Tales of Globalization: Russia and China

The end of 2014 marked the 23rd anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation. Like Chinese leaders in the previous decade, Russian policymakers faced the challenge of integrating their nation into the global economy. Russia’s trade openness (exports and imports scaled by GDP) grew from 26% in 1991 to 51% in 2013, very similar to the rise in China’s trade openness from 29% to 50% during these years. Russian exports increased from 13% of its GDP at the beginning of this period to 28% in 2013, while the corresponding figures for China are 16% and 26%. Both counties gradually allowed foreign capital inflows. But the similarities end there.

Russia’s exports are primarily commodities, particularly oil and natural gas. Consequently, sales of these resources account for a large part of Russia’s GDP: 16% in 2012. The plunge in world oil prices, combined with the sanctions imposed by U.S. and European Union governments following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its threats against the Ukraine, threaten topush the economy into a recession. The deterioration of the economic situation caused the ruble to plunge against the dollar in December, before recouping part of its value after the central bank intervened in the foreign exchange market and raised its policy rate to 17%.

Russia is particularly susceptible to a currency depreciation because of its external debt,reported to be $678 billion. Capital controls that had been imposed during the 1998 crisis were removed in the 2000s, and capital inflows, including bank loans and bond issues, increased significantly. These capital flows reversed during the global financial crisis, and there was only a modest recovery before the latest period of political tension. The Russian government’s debt includes $38 billion of bonds denominated in dollars, which is not seen as a vulnerability. But the external exposure of Russian companies is much larger. The Russian central bank claims that in 2015 Russian firms owe $120 billion of interest and repayments on their external debt. Much of this money is owed by Rosneft and Gazprom, the state oil and gas producers.

China has followed a very different path. Its main exports now include electronics and machinery. The Great Recession prompted a reevaluation of the structure of the economy by the Chinese government. Chinese leaders realize that the export- and investment-led growth of the past is no longer feasible or desirable, and have emphasized the expansion of domestic consumption. This transition is taking place while the economy slows from the torrid 10% growth rate of the past to about 7.5%.

China also has external debt, which totaled $863 billion in 2013. But China has been more deliberate in opening up its capital account, and its external liabilities primarily take the form of foreign direct investment. Moreover, its foreign exchange reserves of about $4 trillion should alleviate any concerns about its ability to fulfill its obligations to foreign lenders. Of more concern is the growth in domestic credit, which now surpasses 200% of its GDP. While a financial contraction appears inevitable, there are differences over whether this will lead to economic disruption (see also here).

China’s currency appreciated in value between 2005 and 2008, when the renminbi was “re-pegged” against the dollar. In March, the central bank announced that the renminbi would fluctuate within a band of +/- 2%. A recent study by Martin Kessler and Arvind Subramanianindicates that the renminbi is fairly valued by purchasing power estimates. The government is considering whether the renminbi will become an international currencyIts status may get a boost if the IMF decides to include the renminbi as one of the currencies on which its Special Drawing Rights is based.

China and Russia, therefore, have followed very different paths in globalizing their economies. Russia, of course, could not be expected to forsake its energy resources. But commodity exporters live and die by world prices, and the government passed up an opportunity to diversify the Russian economy. China initially used its own “natural resource” of abundant labor, but has moved up the value chain, as Japan and Korea did. Chinese firms are now expanding into foreign markets. In addition, Russia allowed short-term capital inflows that can easily cease, while China carefully controlled the external sources of finance.

Russia’s GDP per capita recorded a rise of 29% between 1991 and 2013, from $5,386 to $6,924 (constant 2005 US $). China started at a much lower base in 1991, $498, but its per capita income increased by over 7 times (719%) to $3,583. The divergence in the two countries’ fortunes shows that there are many ways to survive in the global economy, but some are more rewarding than others.