Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 28, 1999
Something surprising has happened to the Russian economy. A year ago, Russia faced an awful financial collapse. It defaulted on its treasury bills, and the stock market fell by 94 percent from its peak in October 1997. The ruble has devalued to one quarter of its prior value. Half of Russia's banks closed down, and many Russians lost their savings, while living standards fell by some 30 percent. In September, inflation swung up to 38 percent a month, and industrial production plummeted by 15 percent. Russia seemed to have entered a free economic fall. Both GDP and industrial production fell by 5 percent in 1998, and the IMF forecast a further decline in GDP of 9 percent in 1999.
But now everything has changed. Russia is turning around. Industrial production has recovered month by month. It surged by 6.1 percent in May, and it is heading towards a growth of at least 5 percent this year, though GDP might barely rise as many services are contracting with domestic consumer demand. While Russian statistics remain poor, the reversal is too great to be in doubt.
The most obvious reason for the sudden upturn is the devaluation, which caused an instant halving of imports and made exports cheaper, and the rising oil price. However, the industries that have grown the most are not raw materials but intermediary goods, such as chemicals, pulp, paper, and construction materials, and some manufactured goods, notably microbiology, pharmaceuticals, machinery, textiles, shoes, glass and porcelain. The expansion for some products exceeds 30 percent in a year, while other industries continue to contract.
You see the effect in the streets of Moscow. Suddenly, good Russian produce is everywhere, while Moscow used to live to 80 percent from imports. Moscow had many good, expensive restaurants, but now plenty of good cheap eating places have surfaced, as limited demand forces Russian producers to penetrate all markets and not only skim the markets of the rich as before.
Much has been written about the barterization of the Russian economy, but since August 1998 this tendency has been reversed. The share of barter in inter-enterprise transactions fell from 54 percent then to 46 percent in January, and partial evidence suggests that it has plummeted below 40 percent. For instance, in December 1998, the Russian utility giant Unified Energy System collected 20 percent of all payments in cash, but in May, this share had risen to 32 percent. Russians have started using money as everybody else, and the virtual economy is dwindling.
Similarly, the infamous inter-enterprise arrears are swiftly contracting, as enterprises force each other to pay. The big enterprises pay ever more of their taxes in real money rather than in promissory notes of dubious value. The notorious wage arrears have declined steadily every month since October 1998. There is no longer any escape for patent loss-makers who are forced into bankruptcy, while sound enterprises expand in their place. The number of bankruptcies has multiplied in a year, while the number of profitable enterprises has increased greatly, as a radical differentiation is occurring between successful and failing enterprises, signifying radical enterprise restructuring.
Evidence is plentiful. A qualitative breakthrough is taking place, and not only a temporary improvement caused by devaluation and higher oil prices. The financial crash did bring about fundamental change in the Russian economy. My suggestion is that the financial crisis at long last made the hard budget constraint credible. The very fierceness of the financial crash convinced everybody that there was no longer any free money, but enterprises had to manage on their own.
The financial crash eliminated all kinds of free money. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank no longer offered the government cheap credits. Foreign portfolio investors, who contributed a capital of 10 percent of GDP in 1997, were scared away. As the government had defaulted on its domestic treasury bills, no government bonds found takers. Initially, the Primakov government tried some monetary financing, but it soon realized that it only led to high inflation. There was no way to raise taxes or state revenues significantly. Therefore, the government has been forced to cut public expenditures by 5 percent of GDP this year. Finally, the bank crash eliminated the problem of irresponsible bank credits. Russian entrepreneurs realized that they had to sell products that could be sold on the market at a profit. Russia's problem was not at all a lack of demand or credit, but on the contrary the absence of a demand barrier.
The Russian bank system turns out to have been more harmful than useful. Contrary to expectations, the payments system functions much better after the worst half the bank system has bankrupted. After all, Russian banks did not instill enough confidence to attract much deposits, and they had neither the necessary information nor skills to lend sensibly. While bankruptcies often are fraudulent, the key is that the worst villains are forced to close down.
The international financial institutions seem to have provided more moral hazards than effective conditionality in the last few years. Wisely, they have now withdrawn to foreign debt management and some refinancing rather than to provide mega credits.
The Primakov government was remarkably passive. The best that can be said about it is that it maintained political calm in a period of an unprecedented drop in living standards. Poverty has doubled and open unemployment has risen to 14 percent, but those hardest hit by the financial crash was the new upper middle class, leading to a drastic decline in income differentials. However, the Primakov government tried to launch communist policies, such as price and currency controls, but it failed and found little money to dole out. Its very passivity underlined the reality of the hard budget constraint.
Ironically, the financial crash provided the shock therapy under communist aegis that the Russian reformers failed to deliver. In the last two decades, Poland has gone through two financial crashes, which today look like preconditions for Poland's current success. The Russians' sense of humiliation has brought a new seriousness and long-term thinking that are necessary for a real turnaround. For Russia's sake, let us only hope that it will not be drowned in an excessive inflow of international capital again.