US won’t send officials to China’s Belt and Road Forum

Washington has dismissed Beijing’s global infrastructure initiative as a ‘vanity project.’ (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2019

US won’t send officials to China’s Belt and Road Forum

  • Leaders from 37 countries and officials from dozens more are expected to attend the Belt and Road Forum from Thursday to Saturday
  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told journalists at a briefing last week that US diplomats, state government representatives and members of the business community would be attending the forum

BEIJING: Washington will not send officials to a Beijing summit on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure project, the US embassy said Wednesday amid a raft of disputes between the two powers.
Leaders from 37 countries and officials from dozens more are expected to attend the Belt and Road Forum from Thursday to Saturday, but Washington has dismissed the initiative as a “vanity project.”
“The United States has no plans to send officials from Washington to the Belt and Road Forum,” a US embassy spokesperson told AFP in an email.
“We call upon all countries to ensure that their economic diplomacy initiatives adhere to internationally-accepted norms and standards, promote sustainable, inclusive development, and advance good governance and strong economic institutions,” the spokesperson said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told journalists at a briefing last week that American diplomats, state government representatives and members of the business community will be attending the forum.
At the first Belt and Road summit in 2017, the US was represented by White House adviser Matt Pottinger.
Since then, more countries have signed up to Belt and Road, most notably Italy, which became the first G7 nation to join the global scheme that aims to link Asia to Europe and Africa through massive investments in maritime, road and rail projects.


Easy credit poses tough challenge for Russian economy minister

Updated 18 August 2019

Easy credit poses tough challenge for Russian economy minister

  • Measures being prepared to help indebted citizens; situation might blow up in 2021

MOSCOW: New machines popping up in Russian shopping centers seem innocuous enough — users insert their passport and receive a small loan in a matter of minutes.

But the devices, which dispense credit in Saint Petersburg malls at a sky-high annual rate of 365 percent, are another sign of a credit boom that has authorities worried.

Russians, who have seen their purchasing power decline in recent years, are borrowing more and more to buy goods or simply to make ends meet.

The level of loans has grown so much in the last 18 months that the economy minister warned it could contribute to another recession.

But it’s a sensitive topic. Limiting credit would deprive households of financing that is sometimes vital, and could hobble already stagnant growth.

The Russian economy was badly hit in 2014 by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in Ukraine, and it has yet to fully recover.

“Tightening lending conditions could immediately damage growth,” Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, told AFP.

“Continuing retail loan growth is currently the main supporting factor,” she noted.

But “the situation could blow up in 2021,” Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin warned in a recent interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

He said measures were being prepared to help indebted Russians.

According to Oreshkin, consumer credit’s share of household debt increased by 25 percent last year and now represents 1.8 trillion rubles, around $27.5 billion.

For a third of indebted households, he said, credit reimbursement eats up 60 percent of their monthly income, pushing many to take out new loans to repay old ones.

Orlova said other countries in the region, for example in Eastern Europe, had even higher levels of overall consumer debt as a percentage of national output or GDP.

But Russian debt is “not spread equally, it is mainly held by lower income classes,” which are less likely to repay, she said.

The situation has led to friction between the government and the central bank, with ministers like Oreshkin criticizing it for not doing enough to restrict loans.

Meanwhile, economic growth slowed sharply early this year following recoveries in 2017 and 2018, with an increase of just 0.7 percent in the first half of 2019 from the same period a year earlier.

That was far from the 4.0 percent annual target set by President Vladimir Putin — a difficult objective while the country is subject to Western sanctions.

With 19 million people living below the poverty line, Russia is in dire need of development.

“The problem is that people don’t have money,” Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow wrote recently.

“This is why we can physically feel the trepidation of the financial and economic authorities,” he added. Kolesnikov described the government’s economic policy as something that “essentially boils down to collecting additional cash from the population and spending it on goals indicated by the state.”

At the beginning of his fourth presidential term in 2018, Putin unveiled ambitious “national projects.”

The cost of those projects — which fall into 12 categories that range from health to infrastructure — is estimated at $400 billion by 2024, of which $115 billion is to come from private investment.