Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Backing a Bear into a Corner: Falling Oil Prices Hit Russia Hard

Falling oil prices and economic sanctions in 2014 put the pressure on the Russian economy and its currency. The overall question may have been geo-political, however. Namely, would the twenty-first century see economic tools replace military response as the dominant means to “walk back” international aggressor states and restrict their further exploits? Such a question may be too broad, as even a newly-discovered devise that suddenly works is not likely to be applicable in every case. Even so, obviating war in the nuclear age would be no small feat.

On December 15, 2014, crude oil for February delivery fell $1.82, or 3.2 percent, to settle at $56.26 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange; oil had been as high as $107 the previous June.[1] The increase in American consumers’ disposable income was expected to boost the economy. Additionally, manufacturing output in the previous month “surpassed its prerecession peak as auto production rose.”[2] This proffered an “encouraging sign that America's factories are somewhat insulated from the global economic slowdown.”[3] The U.S. Government could afford to lead its informal coalition, including Saudi Arabia, against the Russian government’s incursions into Ukraine.

The Russian economy was not least among the contributors to the downturn. “Given Russia's huge dependence on oil revenues, the . . . sharp falls in the price of oil has hit the Russian economy hard. That's exacerbated by the fact that the Russian economy [was not at the time] diversified enough to withstand the shock.”[4] In other words, “the drop in crude prices . . . hurt Russia since the country [was at the time] a major oil exporter and [thus depended] heavily on oil for tax revenue.”[5] In refusing to reduce its supply of oil, OPEC was squeezing Russian competitors particularly hard, as well as the Russian government (and that of Iran).

That E.U. and U.S. officials were “contemplating tougher economic sanctions against Moscow” for geo-political reasons centering on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine suggests that the Russian economy might have more to worry about than lower oil prices and a weakening currency.[6] The situation in Ukraine was not getting any better, suggesting that further sanctions could come to pass. The United Nations human rights office had just announced its findings of a "very close link" between the inflow of fighters and sophisticated weaponry, "including from the Russian Federation," and a total breakdown of law and order in eastern Ukraine.[7] According to Gianni Magazzeni, head of the division of the United Nations human rights office that deals with Europe and Central Asia, “the situation around the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, under the control of pro-Russian armed groups,” could be characterized in terms of "killings, abductions, torture, ill treatment, sexual violence, rape, forced labor, ransom, extortion,".[8] Considering that even all of this does not take into account the fate of Crimea, which Russia had invaded and absorbed, the prospect of any sort of overall geopolitical resolution with a let-up on the economic vice-grips on Russia seemed dismal at the time.

The toll on Russia’s currency, the ruble, could not be missed. In its steepest drop in 16 years, the currency sank more than 10 percent to about 64 to the dollar on December 15, 2014.[9] The rise of inflation pressures from more expensive imports had already prompted Russia’s central bank to gradually increase its main interest rate from 5.5 percent early in 2014 to 9.5 percent. On December 11th, the central bank “tried unsuccessfully to stem the ruble's slide by boosting its key rate by 1 percentage point to 10.5 percent. The decision to raise the rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent on December 15th “represented a desperate attempt to prop up the troubled currency,” according to the Associated Press.[10] Of course, the currency itself was not the real problem. Accordingly, the attempt fell on its face, at least initially. “In the first hours after the increase, the ruble staged a rebound, recovering almost all of its [previous day] losses. But the optimism soon dissipated and the ruble was down another 20 percent to 77 to the dollar by 3.30 p.m. in Moscow (1230GMT).”[11] The next day, FXMC, an online trading company, halted ruble trades—anticipating capital controls on the enervated currency.

Moreover, although the higher interest rate could eventually have a positive impact on the ruble, especially as long as the rates on the E.U. euro and U.S. dollar stay near zero, the higher rate was also “likely to cause much hardship in an economy [that was] already heading for recession.”[12] Americans need only remember Paul Volcker’s rate hikes in 1981 and the subsequent harsh recession to get this point. Indeed, Russian stocks were “moderately declining” on the morning after the rate hike to 17 percent, “with the MICEX benchmark 1.5 percent lower, reflecting the rate hike's pressure on businesses.” [13] Neil Shearing, chief economist for emerging markets at London-based Capital Economics, predicted "a further tightening of credit conditions for households and businesses and a deeper downturn in the real economy in 2015."[14] Such tightening—and Americans need only look back to September 2008 to grasp the seriousness of this move—could easily outweigh any increase in exports from the lower currency.

In conclusion, this case study presents us with an interesting intersection of international relations and international political economy. One major lesson may be that the coordinated economic policies of a coalition of states can effectively replace war as a means of going after governments that are militarily aggressive internationally. Of course, the geo-political and economic strategy is not full-proof, as a hegemon may still be able to get away with such behavior (e.g., the U.S. invading Iraq with impunity). Also, pushing a bear into a corner may have unanticipated consequences both within Russia and in its foreign policy. That is to say, applying such strident pressure, whether financial or militarily, is risky in a nuclear world.

[1] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling, and So Are the Markets,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides to Historic Lows,” The Huffington Post, December 16, 2014.
[5] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[6] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Hardships Grow in Ukraine, U.N. Says,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[10] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides.”
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.