Friday, January 6, 2017

6/1/17: Russian markets briefing transcript: November 2016

This is a transcript of my advisory 4Q 2016 conference call on Russian economy from November for Western institutional investors and advisory companies.


US Election

  • Uncertain outcome of the election implies that outlook for 
    • Highly volatile environment remains
    • Short term pause in September-November signaled lack of understanding / lack of certainty, not expectation of rapid de-escalation and are likely to be followed by re-amplification of tensions
    • European dimension is now at play, yet and unlikely to become such, especially if economic conditions in the Euro area improve
  • Key markers to watch:
    • France – 23 April 2017 Presidential election
    • Germany – remains a key driver for strong stance against Russia – Federal Election in 2017 (latest date possible is end of October)
    • Holland – Dutch General Election, March 2017
    • Italy Referendum and post-Referendum political fight
    • Eastern European position of influence in NATO is weakening, so we can expect more amplification of pressure at the EU level
    • British position in the EU is weakened by Brexit that also deflects UK attention away from Russia

Outside the US-Russia and Russia-West planes of confrontation are:

  • Turkey - fragile rapprochement with Moscow and some re-alignment of objectives ex-Syria
  • China - rebalancing in Asia Pacific, but caution on Trump
  • Ukraine - sliding into internal problems and losing US and European catalysts
  • Syria (and broader to Egypt and North Africa) - a very narrow window of opportunity to achieve some stabilisation
  • Uzbekistan and Central Asia - the unknown unknown is now a known unknown
  • Armenia-Azerbaijan - a frozen conflict that impacts peripheral issues in Turkey-Russia and Russia-Central Asia areas.

How likely are we to see short term rebalancing in the Russia-West relations?

  • Not likely as new Washington-Moscow dynamics will require some serious re-thinking and the incoming U.S. Administration will take time to weed-out – assuming the weeding-out happens at all – the remnants of ‘permanent government’ established during neo-conservative foreign policy of Bush-Obama years. Short term prospects are also at risk from the existent leadership in the Congress.

How likely any rebalancing is sustainable over time?

  • Not likely, as the two countries remain at loggerheads in geopolitical arena and the pressure points will remain, whilst trust and cooperation will be in short supply no matter what levels of positive rhetoric are attained today.
  • It will take a major re-structuring of international agreements, and long term strategies, including across the Former Soviet Union (ex-Baltics) to provide a base for trust-intensive relations.
  • Neither party currently has such capacity in place.

The real issues to watch are internal political games being played in Russia:

  1. Recent cabinet changes and Presidential Administration changes signal gradual renewal of the power vertical inside the Kremlin.
  2. Recent corruption scandals and response to these – Ulyukaev’s case is the most visible one – signal renewed push for change. This deflects public opinion away from increasingly harder to achieve wins in geopolitical strategy, and gives some breathing room for improving relations with the West. The gesture is yet to be reciprocated by the West, however, as political leadership in Europe and the U.S. is too pre-occupied with shoring up status quo distribution of power, instead of pursuing constructive normalisation of geopolitical relations.
  3. Recent Presidential statements – especially, notably, the focus of economic reforms into post-2018 election period relate to two factors
    1. This suggests that until 2018, Kremlin is likely to push for more focus on social / political measures, e.g. accelerating corruption clearing at the top and reshuffling the elites; and
    2. It also implies that until 2018 the current course (moderating the adverse impact of budgetary adjustments) will remain the main objective of policymaking.

On balance, political risks are better balanced today than they were three months ago, but catastrophic risks (major destabilization risks) still remain in place.

  • Syria is still a tough and a very dangerous game, with key players becoming more and more restless in the current stalemate:
    • Russia-Syria-Iran axis is countered by U.S.-Saudis axis that recently also gained Egypt into its ranks. Which gives the former a greater impetus to achieve some cease fire and political dialogue than before (a positive for risks), but also creates added pressure point in the already volatile environment (a negative for risks).
    • Meanwhile, Turkey is pursuing own game in Syria that serves both internal political dynamics and, potentially, threatens a destabilising momentum in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
    • All of these dynamics are extremely volatile and dangerous.


As of the end of October, inflation is running at 6.1 percent (averaging over 2016), down from 12.9 percent in 2015 and 11.4 percent in 2014. So far this year, inflation is running at the levels of 2011, tied for the lowest rate of price increases for the last 10 years. This clearly supports CBR moving down in terms of key rates.

M2 is up 12 percent y/y (end of 3Q 2016 data), strongest growth in 3 years, but below 2011 rate of increase (22.3 percent). Overall, M2 is highly volatile, so it is not exactly a signal for policy move, but on the trend, money supply aggregates support the view that CBR can move lower on rates.

Both, retail lending and deposit rates have come down in 2016 (again, data through 3Q 2016). Lending rate is down to 12.1 percent from 18.3 percent in 2014 and from 13.8 percent in 2015. Lending rates are still running above 9.3 percent average of 2010-2013. Meanwhile, deposit rates are at 6 percent, which translates into healthiest lending margins since 2008. Again, this suggests that CBR is gaining momentum on a rate cut.

What is holding CBR back from cutting from its current rate of 10 percent - reaffirmed on October 28th? 

  • CBR did not have any currency markets interventions since July 2015.  And the Ruble is trading in the comfort zone from the budgetary perspective: average through October at 62.6 against USD and 69.0 against Euro. CBR would like to keep it in this range: above 60 to USD and above 65 to Euro.
  • Uncertainty about US rates and the pace of ECB policy suggests that CBR will stay cautious, especially if there are no major blowouts on the real economy side. Lift up in US rates will be a negative for the Ruble due to oil price tie-in, and any firming up in the Euro will be a positive due to gas prices tie-in. So CBR has plenty of moving parts in the Forex equation to keep its policy balanced around 9.25-10 percent range.
  • Oil prices firming up – especially post-OPEC meeting last week – will require confirmation over time, so that is not a catalyst, yet, for moving on the rates.
  • Meanwhile, wages inflation is heating up: average wages in USD terms stood at 578 per month in 10 months through October 2016, up on 2015 average of USD553. Revised September-October figures show growth in real wages of 1.9 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively.

Net result:

Central Bank Chief Elvira Nabiullina said recently that she does not expect any rate cuts this year, and that the economy is in a stable condition. "We assume that there will be no sharp changes in the economic structure as it needs time. The growth rates will be positive, but unfortunately will remain at low levels".

Latest PMI reading for Manufacturing shows that manufacturing is gaining pace and is now running at best performance reading since 1Q 2011. Services PMI gained new momentum. Composite PMI is at its highest reading since March 2011. So indicators are good, but headline growth catalysts remain absent, especially on policy side (actually for the full range of policies: from monetary and fiscal, to structural).

A day before Nabiullina speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin requested in his state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly an ambitious plan to get the economy to growth rates above than 3 percent. The timeline for the plan implementation is after the 2018 Presidential contest.

According to the Central Bank, Russia’s GDP stopped falling in the third quarter of this year as it slowed down to 0.4 percent from 0.6 percent in the second quarter. Russia’s GDP contraction will amount to 0.5-0.7 percent by the end of the year, the regulator said. Nabiullina called on the government not to put up with the "ceiling" of the Russian economy growth at 1.5-2 percent.

Overall, the Central Bank has been the best performing Russian institution during the current crisis. It has managed extremely well both the monetary policy and the ruble flotation, while resisting pressures from the Government and various Ministries (Finance and Economic Development) for more accommodative monetary stance. The CBR also managed well the process of weeding out weaker Russian banks and shutting down banks closely tied to industrial conglomerates.

Catalysts for change:

Key catalyst for rate policy changes in 2017 will be: inflation, budgetary dynamics and Urals oil price. The CBR is also well aware of the crisis in fixed investment and the adverse impact this is having on the economic growth. Key external catalysts will be the U.S. Fed policy changes (pace and timing of tightening), and Euro area growth dynamics (external demand driver).


Despite the concerns at the start of 2016, Russian budgetary dynamics have been returning pretty strong figures, when set against the backdrop of the economy which is second year into a recession and have not seen substantial economic growth since the start of 2013.

Looking at the headline numbers, all data through October 2016, Government revenues are running at 15.3 percent of GDP, below 2015 levels of 18.5 percent and marking the lowest over the last 10 years. Government expenditures are running at 17.6 percent of GDP, also down on 21.2 percent in 2015 and also marking the lowest reading since 2007.

On the expenditure side, however, setting aside any arguments relating to fiscal investment stimulus (which is not happening, not surprisingly), 2007-2008 expenditures were averaging around 18.2 percent of GDP, which is relatively comfortable in comparison to current rate of expenditures. In other words, 17.6 percent rate of fiscal spending is not a tragic example of austerity, but against the backdrop of continued contraction in GDP and lack of investment in the economy, fiscal conservativism is not helping.

General Government balance is actually quite healthy, again compared to conditions in the economy. Current deficit is at 2.3 percent of GDP and this is an improvement on 2015 levels of 2.6 percent of GDP. The deficit remains much better than the average of 4.7 percent of GDP deficit in the recession of 2009-2010.

More problematic, however, is the longer term trend: Russian Federal Budget has now run deficits in seven of the last ten years.

Central Government debt ticked up in 2015 to 13.6 percent of GDP, and is currently (based on 3Q figures) running at around 13 percent of GDP, so there is no fiscal re-leveraging. Current debt levels are sitting comfortably below 2014-2015 levels. External debt is at 2.9 percent of GDP – hardly a serious matter when it comes to sovereign debt risks. Total quantum of external debt is currently at USD36 billion – well below 2012-2014 levels, but somewhat higher than USD30.6 billion at the end of 2015.

Oil funds and forex reserves depletion continues, but at a much slower pace.  The combination of the Reserve Fund and the National Welfare Fund – the so-called Oil Funds – currently amounts to USD103.9 billion (data through end of October 2016) down from USD121.7 billion at the end of 2015, and down from the pre-crisis peak of USD176 billion in 2013.

Forex reserves, including gold, are standing at USD390.7 billion as of the end of October 2016, and this is actually up on USD368.4 billion in Forex reserves at the end of 2015. Still, forex reserves are down from the pre-crisis peak of USD537.6 billion at the end of 2012. The uplift on 2015 came from stronger currency reserves (up ca USD12 billion y/y) and expanded gold allocations (up roughly USD14 billion y/y).

Key concerns forward are: to what extent can the fiscal policy continue constraining economic growth and how politically imports will a return to more robust (above 1.5 percent pa) growth will be in a year before the Presidential Elections?

My view is that government fiscal policy will continue to act as a drag on the economic recovery in 2017. Assuming average annual oil prices around USD53-55 per barrel range, and given the GDP forecast for a very mild expansion in 2017, government budget revenues will rise only slightly faster than inflation in 2017–2018.

The consolidated government deficit in 2015 amounted to about 3.5 percent of GDP. My expectation is that it will finish 2016 at around 3.1-3.3 percent of GDP mark. For 2017, the Government is aiming to reduce the deficit by 1 percentage point – a measure that is hard to put into place given forthcoming 2018 Presidential election.

To finance the deficit, the government can withdraw money from the Reserve Fund, and if needed, the National Welfare Fund. The combined liquid assets of the two funds stand below 7 percent of GDP.

It is, however, unlikely that Moscow will pursue more aggressive depletion of reserves in 1H 2017, as it needs to retain a safety cushion for 2018 Presidential Election year. Thereafter, with March Presidential poll looming closer on the horizon, in 3Q 2017 and especially 4Q 2017, we can expect much stronger efforts to support some growth in the economy on demand side (social spending, pensions, health and education), as well as stronger economic reforms rhetoric.


Improving conditions in the services and manufacturing sectors over 2H 2016 – as indicated by the industrial production and headline GDP figures, as well as by PMIs – suggest that the economy has indeed returned to growth. Industrial output contraction in October was just 0.2 percent y/y and there was growth of 5.8 percent m/m. However, the rate of economic expansion remains weak and growth is fragile, and subject to significant potential shocks.

The drop in economic output over the entire recession was mild once we take into the account that oil prices are currently some 60 percent down on 1H 2014. Recent rebound (or rather firming up) in oil prices is helping to bring economic growth around. However, on the negative side, the rebound in oil prices remains weak and unconvincing – as evidenced by the bounce up, followed by swift reversal in oil prices in the wake of the most recent OPEC meeting.

Another growth support factor during the recession (and throughout 2016) is the contraction in imports. Over 2014–2016, decline in imports has been steeper compared to the drop of the GDP. Imports in 1H 2016 were down by close to 10 percent y/y and cumulative decline was running at around 40 percent compared to 1H13. Much of the decline is driven by weaker ruble (down about 6 percent y/y and nearly 30 percent on the 1Q 2013 levels), but some was also arising from sanctions and counter-sanctions. While consumption goods imports drop is a short-term positive for the economy that is actively seeking breathing room for diversification (mostly via imports substitution at this stage), a drop in imports of capital equipment and technologies, as well as associated services, is a net negative for the economy.

Russian fixed capital formation (investments) – having started falling back in 2014 – continued decline in 2016. Investment is down in 1H 2016 some 4 percent y/y and some 10 percent on 1H 2014. Over the first nine months of 2016, fixed investment was down 6.6 percent y/y – slower rate of contraction than 8.4 drop recorded in 2015, but second fastest since 2009.

With ruble back at the levels last seen in 2005, private consumption slumped over the course of the recession, and is continuing contracting through 2016, with retail sales down roughly 6 percent y/y and 14 percent on the same period of 2014. October figures show return of the downward trend, with retail sales down 4.4 percent y/y. On foot of devaluations, Russian household income also contracted significantly. In addition, underemployment (reduced paid hours of work and extended unpaid leaves – practices that help sustain lower overall headline unemployment figures) also took a significant chunk out of Russian purchasing power and household investment capacity. In August, Russia recorded the steepest drop in real household incomes since 2009, the decline that started in 2014 and continued through 3Q 2016. August rate of decline was 9.3 percent y/y.

On a positive side, however, recent months saw a return of international investors to Russia. The Government announced sale of a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft to Quatar and Glencore for some USD 11.3 billion. Outside oil sector, retailers Ikea and Leroy Merlin SA are putting more money on the ground in Russia with plans to open new stores, logistics facilities and assembly plants. Ikea is investing USD1.6 billion in new stores over the next 5 years, and Leroy Merlin plans to plough USD 2 billion in new retail locations. Pfizer is in the process of building a new factory, PepsiCo is investing USD50 million in a new factory, and Mars Inc is expanding two plants. In H1 2014, foreign direct investment in Russia was running at around USD 20 billion. This fell to USD2 billion in H1 2015 and stood at approximately USD 6.1 billion in 1H 2016. In January-September 2016, FDI was up at USD8.3 billion, against FY 2015 FDI of just USD 5.9 billion.

Despite the severe headwinds, Russia is managing the macroeconomic and fiscal positions relatively well. Amidst falling growth rates in global trade and operating under sanctions, the economy is still generating current account (and balance of payments) surpluses. In May this year, the State issued USD1.75 billion worth of 10-year Eurobonds at an effective yield of 4.75 percent – the first foray into international lending markets since 2013. This comes on foot of continued declines in oil revenues. In the first eight months of 2016, oil export revenues were down 27 percent.

Public sector wages freeze and limited increases in pensions help reduce fiscal deficit, even if they impose a drag on economic growth. Still, the deficit is a significant risk factor with some projections putting FY 2016 deficit at 3.7 percent, well above the 3 percent target that Kremlin was setting in its 2014-2015 programs published in response to the Western sanctions.

The early official figures for 3Q 2016 GDP imply a contraction of 0.4 percent y/y in real terms for the full year, with 1Q-3Q 2016 decline of 0.7 percent.


Coming out of the recession, Russian economy has low growth potential with expected long-term growth rates of 1-1.5 percent per annum. The reduced potential for growth comes from adverse demographics, shrinking labor force, decline in capital investment and weak human capital investments. Low productivity growth also suppressing potential rate of economic expansion. In the short run, these factors coincide with uncertain business environment. Structural reforms are still severely lagging and corruption remains a major problem, especially when it comes to the efforts to diversify economic base. Delay in structuring and implementing significant institutional reforms, set to start after 2018 Presidential election, as well as uncertainty as to the nature of these reforms (with plans likely to start emerging in 2017) also create an unfavourable backdrop to growth scenarios.

Under my longer term outlook, Russia is unlikely to recover to pre-recession levels of GDP until 2020-2021.

In the short run (2017) we are likely to see slower contraction in investment, with 2H 2017 seeing return to positive domestic investment growth, while 1H 2017 likely to witness accelerated inflows of FDI, barring any adverse shocks. Imports will pick up in 2017, with growth of some 4-5 percent y/y. Nonetheless, current account will remain in surplus through 2017. I expect inflation to moderate from roughly 7 percent in 2016 (FY) to 5-6 percent in 2017. Still, real income are going to remain significantly depressed through 2017, as even moderate inflation will be running against extremely weak labor productivity growth. With recent increases in unemployment, as well as elevated levels of underemployment (latest figures showed an uptick in unemployment to 5.4 percent in October 2016 from 5.2 percent in September), 2017 will see some labor force slack being absorbed into new jobs creation.  This will provide some upside to household incomes.

The above scenario assumes no significant public spending or investment uplift in later part of 2017 as the Government shifts toward elections mode. The pressure on this side will come from pensions: under the new law, working pensioners (accounting for just over 1/3rd  of all pensioners) will receive zero inflation adjustment to their pensions and other pensioners are set to receive pay increases of ca 3 percent, below the inflation rate. This is likely to prompt some declines in the approval ratings for President Putin and the Government as well as some localized protests, both putting pressure on the Government to react by awarding larger pensions increases.

I expect GDP growth to come in at just above 1 percent in 2017, before rising to 1.5-1.7 percent in 2018.

Positive contributions to GDP growth in 2017 will come from:

  • Exports, moderated by the negative contribution from rising imports (in 2016, imports contributed positively to growth, while exports contributed negatively)
  • Private consumption (in 2016, private consumption was a net drag on growth)
  • Fixed investment is likely to provide zero meaningful support for growth in 2017.

The same drivers will operate in 2018, with exception for fixed investment that is expected to generate small positive contribution to growth in 2018.

On the negative side:

  • Public consumption will contribute negatively to growth in 2017 (same as in 2016) – the effect that will likely dissipate in 2018;

My outlook for the Russian economy is less optimistic than that of the World Bank which projects growth on 1.7 percent in 2017 and 2018, and more in line with the Ministry of Economic Development, which forecasts 2017 growth at 0.6 percent and 2018 growth at 1.7 percent.

All forecasts – mine, World Bank’s and Ministry of Economic Development – are based on average oil price of USD55-55.5 per barrel in 2017, rising to USD59-60 in 2018.

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