Russia's capital flight - myths and reality

By bne IntelliNews May 18, 2012

Ben Aris in Moscow -

Commentators have blamed the reappearance of capital flight from Russia on fear, assuming that oligarchs, terrified of political uncertainty, are moving their money to safer havens in Swiss bank accounts or buying posh apartments in London. There is a little bit of truth to this - but not much.

Money has been flowing out of Russia in the last year for the first time since the chaos of the 1990s. In 2011, a total of $80bn left the country with another $35.1bn departing in the first quarter of this year. Much of this has been blamed on the rising political uncertainty in the country since the demonstrations that began in December against the ruling Kremlin-backed United Russia party's disputed win in parliamentary elections and the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency.

However, the irony is that the real driver behind the capital flight is more a function of Russia's booming economy than fear.

Banking blues

The biggest culprit was not the oligarchs, but foreign banks with branches in Russia, which accounted for half of all the money that left - some $40bn. The banking sector in the West is in deep crisis and many western banks are actually walking zombies with heavy unrealised debt on their books.

Like an alcoholic father, western banks are desperate for cash to shore up their balance sheets and have been borrowing from their Russian daughters. Half of last year's outflows - some $40bn - was down to Russian subsidiaries lending to their western parents, according to Prosperity Capital Management's chief economist, Liam Halligan. The sums got so big that the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) called in the heads of foreign banks and told them to down tone the lending or else it might impose restrictions.

A second big source of outflows has been wrought by the economic changes the 2008 crisis has created. Before the bust, it was cheaper and easier to borrow abroad, but post-crisis both interest rates and inflation have fallen to 20-year lows, meaning many Russian companies are starting to refinance in rubles rather than in dollar-, sterling- and euro-denominated debt. Add to this the very real risk of a systemic collapse of the western banking system and this rebalancing of credit portfolios is accelerating as things get worse in Europe. For once Russia's financial system is looking a lot more stable than that of Western Europe. Just two companies - the state-owned gas monopolist Gazprom and oil company Bashneft - between them repaid $6bn of foreign debt in 2011, or nearly a tenth of the total "capital flight."

Thirdly, Russian companies are starting to hit their stride and are increasingly investing abroad. Unknown to most people, Russia has always been a net exporter of capital: Russian companies routinely invest more in other countries than Russia attracts as foreign investment. The difference now is that whereas in the past they invested in places like Kazakhstan and Ukraine, now they are big enough to move into developed markets: oil company TNK-BP spent $772m on a Brazilian oil and gas stake; Sberbank bought Austria's Volksbank for $585m; and technology company Digital Sky Technologies spent $563m for a 10% stake in Twitter in 2011.

In general, Russian companies with branches abroad - and there are an increasing number of these - are reinvesting their earnings locally, which the CBR also counts as "capital flight," when actually this "outflow" is simply a function of success.

The detailed breakdown of the CBR's data suggests that the other half of the "capital flight" is mostly loan refinancing and overseas M&A, which means the "true" capital flight is tiny.

Finally, it only remains to point out that if Russia has become such a scary place to do business, then why was foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2011 up by over a quarter from the year before to $49bn? Indeed, in terms of FDI per head, Russia attracted twice as much money as Brazil, five-times more than China and 13-times more than India between 2006 and 2010.

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