Russia’s on the Way Back

by Jim Rickards, Daily Reckoning:

Russia is poised to break out of its oil-related slump and become one of the best performing emerging markets economies in the years ahead. This sleeping giant is breaking its dependence on oil prices and embraces diversified growth.

When you hear the name “Russia” you probably run for cover. Russia has been the subject of nearly continuous media coverage bordering on frenzy since the election of Donald Trump last November.

Russia allegedly hacked U.S. computer systems and email servers, rigged the election in favor of Trump, and colluded with the Trump campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump campaign officials met with Russian operatives and spies to coordinate all of this nefarious activity. Or so the story goes.

The truth is more complex. Russia certainly does run an around-the-clock hacking and spying operation aimed at any U.S. system they can penetrate. We do the same to Russia. It’s what national intelligence agencies do. No news there.

There may have been some “weaponization” of the hacked data through selective leaks to publishing outlets like Wikileaks. That allegation is less clear. Wikileaks has always insisted that their leaks did not come from Russia. There is some evidence to support the claim that the Hillary Clinton related leaks came from disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters. That truth may emerge later.

Trump campaign efforts to reach out to Russia between November 2016 and January 2017 did not have to do with “collusion.” They were a smart geopolitical move to align U.S. interests with Russia in advance of a confrontation with China about trade, currency, and North Korea.

Unfortunately, the Trump team consisted of amateurs like Jared Kushner who bungled the job. They played into the hands of Democrats who were waiting to pounce on the smallest sign of so-called collusion. This sequence combined with media bias has now poisoned the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Now, the confrontation with China is arriving right on schedule but the U.S. has no relationship with Russia to help back up our position. It’s two-against-one, and the U.S. is the odd man out — thanks to U.S. political dysfunction and the media.

The point in reciting this history is that it’s difficult for investors to separate the economic fundamentals of Russia from the media circus and political noise. If Russia were named “Volgastan,” and not involved in U.S. politics, its economic position would be one of the most attractive emerging markets stories in the world.

Let’s begin our independent analysis by reviewing the fundamentals.

Russia is the 12th largest economy in the world with about $1.3 trillion in GDP. That is slightly larger than Australia or Spain, and significantly larger than well-liked emerging markets economies such as Mexico, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

Russia’s sovereign debt-to-GDP ratio is a microscopic 17%. Compare that to the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio of 106%, more than six times larger. Other debt-to-GDP zombies are Japan (240%), France (96%) and the UK (89%).

The fact is, in the next liquidity crisis, you won’t be hearing about Russian default. The U.S. and China are more likely to be in the eye of the storm.

Russia is the world’s second largest oil exporter (after Saudi Arabia) and the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Russia is also the world’s third largest gold producer after China and Australia, and ahead of the United States.

From a geopolitical perspective, Russia is one of only three genuinely powerful countries in the world (along with the U.S. and China) despite media efforts to portray it as an inefficient economic backwater.

Still, there’s much more to the Russian economic analysis than the familiar story of an export and geopolitical powerhouse. In particular, Russia has engaged in one of the most aggressive gold accumulation operations since the U.S. in the 1920s.

Russian reserves are managed by the Central Bank of Russia, CBR. The CBR Chair since 2013 has been Elvira Nabiullina. Think of her as the “Janet Yellen of Russia,” but with a much different pedigree.

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