Recession time for Russia – the ultra wonkish version

I have long been a proponent of what I have called the Export Price Norm (EPN). The idea with EPN is that commodity exporting countries can ensure stable nominal spending growth by pegging their currency to either the price of the country’s main export good or to a basket of the export product and a foreign currency.

The case of Russia is illustrative. Hence, one could imagine that the Russian central bank (CBR) implemented a variation of EPN by including oil prices in the basket of euros and dollars, which the CBR has been “shadowing” in recent years. I believe that this in general would lead to a stabilisation of nominal GDP growth in Russia.

The graph below, I believe, illustrates this well.

EPN Russia

We see that over the past 10 years there has been a very high and stable correlation between Russian NGDP growth and (the growth of) the price of oil measured in roubles. As the oil price in roubles seems to lead NGDP growth by 1-2 quarters it is clear that the CBR would have been able to stabilize NGDP growth by managing the rouble in such a way to ‘offset’ positive and negative shocks to the oil price. That of course would have happened “automatically” if the CBR had included the oil price in it’s EUR-USD basket – or alternatively allowed the rouble to float freely and communicated that it would allow the rouble to appreciate or depreciate to offset shocks to the oil price to ensure stable nominal spending growth in the Russian economy.

Nothing surprising about the slowdown in Russian growth

In the last couple of the years the Russian economy has slowed considerably. This I believe is due to the fact that the CBR effectively has been tightening the monetary conditions by keeping the rouble too strong relative to the development in oil prices.

Since early 2011 the oil price (in US dollars) has been declining moderately. This effectively has meant that the currency inflow into Russia has been slowing and not surprisingly this has put downward pressure on the rouble. This should be welcomed news, but the CBR has nonetheless kept monetary conditions too tight by not allowing a large enough depreciation of the rouble to fully offset the oil price shock.

As a result nominal GDP growth has slowed quite significantly and as prices and wages are sticky in Russia (as everywhere else) this has also led to a slowdown in Russian real GDP growth.

Why the EPN ‘prediction’ might be wrong this time around

However, things have been changing over the past year. So while the oil price has continued to “stagnate” the rouble has weakened significantly over the past year – as has been the case for most other Emerging Markets currencies in the world.

Hence, as the drop in the value of the rouble has been significantly larger than the change in the oil price (in USD) the oil price measured in roubles has increased somewhat.

As the graph above shows this de facto monetary easing has already started lifting NGDP growth and given the historical relationship between the oil price measured in rouble and NGDP growth then one should expect NGDP growth to pick up from well-below 10% to 13-14% y/y.

However, this “prediction” strictly based on the Export Price Norm is likely to be far too optimistic. The reason is that the Export Price Norm only ensures nominal stability if all shocks come from the export price – in the case of Russia from oil price shocks.

Historically it has been a reasonable assumption that nearly all shocks to Russian aggregate demand are shocks to the oil price (remember in the case of Russia an oil price shock is a demand shock and not a supply shock). This is why we have such a good fit in the graph above.

But over the past year the Russian economy has been hit by another external shock and a lot of the outflows from Russia has been driven by other factors than oil prices. Hence, the general negative Emerging Markets sentiment over the past year has undoubtedly own its own contributed to the currency outflow.

Furthermore, and more importantly the sharply increased geo-political tensions in relationship to Putin’s military intervention on the peninsula of Crimea has clearly shocked foreign investors who are now dumping Russian assets on large scale. Just Monday this week the Russian stock market fell in excess of 10% and some of the major bank stocks lost 20% of their value on a single day.

In response to this massive outflow the Russian central bank – foolishly in my view – hiked its key policy rate by 150bp and intervened heavily in the currency market to prop up the rouble on Monday. Some commentators have suggested that the CBR might have spent more than USD 10bn of the foreign currency reserve just on Monday. Thereby inflicting greater harm to the Russian economy than any of the planned sanctions by EU and the US against Russia.

By definition a drop in foreign currency reserve translates directly into a contraction in the money base combined with the CBR’s rate hike we this week has seen a very significant tightening of monetary conditions in Russia – something which is likely to send the Russian economy into recession (understood as one or two quarters of negative real GDP growth).

This in my view illustrates a weakness in the very strict form of an Export Price Norm. If the central bank pegs the currency directly to the export price – for example oil prices in the case of Russia – then other negative external shocks – would effectively be monetary tightening.

CBR should implement a 40-40-20 basket with an adjustable +/-15% fluctuation band

Given this weakness in the strict form of the EPN I believe it would be better for the Russian central bank to implement a less strict variation of EPN.

The most obvious solution would be to include oil prices in the CBR’s present operational basket. Overall I think a basket of 40% euros, 40% dollars and 20% oil prices would be a suitable policy basket for the central bank. Furthermore, the CBR should allow for a +/-15% fluctuation band around this policy basket.

The reason I stress that it should be a policy basket is that the ultimate target of the CBR should not be that basket but rather to achieve a stable growth rate of nominal spending in the Russian economy – for example 8-10% NGDP growth.

I believe that under most circumstances the CBR could maintain composition of the policy basket and maintain the fluctuation band unchanged and that would to a large degree ensure nominal stability without changing the basket or the “parity” for this basket and long as the CBR communicates clearly that the purpose of this policy is to ensure nominal growth stability. Then the market would take care of the rest.

Unfortunately Putin’s Russia has much bigger (self-inflicted) problems than monetary policy these days…


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