Thursday, May 21, 2015

21/5/15: IMF to Russia: Do What You've Been Doing, Because We Say So

So the IMF released the summary statement on its Article IV 'consultations' for Russia. The stuff reads like something generated by a pre-historic algo with insight of a first order non-stochastic linear equation.

"The Russian economy is in a recession due to lower oil prices and sanctions. In addition, long-term growth remains low given structural bottlenecks." You have to laugh. IMF knows that sanctions are tertiary to Russian recession. Oil prices are primary and structural slowdown that started in late 2012 is secondary.

"The authorities’ macroeconomic policies have helped stabilize the situation, but there remain significant uncertainties regarding oil prices and geopolitical risks. Given these risks, the macroeconomic policy stance must be prudent." In IMF-speak this means that the Russian authorities did an excellent job so far managing the crisis, but they have done it without using IMF 'advice' or 'tool kit'. Which means that, to IMF, they haven't done it as well as the IMF could have done it. Obviously. Really.

So the bad Russkies better deploy the fabled IMF's 'structural reforms' pack:

  • Stay low budget deficits (on which they really have no choice and are so far planning to do the same without the IMF 'advice'); 
  • Lower central bank rates (which they are already doing without the IMF 'advice'), 
  • Provide "limited stimulus" from the fiscal policy side (which, again, they are doing as much as they can). On Central Bank rates: to remind you, on 30 April, the CBR cut its key rate by 150bp to 12.5%. Without IMF's 'help'. I suspect the CBR will move rates below 10% by the end of 2015, unless there is a major reversal in ruble position, or if inflation reverses its (for now very fragile) moderating dynamics (inflation declined from16.9% y/y in March to 16.4% in April)... and… hold it… 
  • "Finally, re-invigorating the structural reform agenda and avoiding de-integration from the world economy remain crucial to lift potential growth." Ah, there, IMF said it… 'structural reforms'. 

In other words, IMF is clamouring for some credit in the above. Ex-post the start of Russian adjustments, IMF recommends exactly the same adjustments, so when anyone asks what did IMF do when Russia was clawing its way out of the crisis, the IMF can say: we recommended them.

Of course, another bit that fills one with wonder in the IMF statement is how can Russia 'avoid de-integration from the world economy' any differently than it has been doing to-date?

To recap last 12 months or even last 12 years: Russia initiated a huge whirlwind of 'global integration' projects and activities in Asia Pacific, the Central Asia, India and Latin America. May be these are not quite 'global' enough for the IMF? Or should Russia somehow magic up 're-integration' with the EU? Actually it is trying to do so on a bilateral basis (proposing trade sanctions relaxation with a handful of countries) and tried - unsuccessfully so far - with the EU itself. Did Russia 'de-integrate' itself out of South Stream? Did Russia de-integrate itself from joint energy projects in the Arctic? Did Russia 'de-integrate' itself from the debt and investment markets in Europe? Nope, not them - that was the EU de-integrating Russia. But Russia did continue to de-de-integrate itself in nuclear energy sector, for example, in Hungary and Finland and Turkey and elsewhere...

IMF's generalities aside, the Fund updates some of its point estimates for the Russian economy.

A month ago in its April World Economic Outlook update, IMF forecast Russian economy to shrink 3.83% y/y in 2015 and 1.096% in 2016. Now, one month later, the forecast is for the economy to shrink 3.4% in 2015 (a 0.4 percentage points improvement in one month) and post a "mild recovery" (as in positive growth) in 2016. The Fund 2015-2020 projection in April was for an average rate of growth of 0.096% and 2016-2020 average of 0.9%. This time around, the Fund is expecting a medium-term growth to be 1.5% per annum. Seems like at least someone in the Fund is starting to look at the real dynamics in the economy.

Here's more of what the Fund does get right: "Persistently low oil prices or an increase in geopolitical tensions could further weaken the economic outlook... However, in the near-term, sizeable buffers, including high international reserves, low public debt, and a positive net international investment position should help safeguard external sustainability." Yes, the risks are there. But, the idea that Russia is just going to run out of reserves by the end of this year - often repeated by numerous analysts, including some who should know better - is bonkers, unless something really massively negative happens. Which may happen. Or may not. IMF is of little help on this point estimate.

One interesting bit: "The re-pricing of the FX liquidity facilities was adequate. The central bank could consider limiting further the FX allotments to ensure that the facilities remain sufficient for emergency purposes. The announced program of FX purchases to build precautionary buffers is welcome."

Did you hear that? Yes, Russia is again building up its forex reserves. Not the stuff you normally read in the Western press. Things are short-term, for now, but Russian FX reserves bottomed out in the week of April 17th at USD350.5 billion. Last week, they were at USD362.3 billion. Again, things might change and these increases can be reversed, but when was the last time that you read in the mainstream media that the CBR is now buying dollars and euros rather than selling them?

Russia will need higher reserves. Its economy is being held back by the severe impairment to its companies access to capital markets - reaching well beyond the intended targets of the sanctions. The West, which imposed these sanctions under the explicit stipulation that they were not supposed to hurt ordinary businesses and households, is doing absolutely nothing to rectify the problem.

Meanwhile, gross fixed investment continues contracting: in March down for the 15th consecutive month at -5.3% y/y. Net capital inflows in the non-banking sector totalled USD18 billion in 1Q 2015, second weakest in 12 months period, while total net capital inflows were USD32.6 billion - second highest year-to-date. The IMF is forecasting Russian aggregate investment to drop from 21.6% of GDP in 2013 and 19.9% of GDP in 2014 to 17.6% in 2015, before recovering slightly to 17.9% in 2016. This clearly puts strong emphasis on the need to support investment activity in the economy.

The IMF does note the serious drag on medium term growth exerted by the structural weaknesses in the economy. In line with what many, including myself, have argued before, the IMF puts forward a set of very general 'directional' reforms needed:

  • "Less regulation and a reduction of the government’s role in the economy remain crucial to foster efficiency, confidence and investment". It worth noting that the Fund does suggest more and better regulation in the banking sector.
  • "…improving protection of property rights" - a perennial problem that can only be resolved over the long run
  • "…enhancing customs administration and reducing trade barriers" - a problem that is unlikely to be sorted because the Russian Government is pursuing medium-term growth strategy based on imports substitution - a strategy that, if executed correctly (a big 'if') can be quite productive
  • "…empowering the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) to eliminate entry barriers to several sectors/markets" - really a pipe dream at this stage, unfortunately.
  • "…to improve labor force dynamics in the face of negative demographic trends, pension reform should be a priority" - which is something that was well underway prior to 2014 crisis, but got derailed by the extreme demand for dollar liquidity in the system triggered by the 2014 crisis.
Can't wait to see the 70-pages-plus full report. At least it promises colourful charts, if not an incisive insight... 

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