Christopher Weafer is the founder of Macro-Advisory, a research consulting company focusing on Russia, the CIS, and macro oil trends and was recently in 2013 voted the best Russian investment strategist in a poll by Thomas Reuters Extel. Before becoming a consultant, Chris was Chief Strategist at Sberbank-CIB, Russia’s largest bank. He also writes extensively for the Moscow Times. We had the opportunity to speak with Chris in early April about the current state of the Russian economy, oil markets, and the outlook for Central Asia and the CIS.
SD: Russia’s Central Bank just lowered interest rates to 12.5%, after changing interest rates to 15% earlier in the quarter. The ruble has been rallying, but posted another drop in value shortly after the announcement. How much of the ruble’s current volatility can be attributed to the drop in oil prices alone (and the simultaneous rally of the value of the dollar), and how much to these fluctuations in the policies of the Central Bank?
Weafer: The ruble has actually been stronger than expected in the past few months. Initially it was the rally of the Brent crude index to over $60 that had brought the ruble higher but as oil prices declined again to around $54, the ruble actually strengthened again, which is a positive sign. Most were still under the expectation that the value of the ruble would be linked very tightly to the price of oil. The Central Bank has used a number of soft administrative tools and the government has coordinated its actions to keep the currency’s value stable. The state-owned exporters have been encouraged (the correct term is probably arm-twisted) to bring back their foreign earnings earlier so as to bring foreign currency into the market to convert those into rubles, so Russia has been its own buyer of rubles and a seller of foreign exchange in the last couple of months. The Finance Ministry has also said it is transferring some of the sovereign wealth fund, specifically the reserve fund, which comprises roughly $90 billion in total at the beginning of the year – they have converting some of that into rubles on the market because much of that fund has been allocated to assisting the banking industry or to cover the deficit in the federal budget, so the Finance Ministry have also been buying rubles and selling foreign currency out of the reserve fund.
In addition to that, there is also the beginning of the year tax payments in February, and it is a stipulation that these export-driven companies must pay those taxes in rubles. So what we saw was this period of almost artificial calm in the ruble due to these domestic factors, which have been aided by government policy encouraging banks against taking positions against the ruble as was the case in 2013 and 2014. The government also discouraged banks from assisting others in taking short positions against the value of the ruble as well, so there was a clamp down against speculative trading against the ruble, and there was also the aforementioned phenomenon of state companies and the Finance Ministry transferring FX (note: shorthand for foreign currency) into rubles, which has created some demand, the tax payment schedule has also helped boost that demand, and that has been sufficient to allow the ruble to not only remain stable, but rise in value, despite all that’s happened with oil prices.
SD: What is the Russian Central Bank’s main objective in lowering interest rates without indications that inflation is slowing (estimates at the time of writing put it at 16.7%, even higher for food)? Is this only to spur domestic lending?
Weafer: The interest rate move in late January was a surprise, perhaps because there had been another move quite recently in mid-December at two in the morning, the CBR raised its key interest rate from 10.5% to 17% as an attempt to calm what was a particularly volatile ruble trading market at the time. The argument that they’re using as a justification for scaling back on that key rate now is that December and January were still crisis periods which no longer exist (i.e. the ruble is a lot less volatile and now under control). Secondly, they are quite confident that the current 16.5% rate of inflation at the end of February will peak around 17-18% at some point, and that they are anticipating this and cutting the rate pre-emptively. All of these moves the government is making, trying to stabilize the value of the ruble and bring interest rates lower are all specifically designed to create some kind of confidence amongst consumers, amongst companies. They particularly want to make sure that there was no expansion of the panic that had engulfed the country around the turn of the year that would allow them to avoid the worst-case scenarios for 2015 annual growth rates. Frankly, it’s far too early to say whether they succeeded or not – as there are some overly optimistic assumptions in that reasoning. As for how this relates to the ruble crisis, if oil prices continue to decline, the ruble will still follow it. I’m not confident that the CBR and the Finance Ministry would be able to defend the ruble a second or a third time against falling oil prices.
All of these moves are purely administrative measures that have investors nervous – despite the fact that the government insists there is no danger of capital controls or formal restrictions on capital movements. Their reasoning, however, is that they had to do it – the volatility caused a great deal of concern amongst the population, people were forced to cancel their traditional New Year holidays – in Russia, the first 10 days of the year are a prolonged holiday, and as a result they were unable to go to the preferred destinations like Europe. So it’s become a popularity issue for the regime as well. Inflation’s largest driver during the past few months have been food prices, but most are forecasting that inflation will crest around 18% and start to come back down again.
Ironically, the sanctions and the ruble’s inflation, combined with a steady expansion of the money supply have restricted consumer demand for expensive imported goods and the market for credit, alleviating the original fears consumers had back in January.
Despite that, like I said, the government won’t be able to defend the ruble or the economy against another decline in oil prices.
SD: OPEC’s decision not to cut supply will make Russia’s current economic tasks much more difficult. Historically, why is Russia not party to OPEC as an institution? What advantages or disadvantages does this confer? How can the Russian economy diversify in order to stave off the future impact of lower commodity prices?
Weafer: There are two reasons why Russia has never been a part of OPEC. I think the first is that OPEC has never formally invited Russia to join and for another, I don’t think the ruling members of OPEC would ever really consider it. Russian production levels are comparable with the Saudi Arabians, and giving the Russians a seat at that table would be conceding a huge amount on the part of the Saudis, especially considering that all told, Russia is a larger exporter of oil and gas (if you include downstream petrochemicals as well) than the Saudis. Secondly, Russia would never have considered joining, and particularly now the timing is wrong. One of the stipulations of working in an organization like OPEC is that you have to cut back on production from time to time to issue a stance on the market and manipulate the price. Russia’s stance has always been to produce at maximum capacity, and they have never given any indication of willingness to come back from that. Honestly, they probably could not change it anyway – partly due to the cold weather it is much more difficult and cost-ineffective to turn wells’ spigots on and off repeatedly as easily as you can in Middle Eastern production zones.
Another issue to consider is that the Russian government doesn’t own the production, as is typically the case in OPEC countries where oil companies are all state-owned. In the case of Russia, there are plenty of private companies (Lukoil being the largest), and many of them are listed on the London Stock Exchange with plenty of international investors and even the state-owned oil company Rosneft has minority investors and at least part of it is publicly traded internationally. It would be very damaging for these companies to make it appear as though they were taking orders from the government for political reasons like for instance, turning up and down the volume for the sake of price manipulation. So at this point, it’s really quite impossible for Russia to even consider joining OPEC, and that would be assuming that anyone would want them to. OPEC usually just forces Russia into cooperation with whatever strategy they are pursuing, as they do with other unaffiliated producers like Mexico and Norway. OPEC’s position has always been that non-OPEC countries will always just be “along for the ride,” so to speak.
Having said that, some things have changed. The reason why we had the price collapse last year was that the Saudi-led group (which would include the Emirates and Kuwait) finally drew a line in the sand regarding defending their global market share both within OPEC and within the world energy market. One of the reasons why this happened was the very rapid rise in US shale gas production, and the continued revolution in alternative energy. All of this would be hugely damaging to hydrocarbon producers in the future. I think the goal of OPEC and the Saudis in particular was to instill an element of doubt into the pricing of crude in the future. The goal of the Saudis isn’t to reduce production levels, but to decrease the expansion of the production capacity or the rate of investment in the sector. This reasoning holds true for alternative sources of energy as well – while they were receiving a lot of investment and capital expenditure at $110 per barrel, at $50 they’ll receive quite a bit less. The Saudis also are making this power play to keep OPEC countries in line, as they are constantly complaining about the fact that they always seem to be the swing producer or the one that has to change its levels of production most often and now it’s putting the onus on Nigeria and Venezuela to be those swing producers instead. Another issue is that the Saudi-led group has to spend quite a bit more on defense due to the results of the Arab Spring movement and overall paranoia about spreading conflict.
The result of all this will be that at the next OPEC meeting, the Saudi-led group can force the issue and make sure that the other OPEC nations are sharing the cut pro-rata rather than forcing it on the top producers. This was essentially an expensive lesson for many parties on the power of the organization, and Saudi Arabia in particular.
The reason we have seen higher prices in Brent crude recently is because of the whole issue of US rigs being taken offline. Most looked at that and saw that a lower rig count must mean lower production, meaning that producers were responding to the price change in the market – however, most of the rigs taken offline were involved in purely exploration and did not impact production. Despite all of this, the story of the US shale revolution has been a story of the efficiency of technology – methods that cost a large amount of money in the past, due to increasing technological efficiency, cost less and it looks like that trend is accelerating, meaning that shale producers will begin to make more money even at lower oil prices.
Another issue adding to the uncertainty in the near-term future of oil prices is the Iran nuclear deal, which, if it comes to pass, will mean that Iran will start to attract interest in developing its oil and gas sector. That’s another supply issue coming up in the future – and also another potential reason why the Saudis have taken such a strong stand because they can also see the writing on the wall regarding the lifting of those sanctions.
Pivoting back to Russia, I think oil is still central to the economic story. And this is largely because the government has done little to pivot away from oil and gas dependency over the past 15 years. The oil and gas sector accounts for roughly 25% of GDP, and oil and gas taxes account for some 50% of budget revenues, oil and gas exports account for 66.6% of all Russian exports. Oil prices, and the subsequent contagion on the gas price, are very clearly primary indicators of health in the Russian economy. From that, you can draw assumptions about the government’s spending ability, currency reserves, etc. Fiscally, the government is healthy enough that it can support the economy now that it’s been cut off from external debt markets. They’ve talked about reforms in the past, but progress has been very limited since it’s been easier to just keep putting these changes off and come up with new five-year-plans every year. So to use an old cliché, it’s the chickens coming home to roost in terms of the oil price. And concern about Russia’s future growth is not just limited to near-term concerns about commodity prices and sanctions. The underlying problems which will still exist when the oil price recovers and sanctions are lifted, started to become visible in 2012, well in advance of the developments of late last year. Three trillion dollars’ worth of oil and gas revenues were coming into the economy and were trickling down in the form of government and consumer spending, so the growth was really driven by the consumer sector in the period from 2000-2012 and it began to stall well in advance of the Q4-2014 crisis. If you compare 2012’s 3.5% GDP growth rate with 2013’s 1.3%, you can see there was a significant economic slowdown despite the average oil price being around $109 per barrel for that same period, and there being no sanctions issues.
Again, I have to resort to the chickens coming home to roost metaphor. The lack of diversification and the fact that consumer spending had slowed made the oil price decline deliver a coup de grace to the economy. That was clear even to President Putin, who made it clear during his State of the Union Address in December 2013 when he said that we have an economic problem “of our own making.” He blamed it squarely on the fact that the economy was not diversified, and said we needed sustained, high levels of investment would be needed to turn things around. That was the first time Putin had ever made that speech – in the past he would always say that investment would be needed, never that it is needed. Of course, a couple of months later, the Ukraine crisis happened so we didn’t see any movement on that front until it was too late.
SD: In terms of diversification, it was Anatoly Chubais’ recommendation to the Kremlin during the 2009-2010 recession to diversify – Is the government or the private sector taking any steps to ensure this diversification away from being slaves to the commodity cycle? Will companies like Rusnano, despite their mismanagement, become viable alternative investment vehicles or sources of Russian wealth in their own right?
Weafer: There’s been talk about this need to cut away from oil and gas since the ’98 crisis. Alexei Kudrin actually introduced the first talk of these reforms in the early 2000’s, so these ideas have been around for a long time. Relatively little has actually happened, however. As I said, growth during that time mainly came from the consumer market. There was another spurt of interest in diversification in 2009 during the recession – so the interest seems prevalent during periods of economic contraction, and then it begins to wane during periods of recovery. So the diversification agenda has its own cycle, if you like. The whole process completely fizzled out by the time the oil price climbs higher. Despite the fact that I hate saying “it’s different this time,” there are some key differences to consider.
The first one is that the economic slowdown is not just a matter of oil prices – as I’ve mentioned before, the start of the slowdown was in 2012 with consumer goods. Even in 2013, it became clear to everyone that reforms were required, hence that 2013 State of the Union speech by Putin I mentioned earlier. Regardless of oil price growth, it was clear Russia was heading towards long term stagnation. Additionally, the outside perception by investors that Russia has a high degree of political and country-level risk means that the recovery will not be as straightforward as rising Brent prices would suggest. Any new recovery will not be led by an influx of foreign investment, but by internal changes that will signal that Russia is reforming. To use another metaphor, sometimes your head really needs to be banged hard against the wall to get the message through. That didn’t happen in 2009 recovery. It has a much better chance of going through this time, since the recovery seems more distant. It’s at least being publicly acknowledged more than ever before. We still need to see what actually happens in practice, though.
There’s much less talk of Russia competing with Silicon Valley in terms of nanotech and other equivalent technologies. Instead there’s more talk of basic changes. The government has been discussion three parts to its recovery strategy. The first is import substitution, reflecting the problem that Russia is importing far too many goods that it should, and could be making domestically. Food, value-add manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals are some examples. The second leg will be moving up the value chain in raw materials – reflecting the problem that Russia simply exports far too much basic raw materials. Oil and gas, for instance, can be processed into a wide variety of more valuable materials like petrochemicals, plastics, LNG, stainless steel, etc. A weak ruble can actually assist in the creation and investment into these intermediary sectors. The third leg is basic infrastructure, which is where Chinese investors seem to be focused, particularly infrastructure that will provide better access to the European market. This translates into investment into roads and railways across Russia into Europe.
All of this must be qualified by saying that this is all rhetoric at this point. The current government strategy is related to damage control for the crisis. The recovery plan won’t come into play until they feel the crisis has “peaked.”
SD: Recent announcements from the Central Bank have indicated that capital controls will be considered if capital flight exceeds quarterly expectations – for the first quarter the CBR set a limit at $60 billion. Are formal restrictions on capital flows an empty threat?
Weafer: Capital flight is pretty much a misnomer these days. People tend to have this image in their heads of Russian billionaires crossing the borders with suitcases full of cash. But we need to have a historical perspective on this. Capital flight has been a huge drain on the economy ever since the new government was formed in the nineties. Anybody with that much free cash has already gotten it out of the country.
Current capital flight is a bit more complex. Last year, according to the CBR, it was around $160 billion, but to compare, Russian companies paid down $130 billion in foreign debt last year so while capital flight increased, net foreign debt also decreased. Amazingly, these payments count as capital flight. Worker’s remittances in total are worth some $30 billion – migrant workers from Eastern Europe and Central Asia sent that money home and that additionally counts as capital flight. The portion of capital flight that’s accounted for by a rich Russian oligarch taking the money out of the country to do something else with it is actually relatively small. In fact, one of the longer term Russian economic problems is not trying to keep money in, but how to persuade these parties to bring their money back and to invest into their homeland and their country. It’s harder to convince the foreign investing class to put their money into a country if the domestic class has no interest. Russians actually are so skeptical of their country that the country is in the unique position of courting foreign investment before domestic investment.
As for capital controls, neither the Central Bank nor the Kremlin has any interest following through on the idea of formal capital controls. I think they are instead favoring those soft administrative controls we discussed earlier in the interview to attempt to influence exporters and to bring money back and stop speculation against the ruble.
Something to keep in mind is that pre-2012, Russia was already the sixth largest consumer economy in the world, rapidly catching up to Germany. Additionally, Russian households have considerably more disposable income and purchasing power for that income than any other emerging market, whether that’s in China, India, or Brazil. And it’s always worth remembering that there are a greater number of richer Russians per capita than any other emerging market. For consumer markets, they aren’t considering capital flight – they’re just gauging how to adjust expectations and budgets to ride this out. Consumer retail companies are now positioning themselves for the recovery.
In terms of the energy market, Russia is such an attractive long term asset that it makes it hard to discount it completely. As you know, in the United States there has been a lot of M&A in the energy sector to take advantage of lower prices and cash flows, and this has extended into Russia as well with Schlumberger purchasing Eurasia Drilling, one of Russia’s oilfield services companies, to take advantage of the future recovery. For many companies last summer, the issue was what most people are discussing now – is it safe to be involved in Russia at all? Now, those same companies are doubling down on the market because it still has those attractive prospects and realizing that the import substitution strategy means there is quite a lot of money to be made. So companies are past the point where they were fearful of being pushed out.
SD: That’s a very different message than what we normally hear in the Western press.
Weafer: The three terms I keep hearing are isolation, containment, and regime change. Russians, even those in the government, want to differentiate between tough politics and business. The government is acknowledging that there has been a hard reset on politics that will be unlikely to change for quite some time, but this has no bad implications for investment. Bad politics does not mean bad business, according to the Russian investment lobby.
Another consequence of this diplomatic shift is the pivot to Asia. Even some nationalistic politicians were confident that Asian investment would make up for the gaps in European interest. The problem is this isn’t happening. Herman Gref, the CEO of Sberbank, said recently in an interview that he was in a long queue of people waiting to talk to the Chinese about investment and “nobody was calling us to the top of the queue.” The reality check is that Asian investors want to invest in very specific sectors to promote their own energy security, as well as the China gas pipeline and a high-speed rail link from Beijing to Moscow. Roads and road systems are additionally of interest, so they can get their goods over to Europe, but there’s no indication that the Chinese will be putting any money into their banking system.
SD: Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan both recently devalued their currencies by a large margin and Kazakhstan has thus far been resistant to devalue the tenge again, but HSBC forecasts that another devaluation, assuming the ruble maintains a constant value relative to the tenge, is imminent. How many of these devaluations are reactions to the ruble’s decline, and how much of it can be attributed to the same issue of falling oil prices and rising dollars? Will CIS economies be able to continue their growth with these developments in mind?
Weafer: Azerbaijan devalued its currency by 24.8% and Turkmenistan is devalued by 18.6%. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have also had to do it recently by around 20%. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the problem is the number of their nationals who are working in Russia and the problem is the declining value of their remittances to the economies. These countries have devalued for two reasons: the first being that they do not want all these workers to come home, because that would cause a great deal of social, economic, and political upheaval. And secondly they want to cut the gap between what these worker are earning and the relative purchasing power back home.
I expect that the Kazakhs will hit the currency fairly quickly following this presidential election, assuming no change in the relative value of the ruble to the tenge. The competitiveness of their currency against the ruble is killing them. Kazakhs bought some 60,000 to 70,000 cars in Russia last November and December because they were so cheap relative to the domestic market. I would expect another 20% devaluation in the tenge relatively soon, especially now that the Russian Central Bank is trying to soften the value of the ruble after its rally in April.
For Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the devaluation has come about mostly due to oil price vulnerability. They are actually far more vulnerable to the current situation than Russia because they have done absolutely nothing to diversify their economies. They are waiting for windfalls in their own energy exports – the Azeris looking to expand production in the Shah Deniz gas field, the Turkmens for construction of the TAPI and TANAP pipelines, so there’s no incentive for them to diversify but there is an incentive to devalue in order to protect the government budget, so they can spend enough in currency terms. The Azeris are in a similar position, looking to have gas exports to China long term bail them out.
SD: Ukraine is another topic on everyone’s mind. How is the Russian government prioritizing its objectives here? Are the Minsk II Accords simply a tool to buy more time to accomplish these are they actually serious about following through? How does the private sector view the ceasefire?
Weafer: Well, investors are looking at events in Ukraine as a new normal. Nobody is really looking at this situation to “go away” as a precondition for investment. In terms of policy, Ukraine is a line in the sand for the Russians. This actually began in the nineties, when the Russians were in a much weaker situation than they are now – they were actually very upset that Westerners were bombing their Slavic brothers (Serbia historically being a protected state by the Russians). They’ve been complaining about a lack of respect for Russia’s legitimate interests.
Ukraine has historically been regarded as very close in a cultural sense to Russia. The fact that Baltic countries join NATO is not as much of a problem for Russia, since this same cultural link doesn’t exist with say, Finland. There was little pre-planning of the current situation on part of the Russians – in fact the only situation that was planned for was the annexation of Crimea. But how we got to the current situation was when Russia’s Plan A failed, and the $15 billion to join the Eurasian Economic Union, and then the Euro Maidan protests happened. Then it became clear that Western Ukraine was not on board to join the EEU. So that’s when Plan B took effect, it was only developed in reaction to Plan A failing. In Eastern Ukraine, the entire issue was the creation of a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. To the Russian policymaking circles, there’s no difference between the West, NATO, and the EU – it’s all the same to them. The Russians also want eastern Ukraine to be reabsorbed into this buffer state with full voting rights and economic participation, knowing full well that it would be a permanent veto on the ability of Western Ukraine to join NATO or the EU for the foreseeable future. The alternative to that, which is what we have now, is this frozen conflict. It’s not the ideal solution for the Russians, but it is an acceptable solution for the time being.
If Minsk II holds, and this frozen position holds, this is something that the Russians can work with. I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that Russia had any intentions to invade any other countries.
SD: Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan made a concerted to effort to reduce its reliance on Soviet era pipelines in order to sell its natural gas at more competitive prices. Now that China has emerged as the chief regional player, Ashgabat finds itself similarly reliant on a single partner. How might the Turkmen government diversify its clientele to prevent over-dependence on China? Is the Trans-Caspian pipeline a real possibility or mostly speculation? Will Turkmenistan’s economy wane as Chinese growth slows? Does their current network of export markets allow for them to sustain even a semblance of the >10% growth they’ve experienced over the past few years? How does China’s increased import of Russian natural gas affect China’s relationship with Turkmenistan, if at all?
Weafer: What Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan should really do, if they have any interest in long term growth, is engage in diversification and look for ways to add value to their existing products – natural gas being the obvious candidate. There’s really no evidence that any of them are doing this at all. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan all have expanding pipelines and current oil and gas field as their top economic priorities. Turkmenistan is waiting for TAPI and TANAP, Azerbaijan is waiting on Phase II of the Shah Deniz field, and Kazakhstan is waiting on Kashagan. The reality is that those countries are going to become even more reliant on hydrocarbons, rather than less.
There’s no evidence that Central Asian states are diversifying away from their two pillars of health: hydrocarbon dependency and reliance on Russian re-sale market. There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. At the very least, all of them are trying to expand their customer base, which is much easier said than done. One thing to keep in mind as well is that using the TANAP pipeline as an example, Azerbaijan’s flows to Turkey and Eastern Europe are still far lower than the Russian exports of gas to the same market. So hawking it as a replacement for Russian gas is a fallacy. Azerbaijan, however, just happens to be on the right side of the Caspian. For Turkmenistan, the answer is less clear. They are clearly very dependent on the Chinese and their demands about pricing. They are looking into two other options like the Trans-Caspian pipeline and the TAPI pipeline to supply to India. However, there is no evidence that a Trans-Caspian pipeline would even be possible at this point because it would require the agreement of all five Caspian littoral states, of which Russia is one and Iran is another. The only people that are confident about any Caspian maritime legal agreement being put into place are those that want it to change – i.e. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Russia and Iran are much less willing to relinquish the current power that they have over the Sea.
Another issue for Turkmenistan is that it is unknown how much additional gas they can actually produce – most of their current developed reserves are under contract for China. So can they even find the reserves necessary to transport to India? Or could they get financing for a pipeline across Afghanistan at this point? Essentially this sets up the whole arrangement for hostage taking. Dependency on China for Turkmenistan is increasing, and is unlikely to change. In Kazakhstan, there is a question on where the oil from Kashagan will go, and both Western and Chinese customers have expressed interest.
SD: There have been a number of articles published recently speculating as to whether or not the Eurasian Economic Union has already failed. The state of the ruble has engendered currency crises in Kazakhstan and most recently in Kyrgyzstan, where the government has closed currency exchange stations and taken preventive action to protect the som. Is Kyrgyzstan joining the EEU to solve its short term problems or is it a wise move for them?
Weafer: It’s impossible to say how the EEU will progress as an institution. Right now it definitely appears as though many key members like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were more or less forced into it. Both Presidents Nazarbayev and Lukashenko signed the EEU deal and then immediately and publicly voiced objections to terms of the deal, raising concerns about the future. It was almost a forced marriage in some cases. That’s not to say that it might not work.
In some cases, some of these countries realize that they have no viable alternatives. Russia is a trade corridor for Kyrgyzstan for instance, for re-exported Chinese goods. The EEU at this point just looks like it could go either way.