Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Russia's $70 Billion ‘Secret’ Spending Lets Money Do the Talking

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As state secrets go, Russia’s program of export finance and loans to other nations might be one of the worst kept.

While discussions about aiding cash-strapped allies frequently spill into the open, the Finance Ministry’s debt chief Konstantin Vyshkovsky says information about individual loans isn’t public and a budget addendum on state financial and export credit is classified as “secret.” But, speaking in an interview at his office a short walk from the Kremlin, Vyshkovsky said Russia has committed about $70 billion in total to such loans, a figure that hasn’t been disclosed before. 

Konstantin Vyshkovsky

Photographer: Dmitry Serebryakov\TASS via Getty Images

“Direct loans from the budget are a big rarity in the world,” Vyshkovsky said, calling the practice something “particular to Russia.” On average over the past decade, about $3 billion has been allocated annually in the budget for that purpose, he said, which makes it comparable to the 3 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) provided by the U.K.’s state-run credit export agency for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

Russia doesn’t make much effort to keep the spending under wraps, using it to grease political ties and pave the way for projects from China to Hungary for its nuclear energy agency, Rosatom. Some loans also go bad, keeping the subject in the public eye. Most recently, crisis-stricken Venezuela failed to make payments on its debt, opening a 53.9 billion ruble ($900 million) hole in Russia’s expected government revenue this year.

Stuck with Soviet-era debt that it thought was too hopeless to recoup, Russia has even opted in recent years to write off money owed by former communist allies such as Cuba and North Korea. In contrast, Russia took more than 60 years to repay the loans received by the Soviet Union from the U.S. during the Second World War.

How Safe?

Despite the risks of lending to other states, the policy presents little “short-term” threat to the budget, according to Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings in Moscow.

“Not all credit that was provided will be returned on time or in full,” he said. That will “reduce the state’s liquid assets and/or result in the appearance of losses for budget revenues.”

Although Vyshkovsky wouldn’t discuss the situation around Venezuela, he said the authorities want to impose more order on the process of lending to other countries. The Finance Ministry is now working on a document to formalize the rules and conditions for such loans and establish the criteria for countries that can get credit on preferential terms, he said.

“With each year, the volume of state export credits and the number of countries that get them are growing,” Vyshkovsky said. The ministry assesses a potential borrower’s “solvency before signing any agreement on providing a state credit.”

Politically Sensitive

Financial credit,” extended for nations to meet their general needs or stabilize the budget, makes up a small share of Russian state loans, according to Vyshkovsky. It requires a decision at the highest political level and goes to countries enjoying especially close ties with Russia, he said.

The vast majority of money made available by the government covers export finance, with the borrower getting Russian products and services and a domestic company receiving the funds. Nuclear projects account for 90 percent of the $70 billion total in state loans, followed by the defense industry and civil aviation, according to Vyshkovsky.

Russia kept up the practice of state export loans during the leanest years after the Soviet collapse more than a quarter century ago. In 1991, China got funding for its Tianwan nuclear power plant, which it fully repaid ahead of schedule and has since made deals with Rosatom on a commercial basis, Vyshkovsky said. 

Unlike most nations that offer guarantees in the form of export insurance for loans made out by commercial banks, what makes Russia’s approach unique is that it provides the funding directly from the budget.

Money Talks

As the example of Hungary’s “deal of the century” shows, money talks. A member of the European Union, it scrapped bids for the expansion of its nuclear plant in 2014 and handed the contract to Rosatom after Russia offered to pre-finance much of the project in the form of a 30-year, 10 billion-euro ($11.7 billion) loan that covered 80 percent of the total cost. At the time, the government, still paying higher borrowing costs because of its junk sovereign credit status, said it had secured a loan at “below-market” rates.

While Rosatom has had less luck in countries like Bulgaria, it’s also involved in building a nuclear plant in Turkey valued at some $20 billion. When it comes to such costly projects, few rivals can match the financial muscle of Russia, which is additionally drawn to offer government backing because politics come into play.

“These are major, long-term loans,” said Vladimir Salnikov, deputy director of the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting in Moscow. “The presence of not just economic but also political considerations naturally translates into the state’s increased role in giving such projects financial support.”

— With assistance by Zoltan Simon

(Updates with analyst comment in seventh paragraph.)
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