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Editor’s Note: The following is the first installment of a three-part series on growing debt for Russia’s regional governments.
Since the 2009 financial crisis, the Kremlin has allowed Russia’s regions to take the brunt of the country’s economic decline in order to keep the federal government seemingly healthy, with a nominally small budget deficit and large currency reserves. But now most of Russia’s regional governments’ debt is so high, it is becoming dangerous for the federal government and big banks and could soon become unmanageable.
Russia is so large that the Kremlin lacks the resources to run each region of the country directly. Currently Russia is split into 83 regions of all shapes and sizes, which fall into categories of oblasts, republics, krais, federal cities and autonomous okrugs. Historically, the Kremlin has given regional leaders (mayors, governors, heads or republic presidents) the power to run their own regions and ensure loyalty to the Kremlin and stability for the country.
However, the Kremlin is constantly concerned with its control over the regions. The federal government’s ability to maintain the loyalty of each region has been tested often throughout history. For instance, dozens of regions attempted to break away after the fall of the Soviet Union, occasionally leading to wars such as those in Chechnya.
The central government’s control over the regions was demolished during the devastating financial crisis in 1998. Many of the regional heads defied the federal government in order to look out for their own regions’ survival. It was the second-worst regional breakdown in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was related directly to the chaos caused by that collapse. This is why the currently growing economic strains in the regions will be of great concern for the Kremlin.
The Regions’ Mounting Debts
Most of Russia’s regional governments have always had some level of debt, but resource-based export revenues have kept it mostly manageable since the 1998 crisis. However, since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, most of the regions’ debt has risen by more than 100 percent — from $35 billion in 2010 to an estimated $78 billion in 2014, and Standard & Poor’s has estimated that this will rise to $103 billion in 2015. Russia’s overall government debt — the federal and regional governments combined — is around $300 billion, or 14 percent of gross domestic product. This is small for a country as large as Russia, but the problem is that so much of the debt is concentrated in the regions, which do not have as many debt reduction tools as the federal government does.
Of the 83 regional subjects in Russia, only 20 will be able to keep a budget surplus or a moderate level of debt by 2015, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations. This leaves the other 63 regions at risk of needing a federal bailout or defaulting on their debt.
Currently, the Russian regions are financing their debt via bank loans, bonds and budget credits (federal loans, for example). Each region has to get federal approval to issue bonds, because regional bonds create more market competition for the federal and business bonds. Most of the banking loans to the regions carry high interest rates and are short term (mostly between two and five years). The federal loans come with much lower rates and longer repayment schedules (mostly between five and 20 years), so naturally federal credits and loans are more attractive for the local governments, though unprofitable for the federal government. The issuance of federal credits or loans to the regions in 2013 was limited; initially, Moscow said it would issue $4.8 billion in new credits to the regions in 2013, but only issued $2.4 billion due to its own budgetary restrictions. This is one contributing factor to the dramatic local-government debt increases.
The next contributing factor to the rise in regional debt is the overall economic stagnation that has plagued Russia since the 2009 financial crisis and subsequent stimulus aimed at pulling Russia out of the crisis. Despite high energy prices all year, Russia’s gross domestic product growth slowed dramatically in 2013 to 1.5 percent growth after an initial 3-4 percent growth target by the Kremlin at the start of that year. This is low compared to the 7-8 percent growth seen yearly in Russia in the mid-2000s. Most analysts believe the only way Russia’s growth remained positive was through its large energy revenues, which make up half of the federal government’s budget and 20-25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
There are a handful of reasons for Russia’s economic stagnation. First, investment in Russia was lower than expected in 2013. Fixed investment was down 1.8 percent year-on-year in the first 10 months of 2013, compared with a 9.1 percent year-on-year growth in the same period in 2012. Private sector outflows of capital were high in 2013, with a net outflow of $48 billion leaving Russia in the first nine months of 2013, compared with $46 billion for the same period in 2012. Moreover, the investment sentiment in Russia is poor at the moment, as the Central Bank of Russia has begun closing some 800 smaller banks in a consolidation. Many of those banks were regionally based, and their closure is making investment in the regions less attractive.
Lower investment, coupled with less corporate borrowing and a decline in demand in many sectors, such as metals, led to lower industrial production. In the first 10 months of 2013, industrial production was flat compared with 2.8 percent growth in the same period in 2012. Industrial production is region-specific in Russia; industry provides nearly the entire economy in some regions. Thirty-one Russian regions, including Komi and Barents, had negative industrial production indexes for 2013. This could get worse in 2014, as many of the metals giants are planning to continue shutting down plants due to a lack of demand and low prices. For example, the world’s largest aluminum producer, Rusal, is shutting down five aluminum plants in the Volgograd, Karelia, Leningrad and Urals regions and laying off tens of thousands of workers.
Another factor contributing to the regions’ rising debts is increasingly burdensome obligations to the federal government. Of the income generated in a particular region, only 37 percent of the income stays in that region and the rest goes to the federal budget. The federal government does return some of the funds to the region in the form of subsidies and intergovernmental transfers, but not more than 20 percent. The amount of income that the Kremlin has taken from the regions has increased 12 percent in the past three years (via increases in taxes and decreases in subsidizations), leaving less and less for the regions to work with.
There has also been a large outcry from the regional governments in response to a series of presidential edicts that Vladimir Putin declared when he was re-elected to his third term in late 2011. Putin ordered the regional governments to do a series of tasks, such as replace all dilapidated housing by 2014, and to raise regional and municipal salaries by 7-10 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent in 2015. The regions are calling these “unfunded mandates,” as the federal government is not helping the regions pay for these projects. Already, the Kremlin has had to postpone the housing replacement edict to 2016 due to lack of funding in the regions, but the salary edict remains in place and is estimated to cost the regions $56.6 billion over the next two years.
- Part 1: Russia’s Growing Regional Debts Threaten Stability
- Part 2: Russia’s 1998 Financial Crisis in the Regions: A Case Study
- Part 3: Russia Weighs its Options for Managing Regional Debts
Did you know that financial institutions all over the world are warning that we could see a “mega default” on a very prominent high-yield investment product in China on January 31st? We are being told that this could lead to a cascading collapse of the shadow banking system in China which could potentially result in “sky-high interest rates” and “a precipitous plunge in credit“. In other words, it could be a “Lehman Brothers moment” for Asia. And since the global financial system is more interconnected today than ever before, that would be very bad news for the United States as well. Since Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, the level of private domestic credit in China has risen from $9 trillion to an astounding $23 trillion. That is an increase of $14 trillion in just a little bit more than 5 years. Much of that “hot money” has flowed into stocks, bonds and real estate in the United States. So what do you think is going to happen when that bubble collapses?
The bubble of private debt that we have seen inflate in China since the Lehman crisis is unlike anything that the world has ever seen. Never before has so much private debt been accumulated in such a short period of time. All of this debt has helped fuel tremendous economic growth in China, but now a whole bunch of Chinese companies are realizing that they have gotten in way, way over their heads. In fact, it is being projected that Chinese companies will pay out the equivalent ofapproximately a trillion dollars in interest payments this year alone. That is more than twice the amount that the U.S. government will pay in interest in 2014.
Over the past several years, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England have all been criticized for creating too much money. But the truth is that what has been happening in China surpasses all of their efforts combined. You can see an incredible chart which graphically illustrates this point right here. As the Telegraph pointed out a while back, the Chinese have essentially “replicated the entire U.S. commercial banking system” in just five years…
Overall credit has jumped from $9 trillion to $23 trillion since the Lehman crisis. “They have replicated the entire U.S. commercial banking system in five years,” she said.
The ratio of credit to GDP has jumped by 75 percentage points to 200pc of GDP, compared to roughly 40 points in the US over five years leading up to the subprime bubble, or in Japan before the Nikkei bubble burst in 1990. “This is beyond anything we have ever seen before in a large economy. We don’t know how this will play out. The next six months will be crucial,” she said.
As with all other things in the financial world, what goes up must eventually come down.
And right now January 31st is shaping up to be a particularly important day for the Chinese financial system. The following is from a Reuters article…
The trust firm responsible for a troubled high-yield investment product sold through China’s largest banks has warned investors they may not be repaid when the 3 billion-yuan ($496 million)product matures on Jan. 31, state media reported on Friday.
Investors are closely watching the case to see if it will shatter assumptions that the government and state-owned banks will always protect investors from losses on risky off-balance-sheet investment products sold through a murky shadow banking system.
If there is a major default on January 31st, the effects could ripple throughout the entire Chinese financial system very rapidly. A recent Forbes article explained why this is the case…
A WMP default, whether relating to Liansheng or Zhenfu, could devastate the Chinese banking system and the larger economy as well. In short, China’s growth since the end of 2008 has been dependent on ultra-loose credit first channeled through state banks, like ICBC and Construction Bank, and then through the WMPs, which permitted the state banks to avoid credit risk. Any disruption in the flow of cash from investors to dodgy borrowers through WMPs would rock China with sky-high interest rates or a precipitous plunge in credit, probably both. The result? The best outcome would be decades of misery, what we saw in Japan after its bubble burst in the early 1990s.
The big underlying problem is the fact that private debt and the money supply have both been growing far too rapidly in China. According to Forbes, M2 in China increased by 13.6 percent last year…
And at the same time China’s money supply and credit are still expanding. Last year, the closely watched M2 increased by only 13.6%, down from 2012’s 13.8% growth. Optimists say China is getting its credit addiction under control, but that’s not correct. In fact, credit expanded by at least 20% last year as money poured into new channels not measured by traditional statistics.
Overall, M2 in China is up by about 1000 percent since 1999. That is absolutely insane.
And of course China is not the only place in the world where financial trouble signs are erupting. Things in Europe just keep getting worse, and we have just learned that the largest bank in Germany just suffered ” a surprise fourth-quarter loss”…
Deutsche Bank shares tumbled on Monday following a surprise fourth-quarter loss due to a steep drop in debt trading revenues and heavy litigation and restructuring costs that prompted the bank to warn of a challenging 2014.
Germany’s biggest bank said revenue at its important debt-trading division, fell 31 percent in the quarter, a much bigger drop than at U.S. rivals, which have also suffered from sluggish fixed-income trading.
If current trends continue, many other big banks will soon be experiencing a “bond headache” as well. At this point, Treasury Bond sentiment is about the lowest that it has been in about 20 years. Investors overwhelmingly believe that yields are heading higher.
If that does indeed turn out to be the case, interest rates throughout our economy are going to be rising, economic activity will start slowing down significantly and it could set up the “nightmare scenario” that I keep talking about.
But I am not the only one talking about it.
In fact, the World Economic Forum is warning about the exact same thing…
Fiscal crises triggered by ballooning debt levels in advanced economies pose the biggest threat to the global economy in 2014, a report by the World Economic Forum has warned.
Ahead of next week’s WEF annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the forum’s annual assessment of global dangers said high levels of debt in advanced economies, including Japan and America, could lead to an investor backlash.
This would create a “vicious cycle” of ballooning interest payments, rising debt piles and investor doubt that would force interest rates up further.
So will a default event in China on January 31st be the next “Lehman Brothers moment” or will it be something else?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The truth is that what has been going on in the global financial system is completely and totally unsustainable, and it is inevitable that it is all going to come horribly crashing down at some point during the next few years.
It is just a matter of time.
In his final public appearance as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke took a moment to reflect on the 2008 financial crisis and compared it to surviving a bad car crash.
During an interview Thursday at the Brookings Institution, Bernanke recalled some “very intense periods” during the crisis, similar to trying to keep a car from going over a bridge after a collision.
The government had just taken over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lehman Brothers had collapsed. He recalled some sleepless nights working with others to try and contain the damage.
“If you’re in a car wreck or something, you’re mostly involved in trying to avoid going off the bridge. And then, later on, you say, ‘Oh my God!”‘ Bernanke said.
Term ends January 31
Bernanke will leave the Fed on Jan. 31 after eight years as chairman. His successor, Janet Yellen, will take over on Feb. 1.
In his appearance, Bernanke defended the Fed’s efforts during the crisis, which included massive purchases of Treasury bonds to push long-term interest rates lower and forward guidance to investors about how long the Fed plans to keep short-term interest rates near zero.
Critics have warned that those efforts pose great risks for higher inflation or future financial market turmoil.
But Bernanke says there has not been a problem with inflation, which is still running well below the Fed’s 2 per cent target.
Should inflation start to be a problem as the economy starts growing at faster rates, the Fed “has all the tools we need to manage interest rates” to keep inflation from getting out of hand, he said.
“Inflation is just not really a significant risk” from the bond purchases, Bernanke said.
Bernanke said the central bank was aware of potential threats to financial market stability from its massive bond holdings and is monitoring markets very closely to spot any signs of trouble. He said this threat was the one “we have spent the most time thinking about and trying to make sure that we can address” should the need arise.
But he said any concerns about financial stability did not outweigh the need to keep providing support to the economy.
The Fed announced last month that it would slightly reduce the size of its bond purchases in January from $85 billion per month down to $75 billion. And it said it would likely make further reductions at upcoming meetings, if the economy keeps improving.
Corporations Have Record Cash: They Also Have Record-er Debt, As Net Leverage Soars 15% Above Its 2008 Peak | Zero Hedge
There is a reason why activism was the best performing hedge fund “strategy” of 2013: as we wrote and predicted back in November 2012 in “Where The Levered Corporate “Cash On The Sidelines” Is Truly Going“, US corporations – susceptible to soothing and not so soothing (ahem Icahn) suggestions by major shareholders – would lever to the hilt with cheap debt and use it all not for CapEx and growth, but for short-term shareholder gratification such as buybacks and dividends. A year later we found just how accurate this prediction would be when as we reported ten days ago US corporations invested a whopping half a trillion in buying back their stock, incidentally at all time high prices.
Putting aside the stupidity of this action for corporate IRRs, if not for activist hedge fund P&Ls, another finding has emerged, one that was also predicted back in 2012. Because in addition to still soaring mountains of cash, corporations have quietly amassed even greater mountains… of debt. In fact, as SocGen reveals, net debt, or total debt less cash, has risen to a new all time high, and is now 15% higher than it was at its prior peak just before the financial crisis!
US corporates do indeed hold lots of cash, which is currently at record levels, but they also hold record levels of debt. Net debt (so discounting those massive cash piles) is 15% above the levels seen in 2008/09. The idea that corporates are paying down debt is simply not seen in the numbers. What is true is that deleveraging has occurred through the usual mechanism of higher asset prices (no doubt an aim of central bank policy). This is the painless form of deleveraging. It is also the most temporary, for a simple pull-back in equities and rise in volatility will put the problem back on centre stage.
And while it would be excusable if this debt had gone to prefund future growth, it is a travesty that the only thing companies have to show for it is that it has simply made a few already rich hedge fund managers even richer.
A recent piece in the Financial Post titled “How many times can economists cry wolf about interest rates” caught my interest because I – like many economists in Canada – have been expecting interest rates to eventually start to rise and yet they do not. So when will Canadian interest rates start to go up? My knowledge of money and banking and monetary economics is pretty rudimentary but I’m feeling adventurous in the New Year.
However, money supply growth needs to be considered in the context of the growth of the economy and money demand. Figure 2 presents a more interesting picture by taking the ratio of M2 to GDP for the period 1871 to 2013. From a ratio of just under 0.2 in 1871, the M2 to GDP ratio has grown over time. Recent years have seen it grow to the highest it has ever been. Of course, the period from 1870 to 1930 reflects the growth and development of the modern Canadian financial intermediary sector and monetary sector and the rise in the ratio reflects this. However, the period since 1935 represents the “modern Canadian banking era” in that the Bank of Canada has been in existence during that period.
Figure 3 presents a graph of the trend setting Bank of Canada interest rate and it shows a hump shaped pattern with the lowest interest rates in the period from 1935 to the mid 1950s and since 2009 and the highest rates in the period from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s. On the other hand, since the Second World War, the M2/GDP ratio has shown an approximately u-shaped pattern with lowest M2/GDP ratios in the mid to late 1960s. If the two are juxtaposed as in Figure 3a and taking into account that there is probably a lag between a drop in M2/GDP and the subsequent rise in interest rates, it appears that the peak in interest rates occurs after the low point in the m2/GDP ratio in the late 1960s. If you take the first differences of the M2/GDP ratio and the Bank of Canada rate over the period 1935 to 2013 and plot them against each other (as in Figure 4) and fit a linear trend, you do get a slight inverse relationship. That is, a higher money supply to GDP ratio is correlated with lower interest rates. However, I admit this is a pretty noisy picture. Moreover, this discussion focuses just on Canada and international economic and monetary conditions play a role in the Canadian economy. It would be interesting to see how the performance of Canada’s M2 to GDP ratio over time compares to other countries.
We have been expecting interest rates to rise for several years now because GDP has recovered somewhat from the 2009 financial crisis and the Canadian economy is growing. As a result, one might expect a growing demand for money and credit to fuel rising interest rates. However, money supply – as measured in this case by M2 – is still growing faster than GDP. I think we will see interest rates start to increase provided first that GDP continues to expand and then the M2/GDP ratio starts to drop. However, its not enough that this happens just in Canada – it would also need to happen on a global scale. I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. For example, look at Japan.