The Incredibly Rosy Forecast of Russia's Central Bank

March 19, 2015 3:15 PM

The Central Bank of Russia has published its 3-year forecast for economic growth in 2015–17. The forecast, released on March 14, is so overly optimistic that three comments are in order.

First, the Bank of Russia argues that the huge devaluation of the ruble that took place between October 2014 and February 2015 has a minor effect on economic growth. This claim neglects much empirical evidence that sharp devaluations retard investment activity, for two reasons. First, investment technology from abroad becomes more expensive—nearly 80 percent more expensive in the case of Russia. Second, devaluations increase uncertainty in business planning and hence slow down investment in domestic technology as well. Both effects work to depress economic activity in the short term.

In the longer term, the ruble devaluation may have a beneficial effect on export industries, but this development is likely to happen beyond the scope of the Bank of Russia's 3-year forecast. Such positive effects are also significantly dampened by the current sanctions on several Russian sectors imposed by the European Union and the United States and the possibility that these sanctions may remain in place for a while.

Second, 2017 is presented as the year of a strong rebound, as a result of cyclical macroeconomic forces. In particular, says the Bank of Russia, growth will reach 5.5 to 6.3 percent that year. It is true that the economy was already slowing down in 2012, before last year's sanctions and devaluation. It is also true that the average business cycle globally has historically lasted about six years. But this is no ordinary cycle—sanctions are likely to play a bigger role than the Bank of Russia cares to admit. The main reason is their effect on the banking sector, where credit activity is already substantially curtailed, and may be curtailed even further once corporate eurobonds start coming due later this year. The devaluation has exacerbated the credit crunch as interest rates spiked in early 2015 to over 20 to 25 percent for business loans. These effects point in one direction: a prolonged recession.

Finally, the Russian government is reducing public investment in infrastructure in this year's budget to try and cut overall expenditure by about 10 percent. This cutback is going to dampen growth because the multiplier on infrastructure investment is highest among all public expenditures. The Bank of Russia seems to have forgotten to account for this elementary fact of life.

Overall, the economic picture may end up being quite different from what the Bank of Russia forecasts. Instead of economic growth of –3.5 to –4 percent in 2015, –1 to –1.6 percent in 2016, and 5.5 to 6.3 percent in 2017, it may be closer to –6 to –7 percent in 2015, –3 to –4 percent in 2016, and zero growth in 2017. This scenario is worth contemplating, as it would mean that the reserve fund that the government uses to finance its deficit may be fully depleted in this period. What then?