Crisis comes just in time for Russia

By bne IntelliNews March 10, 2009

bne -

"This crisis came just in time for Russia," says Christopher Granville, the founder of consultancy Trusted Sources. The international crisis has hurt Russia badly, but the damage it could have done if the meltdown came a year later would have been far worse, he argues.

Russia's detractors describe Russia as a mono-economy: its wealth is all due to oil and gas exports, and little else. True, but this ignores what Russia has done with its oil revenue windfall.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has managed to fend off enormous pressure from the Duma, Russia's parliament, to spend the $560bn that had accumulated in the reserve fund as of September. The bulk of the money was squirreled away in a reserve fund - an unusually prudent policy for a petro-economy.

Oil money was used to subsidise the rest of the economy, where corporates enjoy low taxes and the state has been investing in badly needed infrastructure. Not even the oil companies had access to the profits from sky-high oil prices last year. "As most of the oil windfall was accumulated in the reserve fund, companies were forced to borrow on the international capital markets to raise money for their investment needs - the oil money wasn't touched," says Granville. "As the crisis hit, the state's reserves were slightly more than the total external borrowing by companies and banks. But if the crisis had come a year later, companies would have over-borrowed and this crisis would have been far worse."

According to the Central Bank of Russia, total external debt was some $527bn as of September, against total reserves of $560bn. In other words, every dollar of debt was covered by $1.06 of reserves. And of that debt, only an estimated $160bn is due to mature this year, which should be a more than manageable number, even after reserves fell to just under $400bn as of the start of March.

The state is now spending its rainy-day reserves to bolster the economy. The trick will be to spin the money out until oil prices go back above about $60, say analysts, at which point Russia Inc. goes back into profit. Predicting oil prices is a mug's game, but currently the consensus is the cost of a barrel could be over $60 sometime next year, well before Russia runs out of money.

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