A recent trip to Moscow on the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution revealed not a whiff of revolutionary change in the economy, but rather stagnant growth mixed with structural stability, according to Yacov Arnopolin, emerging market portfolio manager at PIMCO. “We could simply call it stagnant stability,” he suggests.
On the bright side, despite the tepid rebound, Russia proved its resilience to shocks, in no small part thanks to orthodox policymaking by the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance, he continues. “The latest examples of what we believe are prudent policies are the freeze on nominal expenditure and a fiscal rule designed to sterilise oil revenue above US$40/barrel and replenish the Reserve Fund by purchasing US dollars in the market (assuming no budgetary deficit). A strong signal that policymakers intend to prevent wasteful spending, the measure is even more impressive coming just a year ahead of presidential elections.
“While the likelihood of US and European sanctions removal is difficult to estimate given the murky international political climate, we believe there are four key considerations on this front:
“Sanctions removal is far from assured given US congressional hawkishness toward Russia and the dimming prospects of pro-Russia French presidential candidate François Fillon. Rather than a blanket lifting of sanctions, there may be piecemeal adjustments that alleviate the choke on individual industries.
“The impact is more likely to be felt via the capital account (additional foreign asset purchases) than in the real economy. Russia’s investment climate remains subpar given transparency issues, and restored trade ties with Europe, for example, may not translate into a wave of foreign direct investment. Banks report lukewarm demand for loans from Russian corporates as they see a dearth of investment opportunities in the local economy.
“With over 35% of budgetary receipts, 60% of exports and circa 10% of gross domestic product, the oil and gas sector is and will remain the key driver of Russia’s prospects. Just as the introduction of sanctions proved less dire for the country’s GDP than feared, so will their removal be less of a boon than hoped.
“The surge in the ruble and rally in the country’s credit and CDS (credit default swap) spreads suggest markets have already priced in a favourable (for Russia) outcome with regards to sanctions. An actual removal may thus do little to further fuel asset prices.
“For bond investors, however, Russia may appear to be a “safe(r)” haven in times of emerging market volatility than less stable emerging market countries. Despite its hawkishness and razor-sharp focus on achieving 4% inflation, the central bank is likely to cut rates later in 2017. And even if the ruble’s rally may be running out of steam, we believe it remains an attractive currency on a carry-to-volatility basis,” he concludes.