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Russian Capital Flight Increases As East-West Crisis Deepens

As investors look to get out of Russia, the country's economy could face a slump comparable to the financial crisis of 2008. (file photo)
As investors look to get out of Russia, the country's economy could face a slump comparable to the financial crisis of 2008. (file photo)
Nobody knows for sure how much capital is leaving Russia amid Moscow's crisis with the West over Ukraine. But by any measure, it is large enough to set off alarms that if it continues it could seriously slow the country's economic growth.

The most recent estimates put capital flight in the first quarter of the year at anywhere from $50 billion to $70 billion, depending on the source.

And the number is expected to grow. Experts are calling the pace of capital flight reminiscent of Russia's last great crisis: the country's recession in 2008.

During that recession -- prompted by a drop in oil prices and cuts in external financing due to the global financial crisis -- some $200 billion left the country between mid-2008 and mid-2009. The triple shock of oil prices, capital flows, and external financing led Russia's real GDP to fall by 7.9 percent in 2009.

Tim Ash, an expert on emerging economies at Standard Bank in London says "the risks are that you will see a repeat of 2008" if the East-West crisis deepens further.

"It comes at a bad time. The economy is not doing well (and) growth is very weak," he says.

"Capital flight means that interest rates will be higher, so if you are a Russian company and you need to borrow for investment, it is going to cost you more and that means likely that they will do less investment which means less growth and it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle."

Lack Of Trust

The capital flight -- which the World Bank has estimated could reach $150 billion in 2014 -- is an unintended consequence of the political crisis over Ukraine but perhaps not a surprising one.

Observers say it underlines once again the lack of trust many investors have in Russia's economic system to protect their fortunes.

Anton Pominov, director of research for the Transparency International watchdog in Russia, says that,even in normal years some $50 billion to $60 billion in licit and illicit money leaves the country to be squirreled away abroad.

"The main reason is the lack of certainty in what happens tomorrow," he says.

Pominov notes that Russian capitalists -- like capitalists, everywhere -- want a certain level of predictability when they invest. They may not be able to predict the success of their own business but they need to trust that the larger business environment they are operating in will remain consistent.

But, he says, the Russian business and political environment offers no such stability.

"It is absolutely impossible to predict something in the conditions where all the decisions can change overnight,"Pominov says.

The unpredictability is not only due to a lack of legal protections to ensure that property will not be seized by predatory officials. It also stems from the impossibility of knowing how Russia's authoritarian government will act in a crisis, even at the risk of damaging international trade relations.

Junk Bonds

Moscow's refusal to heed Western requests to stop interfering in Ukraine, and its seizure of Crimea, have prompted two rounds of sanctions targeting Ukrainian separatist leaders and Russian officials, including members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

It also has resulted in international credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's cutting Russia's rating to one notch above "junk" status as foreign investors also take money out of the country amid the worsening crisis.

The flight of both Russian and foreign money from Russia could be a sign that investor confidence in Moscow has been badly shaken and could be hard to regain.

Both Russians and foreigners will need to want to invest in Russia's economy for the country "to have a good long-term future," says Ash.

"That has not been the case for the last four or five years and is increasingly not going to be the case after these problems with Ukraine and over Crimea and the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West," he adds.

With the amount of capital flight in the first quarter of this year already equal to a full year's worth of capital flight in ordinary times, the question now is only how much Moscow is prepared to lose in order to continue its current political course.

Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev warned on March 27 that the country's growth rate could slow to below 1 percent or even contract if capital outflows reach $150 billion.

Even before the showdown over Ukraine, Russia was facing its slowest growth since 2009. The country's gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by just 1.3 percent in 2013 amid a drop in the price of oil, Russia's main export earner.