, and so will the oligarchs. Russia will have the opportunity to gradually replace crony capitalism with competitive capitalism. In the medium term, that can only be for the better.
Of course, just because it might happen does not mean that it will.
Keep in mind as well that this is one of the cheapest markets in the world. The Moscow index trades on a price-to-earnings ratio of 6.7, less even than Greece. For an economy that is solvent, and growing at 0.4%, that is a bargain. Sanctions and a collapsing oil price were meant to torpedo Russia — but they may end up doing it a favor.
It seems Medvedev and his free-market economic advisors have convinced Putin to do just that. It was not reported in the Western press, but a few months ago Putin announced that all inspections of companies will be suspended for at least three years and that company start-ups will be free of taxation for their first two years. Add to that the 13% flat tax, and there could be quite an effect. According to Medvedev's advisors, Russian GDP could improve by $200 billion per year by curbing corruption alone. Since the inspections were the main avenue of corruption, their suspension is a very significant step. Admittedly, the jury is still out on the success of these measures, but they have been taken, and it was in reaction to the sanctions. Also, the author is correct: industry surveys in Russia show that companies see import substitution as a huge growth area over the coming year and have accordingly already increased investment and production.