Sunday, May 10, 2009

Eastern Europe: from Slowdown to Nosedive

On 15-16 May next the EBRD – European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, founded in 1991 to assist the post-socialist transition of Central-Eastern Europe – will hold its Annual Meeting in London. The Bank “could be set for a big increase of its €20bn capital to help deal with the economic crisis” (Stefan Wagstyl, EBRD considers big rise in capital, FT, 7 May 2009 The case for capital increase is greatly strengthened by the publication, on 7 May just before the Meeting (, of the latest EBRD forecasts for 2009-2010 for all the 28 transition countries where it operates plus Turkey which was added in October 2008.

On average, in these 29 countries the EBRD forecasts a 5 per cent contraction in real GNP. Such nosedive comes after the growth slowdown from 6.9 per cent in 2007 to 4.2 per cent in 2008, and is followed by a modest recovery of 1.4 per cent, anticipated for the second half of 2010. The peak of unemployment is yet to come. These forecasts are much more pessimistic than the EBRD own forecast of January 2009, of imperceptible but positive growth at 0.1 per cent, itself a significant deterioration with respect to the November 2008 forecasts of 3.0 per cent growth, which in turn had been slashed from 5.7 in May 2008.

The latest EBRD figures are also – on average but not for Central Europe – worse than the most recent growth forecasts by the IMF, in the World Economic Outlook of April 2009, on Crisis and Recovery ( The European Commission Spring Forecasts 2009 (European Economy 3/2009, 4 May 2009, are much more optimistic about Russia (only -3.8 per cent in 2009) but more pessimistic about Hungary and Poland, and otherwise only marginally different. The forecasts of UN/DESA Monthly Briefing on the World Economic Situation and Prospects (, published on 7 May 2009, the same day as the EBRD forecasts, are consistently slightly more optimistic (The next set of forecasts, by the UN World Economic Situation and Prospects Update as of mid-2009, is to be released on 26 May 2009).

The EBRD is an institution suffering from three existential problems. It is supposed to lend to the private sector in transition economies, at commercial rates, but if it does this its existence does not make any difference. It is a public financial institution whose raison d’être is the inefficiency of public financial institutions. And we will know that it has fulfilled its mission only if and when it is liquidated.

In fact, before the crisis, the EBRD government-shareholders (about 60) were considering reducing the scale of its activity – perhaps also because of the EBRD own over-generous assessment of transition progress in its yearly Transition Reports. Now an expansion is being considered instead because of both the envisaged large scale of the recession in its countries of operation, and the need to fill the gap abruptly left by the drop in current capital inflows into the area.

There is no reason to believe that the pessimism of the latest EBRD forecasts has been exaggerated in order to strengthen the case for the Bank’s capital increase. EBRD Chief Economist Erik Berglof says that "There are downside risks to these predictions. But now there is also upside potential. Our underlying outlook assumes continued external engagement, particularly from the western parents of banks in the region." ( Such an engagement on the part of foreign parent banks in the area is an over-optimistic assumption (see below). If anything, the withdrawal of foreign parent banks from transition economies is precisely what strengthens the case for an EBRD major capital increase in the near future, already before the review of the EBRD capital is due in 2012.

Within the aggregate forecasts given above, the heterogeneous group of 29 countries naturally exhibits a highly diversified economic performance. In Central Europe and the Baltics in 2009 Poland fares best, with zero growth. At the other end of the range, all three Baltics are contracting by more than 10 per cent: Estonia (already in recession at -3 per cent in 2008) at -10.5, Lithuania -11.8, Latvia -13.2. Hungary is doing rather poorly: after stagnation at 1.1 per cent in 2007 and 0.5 per cent in 2008, its GNP is poised to fall by 5.0 per cent, with zero growth next year. On average this area’s GDP is expected by the EBRD to decline in 2009 at 2.9 per cent, and to resume growth at only 0.2 per cent in 2010. In the April 2009 World Economic Outlook the IMF was even more pessimistic, with a 3.7 per cent GNP decline, but more optimistic for Russia and the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

EBRD forecasts for South-eastern Europe show a slightly better performance: on average growth rates in 2007-2010 follow the pattern (in per cent): 6.3, 6.6, -2.2, 0.4; in 2009 Romania is worst with -4.0. Eastern Europe and the Caucasus (meaning the non Asian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, not counting Russia) in the same years exhibit actual and predicted growth of: 9.9, 5.0, -6.2, 1.3; Ukraine is expected to contract by 10.0 per cent this year and grow at a zero rate next year. Central Asia is the least affected area, with GNP growth rates of 9.2, 5.0, 0.4, 3.0 in 2007-2010. Finally, Russia is seriously affected: 8.1 and 5.6 in 2007, 2008; - 7.5 in 2009, the result of an even deeper fall in the first quarter and an expected improvement in the rest of the year; the green shoots of recovery are forecast by the EBRD at 1.0 per cent in 2010.

All these countries have either completed their transition to the market economy and their re-integration into the world economy and especially Europe (the ten new member states of 2004 and 2007, with Slovenia and Slovakia already members of the Eurozone), or have made steady and very substantial progress in that direction. What makes them so vulnerable to the pandemic financial and real crisis?

Initially, when the global crisis involved only the financial sector, transition countries – regardless of EU membership – seemed to be fairly resilient. Then, as the crisis impacted the corporate sector, they began to slowdown, and by the end of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, when domestic consumption began to be affected, they went from slowdown to nosedive.
In general the current financial crisis confronted all emerging and developing countries – including transition economies – with two shocks: “a ‘sudden stop’ of capital inflows driven by global deleveraging, and a collapse in export demand associated with the global slump” (Atish R. Ghosh et al., IMF 2009)[1]. But there are different aspects and intensities, specific to country groups, discussed both in the IMF Staff Position Note just quoted and in other papers[2].

1. Home made sub-primes. The USA sub-primes crisis of August 2007 touched only marginally the transition economies. But a large amount of domestic loans, mostly for house-purchase finance but also in the enterprise sector – and in the government sector – were originally denominated in foreign currency because the national currency a) involved much higher interest rates and b) had been stable or (with the exception of countries with a successful Currency Board: Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania) appreciating. All these loans, amounting to $250 billion in Central Eastern Europe (Auer and Wehrmuller 2009)[3] promptly became sub-prime, as soon as the domestic currency began to depreciate for the reasons indicated below. Thus Polish borrowers in Swiss Francs in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 have seen their zloty liabilities rise by 31 per cent due to the revaluation of the SF with respect to the Polish zloty.

Auer and Wehrmuller estimate that in the 10 EU member states from Central Europe total losses from private and public debt re-valuation amount to about $60bn, under 5 per cent of GDP in most countries but as much as 18 per cent and 8 per cent in Hungary and Poland respectively. The expectation that the state will ultimately bear the cost of bailing out the debtors, plus the cost born by the state on its own debt, has dramatically raised the spread on Credit Default Swaps for the eight countries for which data are available out of the ten new Member States (Auer and Wehrmuller, cit.).

The problem is serious: in 2007 in eight countries the foreign currency-denominated debt in the non-financial private sector exceeded 50% of total non-financial sector debt: Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia; over 60% in the last four of these, almost 90% in Latvia (Connelly, 2009, p.23).

2. External imbalances. Connelly (2009, cit.) considers twenty countries which he labels “Emerging Europe” (the EBRD 29 minus Turkey, Albania; Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan; Mongolia). He notes that “Emerging Europe is the only emerging market region to collectively run a current account deficit”: apart from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia in 2008 all the other countries in this group have current account deficits, of which seven over 10 per cent of GDP: Bulgaria at -21.2 per cent, Georgia -20.6, Moldova -15.3 Lithuania -13.9, Romania -13.3, Latvia -12.1, Estonia -11.2.

Sustained current account deficits lead naturally to higher external debt. But it cannot be argued that the current account deficits were the result of fiscal profligacy. Between 2000 and 2008 the number of countries running a government surplus increased from one (Russia) to five (with the addition of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan), while the deficits of another 13 countries out of the twenty reviewed by Connelly fell below 3 per cent. Thus the growth of external debt is clearly due, on average, primarily to the private sector. Yet the expected emergence of contingent liabilities and costly bail-outs reduces governments’ credibility anyway. Darvas and Pisani-Ferry (2009)[4] establish a significant correlation between the cost of credit default swaps (CDS), the insurance against default on government debt, and current account deficits. Moreover, non-Eurozone members pay a higher insurance cost, rising very much faster over time: “the crisis management in the euro area has had the unintended consequence of putting non euro-area new member states at disadvantage”. Probably, without the credibility bestowed by the euro, floating rates lead to overshooting devaluation, while fixed rates lose competitiveness to the country that maintains them and provide adverse shocks when the peg sooner or later must be altered.

3. Primary product exporters – primarily Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – until mid-2008 were in a position to run current account surpluses and accumulate foreign reserves. But in 2008 oil, gas, cotton and metals fell in price. Foreign reserves were used – wasted, we could say to some extent – to support overvalued exchange rates and to bail out financial institutions and productive enterprises. The Central Bank of Russia foreign reserves (including gold) fell from $476.4bn in 2007 to $427.1bn in 2008 and $383.9 at the end of April 2009, plus another $32bn lost by the Stabilisation Fund in the first quarter of 2009 ( , though other sources report larger losses). The EC Spring Forecasts 2009 (cited) are more optimistic than the EBRD yet expect a Russian budget swinging sharply from a hefty surplus to large deficits, of respectively 6.5% and 2.7% of GDP in 2009, due to the reduction in commodity prices and in economic activity, plus the large fiscal stimulus packages. Russia is also forecast to see major falls in both its trade and current account surpluses, respectively to 5.1% and 6.3% of GDP in 2009, and 1.4% and 2.7% in 2010.

4. Fall or reversal of FDI and portfolio investment inflows. “With net private capital flows to emerging market (and developing) countries projected to decline from an inflow of US$600 billion in 2007 to an outflow of US$180 billion in 2009, EMEs [Emerging Market Economies] are facing a severe credit crunch. Particularly affected are the countries with large current account deficits – many of which had asset price and credit booms” (Ghosh et al., 2009, p.6). Transition economies had been able to attract large and growing capital inflows thanks to privatisations at attractive prices, high interest rates net of devaluation cover or even plus revaluations, and production de-localisation thanks to low wages. These attractions have weakened, and the recession has made inflows even less attractive.

“The region [i.e. Donnelly’s Emerging Europe defined above] faces an aggregated adjusted gross external financing requirement of approximately $460bn, or around $930bn if short-term is added… The deterioration in the outlook for private capital flows to emerging markets makes ‘roll-over’ of these loans extremely unlikely, with the Institute of International Finance (IIF) projecting a fall in private capital flows to the region from around $254bn in 2008 to only $30bn in 2009” (Connelly 2009, p.4).

In these circumstances devaluations are unavoidable but steering a course between floating and pegging is hard, as we have seen above. Higher interest rates are unlikely to bring back capital in a recession. Controls on capital flows will at best stop capital flight but not bring it back, and can be counterproductive. Official financing is therefore badly needed, by the IMF in the first instance with doubling access limits, Flexible Credit Lines, and Stand-By arrangements. With additional resources, support for debt re-structuring can come from national governments, for instance converting foreign currency loans to domestic currency and compensating banks for losses, maybe only partly.

5. Foreign Banks withdrawing funds. At the inception of the transition an under-capitalised and largely insolvent state banking system was partly cleansed of what today are labelled toxic assets, re-capitalised, privatised mostly to foreign banks, and new banks were promoted, also mostly foreign. By 2006, foreign ownership in the ten New Member States, excluding Slovenia (at 22 per cent), ranges from 74 per cent in Latvia to 98 per cent in Estonia (EBRD, Transition Report 2006). Foreign banks were to provide capital and know how, and through access to foreign parent banks provide foreign exchange and in practice access to lending of last resort in the country of origin.

Today the EBRD Chief Economist still relies on “the continued external engagement, particularly from the western parents of banks in the region” (cited above). And Darvas and Pisani-Ferry (2009, cited) still argue that “Several factors have mitigated the impact of the crisis on non euro area NMS [New Member States]: … [among other things] western European ownership of NMS banks (by indirectly stabilizing their NMS subsidiaries)…” (emphasis added).

Yet the EC Spring forecasts 2009 tell a different story: “The repatriation of capital by foreign banks has been particularly abrupt in some cases. For instance, in Ukraine real GDP growth is projected to decline by 9½% in 2009, due to a severely curtailed access to external financing, which has triggered the conclusion of a stand-by arrangement (SBA) with the IMF…”. “The significant and broad-based slowdown in the CIS could have direct growth effects in Central and Eastern Europe, and the presence of EU banks in the region creates further potential negative spill-overs via the financial channel” (p.22, emphasis added). “Paradoxically, it is precisely this characteristic – strong foreign banking presence – that renders EE countries (except for the CIS) region, much more vulnerable to the present financial turmoil” (Uvalic 2009, p.4)[5]. In turn, foreign parent banks risk downgrading as a result of the declining profitability and the losses on their operations in Eastern Europe; conversely, EE countries depend on their continued financial health.

Recently the EBRD made one of its larger investments, worth a total of €432.4 million, in UniCredit subsidiaries across eight eastern European countries, to provide medium and long-term debt and equity financing through UniCredit subsidiaries in support of SMEs, lease finance and energy efficiency projects. [6] This is precisely the kind of contribution that the EBRD can make to the region’s recovery, especially if its relatively modest resources of €20bn were to be raised by 50-100 per cent.

6. Reduction in external demand. Current projections for 2009 indicate for the first time since the last War a decline in world output (-2 per cent according to the IMF) and a much larger decline in world trade, by as much as 13% (WTO), thus reducing for the first time since the War the most common measure of globalisation, the ratio between world exports and world GNP. A sizeable de-globalisation episode is taking place. Output contraction and trade are larger in the EU, with which transition economies have grown to be increasingly integrated, with EU trade shares of the order of 60-90 per cent for the New Member States and South-Eastern Europe, all characterised by high foreign trade openness, higher than that of most old members of the EU (see the table below, penultimate column). Such openness makes the transition economies opportunities of “de-coupling” from downturns in the EU rather limited (Connelly, cit., p.5). Lower trade shares involve a slowdown in manufacturing and extractive industries, and in internal demand especially in construction and financial services.

7. Differences in initial positions and policy response. “Some [countries] were ripe for a homegrown crisis associated with the end of unsustainable credit booms or fiscal policies; others were just bystanders caught in the storm” (Ghosh et al., 2009, cit., p.3; “… the majority were just innocent bystanders”, p.2).

Uncharacteristically, the IMF has recommended, to advanced economies experiencing the global recession, easing monetary policy and lower interest rates. It has also “called for a timely, large, lasting, diversified fiscal stimulus that is coordinated across countries with a commitment to do more if the crisis deepens” (Ghosh et al., 2009, p.19-20). Naturally the IMF now is forced to recommend the same policies to transition economies in crisis, though with stronger warnings about the possible side effects: “Much of the spending and revenue policy advice for advanced economies remains relevant for EMEs [Emerging Market Economies], once scaled down for their small fiscal space” (Ibidem, emphasis added).

Thus transition economies and other EMEs are reminded that looser monetary policies involve dangers of exchange rate devaluation and consequent adverse effects on balance sheets. That it is dangerous to exceed the “policy space” and especially the “fiscal space” of a country, jeopardizing policy credibility and sustainability. Changes should be gradual (however strange this now may sound coming from the IMF) and sustainable; abrupt and non sustainable changes can be particularly costly and disruptive (see Ghosh et al., 2009).

Clearly an expansionary fiscal policy “ is likely to be more effective in stimulating aggregate demand if the economy is relatively closed to trade flows, uses monetary policy to prevent or limit the appreciation of the currency, has substantial spare capacity, has a high proportion of credit-constrained households or firms, and has a sustainable public debt position” (Ibidem, p.21). Which is fair enough, except that transition economies and other EMEs are most unlikely to satisfy these ideal preconditions.

A short digression on the euro. The question here is whether early membership of the Euroarea might assist recovery in the New Member States, of which only Slovenia and Slovakia are already members. The IMF now recommends it, speaking out of turn because it is not for the IMF to recommend anything to Europe other than possibly an application to join the Euroarea on the part of those new members that meet the Maastricht conditions for membership.

Small open economies would probably gain from being part of a large currency area in times of crisis, although Slovakia (not yet a member until 1 January 2009) and the Czech Republic have done rather well being outside it. Unilateral adoption of the euro is ruled out by the EU for both members and candidates; Currency Boards reduce the probability of a crisis at the cost of making the crisis catastrophic if and when it happens (as in Argentina); European Currency Boards are not yet out of the danger zone. The European Central Bank role as Lender of Last Resort is remarkably undetermined and left to informal arrangements with Eurozone members; non-members with hyper-fixed links to the euro (unilateral euroisation or Currency Boards) might be left high and dry in times of crisis.

The EU could have well admitted at least a few other New Member States to the Euroarea, by somewhat loosening the Maastricht criteria for fiscal and monetary convergence, and the two-year membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism II. The Maastricht criteria for fiscal convergence are in theory looser than those of the so-called Growth and Stability Pact (GSP, which involves not only a 3% ceiling to government deficit but a stricter zero per cent over the cycle) applying to all EU members regardless of Euroarea membership. In practice however the GSP strictures and the associated penalties were considerably relaxed in March 2005, and further loosened during the current crisis, whereas Maastricht criteria for joining the euro have been very strictly enforced. It is unreasonable to subject countries that grow much faster than the Eurozone members and have relatively low ratios between public debt and GNP to the same fiscal stringency of stagnant and highly indebted Euroarea members (like Italy), moreover rigidly and inflexibly applied only to prospective members.

Lithuania was left out of the euro only because its inflation exceeded the average inflation of the three least inflationary EU members by 1.6% instead of the 1.5% prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty – not exactly an enlightened or rational behaviour, especially considering that two of those three least inflationary countries were not Euroarea members.

“The EU can certainly be criticised for clinging to criteria ill-suited to catching-up countries and the case for reforming them is strong” (Darvas and Pisani-Ferry, 2009, cited). See also Nuti 2006. [7] Be that as it may, the middle of a recession is not the best time to change or, worse, bend the rules as drastically as it would be required by early admission of all or most New Members to the Euroarea. End of digression.

The heterogeneity of country experiences is pithily and efficiently synthesised by one-liners from two sources. The first is a table on Fourteen ways to slowdown from The Economist, 26 February 2009 (

Fourteen ways to slowdown (italics=pegged to euro; underlined=in euro area)
Country...person*..rating#..% of GDP°..Exports§............In a nutshell
Belarus...12,344.... B+...........7.3...........62.1.Autocratic, isolated, gained surprise IMF bailout
Bulgaria..12,372.....A...........29.4...........61.0 Strong finances back currency peg; sleaze rampant
Czech R...25,757....AA.......... 9.4...........80.1 Thrifty and solid but hit by export slowdown
Estonia...20,754....AA.........20.0 ..........72.0 Star reformer squeezes spending to stay afloat
Hungary.19,830.....A ..........29.9..........80.2 Currency crush could topple debt-heavy economy
Latvia.....17,801....BBB........24.3..........46.6 Clinging to currency peg amid turmoil & downturn
Lithuania.18,855....A+ ........27.1...........59.0 Painful spending squeeze to avoid worse
Poland....17,560.....A+.........13.2..........42.3 Regional heavyweight speeds up euro bid
Romania.12,698...BBB+.......20.2.........36.4 Spendthrift policies meet solid reality
Russia....16,161....BBB..........2.2...........31.7 Energy-based kleptocracy in denial about crisis
Serbia... 10,911......BB-........23.5..........22.2 Seeking more IMF help
Slovakia.22,242....AAA......12.5...........90.5 Smugly in euro-area, hit by car-factory slowdown
Slovenia.28,894...AAA..........-.............70.5 Self-satisfied, rich and still growing
Ukraine....7,634...CCC+......16.1..........45.0 No end in sight to political and economic chaos

* PPP$, 2008 estimate. # Standard & Poor’s, latest. ° Current account balance, principal due on public and private debts plus IMF debits, 2008 estimate. § Goods and services, % of GDP, 2008 estimate. Sources: IMF; Moody’s; Economist Intelligence Unit; The Economist.
From: Sarah Hanson, The whiff of contagion, The Economist, 26 February 2009. (Corrected in the 5 March 2009 issue).

The second source is the EC Spring Forecasts 2009 (cited), whose country chapters for transition economies (EU member states, candidate states and Russia) have the enlightening subtitles listed below:

Bulgaria: Vanishing budgetary surplus, external deficit remains large.
The Czech Republic: Output falls sharply driven by collapse in external demand.
Estonia: Adjusting to face gloomier years.
Latvia: Domestic demand and trade implode.
Lithuania: Deepening recession leads to wider fiscal deficits.
Hungary: Domestic financial crisis magnifies recession.
Poland: Mild recession knocking at the door.Romania: Growth contracts sharply.
Slovenia: Sharp falls in exports and investment point to competitiveness challenges.
Slovakia: Global downturn weighs on exports.
Croatia: a declining economy creates important fiscal challenges.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Joining the general trend … albeit with a delay.
Turkey: Manufacturing faltering as exports decline.
Russian Federation: The first recession in a decade.

In the 1990s an unexpected, deep and protracted recession characterised the post-socialist transition of Central-Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, with GNP decline ranging from 18 per cent in Poland over three years, to 65 per cent in Moldova over ten years. The decline may be slightly exaggerated especially at the top of the range, for well known reasons, but a reliable and unbiassed observer such as Bob Mundell reckons that the transition recession was not just deeper than the 1929 crisis, it was deeper than the recession that accompanied the Black Death in the 14th century, because then income fall was matched by population fall and living standards were preserved.

By comparison the current recession must be barely perceptible to the populations of transition countries. And at least this time they are benefiting not only from more generous assistance from the international community, but from more enlightened policies of monetary easing and low interest rates, fiscal subsidies and expansion, large scale state intervention – all policies diametrically opposite to the draconian hyper-liberal policies that contributed so much to aggravate the transition recession and the other costs of transition in the 1990s. Only two things have really changed since then: today the hyper-liberalism that inspired the course of transition in the 1990s has been thoroughly discredited by the global crisis associated with it, and the predicament of transition economies is vastly improved simply because they happen to share it with the advanced countries that control international financial organisations.

[1] Atish R. Ghosh, Marcos Chamon, Christopher Crowe, Jun. I. Kim, and Johnathan D. Ostry, “Coping with the Crisis: Policy Options for Emerging Market Countries”, IMF Staff Position Note, SPN/09/08, 23 April 2009,
[2] . See for instance Richard Connolly, “Financial vulnerabilities in Emerging Europe: An overview”, Bank of Finland Institute of Transition-BOFIT Online No. 3, 4 May 2009,
[3] Raphael Auer and Simon Wehrmuller, $60 billion and counting: Carry trade-related losses and their effect on CDS spreads in Central and Eastern Europe, 29 April 2009
[4] Zsolt Darvas and Jean Pisani-Ferry, The looming divide within Europe, Breugel, 18 January 2009,
[5] Milica Uvalic, “The impact of the global financial crisis on Eastern Europe”, Conference Paper, Bol (Croatia), 21-23 May 2009.
[6] “UniCredit is the largest banking group in the central and eastern European region, with over 4,000 branches in 19 countries. The group has invested around €10 billion of equity in central and eastern Europe and has around €85 billion of total customers loans in the region. Beside its own funding programs to its subsidiaries, it cooperates with international institutions including the EBRD in order to ensure continuing support to the local economies during these challenging times.” (from the EBRD website,
[7] D. Mario Nuti, "Alternative fiscal rules for the new EU Member States", TIGER-WSPiS Discussion Papers n. 84, Warsaw, 2006, .


D. Mario Nuti said...

I had an exchange of e-mails about this post with Professor Phil Hanson, of Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. I am authorised to report on that exchange.

From Phil Hanson: “That's very thoughtful and useful. One trivial point, for the moment: in Russia the Reserve Fund and Fund of National Prosperity (descendants of the stabfond [Stabilisation Fund]) count as part of the forex reserves, so a fall in the Reserve Fund is not additional to a fall in total reserves (though Russian media reporting never seems to reflect this). [DMN: I have corrected this in the post]

I've been trying to understand a related question: why are the 2009 forecasts for Russia, including those of the Russian government, so dire when Russian public finances and balance of payments are so strong, even private-sector external debt is modest and the banking system, though entering a shake-out, is not in such bad shape according to recent stress-tests? It strikes me as odd, for example, that Saudi Arabia can take a much bigger fiscal hit (as % GDP) from the oil-price fall than Russia and yet be expected to show only a slight decline in GDP.

The most I've been able to come up with, after comparisons with other oil exporters and other BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China](but not with other ex-communist countries) is that there seems to be exceptionally fragile confidence in Russian institutions. This is exemplified by the Russian corporate sector's concurrent gross capital flight plus external borrowing, and the (conjectured) propensity of both Russian and foreign investors to treat changes in the oil price as THE key signal of the health of the Russian economy”.

D. Mario Nuti: “You pose some very good questions. A list of possible reasons for the relative Russian/Saudi performance could include on the Russian side:

- an overvalued rouble exchange rate, supported by foreign reserves losses too large to be sustainable;

- not "a weak domestic capital market", probably a blessing in disguise at this particular point,

- "borrowing abroad and parking own funds offshore" very likely.

- 33bn assets outflows from Russia in the last quarter of 2008 (see Piroshka Nagy and Stephan Knobloch, BIS data on cross-border flows - a closer look on the brand new EBRD Blog

- I don't know about pensions. A few years ago I looked at their reform projects in considerable detail (on a project with Mikhail Egonovich Dmitriev, First Deputy Minister for Labour and Social Affairs) - that's when their Pay As You Go system was characterised as "First You Pay And Then You Go".

Phil Hanson: My conjecture about especially fragile confidence in Russian institutions is offered as a reason why we saw outflows like those reported by Nagy/BIS [Bank of International Settlements] of $33bn. But why should confidence be so especially weak with respect to Russia? The current global picture seems to me to be full of phenomena that look anomalous. If you take the Economist's record of stock-market indexes around the world from 1/1/08 through 31/12/08, China shows the biggest fall, closely followed by Russia (both $-denominated). In most other respects the China and Russia stories are very different. And Saudi takes a bigger fiscal hit than Russia and has much less transparent public finances and oil and gas are a larger share of GDP, but isn't expected to take anything like the expected GDP knock that Russia is believed to face. I wonder whether the consultant-optimists (notably Evgenii Gavrilenkov at Troika Dialog and Christopher Granville at Trusted Sources) might be right about Russia in 2009 (small increase year on year) and everyone else (IMF, WB, OECD, EC, EBRD -- am I leaving anyone out?) might be wrong.

Russian state pensions: the effort to open up the state pension system to participation by privately-managed pension funds seems to have achieved very little and commitments to raise many state pensions in 2010 add to the burden on the budget.

D. Mario Nuti: If one scraped the bottom of the barrel of all possible reasons, I suppose there is a perceived change in Russian policy towards what you call statism, perceived change rather than actual level being the relevant factor.

China does not have a foreign exchange market, just try to buy or sell renmimbi on a large scale, the Central Bank of China decides the exchange rate, period.

Have you checked for competitiveness, looking at wage trends relatively to productivity?

Is there much foreign capital in Saudi Arabia, both as stock and flows (this is not a rhetorical question, I just don't know but if I had to bet I would think there is more in Russia).

Maybe the optimists are right, as you suggest. But optimists about Europe are being shown wrong (Germany -3.8% not year on year but in the first quarter 2009 alone, see of 15 May). And Latvia has just reported -18% in the first quarter of 2009, year on year.

Russian pensions: probably another case of blessing in disguise, or the advantage of under-development and under-reforming.

Phil Hanson: The additional questions you raise, Mario, are v. helpful. Will pursue. Please by all means put my points -- attributed is fine -- on to the blog.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Professor Kaz Poznanski, of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, writes:
"This was very helpful. How would transition economies finance their stimulus programs if tried? Can they sell bonds or go to open market? It appears that transition economies go for major wage cuts. This would be like devaluation. How much this would help?"

Good question.

Transition economies are much less indebted - both domestically and internationally, privately and publicly, than other European economies. They have more "fiscal space" (in IMF jargon) and they could and should use it. It might mean printing money (=government selling bonds to the Central Bank thus raising the monetary base). Central bank independence does not seem to stop Ben Bernanke or Trichet, why should it stop the President of the National Bank of Poland - if the government wanted a fiscal stimulus. The trouble is that Jacek Rostowski, the Polish Minister of Finance, is an ultra-conservative who does not want to do it - for the time being.

Wage cuts and devaluations work in an open economy if demand and supply elasticities are right, but do not work if they are competitively adopted by all countries. Unemployment as a world problem - as Keynes taught us - is unlikely to be solved by worldwide wage cuts.