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Sunday, March 20, 2022

Economic stress in Russia

by Ajay Shah.

The Russian economy has faced a series of adverse shocks after the invasion of Ukraine:

  • Many de facto restrictions have emerged upon international trade,
  • Many foreign companies have chosen to pull out or restrict activities in Russia, spanning non-financial and financial firms,
  • Many individuals living in Russia have chosen to emigrate; these are likely to be high skill people.

We may think it is not hard for Russia to absorb these shocks. After all until 1991 it was the USSR, a land of central planning and autarky. We think they will just go back to those ways. However, the recent events are likely to impose substantial costs for the Russian economy.

Russia is no longer a centrally planned economy

It sounds funny, in today's world, to think of officials owning a target for exports, to think of officials making calculations about how much steel will be required in the light of what the five-year plan has envisaged for building railway lines. But that non-market mechanism for thinking and allocating resources did exist in the USSR (as it did in India).

That institutional capacity has been lost after 1991, and it cannot be quickly recreated. Now, Russia is a capitalist economy. The shocks will be dealt with by the price system in its usual ways.

Disruptions in the price system

Within the domain of the price system, trade and FDI have a deep influence upon the structure of production. Every modern economy involves millions of decisions about what to produce and how to produce. These decisions are made in a decentralised way, and millions of contracts are in place that govern the purchases and sales of each firm.

When 10% or 30% of these relationships are disrupted, it adds up to a storm in the economy. Yes, production can be reconfigured in a self-reliant way (and self-reliance will always induce greater poverty), but that takes time. There is a period of extremely volatile prices, of shortages, where every firm is cautiously waiting for the dust to settle before establishing a new set of self-reliant contracts. Millions of negotiations have to take place, to get a new set of production relationships going. There is a learning process where some contracts fall into place, and then prices change, and then once again some contracts are disrupted or renegotiated, and so on.

When the price system is humming, it is a marvel to behold, and when it is disrupted, getting back to normalcy (even the low level normalcy of self-reliance) is hard.

In the case of Russia, foreign goods and foreign technology are particularly important. They are an economy organised around selling natural resources and importing everything else. Hence, cutting off ties to the rest of the world will be particularly painful. Russia is more like Saudi Arabia and less like India in this regard.

Finance is the brain of the economy

Every real sector decision is shaped by finance. To get to the correct decisions in the real sector, we need finance to be operating correctly.

Russian finance is not operating correctly. The Moscow stock exchange was closed down on 25 February. For a month, the economy has not known stock prices. It is difficult for managers to make real sector decisions without the direction that stock prices provide. Conversely, the lack of observation of stock prices induces private decision makers to wait and see.

The credit market is also disrupted. Foreign banks have a position of about $120 billion (about 8 per cent of GDP) and are downgrading or exiting their role in the economy. Many borrower firms have a cashflow crisis owing to fluctuations in the economy, and would default on banks. A large scale banking crisis is likely. These fears, in turn, would hamper the ability of banks to fund real sector firms in rebuilding for a world of self-reliance.

The mind of the firm

In this thinking, it's important to go into the minds of the key persons of Russian firms. They are debating and thinking to themselves: Will I default on debt? What will happen when there is a default? What will input and output prices be a year from now? How can I put my skills to the best use in this environment, so as to buy locally and sell locally and make a profit? How do I address the departures of some of my employees? Should I leave? How much emotional and financial resource should I commit to overcoming this crisis? Do I just wait this out, and there will be a regime change, and we will go back to globalisation?

Many firms will choose to lie low and wait for the storm to end, as opposed to jumping to action in reconfiguring production for a new world of self-reliance. This inaction will increase the short term pain in the economy and increase the time required to get back to a humming economy.

The threat of emergency central planning

While Russia evolved into a market economy in the post-1991 period, in every society, when faced with a war and an economic crisis, there is a greater danger of central planning by the state. For an analogy, think of the behaviour of Indian officials when faced with Covid-19. In a crisis, there is a greater risk of abandoning the price system, of officials giving orders to firms. The lack of rule of law and constitutionalism in Russia implies that there is more of a free hand for officials to behave like this.

To the extent that central planning resurges in Russia, it will make things worse.


There are three levels of bad economic performance.

Economic performance is bad when there is self reliance.

It gets worse when we layer self reliance with central planning.

It is worst when the self reliance and central planning are brought in suddenly.

In steady state, Yes, it is possible to do self-reliance. We know that self-reliance will induce mis-allocation of resources and a low GDP, but it can be done. A sustained estrangement by Russia will taken them back to conditions reminiscent of the old USSR or the self-reliant India of old.

But getting to that (poor) state is itself a difficult task. In the short term, the Russian economy is in even worse shape than the mere self-reliance scenario.

The fact that the USSR was once the prime exponent of central planning and autarky does not mean that it is easy for today's Russia to readily go back to autarky and central planning. Russia now operates in the price system; the institutional capacity for central planning has atrophied and cannot be readily recreated. The sudden difficulties in trade, FDI, and finance, create a very difficult environment for every private firm. Self-reliant structures of production can indeed be created, and they will achieve a low level performance of the economy, but it will take years to get there, to reconstruct the complexity of the modern economy in a self-reliant way. In the short term, there will be a large scale economic collapse.

I have previously argued that freezing central bank assets is not that important. But the rest of the economic sanctions are an imposing barrier, that will likely induce an economic collapse, even without considering the direct cost of waging war.

I am grateful to Alex Etra and Josh Felman for useful discussions.

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