Friday, March 11, 2022

Long term: Difficulties of import substitution and delocalization

 When we look at Russia’s long-term economic prospects, it is also useful to begin with some assumptions and to look at historical examples. We can make two assumptions. First, that the current Russian regime, in one form or another, might continue for some ten to twenty years.

Second, we can assume that American and Western sanctions will continue throughout the entre period of say, 50 years that we consider here. The arguments for this are as follows. US sanctions once imposed are extraordinary difficult to lift. As of today, there are already 6,000 various Western sanctions imposed against Russia which is more than the sum of sanctions in existence against Iran, Syria and North Korea put together. History shows that US sanctions can last almost without any time limit: sanctions on Cuba are more than 60 years  old, on Iran, more than 40 years old, and even the sanctions on the USSR (e.g. the Jackson-Vanik amendment) that were imposed for one reason continued on the books during twenty years after the end of the USSR even after the original reason that led to sanctions (Jewish migration) had entirely disappeared.

When the post-Putin government tries to have sanctions lifted, it will be faced by a such a list of concessions that would be politically impossible to satisfy. Thus, sanctions, perhaps not in the exactly the same form, may be expected to last for the entire duration of what we call the long-term here (50 years).

It seems obvious then  that Russian long-term economic policy will have to follow two objectives: import substitution, and the shift of the economic activity away from Europe towards Asia. While these objectives are, I think, clear the realization will be extremely difficult.

As before, consider the historical precedents. Soviet industrialization can be seen as an attempt to substitute imports by creating a strong domestic industrial base. That process however was based on two elements that would be missing in Russia’s future.

First, Soviet access to Western technology that was at the origin of most large Soviet complexes like the Krivoy Rog  and the largest factory of tractors in the world in Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad). The surplus extracted through collectivization, and hunger and death of millions, and even the gold taken from Orthodox churches, were used to purchase Western technology. There was never any doubt among the Bolsheviks, from Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin to Bukharin, that for the USSR to develop,  it had to industrialize and to do so it needs to import technology from the more developed countries. (That conscience of relative underdevelopment of Russia was extremely strong among all Russian Marxists who were all modernizers.)  The ability to import similarly advanced Western technology that could provide the basis for  downstream import substitution, will not exist under the regime of sanctions. Therefore such technology would have to be invented locally.

There is, however, a huge temporal break. Had anyone proposed import substitution approach in the 1990s, it would have been difficult to implement but not impossible: the USSR (and Russia) had at that time a broad industrial base (production of airplanes, cars, white goods; largest producer of steel etc.). The sector was not internationally competitive but, it could have been improved, and with right investments made competitive,. But most of these industrial complexes have in the meantime been privatized and liquidated, and whatever was not, is technologically obsolete. In thirty years after the beginning of the “transition”, Russia has not been able to develop any technologically advanced industry except in the military area.

Take the example of passenger airplanes. In 1970s, USSR was certainly ahead of Brazil, and even of ahead of Europe that began developing Airbus only in 1972. But that industry was destroyed during the transition, and the only remnant of it is Sukhoi Superjet that is currently used by several Russian airline companies but has not been sold (almost) anywhere else in the world. In contrast, Brazilian Embraer operates in 60 countries.

Doing import substitutions in conditions where both the base of such substitution will have to be recreated and then new industries created without much (or any) input through investments from the more advanced parts of the world is almost impossible to do. This is the problem that China was able to solve only after a dramatic foreign policy shift in the mid-1970s. But that option, by definition, will be unavailable to Russia.

The second factor underpinning Soviet industrialization was the increase in the labor force. It came from the supply of the surplus agricultural labor, increased overall population, and very important, from the improving level of education. The USSR in the 1930s used to produce annually hundreds of thousands of various types of engineers, scientists, doctors etc. None of these elements will hold in the next half-century. The Russian population is urbanized, shrinking in size, and is well-educated. Hence gains cannot come from any of the three sources that were used in the 1930s.

Of course, highly educated labor force is a plus. But that labor, in order to produce its maximum, needs also to work with top technology. If top technology is unavailable (for the reasons  explained above), highly educated labor will be wasted. Due to the shrinking population, even the overall pool of such labor will every years be smaller. Since it will not find adequate use and adequate pay in Russia it will tend to emigrate thus further shrinking the available number of highly skilled workers. It is not impossible that Russia might return to the Soviet policy of not allowing free migration—now under the pressure of economic factors. It was precisely the outflow of highly qualified workers that led East Germany to erect the Berlin Wall.

We can thus conclude that factors that made import substitution feasible in the 1930s and 1950s in the Soviet Union will not work in tomorrow’s Russia.

What are the prospect of shifting the center of gravity of the economic life from West to East? Technically, one can imagine a new type of Peter the Great move where Russia opens not a window on Europe (what St Petersburg was supposed to be) but a window on East Asia, by, for example, moving its capital to Vladivostok and trying to shift as much as possible of economic and bureaucratic life, together with the population East. If things could be moved by a decree, such a shift could even be arguably seen as quite reasonable. East Asia is, and will remain, the fastest growing part of the world. Leaving Europe, which in many ways is also a declining continent, could be seen as a right move. Russia is, with the United States, the only country in the world that can make such a radical move; for others, geography is much more of a destiny. Politically too, Russia is unlikely to be exposed to sanctions and political pressures by China, India, Vietnam or Indonesia in the same way as it is by UK, France and Germany. Finally,  a Pacific vocation could be seen as a replay of the American thrust to open the new frontier a century and half ago. Climate change might also help by making the Northern Russian territories more habitable.

            How feasible is such a change? It would require massive investments in infrastructure, including much better communication between the two far-flung parts of Russia: the flight from Moscow  to Vladivostok takes almost 10 hours and the train ride more than a week. Developing new cities along the way, expanding the existing ones etc. does not only require investments that a shrinking Russian economy cannot provide. It would also require creation of new jobs in such cities, the only thing that could attract the population to move from the European to the Asian Russia. The Soviet Union tried to do so by opening many Northern outposts in Siberia, paying workers higher salaries to move there, and did have some limited success. These towns and settlements have almost all died in the past thirty years though. It is difficult to see how such a massive shift of activity can be accomplished without huge investments and indeed some comprehensive urban and production planning.

            Both policies, namely import substitution and shift towards the East, will therefore meet with almost insuperable obstacles. It does not mean that they cannot be undertaken; some of them will by done, by necessity: Russian softwares will have to be produced to replace the 95% of western-origin software that is currently used in automated Russian companies (Russian newspaper sources). Closer economic ties with China would also imply some movement of companies and people East. A Siberian or a Pacific city can become the second capital (as Ankara did in Turkey). But a significant success in either of these two domains seems—the best that can be seen from today’s perspective—simply unreachable.

            So what happens then? As I mentioned several years ago in the introduction  to the translation of my “Global inequality” in Russian, the future of the Eurasian continent looks very much like its past: the maritime areas along the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts will be fairly rich, much better-off that the significant large continental areas in the middle.  The opens up the question of how politically viable will be such an uneven distribution of economic activity: will migrations, or political reconfigurations “solve” such disequilibria?


Russia’s economic prospects: the short-run

 I will consider in two parts what seem  to me the short-term and long-term prospects for the Russian economy. 

            I begin with the short term. It is based on the assumption that the shooting war in Ukraine ends within months (that is, that it does not continue at its current intensity for years) and that there are no drastic internal changes in Russia, in the form of a coup, revolution etc.

            To answer the question of the short-term effects, it is useful to go through some history for which, unfortunately, Russia, thanks to its circular economic history, provides several examples. The most calamitous declines in income in the past 100 years occurred during the later stages of the First World War and the ensuing Civil War, as well as during the transition to capitalism in the 1990s. (Enormous decline in GDP, and especially consumption, happened also during the Second World War but they are more difficult to interpret.)

Between 1917 and 1922, Russian GDP was halved (all numbers given here are in real terms, i.e., adjusted for inflation); the industrial output in 1921 was 18% of the pre-War level; the agricultural production was 62% of the pre-War level. (The data are from Kritsman, 1926, quoted in Pipes, 1990; and from Block 1976; see also chapter 1 of my “Income, inequality and poverty during the transition from planned economy”). During the transition episode, Russian GDP per capita decreased between 1987 and 1995 by almost 40% (much greater decline than during the Great Depression in the United States).  The greatest one-year decline was in 1992 (16 percent), followed by the next two years of respectively 8 and 13 percent. (The data are from the World Bank.)

We can also take the third example of the 1998-99 financial crisis and the Russia’s default on government debt. In 1998, Russian GDP went down by 5 percent. The financial crisis and the general disorder of 1998-99  probably led Yeltsin to the realization that he could no longer control the Russian society and the economy: in a quick succession he appointed several Prime Ministers (all of them in one way or another linked to KGB—seemingly realizing than no one else could salvage the situation), and the rigmarole ended with Putin’s appointment on 31 December 1999. This  opened to Putin the venues of being elected president after Yeltsin’s early resignation (Yeltsin’s term would have normally ended in June 2000).

            The 1920s Civil War (obviously) and the transition were both greater economic shocks that the current one. The period of the early 1990s involved a wholesale change in the way enterprises functioned, the break-up of almost all economic ties with other Soviet republics, privatization, government’s inability to implement policies, and corruption on an epic scale. Today’s sanctions, however onerous for the economic activity, are unlikely to have the same impact in the short-run. But they would certainly have much more of an impact than the 1998-99 financial crisis. One can thus, very roughly,  put the expected decline in 2022—23 at high single digits, or low double digits: it is not going to be as sharp as in 1992, nor as (relatively) mild as in 1998.

            It is of course unclear how the costs of the decline will be distributed. Russian government has recently introduced a new, more favorable, indexation of  pensions (30% of Russia’s population are pensioners) but it is doubtful that, under the new conditions, it would be able to delivers that policy. The same is true for greater income-tested child benefits, voted in by the Duma. The withdrawal of many foreign firms, de facto embargo on a number of imports, and surely a decline in foreign and domestic investments, will increase unemployment. Currently, Russian unemployment is low, but it could go back to 7-8% or more, as it was in the 1990s. Russian safety net is simply not institutionally nor financially strong enough to maintain these people’s incomes at a reasonable level. The institutional weaknesses were revealed  by the effects of covid: the total number of registered covid deaths was 360,000 and Russian excess deaths are, according to some estimates, among the highest in the world. One can compare these results with those of China, which had 4,600 registered covid-related deaths, i.e. about 1% of Russia’s, with a population almost ten times as big as Russia’s.

            Inflation that will accompany the fall in the ruble will also affect the poorest the most. Although Russia’s food prices may not increase as much as in food-importing countries, they will go up (domestic production in some areas not being able to compensate for lower imports, and foreign inputs increasing due to the depreciation of the ruble). Sporadic shortages might develop, The news already report the run on a number of essential items, including the shortage of sugar. Faced with such unstable and volatile relative prices, under the condition of return of high inflation, the prudent policy would be to impose rationing for all essential items.  In the Soviet Union, rationing was eliminated in 1952, and then briefly reintroduced for some goods in Russia during the early 1990s. It may have to be reintroduced again, probably more broadly. The rationale of rationing is of course to protect the welfare (and even the survival) of the poorest classes, but it obviously blunts the incentives for producers. In the Soviet Union, this did not matter much since production was based on planning, but in Russia of today, incentives do matter.

            Government policies, unveiled so far, whose objective is reduce the impact of sanctions, are very weak. To declare a temporary tax holiday for small and medium size enterprises makes sense in order to avoid massive layoffs, but it cannot be a medium-term policy. It obviously affects the budget, and also  opens the way to what seems inevitable, namely a monetary expansion followed by inflation. As already mentioned, inflation was extraordinarily high in the early 1990s (the annual level was at three figures between 1992 and 1995) and also in 1999, when it reached 90 percent. It is hard to see how it may not return:  already by February, the inflation was 10% on an annual basis. The March numbers will be certainly higher. 

Another government measure aims to encourage repatriation of Russia’s foreign investments. But why would people bring back to Russia money that, under the regime of capital controls which are already in place and will become stricter, will be impossible to move back abroad, if needed?

The problem is not that the government is making wrong policy choices; the problem is that, in the current situation, there are almost no good policy choices to make. The range of what the government can do is extremely limited, and is determined by foreign policy decision made by Putin (probably without any consultation of the economic ministries) and by foreign sanctions. Between the two, there is very little that any economic policy can do other than be led by the events in becoming more and more restrictive. It is important to point out that the restrictiveness will be mostly forced by the events. Ideologically, the Russian government is technocratic and neo-liberal. Putin himself had always had a neoliberal approach to the economy. The first day after the invasion of Ukraine, he called a meeting with the big business and promised them a “fully liberalized economy” (actuality, practically asking them to do whatever they want). He, and probably them, might not have  been at the time fully aware of the deleterious effects of sanctions. As that becomes increasingly clear, the field of decision-making for economic policy will be drastically reduced. It will no longer be the question whether one likes price controls or not: it would be a question of having massive riots without them. Thus restrictive policies will be dictated by the events. But once adopted, they will be difficult to alter.

            Another aspect should be also mentioned. Sanctions and any kinds of limitations always call for work-arounds. They are indeed  possible: imports may be made from (say) Armenia and then resold in Russia; Russians abroad might share their credit cards with cousins at home etc. But such “creative solutions” are expensive. People who engage in them take risks for which they have to be compensated. The Russian papers have already reported the emergence of “speculators”, a term which hails back to a revolved era. The increase in prices due to clever work-arounds is not the only effect. A more socially pernicious is the emergence of smuggling and crime networks that will control such schemes. This is the same as with drugs. Once a good is illegal, underpriced or difficult to obtain, it will be brought to the market but at a high price and by people who are willing to defy the law. The criminalization of the Russian society,  which has gone on since the 1990s and that exploded under Yeltsin, will come back in force.

            The coming years of Putin’s rule will thus look very much like the worst years of Yeltsin’s rule. Putin was brought out of the deep shadows with the idea that he would protect the gains of Yeltsin’s family and the oligarchs while reimposing some degree of internal stability. In his first two terms, he was successful in doing that. But at the end (or whatever the current point it is) of has reign, he brought all the original diseases back and made them in some sense worse because his policies stuck the country in an impasse and thus closed off all the venues of escape.

            In the next post I discuss the longer-term prospects.    

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The end of the end of history: what have we learned so far?

 Wars are the most horrible events. They should never happen. The entire human effort should be directed toward making wars impossible. Not just illegal, but impossible, in the sense that no-one would be either able or have incentive to start them.

But we are, unfortunately, not there yet. The humankind has not evolved that far. We are now in the midst of a war that may become a very murderous war.

Wars are also an opportunity  (however cold-hearted this might seem) to reassess our priors. Things are suddenly thrown into a much sharper focus. Our beliefs are transformed into illusions. The nostrums become meaningless. We have to deal with the world as it is, not with the world we imagined until a day before.

So, what have we learned after one week of the Ukraine-Russia war? I will try not to speculate about the outcome. Nobody knows it. It can end with the occupation and subjugation of Ukraine, or it can end with the break-up of Russia. And everything in between. Neither I, nor the reader, nor Putin, nor Biden know it. So I will not speculate on it.

But what do we seem to have learned so far?

1. Power of oligarchy. The power of oligarchy when it encounters le raison d’état is limited. We tended to believe that Russia, being an oligarchic capitalist economy, is also one where the rich decisively influence policy. Perhaps that in many everyday decisions that is the case. (I do not have in mind here the oligarchs who live in London and New York, but those who live in Moscow and St Petersburg and who may be also heads or large shareholders of powerful private and semi-state-owned companies.) But when the matters of state are serious, for the organized power, that is, the state, oligarchy is no match. The threat of sanctions, so visibly displayed and trumpeted by the US weeks before the war started, might have influenced Russian oligarchs to move their yachts as far as possible from US jurisdiction, or to engage in fire-sales of their property, but it made no difference to Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war.

Nor did all the buying of influence by the rich Russians among the Tories in the UK or both political parties in the US matter. Neither did the “sanctity of private property” on which the United States was created (and which so much attracted  the oligarchs to move their stolen wealth there in the first place). The US proceeded to probably the largest inter-state transfer of wealth in history. It is the equivalent of Henry VIII’s seizure of church lands. While we have seen such gigantic confiscations within countries (the French and Russian revolutions) we have never seen it, in one fell swoop, in 24 hours, between the countries.

2. Financial fragmentation. The corollary of this point is that extremely rich people are no longer safe from political forces—even if they change citizenship, contribute to political campaigns, or dedicate a wing of a museum. They can fall victim to geopolitics they do not control and which are much beyond their remit—and at times beyond their understanding. To remain excessively rich would require more than ever political nous. Whether the globally rich will interpret this confiscation to mean that they must more seriously than ever capture the machinery of the state, or they interpret it to mean that they should find other new havens for their investments is impossible to tell. Most likely it will lead to the fragmentation of financial globalization and to the creation of new and alternative financial centers, probably in Asia. Where will they be? I think the strong candidates are the democratic countries with a degree of judicial independence, but also enjoying sufficient international political clout and margin of maneuver not to yield to the pressure of the US, Europe or China. Bombay, Djakarta come to mind.

3. The end of the end of history. We—or at least some people--tended to believe that the “end of history” meant not only that the ultimate political and economic system was discovered in one night in November of 1989, but that the old-fashioned tools of international struggles will not reappear. The latter was shown wrong several times already, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya. A more brutal demonstration is in the process of being executed right now where borders are being redrawn using the instruments that the world has practiced for 5,000 years of recorded history but that were thought obsolete.

The current war displays to us that the complexity of the world, its cultural and historical “baggage”, is great and that the idea that one type of system will eventually be embraced by all is a delusion. It is a delusion whose consequences are bloody. To have peace, we need to learn to live while accepting differences. These differences are not trivial differences that go under the current title of being open to variety, in way we dress, in our sexual preferences or the food we eat. The differences we need to accept, and to live with, are much more fundamental and they relate to the way societies function, what they believe in, and what they think is the source of legitimacy of their governments. That of course can change in the course of time for any one given society, as it did many times in the past. But at a given point, it will differ from country to country, from region to region, from religion to religion. To assume that everyone  who is not “like us” is somehow deficient, or not aware that they would be better off being “like us” will –if we maintain this flawed belief—remain the source of endless wars.