Cyclopedia Of Economics 1st edition

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I. The Banks

On paper, Russia has more than 1,300 banks. Yet, with the exception of the 20-odd (two new ones were added last year) state-owned (and, implicitly, state-guaranteed) outfits - e.g., the mammoth Sberbank (the savings bank, 61% owned by the Central Bank) - very few provide minimal services, such as corporate finance and retail banking. The surviving part of the private banking sector ("Alfa Bank", "MDM Bank") is composed of dwarfish entities with limited offerings. They are unable to compete with the statal behemoths in a market tilted in the latters' favor by both regulation and habit.

The Agency for the Reconstruction of Credit Organizations (ARCO) - established after the seismic shock of 1998 - did little to restructure the sector and did nothing to prevent asset stripping. More than one third of the banks are insolvent - but were never bankrupted. The presence of a few foreign banks and the emergence of non-bank financing (e.g., insurance) are rays of hope in an otherwise soporific scene.

Despite the fact that most medium and large corporations in Russia own licensed "banks" (really, outsourced treasury operations) - more than 90% of corporate finance in 2000-2001 was in the form of equity finance, corporate bonds, and (mainly) reinvested retained earnings. Some corporate bond issues are as large as $100 million (with 18-months maturity) and the corporate bond market may quintuple to $10 billion in a year or two, reports "The Economist", quoting Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment bank.

Still, that bank credits are not available to small and medium enterprises retards growth, as Stanley Fischer pointed out in his speech to the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, in June 2001, when he was still the First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF. Last week, the OECD warned Russia that its economic growth may suffer without reforms to the banking sector.

Russian banks are undercapitalized and poorly audited. Most of them are exposed to one or two major borrowers, sectors, or commodities. Margins have declined (though to a still high by Western standards 14%). Costs have increased. The vast majority of these fledglings have less than $1 million in capital. This is because shareholders (and, for that matter, depositors) - having been fleeced in the 1998 meltdown - are leery of throwing good money after very bad. The golden opportunity to consolidate and rationalize following the 1998 crisis was clearly missed.

The government's (frail) attempts to reform the sector by overhauling bank supervision and by passing laws which deal with anti-money laundering, deposit insurance, minimum capital and bankruptcy regulations, and mandatory risk evaluation models - did little to erase the memory of its collusion in the all-pervasive, massive, and suspiciously orchestrated defaults of 1998-1999. Russia is notoriously strong on legislation and short on its enforcement.

Moreover, the opaque, overly-bureaucratic, and oligarch-friendly Central Bank is at loggerheads with would be reformers and gets its way more often than not. It supports a minimum capital requirement of less than $5 million. Government sources have gone as high as $200 million. The government retaliates with thinly-veiled threats in the form of inane proposals to replace the Bank with newly-created "independent" institutions.

Viktor Gerashchenko - the current, old-school, Governor - is set to leave on September 2002. He will likely be replaced by someone more Kremlin-friendly. As long as the Kreml is the bastion of reform, these are good news. But a weak Central Bank will remove one of the last checks and balances in Russia. Moreover, a hasty process of consolidation coupled with draconian regulation may decimate private sector Russian banking for good. This, perhaps, is what the Kremlin wants. After all, he who controls the purse strings - rules Russia.

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