RIA Novosti presents the ten most significant events of 2009 in the Russian economy.
AvtoVAZ: suitcase without a handle
The Russian auto industry suffered more than car manufacturers in other countries, and reduced demand for cars dealt the harshest blow at AvtoVAZ, Russia’s flagship of passenger cars. According to AvtoVAZ estimates, the company’s liabilities could reach 75 billion rubles ($2.5 bln) by the end of 2009.
Russian authorities have said again and again that they will not allow the auto giant to go bankrupt, backing these statements with unprecedented state support. In spring 2009, the government allocated 25 billion rubles to AvtoVAZ, but the company quickly went through it and asked for more. The authorities called on the auto giant’s shareholders, including the Renault-Nissan alliance [Renault owns 25% of AvtoVAZ – Ed.], to share the burden of responsibility, threatening to dilute their stakes otherwise.
AvtoVAZ’s partners agreed, and a contract was signed in November to restructure the company and allocate 50 billion rubles in state support, as well as 300 million euros in the form of technology from Renault-Nissan. Job cuts had to be made because of financial problems; AvtoVAZ management estimates that approximately one-fifth of the workforce was made redundant. Around five billion rubles were allocated to keep the people employed and special terms for their employment are being established.
2009 budget: the first deficit budget in some time
In 2009, the federal budget ran at a deficit for the first time in eight years. The deficit was planned at 8.3% of GDP, and by the end of the year, the Ministry of Finance announced that the results would be better than expected, amounting to 6.9% or 7.3% of GDP accounting for quasi-fiscal measures (subordinated loans disbursed from the sovereign wealth fund).
Kremlin pool, budget deficit: how long can we hold out?
The main reason for the deficit is a sustained high level of government spending amid falling oil prices and tax revenues. Total spending in 2009 was approximately 10 trillion rubles, which included 1.1 trillion rubles in government injections into the economy, such as subsidies and state guarantees for loans, as well as contributions to the charter capital of companies fully or partially owned by the state. Financial authorities also actively contributed to liquidity – during peak demand for financing, the maximum gross amount of new lending from the Central Bank to the banking sector reached four trillion rubles. The level of social spending was unprecedented.
2009 budget: how much will be spend on national projects?
The Ministry of Finance was forced to “loosen the purse strings” on the “rainy day fund,” from which around 2.7 trillion rubles were allocated to cover the budget deficit. The fund shrank to 2.2 trillion rubles by December 1. In 2010, the money will run out, said Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.
Ruble: volatility after devaluation
The controlled devaluation of the ruble, which started in November 2008, finished in January. In order to maintain financial stability, the Russian Central Bank avoided landslide devaluation by gradually lowering the exchange rate. This still entailed massive losses. Russia’s international reserves fell by more than 200 billion rubles ($6.7 bln) from August 2008 to March 2009, but the time lag allowed Russians to convert their savings into hard currency.
During the controlled devaluation period, the ruble fell 35% in relation to the dollar-euro basket (0.55 of the dollar and 0.45 of the euro). As of February, amid rising oil prices and the gradual recovery of the global economy, the ruble grew again, but in the summer it fell again for a short time based on rumors of a second wave of devaluation.
Changes in exchange rates during 2008-2009
At the end of the year, real prerequisites for a new devaluation appeared – a steep rise in budgetary spending, Russian companies’ increased foreign debt payments, etc. Given these conditions, the ruble fell slightly, but in the absence of serious disturbances on foreign markets, experts did not expect any sharp drops on the Russian foreign exchange market.
Opel: the deal of the year falls through
The deal to sell ailing automaker Opel, the European subsidiary of U.S. auto giant General Motors, to a consortium of the Austrian-Canadian firm Magna and Russia’s Sberbank would have been one of the main events of the year – if it had actually happened. However, the event of the year was that GM unexpectedly backed out.
Negotiations on the deal started in May. There were two main contenders – the Austrian-Canadian-Russian consortium and the Belgian investment fund RHJ. The German authorities favored the consortium, which promised to minimize job cuts and proposed what was in their view an optimum development strategy for the company. GM, on its part, was afraid that its intellectual property would “fall into the hands of the Russians.”
The negotiations proceeded normally, as the contenders sweetened their offers and GM vacillated. By mid-September, GM had “agreed” to a deal with the consortium, but suddenly reversed the decision in November, having decided to restructure the company with GM’s own resources.
The Russian side stated that it did not suffer because of this; however, it had learned an important lesson. The Russian government was subsequently forced to reconsider its development strategy for the Russian auto industry – the authorities will now court other foreign partners.
Inflation: a hair’s breadth from a record
The inflation figure for the past year could beat a three-year old record (in 2006, inflation peaked at 9%), confirming the adage that the darkest hour is before dawn: prices froze because of a sharp fall in purchasing power during the crisis. The government expects a slowdown in price growth of 8.8%-9.0% in 2009.
Record low inflation has enabled the Bank of Russia to lower the refinancing rate nine times by a total of four percentage points to the historical minimum of 9%. The regulator does not rule out a tenth lowering of the rate in the last week of the year. Monetary authorities are not fazed that the refinancing rate could turn out to be lower than the year’s inflation. They have explained that it is actually an indicator of inflationary expectations.
The Central Bank, having implemented a rather intrepid interest rate policy, is counting on an easing of lending that will stimulate economic activity and consumer demand.
ESPO: oil flows to the east
In late December, the first stage of the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO) will be commissioned. Transneft is already actually using this pipeline, which was built to transport Russian oil to the markets of the Asia-Pacific region.
The project will be implemented in two stages. The first stage runs from Taishet (Irkutsk Region) to Skovorodino (Amur Region). The second stage will then connect Skovorodino with the oil terminal Kozmino in Primorye. After both stages are on stream, the pipeline’s capacity will be 80 million metric tons per year. Rosneft and TNK-BP will provide the pipeline's first oil consignments.
In order to stimulate development of oil fields along the pipeline route, authorities have nullified the export duty on oil from 13 Eastern Siberian fields and the nullification of the duty on five more fields is under discussion.
Superjet is ever closer to clients
Another significant event in 2009 was the public demonstration of the capabilities of the Russian short-haul airplane Sukhoi Superjet 100, developed by Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company and Boeing. Parts are supplied by well-known Russian and foreign companies. For example, the French firm Snecma was involved in developing the plane’s engines.
The Superjet 100 was unveiled in June at the Paris Le Bourget Airshow in France and in August at the MAKS 2009 Airshow in Zhukovsky. The public could not only see the plane in action but also sit in its cockpit.
The Superjet 100 is not only an impressive new product that the Russian aviation industry needs, but a commercially viable product. There are already 122 confirmed orders for this plane, including orders from the largest Russian airline Aeroflot and the Armenian company Armavia. Nevertheless, due to delays in deliveries of engines for the Superjet, companies will receive the plane no earlier than the start of the second half of 2010, experts say.
FAS puts pressure on oil companies
The Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) has been fining oil companies for years, but it set a record in fall 2009 for the number of claims. FAS demanded a total of 21 billion rubles ($706.5 mln) in fines for fuel price gouging from Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Rosneft and TNK-BP.
Experts say that such fines are significant even for the oil companies with their sizable earnings. Furthermore, companies are forced to rectify prices in line with FAS directives. Consequently, Lukoil estimated its losses at $100 million to $120 million due to FAS actions. Oil companies have contested FAS decisions in court, but with varied success: Lukoil lost, but Gazprom Neft and TNK-BP were able to have some of their fines rescinded.
Both sides have had enough and sat down at the negotiating table in fall 2009 in order to come up with a formula to calculate competitive fuel prices. The sides had planned to reach an agreement on the main points by the New Year, but have so far been unable.
Trade to be cleaned up
In December, the State Duma finally passed a draft law on state regulation of commerce in the Russian Federation. The law had been languishing in development hell for several years due to disagreements among various government agencies. The law is expected to be passed before the end of the year and it will come into force on February 1, 2010.
Not only manufacturers and retailers clashed over the bill, but also various branches of federal agencies. Proponents of the bill say that strengthened state regulation will eliminate the imbalances that bring retail chains more than half of their profits. The law stipulates stiff antimonopoly measures; for example, infrastructure limitations will be imposed on companies already holding a 25% share of a local market. In a number of cases, authorities can hold down prices on food products for up to 90 days.
In turn, retail companies are criticizing a number of regulations and say the law needs to be amended. They do not rule out the risk of higher prices on food products and shrinkage of assortment of goods in Russia after the law comes into force.
The Russian alcohol market has finally made the transition from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture to the Federal Alcohol Market Regulation Service (Rosalkogolregulirovaniye), which was established at the end of 2008.
In 2008, the authorities also stripped the Ministry of Agriculture of “fishing rights,” putting the Federal Fishery Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) under the direct control of the government.
The Federal Alcohol Market Regulation Service’s first coup was the introduction of a minimum retail price for vodka – 89 rubles ($3) for a half-liter bottle – as of January 1, 2010. This measure is meant to decrease the circulation of illegally-produced alcohol and decrease alcohol consumption.
The service has also developed a draft concept to bring alcohol consumption down by the year 2020 and has introduced a draft law on licensing the transportation of alcohol. The service is discussing the timeframe for introducing a single excise rate on alcohol to be paid on delivery from the distiller.
MOSCOW, January 3 (RIA Novosti)