Russia is in the middle of a currency crisis. On December 15th its currency lost 10% of its value, having already lost about 40% this year. The central bank increased interest rates sharply, but instead of calming the market the hike was seen as a sign of desperation. The following day the rouble was at one point down a further 20% (and ended the day 10% lower). The central bank reckons that GDP could fall by 5% in 2015. Inflation is currently at 10% but is expected to accelerate rapidly. Russians are panic-buying; banks are running out of dollars. What’s gone wrong with Russia’s economy?
The problems were long in the making. Russia is highly dependent on oil revenues (hydrocarbons contribute over half the federal budget and two-thirds of exports) and over the past decade it has failed to diversify its economy. It is horribly corrupt, has weak institutions and no real property rights. The Kremlin distributes oil money via state banks to firms and projects which it selects on the basis of their political importance and their pro-Putin stance, rather than trusting the market to allocate capital to the most efficient firms. If you look at wealth, Russia is the world’s second-most unequal country. Its working-age population is shrinking fast.
Western sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s meddling in Ukraine have dealt a blow to the economy. But the proximate cause of the turmoil of the last few days is concern about Russia’s corporate sector. During 2015 Russia’s firms must repay $100 billion-worth of foreign debt. But as the rouble falls, paying back dollars becomes more difficult.