As a country that has experienced a number of harsh economic shocks throughout its history, Russia constantly lives in anticipation of a new crisis. Recently, however, economists and investors around the world have been actively discussing the possibility of a crisis as a fairly likely scenario in the near future. Are there any real grounds for these discussions? And what might the consequences for Russia be?
Objective and Subjective Problems of Global Economy
The three main global economic powerhouses – the United States, the European Union and China – are all currently facing serious (albeit different) problems.
At first glance, it would appear that the U.S. economy is in excellent shape: GDP has been growing faster than the average for developed countries over the past several years, unemployment is low and continues to decline, and the stock market keeps setting new records. However, everybody agrees that this positive phase of the business cycle has lasted for too long and should end soon for objective reasons. A similar situation was observed in the United States in the mid-2000s, which gave rise to a popular optimistic belief in the omnipotence of macroeconomic policies that make it possible to overcome the cyclic nature of economic dynamics. These illusions were dispelled by the “Great Recession,” the most significant global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nowadays, most economists believe that the current steady growth has been stimulated by measures (from the milder monetary policy to efforts aimed at bringing jobs back to the country) whose flipside is sure to manifest itself soon.
The EU economy has yet not fully recovered from the aftermath of the Great Recession. One unpleasant development that Europe has faced in 2019 has been the evident slowdown in the GDP growth of Germany, which has been pulling the European economy forward for several years.
China’s economy has been slowing down for many years now, even though its growth rate remains relatively high at over 6 percent annually. A number of serious problems are worsening against this background, such as excessive corporate debts (of at least 260 per cent of GDP); the spread of “zombie companies” which are effectively non-competitive but are artificially kept afloat for the sake of the jobs they provide and their formal contribution to manufacturing; and signs of a cyclical slowdown. In addition, some experts believe that if the United States keeps true to its threat to introduce import duties on Chinese commodities, China stands to lose a hefty sum of between 0.5 percent and 1.0 percent of its GDP.
Given that the three economic powerhouses account for over one half of global production and play a defining role in the financial markets, the aforementioned problems alone are cause enough to be concerned about the stability of the global economy. Under current conditions, the danger is aggravated by the fact that problems experienced by each of the three giant economies instantaneously spread across the world and hit everyone including even the most remote countries. In better times, this globalization trend may be positive, as each individual economy’s growth generates a demand for the products of other countries, thus stimulating global production. However, in anticipation of an economic recession, the situation resembles a ship with all its bulkheads removed, so a breach in any of its compartments may sink the entire ship.
In addition to the abovementioned objective challenges, there are also artificial problems that arise from discord between the economic giants. The global leaders have recently been actively exchanging threats and blows. This process is mostly down to the behavior of the United States, which is trying to reinstate what it views as fair rules of the game in the world economy. The list of Washington’s demands, primarily of China, is long: dismantling unjustified barriers to U.S. commodities, observing intellectual property rights, switching to a market-based exchange rate of the yuan, and so on. The resultant trade and currency wars hamper mutually beneficial trade while also (and more importantly) making the economic situation less predictable and therefore very risky. This, in turn, leads to a decline in trade, investment, and production.
The main instrument that central banks use to mitigate the negative effects of fundamental factors and “economic wars” is to ease monetary policies. However, in the current situation, this brings only limited results: history tells us that an economy may react positively to switching from restrictive to stimulating measures, but its reaction to a further easing of an already mild policy is very insignificant. In addition, carrying on with excessively mild monetary policies for any protracted period of time robs central banks of their last available ways to kick-start the economy should it grind to a halt.
It is difficult to predict exactly when the current relatively favorable situation in the global economy will worsen dramatically. A year ago, many economists confidently stated that a new crisis would break out in the first half of 2019. The date was later moved back to the second half of this year, and now experts are talking about 2020. This does not mean that the forecasters are not competent enough to make such predictions, rather than the issue is objectively complex.
First, investor behavior is subject to changing moods and “herd behavior.” So-called “self-fulfilling prophecies” play a key role in crisis mechanisms, when crises develop more as a result of the expectations of market players than due to real circumstances. In the face of danger, investors become particularly wary of any early signals in order to switch to safe assets before share prices fall. In general, we may assume that a new crisis could emerge very swiftly, suddenly, and come from an unpredictable direction.
Second, and no less importantly, economic leaders are guided by a range of diverse motives, which makes their behavior difficult to predict. It appears that in its trade disputes the United States is not only protecting its immediate economic interests but also fighting to secure its role as the leader of the global economy in a situation when China has already overtaken it in terms of GDP incomparable prices (in terms of purchasing power parity). On the other hand, President of the United States Donald Trump has to take the upcoming presidential election into account: he cannot afford to see the stock market plummet ahead of the polls.
Given the existing conditions, we may assume that the current relatively tranquil and favorable state of the global economy will most likely worsen considerably in the next 18 months to two years. In fact, this could happen much earlier, but the probability of such a scenario is considerably lower. Let me put it this way: in my opinion, the chances of the “bad times” happening within the next six months do not exceed one to five, even though such a development cannot be absolutely ruled out.
The next question is what form these “bad times” will take: that of a relatively benign “soft landing” or of a “hard-landing.” In the former case, we should expect a slowdown of the global economy and trade, a drop in stock markets, and capital flight to the most stable or trusted countries. In the latter case, the consequences may prove much more serious, including a global GDP slowdown, a series of defaults and bankruptcies and skydiving prices of raw materials.
As things stand, the “soft-landing” scenario appears more probable, at 60/40.
Consequences for the Russian Economy
Formally, the Russian economy appears to be prepared for a crisis. Russia has a relatively low public debt, significant gold and foreign currency reserves, and a budgetary “safety cushion” in the form of the National Wealth Fund. Coupled with a significant double surplus (a positive external balance plus a surplus budget), this gives the country a safe margin of macroeconomic safety. However, practice indicates that such a margin may mitigate the consequences of economic shocks, but does not eliminate them entirely.
Russia was able to use its reserves during the 2008–2009 and 2014–2015 crises, which helped to considerably mitigate the social consequences of the recessions. This is in stark contrast to the 1998 crisis when such reserves were virtually unavailable to the state. In 1998–1999, real average wages in the economy shrank by nearly a third and pensions dwindled by over 40 percent. This contrasts with 2009 when income losses proved much smaller and the level of pensions even grew. At the same time, despite Russia’s available macroeconomic reserves, production volumes noticeably declined in the course of the latest two crises. This can be explained by insufficient levels of confidence among the business community: in crisis situations, business relies on itself and, until the situation becomes clear, lowers investments and reduces discretionary expenses on materials and components.
On the whole, given that external turbulence affects the Russian economy through two main channels (through trade, which is affected by declining prices of oil, gas and metals and by shrinking demand for all exports; and through finance, which is affected by an increase in net capital flight), we may predict that a global economic recession or crisis will result in a slowdown of Russia’s GDP, a slump in the rouble exchange rate, a hike in inflation and a reduction in real incomes. Employment will suffer to a lesser extent: the Russian labor market is rather flexible, which allows for minimal layoffs and subsequent fast recovery of employee numbers. Unlike Greece and Spain, where unemployment hit 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively, after the Great Recession and currently stands at 19 percent and 15 percent, respectively, unemployment in Russia during the same period only grew to 8 percent and declined to below the pre-crisis level by 2012.
The consequences of external shocks grow ever weaker for the Russian economy over time, as the country is improving the quality of its macroeconomic policy (including thanks to the 2014 transition to a floating exchange rate). That said, much still needs to be done if the Russian economy is to become even less dependent on external factors:
- Diversify industrial production by reducing the share of raw materials in exports.
- Improve the real ability of the real sector to react to market pricing signals in order to take full advantage of the lower exchange rate;
- Increase the confidence of businesses in the current economic policy.
Of course, these targets can only be achieved in the long term.