Without any new ideas from a technocratic government constrained by President Vladimir Putin’s apparent indifference, the Russian economy is once again relying on consumers, who are borrowing more to buy real estate and imported products. The growth is real, but it’s also meager. And it will be hard to sustain without bigger changes.
On Monday, Rosstat, Russia’s official statistics agency, announced that the country’s gross domestic product increased 1.8 percent year-over-year in the quarter than ended in September. That’s lower than Bloomberg’s consensus forecast of 1.9 percent and slower than the 2.5 percent increase in the previous three months. The oil price jumped 20 percent during the quarter, but the economic statistics won’t pick up the related growth until the fourth quarter. So far this year, the Russian consumer deserves most of the credit for the growing economy. After suffering through three tough years -- during which time oil tanked and the ruble devalued sharply -- they are buying things again. Unfortunately, most of the things Russians are buying aren’t made in Russia.
The stability of the ruble and low inflation have helped boost consumers even though real disposable incomes dropped throughout the quarter. Households are choosing to get more leveraged.
In 2015 and 2016, household debt went down as interest rates and bad loans shot up. By the end of 2016, some 20 percent of consumer loans were non-performing, according to the Central Bank. Banks that had issued them rolled up their programs and viewed borrowers with increased suspicion. This year, however, the Central Bank has lowered its key rate from 10 percent to 8.25 percent, and banks couldn’t resist the temptation to offer more funds to private borrowers. With mortgage rates at a historic minimum and consumer loans affordable again, Russians have some convincing reasons to warm to the idea of borrowing.
The Central Bank claims it isn’t worried because consumer borrowing has only been increasing by about 2.5 percent of the monthly retail trade turnover. Russian banks have a total mortgage portfolio of some 5.5 percent of GDP, compared to 20 percent in Poland. There are, however, signs that the Central Bank sees a bubble in the making, at least on the mortgage market. Starting this month, it has required drastically higher reserves against mortgages with a down payment below 20 percent.
Apart from the lack of income growth, which makes any debt increase risky, the Central Bank is facing another problem. In recent months, it’s hard to take on two large banks -- Otkritie and B&N -- with a combined balance sheet hole of at least $12 billion. Private Russian banks find it difficult to compete with state behemoths Sberbank and VTB without taking on too much risk. More failures would stretch the central bank’s resources.
The state banks, hit with Western sanctions and thus deprived of the cheap Western loans that fueled the previous loan boom in the 2000s, have problems of their own: They are short of liquidity.
Russia needs better growth sources than household borrowing. The government has counted on private investment growth, which was unexpectedly robust in the second quarter. But for more investment to materialize, Russia needs to develop more export competences, the way it has done with agricultural commodities such as wheat. High oil prices have historically discouraged that sort of diversification, and crude, at more than $63 per barrel, is much more expensive than the $40 the Russian government budgeted for this year. It’s even high enough for the country to start pouring money back into its reserve funds.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been extraordinarily lucky. The Russian economy has returned to growth and consumers have been reassured by low inflation and a stable currency just as he prepares to run for a fourth term in office next year. But sustaining even this small level of growth for another six years without structural change will be a challenge. Putin has shown little interest in explaining how he’s going to tackle it, focusing more on the complex geopolitical game he’s been playing. Whether that game is tactical or strategic, the Russian economy is in dire need of a coherent strategy as it continues coasting along on a mixture of hope, luck, oil and grain.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.