September 27, 2011 4:19 pm

Russia: Putin on the risks

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Investors are right to be fearful of the return of the old regime
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Institutions can matter less than the people who run them. Investors in Russia should be worried about the sacking of Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, by a humiliated president Dmitry Medvedev. The latter has been pushed out of next year’s presidential race by Vladimir Putin. Mr Kudrin was the investor’s friend – and investors need friends in Russia. His dismissal leaves a vacuum in economic and fiscal policy that will not be filled by Mr Putin’s return to the Kremlin.

Mr Kudrin was a fiscal hawk in a shamelessly profligate governing apparatus. He nursed Russia’s finances back to health after the 1998 crisis. Thanks to him, Russia’s ratio of public debt to gross domestic product is barely 10 per cent. Spending has surged recently: the oil price needed to balance the budget today is about $110, twice what it was in 2008. But now that he is no longer there to say no, the non-oil budget deficit is unlikely to fall back below 10 per cent of GDP.

In itself Mr Medvedev’s stepping aside should be a non-event for investors. As president he has flattered to deceive, putting forward vague reform agendas that never get going. Mr Putin is a different proposition. During his first stint as president, between May 2000 and May 2008, the Russian stock market returned more than 1,100 per cent; GDP per capita nearly trebled in dollar terms between 2004 and 2008, riding the decade’s market boom. But his reign was disfigured by incidents such as ransacking Yukos. Russia’s high risk premium, and a skewed economy, are his legacies.

Further, Mr Putin’s third term won’t be as comfortable as his first – for him and investors both. Overhauling an economic model that is unable to secure the targeted 5.5 per cent annual growth rate should be a priority. He must improve the business environment to stem capital flight and attract more foreign direct investment. All of which will have to be achieved against a much less benign global background and a cynical and alienated public. Investors should fear the return of Old Russia.

Email the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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