Banks in trouble despite economy

The possibility of financial crisis in late January and early February 2008 brought falls in the Russian exchanges and, for many, fear of a repetition of the 1998 domestic financial turmoil. That crisis saw the Russian government default on state bond interest payments and allow commercial banks to do the same on their debt repayment. Many banks - and the companies and individuals who held accounts in them - were ruined.

As the 1998 crisis was partially provoked by the meltdown of the Southeast Asian exchanges, Russian banks and private individuals had more reason than most to be alarmed at the news of early 2008.

But maybe they needn't have worried.

Some time ago, experts sat down to map out possible doomsday scenarios for the Russian economy, and they found it surprisingly difficult. They concluded that even extreme and sudden shocks - such as oil prices plunging to $20 a barrel overnight - were unlikely to cause a serious crisis in the Russian economy.

Indeed, finance minister Alexei Kudrin has declared that Russia is in such a sound financial position that it might even offer assistance to other countries.

What is actually going on with the Russian economy?

The first thing to say is that it is not an homogeneous economy. Roughly, it can be divided into two sectors: one producing goods that are tradable in foreign markets, and the other turning out non-tradable commodities. Their interests do not necessarily coincide - they have very different opinions about the value of the rouble, for example.

Second, the country's economic potential has increased exponentially in recent years. In the past decade, when prices for Russian energy exports were low compared to present-day prices, the government had to borrow abroad. It has since paid its debts, and accumulated "surplus" export revenues into a "stabilisation fund", now worth some $150bn.

Third, the situation in the commercial sector is quite different. Salaries and wages in Russia are comparatively low, and the market for savings tools - meaning the banking sector as a whole - remains underdeveloped. There is a chronic shortage of investment capital and banks cannot fulfil the task expected of them, which means companies seeking investment are obliged to borrow abroad. As a result, the inflow of capital (and the ensuing growth in the commercial sector's external debts) reached almost $100bn in 2007.

For Russian banks, as for their competitors abroad, the era of plentiful, accessible and cheap liquidity is now ending. They will have to become much more efficient if they do not wish to perish in the harsh new conditions taking hold of international finance. Indeed, as banks can make use not only of their customers' deposits or foreign loans, but also government funds, some of them may become state property.

So we may say that there are several vastly different processes underway in Russia. On the one hand, the government now has economic instruments to use in foreign economic relations. On the other, the domestic financial market is in a stage of restructuring, which brings with it unavoidable contradictions and specific problems. Russians have no real reason to fear a major economic crisis, but perhaps foreigners should not hope for Russian financial assistance either.

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