Crisis -- What Crisis?
- By Yulia Latynina
- Oct. 08 2008 00:00
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I have been trying to understand the nature of Russia's economic crisis, but honestly, I don't see any crisis. Instead, I see a number of surprising moves by the government. For example, the authorities permitted the Central Bank to extend loans to Russian banks without requiring collateral. How is that possible? Of the 500 banks in Moscow, I suppose 400 launder their money -- and now they can get credit without collateral as well.
Are things really all that bad? After all, it is natural for the stock market to take a dive with so many margin calls coming in.
Many Russian companies have absolutely no problem with liquidity. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has a ton of cash. The Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works also has a heap of currency because the company's accountants have probably never heard the word "derivatives." Surgutneftegaz has more cash than it can count.
Yevgeny Chichvarkin, former co-owner of the successful but debt-burdened Yevroset chain, recently sold his company for about $500 million in cash. Stephen Jennings of Renaissance Group also recently sold half his company for $500 million -- just a year after rejecting a $2 billion buyout bid from VTB.
Despite all of this, nothing has changed for consumers. Yevroset has not stopped selling cellular phones, and Renaissance Capital continues to provide its financial services. Why should the fate of any businessperson deep in debt differ from Chichvarkin's fate?
The government's intervention is far from risk-free. It is behaving as if its gold and currency reserves were unlimited. They are immense, but they are not unlimited.
Russia has an official who has always been opposed to senseless expenditures -- Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. However, aside from him, Russia also has the KIT-Finance investment bank that got burned on the mortgage credit market. Kudrin took great pains to turn that bank around, and in the end he saved it. It's clear that after the Kremlin brought KIT-Finance back from the edge, Kudrin cannot veto efforts by other top officials to bail out companies with which they have personal ties. That would be perceived as playing unfairly.
Russia has another official who knows what to do with the state debt: Kudrin's former deputy finance minister, Sergei Storchak. Unfortunately, Storchak has been jailed on charges of fraud. Maybe in the state's hour of need they will let him out.
Russia's economy works like this: Russia sells oil and gas and uses the proceeds to buy everything else -- from Mercedes cars to cement. For now, the economic crisis has affected only the elite by redistributing their business shares.
Naturally, everything I've said here makes sense only as long as the U.S. mortgage meltdown does not drive oil prices down too far. If that happens, it will become clear that the world is, in fact, unipolar. It will prove that the United States is a superpower -- not because it sends tanks and troops abroad, but because its financial problems will have triggered a global crisis.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Editor's Note: A version of this column published in Wednesday's edition incorrectly said United Company RusAl shares trade on the stock market. RusAl is a private company that is not publicly traded.