I am sitting in Riga airport and writing this. I have an early (too early!) flight to Stockholm. I must admit it makes it slightly more fun to sit in an airport when you can do a bit of blogging.
Anyway, I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the Jeff Frankel’s idea about “Peg to the Export Price” (PEP). What Frankel’s is suggesting is that commodity exporters like Russia should peg their currencies to the price of the main commodity they export – in the case of Russia that would of course be the oil price.
This have made me think about the monetary transmission mechanism in an Emerging Market commodity exporter like Russia and how very few people really understand how monetary policy works in an economy like the Russian. I have, however, for more than a decade as part of my day-job spend quite a lot of time analysing the Russian economy so in this post I will try to spell out how I see the last couple of years economic development in Russia from a monetary perspective.
The oil-money nexus and why a higher oil price is a demand shock in Russia
Since the end of communism the Russian central bank has primarily conducted monetary policy by intervening in the currency market and currency intervention remains the Russian central bank’s (CBR) most important policy instrument. (Yes, I know this is a simplification, but bear with me…)
In the present Russian monetary set-up the CBR manages the ruble within a fluctuation band against a basket of euros (45%) and dollars (55%). The composition of the basket has changed over time and the CBR has gradually widened the fluctuation band so one can say that we today has moved closer to a managed or dirty float rather than a purely fixed currency. However, despite of for years having had the official intention of moving to a free float it is very clear that the CBR has a quite distinct “fear of floating”. The CBR is not alone in this – many central banks around the world suffer from this rather irrational fear. This is also the case for countries in which the central banks officially pursue a floating exchange rate policy. How often have you not heard central bankers complain that the currency is too strong or too weak?
With the ruble being quasi-fixed changes in the money supply is basically determined by currency inflows and outflows and as oil and gas is Russia’s main exports (around 80% of total exports) changes in the oil prices determines these flows and hence the money supply.
Lets say that the global demand for oil increases and as a consequence oil prices increase by 10%. This will more or less lead to an 10% increase in the currency inflow into Russia. With inflows increasing the ruble will tend to strengthen. However, historically the CBR has not been happy to see such inflow translate into a strengthening of the ruble and as a consequence it has intervened in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble. This basically means that that CBR is printing ruble and buying foreign currency. The logic consequence of this is the CBR rather than allowing the ruble to strengthen instead is accumulating ever-larger foreign currency reserves as the oil price is increasing. This basically has been the trend for the last decade or so.
So due to the CBR’s FX policy there is a more or less direct link from rising oil prices to an expansion of the Russian money supply. As we all know MV=PY so with unchanged money-velocity (V) an increase in M will lead to an increase in PY (nominal GDP).
This illustrates a very important point. Normally we tend to associate increases in oil prices with a supply shock. However, in the case of Russia and other oil exporting countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates an increase in the oil price will be a positive demand shock. Said in another other higher oil prices will push the AD curve to the right. This is also why higher oil prices have not always lead to a higher current account surplus in Russia – higher oil prices will boost private consumption growth and investments growth through an increase in the money supply. This is not exactly good news for the current account.
The point that an increase in oil prices is a demand shock in Russia is illustrated in the graph below. Over the past decade there has been a rather strong positive correlation changes in the price of oil (measured in ruble) and the growth of nominal GDP.
This correlation, however, can only exist as long as the CBR intervenes in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble and if the CBR finally moved to a free floating ruble then the this correlation most likely would break down. Hence, with a freely floating ruble the money supply and hence NGDP would be unaffected by higher or lower oil prices.
PEP would effective have been a ‘productivity norm’ in Russia
So by allowing the ruble to appreciate when oil prices are increase it will effective stabilise the development the money supply and therefore in NGDP. Another way to achieve this disconnect between NGDP and oil prices would be to directly peg the ruble to the oil price. So an increase in the oil price of 10% would directly lead to an appreciation of the ruble of 10% (against the dollar).
As the graph above shows there has been a very close correlation between changes in the oil prices (measured in ruble) and NGDP. Furthermore, over the past decade oil prices has increased around 20% yearly versus the ruble and the yearly average growth of nominal GDP has been the exactly the same. As a consequence had the CBR pegged pegged the ruble a decade ago then the growth of NGDP would likely have averaged 0% per year.
With NGDP growth “pegged” by PEP to 0% we would effectively have had what George Selgin has termed a “productivity norm” in Russia where higher real GDP growth (higher productivity growth) would lead to lower prices. Remember again – if MV=PY and MV is fixed through PEP then any increase in Y will have to lead to lower P. However, as oil prices measured in ruble are fixed it would only be the prices of non-tradable goods (locally produced and consumed goods), which would drop. This undoubtedly would have been a much better policy than the one the CBR has pursued for the last decade – and a boom and bust would have been avoid from 2005 to 2009. (And yes, I assume that nominal rigidities would not have created too large problems).
Russia boom-bust and how tight money cause the 2008-9 crisis in Russia
Anybody who visits Moscow will hear stories of insanely high property prices and especially during the boom years from 2006 to when crisis hit in 2008 property prices exploded in Russia’s big cities such St. Petersburg and Moscow. There is not doubt in my mind that this property market boom was caused my the very steep increase in the Russian money supply which was a direct consequence of the CBR’s fear of floating the ruble. As oil prices where increasing and currency inflows accelerated in 2006-7 the CBR intervened to curb the strengthening of the ruble.
However, the boom came to a sudden halt in 2008, however, unlike what is the common perception the crisis that hit hard in 2008 was not a consequence of the drop in oil prices, but rather as a result of too tight monetary policy. Yes, my friends recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon and that is also the case in Russia!
Global oil prices started to drop in July 2008 and initially the Russian central bank allowed the ruble to weaken. However, as the sell-off in global oil prices escalated in Q3 2008 the CBR clearly started to worry about the impact it would have on ruble. As a consequence the CBR started intervening very heavily in the FX markets to halt the sell-off in the ruble. Obviously to do this the CBR had to buy ruble and sell foreign currency, which naturally lead to drop in the Russian foreign currency reserves of around 200bn dollars in Q3 2008 and a very sharp contraction in the Russian money supply (M2 dropped around 20%!). This misguided intervention in the currency market and the monetary contraction that followed lead to a collapse in Russian property prices and sparked a major banking crisis in Russia – luckily the largest Russian banks was not too badly affected by this a number medium sized banks collapsed in late 2008 and early 2009. As a consequence money velocity also contracted, which further worsened the economic crisis. In fact the drop in real GDP was the latest among the G20 in 2008-9.
…and how monetary expansion brought Russia out of the crisis
As the Russian FX reserve was dwindling in the Autumn 2008 the Russian central bank (probably) realised that either it would cease intervening in the FX or be faced with a situation where the FX reserve would vanish. Therefore by December 2008 the CBR stepped back from the FX market and allowed for a steeper decline in the value of the ruble. As consequence the contraction in the Russian money supply came to an end. Furthermore, as the Federal Reserve finally started to ease US monetary policy in early 2009 global oil prices started to recover and as CBR now did not allow the rub to strengthen at the same pace of rising oil prices the price of oil measured in ruble increase quite a bit in the first half of 2009.
The monetary expansion has continued until today and as a consequence the Russian economy has continued to recover. In fact contrary to the situation in the US and the euro zone one could easily argue that monetary tightening is warranted it in Russia.
Oil prices should be included in the RUB basket
I hope that my arguments above illustrate how the Russian crisis of 2008-9 can be explained by what the great Bob Hetzel calls the monetary disorder view. I have no doubt that if the Russian central bank had allowed for a freely floating ruble then the boom (and misallocation) in 2006-7 would have been reduced significantly and had the ruble been allowed to drop more sharply in line with oil prices in the Autumn of 2008 then the crisis would have been much smaller and banking crisis would likely have been avoided.
Therefore, the policy recommendation must be that the CBR should move to a free float of ruble and I certainly think it would make sense for Russia also to introduce a NGDP level target. However, the Russian central bank despite the promises that the ruble soon will be floated (at the moment the CBR say it will happen in 2013) clearly seems to maintain a fear of floating. Furthermore, I would caution that the quality of economic data in Russia in general is rather pure, which would make a regular NGDP level targeting regime more challenging. At the same time with a relatively underdeveloped financial sector and a generally low level of liquidity in the Russian financial markets it might be challenging to conduct monetary policy in Russian through open market operations and interest rate changes.
As a consequence it might be an idea for Russia to move towards implementing PEP – or rather a variation of PEP. Today the CBR manages the ruble against a basket of euros and dollars and in my view it would make a lot of sense to expand this basket with oil prices. To begin with oil prices could be introduced into the basket with a 20% weight and then a 40% weight for both euros and dollars. This is far from perfect and the goal certainly should still be to move to a free floating ruble, but under the present circumstances it would be much preferable to the present monetary set-up and would strongly reduce the risk of renewed bubbles in the Russian economy and as well as insuring against a monetary contraction in the event of a new sharp sell-off in oil prices.
…as I am finishing this post my taxi is parking in front of my hotel in Stockholm so now you know what you will be able to write going from Latvia to Sweden on an early Wednesday morning. Later today I will be doing a presentation for Danske Bank’s clients in Stockholm. The topics are Emerging Markets and wine economics! (Yes, wine economics…after all I am a proud member for the American Association of Wine Economists).