Putin 3.0: Creating hedges for the next decade?

Is Putin going to lessen the Russian dependence on stagnant European demand for oil and gas despite the favourable terms of trade and rely on the hard-bargaining China?

The Kremlin has recently announced that Vladimir Putin will be skipping the upcoming G8 meeting in the US sighting domestic concerns and will be visiting China on June 5-7 as his first foreign trip since being inaugurated as President. It is clear that Putin views Chinese demand for Russian oil and gas as a hedge against stagnant Western demand, particularly European demand for Russian exports which showed a huge 47% negative year on year variation in 2009 and is unlikely to grow at rates that will sustain the Russian economy for too long. However, China drives a hard bargain and its quest for energy security through import diversification and oil equity means that it will not accommodate for more than a minimum amount of dependence on Russian raw material linkages.

While his predecessor and protégé Dmitry Medvedev repeatedly emphasised the need for Russia to diversify away from its “primitive” focus on the oil and gas sector, Putin seems to be doggedly set on continuing his outlined profit maximisation doctrine by largely relying on the sector to fulfil social spending promises made during his election campaign. Russia recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of crude oil, and holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves.  Approximately 40 percent of the Russian Government’s tax comes from oil and gas related businesses. While Putin has been able to successfully leverage Russia’s natural resource endowments in the past, he is now faced with burgeoning structural problems including huge manufacturing sector inefficiencies, negative demographic trends, deepened socio-economic inequities and populist rebuttals to alleged systemic corruption under his oversight. 

The European Union (EU) is Russia’s biggest market and the EU also accounts for around 75 percent of FDI into Russia. According to the European Commission, Russia accounted for 47 percent of overall trade turnover in 2010; a trend which has normalised after the brief disruptions caused by the global financial crisis. However Russia’s competitive advantage with the EU is largely restricted to the trade of fuels and minerals. Even with its massive oil reserves, Russia has lagged behind in the production of petrochemicals and refined oil. While the margins earned on refined oil based products in a globally integrated oil market may not justify expansion of production facilities and there is a distinct competitive advantage in favour of the “Global South” in terms of labour costs and environmental tariffs there are few explanations for the lack of emphasis on developing a profitable export oriented petrochemicals sector in the country. It doesn’t help that the recent socio-political turmoil adds to the disincentives created for any FDI investment flowing into the country.

Indeed Russia exhibits many of the symptoms of the “Dutch Disease”, a term that broadly refers to the deleterious effects of large asymmetric increases in a country’s income, most commonly associated with discovery of natural resources such as crude oil. While there is no consensus about whether the country suffers this affliction and indeed there have been significant per capita income gains as a result of exploitation of raw material wealth, there are real and palpable threats to sustained growth that need to be proactively mitigated by the establishment. A 2007 IMF Working Paper found that some of the exhibited symptoms included a slowdown in the manufacturing sector, an expansion of the services sector and high real wage growth in all sectors. Simultaneously, oil exports have increased by close to 70 percent over the last decade and the value of exports has gone up by around 620 percent during the same time span. Russian crude oil production recently hit an all time high, and Putin is determined to maintain production levels above 10 million barrels per day (about a third of OPEC’s total production) for a “fairly long time”.

In many ways, resource based linkages have guided and defined Russian foreign policy since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Resources have also dictated Russia’s economic fortunes, which have traditionally fluctuated with the price of crude oil. Crude oil has quadrupled in value since the early 2000s, and at the same time, Russia has transitioned into becoming a Middle Income Economy with an incredible number of super-rich. It is interesting to note however, that despite the asymmetric dependence on raw material exports, Russia’s currency has been depreciating. Due to the underinvestment in the manufacturing sector and the overall lack of competitiveness of the domestic goods, import growth has tended to outpace export growth. The current account balance as a percentage of GDP has declined substantially since the mid 2000s and with structural production ceilings being hit in the oil and gas industry, there is uncertainty about where the additional export growth is going to be generated. Putin seems certain that recently announced tax breaks for upstream oil and gas exploration projects and fiscal incentives for M&A activities will help fuel this production growth. Tax breaks have been provided for offshore energy projects with Western companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Eni SpA and Statoil ASA.  Simultaneously he also plans to raise extra revenues from the resources sector to pacify some of the populist anger that is brewing through increased government spending, in particular by significantly increase extraction tax on gas suppliers.

Putin has an uphill task, to reassure foreign institutional investors of the legitimacy and stability of his political apparatus. In order to achieve competitive advantage in the export of petroleum related products, the Russian Government has ambitious goals to create six regional clusters of world class ethylene (the world’s most widely produced organic compound) production facilities and expects production capacity to reach 11.5 million tonnes per annum by 2030. This projection assumes a fundamental amount of investments and supporting infrastructure capacity building in the form of product pipelines, road and rail links. Distribution and feedstock concerns already plague the industry.

The seemingly irreversible economic meltdown in Europe must act as a trigger to stimulate new ideas and a break out of the traditional resource centric growth mindset in the Kremlin. Developing and emerging countries account for around 50 percent of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms and Russia must look to deepen integration through trade with these markets. China is but one of these and its sino-centric economic startegy may soon be an albatross around its neck. Moreover trade must be on the basis of a diversified basket of products on offer with emphasis on value addition.

The East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline which is now operational has enabled Russia to bring oil to its remote eastern coast, from where it supplies to China, Japan and South Korea. The Chinese have been actively lobbying to get all of the oil transported through the ESPO, but Russian oil companies are naturally hesitant as they are unwilling to forgo the higher margins they receive by selling to Western countries. The Russian experience with the hard bargaining Chinese must not colour their prospective engagements with other emerging and developing countries. In the next few decades, global growth will be a function of how such economies in Asia and Africa perform, and in turn, so will Russia’s economic fortunes. Putin would do well to hedge away from dependence on European demand even though terms of trade may be favourable and fall in the comforting squeeze of the Chinese option.

*Samir Saran is Vice-President and Vivan Sharan an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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