The Russian Central Bank has, as predicted, cut its key rate from 10.5% to 10%.
This is consistent with the continuing rapid fall in inflation. With inflation zero in the first two weeks of September after being zero in the last week of July and through most of August, its annualised rate is now just 6.6%. The Central Bank has said that it intends to keep its key rate 3% above the annualised rate of inflation for the foreseeable future, so that with annualised inflation running at 6.7% it had the space to announce this rate cut.
However that is where the good news stops. The Central Bank has signalled that it intends no more cuts to its key rate this year, meaning that the earliest possible date for a further rate cut will not be before January next year. The Central Bank also says that it will maintain what it calls its “moderately tight monetary policy” – a policy which is in fact giving Russia the highest real interest rates of any major economy in the world – throughout 2017 and indeed beyond.
Here in its own words is the Central Bank’s guidance from its own press release
“On 16 September 2016, the Bank of Russia Board of Directors decided to reduce the key rate from 10.50 to 10.00% p.a. given the inflation slowdown, in line with the forecast, decrease in inflation expectations and unstable economic activity. However, for the trend towards sustainable decline in inflation to strengthen, according to the Bank of Russia’s estimates, the current value of the key rate needs to be maintained till end-2016 with its further possible cuts in 2017 Q1-Q2. Considering the decision made and persistent moderately tight monetary policy, the annual consumer price growth will stand at 4.5% in September 2017 and will then go down to the 4% target in late 2017. When making its key rate decisions in the coming months, the Bank of Russia will assess inflation risks alongside economy and inflation dynamics’ consistence with the baseline forecast.”
The Central Bank admits the market is expecting cuts in the key rate to take place faster, and it even brags that it intends to cut its key rate more slowly than the market expects.
Its rationale is that the market still expects inflation at the end of next year to be higher than 4%, which is the Central Bank’s target. However the Central Bank says it is determined, come what may, to achieve its target, which is why it is going to keep its key rate higher than the market expects
“The Bank of Russia expects that the decision made and maintenance of the key rate at the level it reached will bring down inflation expectations. At present, the structure of market interest rates by maturity and survey findings indicate that, in contrast to the Bank of Russia, market players forecast a faster drop in interest rates. Additionally, their end-2017 inflation forecasts exceed the 4% target of the central bank. In reality, the decrease of nominal rates has a limited capacity, and the economy will maintain moderately tight monetary conditions for quite a long period of time. This is implied by the need to keep positive real interest rates at the level supporting demand for credit that does not raise inflationary pressure and keeps incentives for saving.”
In what is the single most extraordinary paragraph in the entire press release, the Central Bank admits that Russia will only achieve 1% growth next year, but denies that this has anything to do with its “moderately tight monetary policy”
“Persistent revival in production activity is still unstable and patchy across industries and regions. According to Bank of Russia estimates, the moderately tight monetary conditions do not hamper recovery in economy, whereas the main obstacles are caused by structural effects. The labour market tries to adjust to new economic conditions, and the unemployment remains stable and low. Import substitution steps up and non-commodity exports expand for certain items. Industry, including technology-intensive production types, discovers new opportunities for growth. Nonetheless, they fail to ensure an overall robust positive production dynamics. At the same time, certain industries stagnate or show slowdown in output growth, while investment continues to contract. More time is needed for positive trends to develop and get rooted.”
(bold italics added)
This is a fantastic claim, and by making it the Central Bank undermines its own credibility. Quite simply, it is absurd to say that high real interest rates – currently the highest real interest rates of any major economy in the world – are not going to impact on growth.
Moreover the Guidelines the Central Bank published in November last year explaining its monetary policy shows that the Central Bank is fully aware of the fact. As the Central Bank knows the reason output is struggling to rise is because of low rates of consumption and falling investment.
The Central Bank’s press statement actually refers to the fact that “investment continues to contract” (see above). This is what the Central Bank said in its Guidelines about the effect of interest rates on levels of consumption, investment and inflation
“All things being equal, a downturn in interest rates stimulates lending, helps increase consumption, and leads to investment growth, but inflationary pressure can also increase. By contrast, high interest rates contribute to growth in savings and constrain lending and investment activity, but reduce inflationary pressure.”
(bold italics added)
Yet the Central Bank would have us believe that the high interest rates it is imposing, which in its Guidelines it admits “all things being equal” cause consumption and investment to fall, are not the reason why in Russia consumption and investment are continuing to fall!
What is little understood – and is scarcely ever said – about the present state of Russia’s economy is that though the underlying rate of inflation is now running at 5-6%, which is below its pre-devaluation level, interest rates are higher than they were before the devaluation, and that despite the recent cuts in the Central Bank’s key rate real interest rates in Russia are actually rising.
This chart shows movements in the Central Bank’s key rate since 2013, the year in which Nabiullina was appointed Chairman of the Central Bank
In 2013, at the time Nabiullina took over as Chairman of the Central Bank, and before she started raising interest rates in 2014, the Central Bank’s key rate was below 6% in a year when annual inflation was 6.48%. Today she intends to hold the key rate at 10% despite the government’s forecast that inflation this year will be 5.7-5.9%.
Annual inflation in Russia was in double figures in every single year post 1991 up to the crisis year of 2009 save for 2006, when it briefly dipped to 9.02%. Inflation was in double figures throughout the period 1998 to 2008, when Russia was regularly achieving annual growth rates of 7% and more.
Inflation fell from double figures to single figures in 2009, and has been in single figures ever since save for the brief period of the inflation spike of 2014 to 2015, which was caused by the one-off factor of the devaluation of the rouble in 2014, which caused inflation to rise back into double figures in 2014 and 2015.
This period of single figure inflation since 2009 is the same period during which Russia’s growth rate has fallen from the annual rate of 7% it was achieving before the 2008 crisis to 4.3% in 2011, 3.5% in 2012, and 1.3% in 2013.
In other words there is a direct correlation between the decline in Russia’s growth rate post 2008, and the fall in inflation which has taken place since then – and the rise in interest rates which has happened to achieve it.
To see how see this World Bank graph which shows movements of real as opposed to nominal interest rates in Russia since 1991.
Russia experienced negative real interest rates from the 1998 crisis until the 2008 crisis. During the period of the 2008 crisis real interest rates briefly surged into high positive territory as part of the government’s anti-crisis measures.
They then fell back again into negative territory directly after the 2008 crisis was overcome as the Central Bank and the government looked for ways to support the recovery. However since 2011, as the Central Bank and the government have become more focused on inflation reduction, they have been rising steadily, turning positive in 2012, and remaining positive ever since, even during the period of the 2014-2015 inflation spike when they might have been expected to go negative.
Since the end of the inflation spike in mid 2015, and despite the round of key rate cuts Nabiullina has announced since January 2015, they have been rising again.
Prior to 2008 high growth was the priority, causing the Central Bank to keep real interest rates negative and to increase the money supply in order to sustain growth and to prevent over-rapid appreciation of the rouble in conditions of rising oil prices. The result was double digit inflation in every year between 1998 and 2008, apart from the brief dip in 2006.
Since recovery from the 2008-2009 crisis the priority has been inflation reduction, with monetary policy being tightened steadily in order to choke off inflation. The result is that inflation fell into single figures after 2009, and apart from the short period of the 2014-2015 inflation spike has remained so ever since, and is now falling further.
Since Nabiullina became Chairman the Central Bank has taken the policy a whole step further, tightening monetary policy even more, so that it is now significantly tighter than it was even during the post-recovery period of 2011-2013 and before the 2014 devaluation, despite the fact that inflation is now actually below the level it was in that period.
In other words Nabiullina and the Central Bank – and indeed the whole government – are using the 2014-2015 inflation spike to give themselves political cover to carry out a policy of monetary tightening the likes of which post-Soviet Russia has not seen since Putin became President. This objective is to bring inflation down to 4% by late 2017 in order to achieve the long term results I discussed in my previous article.
As for the famous ‘structural factors’ about which we hear so much, the Central Bank’s latest press release shows what they really are: an alibi conjured up by the Central Bank and the government so they can pretend that the sharp fall in the economy’s growth rate caused by their own anti-inflation policy and the high real interest rates they are imposing has nothing to do with them.
That is unless inflation is the ‘structural factor’ which they see as limiting growth in the long term – something which it might be reasonable to say, but which for some reason no-one ever does.
In truth the wonder is that despite interest rates being so high there is any growth in the Russian economy at all, especially as there is no countervailing fiscal stimulus from the budget to offset Nabiullina’s “moderately tight monetary policy”.
On the contrary – and though you would never know it from the way some people talk – since the start of the recession budget spending has actually been cut, so that coming out of recession Russia’s federal budget deficit in the first 8 months of this year was just 2.9% of GDP.
There are of course many people who find this policy approach commendable. Reducing inflation to 4% is a worthy aim, and over time it may – and indeed probably will – achieve the good results people like Nabiullina and Kudrin say it will. I must however say that I can think of no other Central Bank or government in any other G20 economy which in the same conditions would behave in this way.
At a time when Russia has suffered a recession any other G20 Central Bank or government finding itself in such a position would surely focus on ending the recession, not on further reducing inflation from what is by Russian standards an already historically low level.
This would be especially so given that the moderate loosening of monetary policy this would call for would be most unlikely to compromise the anti-inflation policy in any serious way. At worst it might delay achievement of the 4% by a few months, or perhaps a year.
Russia however is different. With unemployment very low at 5.7% at a time when the country’s labour force participation rate is at an unprecedentedly high 70%, and with political and macroeconomic conditions stable, the Central Bank and the government obviously feel they have the political and economic space to see the policy through, and it seems they are determined to see it through come what may. Not for nothing is Nabiullina being called “the most orthodox Central Banker in Europe”.
As for Putin, as I said in my previous article I have no doubt he supports the policy. With the political situation in Russia stable and his popularity at stratospheric levels, he is moreover under no real pressure to change it. If only for that reason I don’t expect the policy to change.