How bad is the Russian economy, really?

Commercial trade port in Vladivostok, Russia. Shutterstock
Commercial trade port in Vladivostok, Russia. Shutterstock
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Updated 16 March 2022

How bad is the Russian economy, really?

How bad is the Russian economy, really?

RIYADH: On March 9, Russia’s central bank ordered new capital controls, limiting withdrawals in foreign currencies.
The Bank of Russia or the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, CBR, declared that it would cap cash withdrawals of citizens holding accounts in foreign currency to $10,000 until Sept. 9.

The decision came in the backdrop of a Fitch Ratings warning of an imminent Russian government default on its external debt. At the end of February, Russia’s central bank had already introduced some capital controls and doubled its key policy rate to 20 percent per annum. The measure was an attempt to prevent the free fall of the ruble since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion on Feb. 24 and sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, UK and Japan.

But is the war sustainable in the long run? 

“There are two main sets of reserves that many people thought would allow Russia to fund its war and weather sanctions. The first is the foreign reserves held by the CBR worth about $640 billion. Sanctions against the CBR mean that it cannot access those reserves held abroad, nor can it easily exchange its domestically held reserves on international markets,” said Robert Person, professor of international relations at the US Military Academy (West Point), while speaking in his personal capacity to Arab News. 

This situation essentially limits Russia’s ability to shore up the ruble, use its funds to pay off some of its debt, or pay for imports. Many hinted at Russia’s rising reserves from 2015 onward as evidence of Russia’s growing war chest. But that money is only good if Russia can access it and, right now, it cannot access a large portion of those funds, explained Person. 

National Wealth Fund

The second set of reserves is Russia’s National Wealth Fund, known as NWF. “This is where surplus revenue from energy sales gets deposited when oil prices are high. Again, many people pointed to this fund as evidence of Putin’s ability to fund a long-term war or weather sanctions indefinitely,” pointed out Person. 

However, the academician reasoned that this assumption has two main problems. During the financial crises of 2009 and 2014 in Russia, Moscow had to withdraw heavily from this fund to support the economy. “It is not a bottomless piggy bank,” added Person.

Valued at $189 billion in June 2021, Russia’s NWF is far smaller than Saudi Arabia’s PIF in comparison, valued at around $430 billion, he remarks. 

The NWF value stood at $174.9 as of Feb. 1, 2022, according to most recent data from Russia’s Ministry of Finance.   

Banking sanctions

Another problem the Russian government is facing is banking sanctions, which block Russia’s ability to convert their funds into foreign currencies, limiting their usability, said Person. “The recession Russia is likely to experience in 2022 onward is to be far more severe than what they saw in 2009, 2014, or 2020. Whatever funds from the NWF Russia can spend is unlikely to last very long in providing macroeconomic stability,” argued Person.

Analysts polled by the CBR showed the Russian economy is expected to contract by 8 percent in 2022. However, this survey was conducted before the 20-percent interest rate hike was announced by the CBR. 

In addition, Bloomberg Economics predicts inflation will peak at an annual 19 percent around July, in comparison with 9.2 percent last month, and end the year at about 16 percent.

Russia’s NWF was severely depleted by the crises of 2008 and 2010. A low-level conflict in Ukraine between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government in 2014 further dwindled Russia’s funds. “Russia had to spend heavily out of the NWF to cover federal budget deficits and finance off-budget stimulus,” said the professor.

Historic data shows NWF value fell to some $60 billion at end of June 2019 from $88.6 at end of 2013 only to jump to $125.6 billion at end of 2019 and continued rising to reach $197.8 billion at end of October 2021.   

Military expenditures

Today, the most intriguing question is how much is Russia spending on its war efforts since the onset of tensions in 2014. Person said it is tough to estimate, especially since Russia denied any involvement in the Donbas conflict from 2014 until its current invasion.

“However, overall Russian military expenditures rose steadily throughout Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reign, reaching a peak of just over $200 billion in 2016,” he added. 

Other challenges faced by Russia stemmed from US President Joe Biden’s announcement on March 9 to impose an immediate ban on Russian oil and other energy imports in retaliation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK said it would phase out its Russian oil imports by the end of 2022. If more countries follow suit, this could prove disastrous for Moscow. Russia is counting on high oil prices to boost its revenues.

“On the other hand, Russia can be expected to use whatever funds it can spend to prevent the collapse of the Russian economy. I would expect the value of the NWF to drop sharply as Moscow tries to deal with a severe recession,” said Person. One advantage it still benefits from is that the Russian economy is not heavily indebted. 

“Before COVID-19, the annual growth from 2016-2019 averaged 1.7 percent. It posted a 2.95 percent decline in GDP in 2020, while it registered a 4.3 percent recovery in 2021. But there are many deep structural features of Russia’s economic system that severely limited its long-term growth potential, even before sanctions were imposed,” explained Person.  

 

Economic strength

Russia’s economic strength is that it is one of the least indebted countries globally, with its national debt equalling 17.88 percent of the GDP, according to Person.

Budget deficits are often in positive territory. In 2019, the Russian budget deficit was a surplus of 1.8 percent, followed by a deficit of 3.8 percent in 2020 and a surplus of 0.4 percent in 2021.

Yet, Russia’s Finance Ministry said it was preparing to service some of its foreign currency debt in rubles if sanctions prevented banks from paying their debts in the currency they were issued in, according to Reuters.

Person further said that it was still too early to tell how hard the sanctions would hit the key macroeconomic indicators such as GDP, inflation, and unemployment. “But we’re already seeing the effect with bank runs and the collapse in the ruble’s value,” he added.

The Russian currency was trading at 121.85 in mid-day trading on March 14, down from previous close of 132.9, representing an extraordinary drop from the 75 rubles to a dollar, before the crisis. 

 “With the Bank of Russia unable to use its reserves to defend the ruble, domestic unrest may grow in Russia as citizens’ purchasing power evaporates,” he augured.


Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
Updated 21 May 2022

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
  • Capital Economics says it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, driven by increased activities in the oil and non-oil sectors, according to a recent note from Capital Economics.

The London-based independent research firm said it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens.

Capital Economics expects the Kingdom to achieve the projected 10-percent growth due to a  significant increase in oil output combined with an expected loosening of fiscal policy that is set to encourage growth in the non-oil sector.

This projection follows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

In regards to performance on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the growth is attributed to a 2.9 percent rise in oil GDP due to increased output on the back of the OPEC+ deal and a 2.5 percent growth in non-oil activities.

The increase in energy prices, which has been the largest since the 1973 oil crisis, together with the war in Ukraine — which altered the global patterns on trade, production and consumption — have contributed to this record GDP growth.

SPEEDREAD

The projection by London-based Capital Economicsfollows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

Though Saudi Arabia still hasn’t met its OPEC+ quota, it is one of the few members raising produc- tion significantly. With other member countries struggling to meet their quotas and an expected decline in Russian output, Capital Economics predicts the Kingdom will increase oil production faster than anticipated under the current OPEC+ agreement.

According to the World Bank, energy prices are expected to rise more than 50 percent in 2022, before easing in 2023 and 2024.

As oil prices remain elevated, policymakers are expected to relax fiscal policy to stimulate non-oil activities, with a reduction in the value-added tax a possibility, the note from Capital Economics pointed out.

The Kingdom’s non-oil sector has also expanded at the fastest rate in over four years, according to the Saudi Arabia PMI survey.

This has been due to new business and activity that boosted sharply as client demand recov- ered after COVID-19.

The increase in business also came in line with Vision 2030, a reform plan that aims to diversify the country’s economic resources.

The 10 percent figure projected by Capital Economics is much higher than recent projections from the IMF, which predicted the Saudi economy to grow by 7.6 percent in 2022, as mentioned in its World Economic Outlook released in April 2022.  


Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
Updated 21 May 2022

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
  • The new office will be a stand-alone; it will create jobs for Saudi citizens: CEO

Flash Entertainment plans to open a stand-alone office in Saudi Arabia within 3 months as the Kingdom is becoming a hotspot for events and leisure.

The entertainment firm, based in the UAE, is one of the Middle East’s leading live entertainment companies known for organizing some of the biggest global events, including several Formula One Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, the FIFA Club World Cup, UAE National Day, the AFC Asian Cup — arguably the biggest event in the region prior to the upcoming Qatar World Cup — and even Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE in 2019, which saw over 180,000 people in attendance.

“The new office will be the Saudi headquarters, it’s a stand alone, it’s not a branch,” the company’s CEO John Lickrish told Arab News. “We have a branch office in Dubai but here we wanted to set up our own office.” The new office will create 25 jobs for Saudi citizens. Lickrish who was in Riyadh for the fourth edition of the Saudi Entertain- ment and Amusement Expo this week was attending the event to touch base with the local commu- nity in the sector.

“I’m here to touch base with the local community suppliers and decision makers and try to make people aware that we’re entering the market,” he said. “We have done events here but now that we’re establishing an office, we want to integrate the GCC into a network of reliable promoters and suppliers that we can count on, and that’s the real goal of this.”

HIGHLIGHTS

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

The SEA Expo, held at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, is the first trade event dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning entertainment and leisure industry, with sellers from around the world showcasing the latest and greatest advances in the sector.

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

“The office will mostly have people from KSA,” Lickrish said. “We are going to be training them in our systems and processes, but they need to be here on the ground. Right now, we’re looking at 25 (local hires) based on our business plan for the next three years. From there, the sky is the limit.”

Flash Entertainment covers everything from event ideation, event management, marketing and communications, ticketing and sales, talent procurement and full operational and production delivery, as well as managing a portfolio of assets, including the Etihad Park and the multi-purpose state-of-the-art Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

A location for the office has yet to be decided, however, with Jeddah and Dammam as potential cities to set up the shop.

“This is a big populous, so for us, that’s interesting, and it’s an emerging market in the region as well.” Lickrish said. “I think what is important for us now is really setting the foundations, making sure that the country and the region is represented as not only capable but excelling in this field. And then we’ll go on to the regional talent and develop the local markets.” According to Lickrish, the company created the first citywide integrated enter- tainment program for Formula One in 2009 that has since been emulated with subsequent grands prix around the world. “So that was an innovation that we brought into the global market.”

Lickrish himself has been in the entertainment business for over 30 years and in the region for 14. He hopes to bring his exper- tise to Saudi Arabia that plans to invest $64 billion in the devel- opment of the entertainment industry over the next decade as part of Vision 2030.

“My goal is to see a self- sustaining, vibrant, regional business that has international recognition and ultimately a footprint globally,” he said. “We want to be giving them a unique experience, as well as a cultural and international experience.”


FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
Updated 20 May 2022

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
  • The institute is investing $527,515 in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement
  • Timbeter provides an AI-driven photo-optics app that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter

LONDON: The Future Investment Initiative Institute hosted a summit in London about Environmental, Social and Governance in emerging markets, involving world leaders, global CEOs, international investors, thought leaders and heads of sustainability.

The event unveiled a new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology to inform and accelerate investments in emerging economies.

The new methodology aims to give unbiased ratings for companies in emerging markets who currently receive less than 10 percent of ESG flows, despite being home to nearly 90 percent of the world’s population and roughly half of global GDP.

ESG rating agencies are one of the main barriers to increasing investment in emerging markets. Currently, mainstream rating agencies employ key perfor- mance indicators not relevant to emerging markets. The existing frameworks focus too much on disclosure and ignore year-over- year performance improvement.

The new framework, developed with the support of Ernst & Young, values performance improvement over time more than breadth of disclosure, emphasizing sectoral challenges rather than country risks, to ensure fair competition between companies in both emerging markets and developed markets.

The FII Institute is investing €500,000 ($527,515) in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement. Timbeter provides an artificial intelligence-driven photo-optics application that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter.

Timbeter is a software as a service workflow management solution for the timber industry, founded in 2013 at the Nordic Hackathon by Anna-Greta Tsakhna, its CEO, and Martin Kambla, CTO.

Forestry continues to be an important and controversial issue, with world forests decreasing by a third in size over the last century due to reckless practices.

This technology is key to a more proactive management of forests and a more sustainable sector.

Meanwhile, the ESG white paper is designed to encourage greater ESG investment in emerging markets. It calls on investors to publicly commit to raising the portion of capital allocated to emerging markets from less than 10 percent today to a minimum of 30 percent of committed and invested capital by 2030. It also calls on governments to encourage emerging market-headquartered companies to become more proactive at disclosing relevant information through their normal reporting channels.

Richard Attias, CEO of the FII Institute, said: “Central to our work at FII Institute is to increase awareness about the weaknesses in current ESG standards and their impact on global sustainability prospects, and to advocate for an inclusive and equitable application of ESG through driving real action by key players globally.

“ESG has been one of the fastest-growing investment strategies over the past few years, accounting for one-third of all assets under management. But this growth is not even. Working with our partners at EY, we identified and removed the barriers to ESG investment in emerging markets, which are often overlooked,” he added.

“By launching the Inclusive ESG Framework and Scoring Methodology, investing in a global sustainable solutions company, and publishing our recent ESG white paper — we are making tangible actions to create a better future for humanity. And we are confident that our partners around the world will help us drive those actions further.”


Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target
Updated 20 May 2022

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is now establishing a new hydrogen company and it will be like a mediator in many of the PIF’s initiatives.

Speaking in a regional forum on ESG organized by the Future Investment Initiative in London, the governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said the sovereign wealth fund  plans to develop 70 percent of renewable energy targets under vision 2030.

The fund owns companies that are already developing hydrogen such as NEOM and Aramco. 

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PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit
Updated 20 May 2022

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

RIYADH: The Future Investment Initiative Foundation will host its first ever regional summit on Friday, in Rosewood London, England, entitled Inclusive Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance in Emerging Markets.

The most prominent participants in the event include the FII Chairman and Governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasser Al-Rumayyan, Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad and Blackrock CEO Larry Fink.

The summit will bring together international investors, world leaders, thought leaders, policy makers, global CEOs, and chiefs of sustainability to discuss and shape the future of ESG, particularly in emerging markets.

“The planet has major problems with climate, with destruction of nature, peace and security. But we also have tremendous resources, including our common humanity,” Executive Director of the FII Institute, Richard Attias said.

“We believe that ESG is an important tool to bring us together and channel capital to meet these challenges,” he said.

Using ESG standards to make investment decisions is a global boom, with assets expected to reach $53 trillion, about a third of global assets under management, by 2025, a statement showed.

Still, the lack of a framework for the effective implementation of ESG in emerging economies represent a stumbling block for investors. 

The FII says it will finally have the tool needed to develop sustainable investment strategies in these markets, through its proprietary measurement framework, developed in collaboration with investors, global companies, and FII’s strategic partners.

The Foundation works to impact humanity across four focus areas: artificial intelligence, robotics, education, health care, and sustainability.

The event is part of a series of events hosted by the Foundation, which will culminate in the sixth edition of the annual FII Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October.

 

The PIF view

The PIF understands that being engaged in ESG is the right thing to do, Rania Nashar, head of compliance and governance at the fund, told the conference.

PIF companies are announcing emission reductions but it's not only about the destination, it is about the journey, she added.

“We approach the ESG through multiple aspects. Through creating platforms, sponsoring events and launching initiatives,” she said.