As the world settles in for its quadrennial refresher course on what exactly are the rules of curling, it gives us a good excuse to look at how the economy in Russia is faring. Of course, Russia is the "R" in the BRICS acronym – Brazil, Russia, India and China - which had been the darling of emerging market success stories over the past few years. But in 2014, BRICS, along with all other EM economies, have had a tougher time to start the year.
So where do we place Russia in the economic Olympics? Right now they place a respectable middle of pack (no medals), and the reason it is not lower can be almost all tied to that savior of so many economic disasters – oil. Russia's powerful energy sector has supported it in two ways – It provide the country with a strong trade surplus with the world as well as a Fort Knox of FX reserves with which to defend its currency if need be. Consensus forecasts are for a growth rate this year in the low 2% range – respectable, but on the low side.
To be sure, the nation's currency - the ruble - has had a rough start to the year, falling by nearly 7%, in line with the bleeding we saw in other EM currencies. But this seemed to be blessed by the government as a nice cheap way to keep those massive exports flowing to the West. Additionally, it can't hurt that a cheap ruble has to put a few smiles on all those visitors from out of town coming to see some sports in Sochi. Russia needs that after having spent $50 billion on the most expensive Olympics – by far - in history.
Adding to the great Chess game that is often present in Global Finance, the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan devalued its currency by nearly 20% on Tuesday. Russia's oil-rich southern neighbor took the move as a pre-emptive strike to further deterioration in the EM financial situation. Now that we have seen that move toward check we will see how Russia may respond.
My View: Russia is in the middle of a year of growth that resembles the weather in Sochi - lukewarm. The world spotlight will be gone in a couple of weeks, and the country will get back to business as usual. Russia has been becalmed from many of the problems in EM this year, but still faces headwinds.
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