As world markets nervously react to any news out of Greece, a sense of calm prevails in Russia. In short, a Greek sovereign default and exit from the euro zone is unlikely to inflict much damage on the Russian economy, already largely isolated from western financial markets. That’s not to say the Russian economy is fully insulated or that it’s even doing well – it’s not – but a rebound of sorts does appear to be brewing.
For starters, Russian state gas giant Gazprom and western major Royal Dutch Shell have embarked on a strategic alliance that will see asset swaps – recent Shell purchase BG holds potential – and an expansion of the firms’ successful joint Sakhalin liquefied natural gas operations.
Additionally, Gazprom, together with Shell and its European gas buyers E.ON and OMV, will construct two new Nord Stream gas pipelines to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The new pipelines will double Nord Stream’s existing capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) and turn Austria into one of Europe’s largest gas hubs. The expanded Nord Steam and forthcoming Turkish Stream – which takes on an added significance in the event of a “Grexit” – will limit any delivery hiccups as Russia eliminates Ukraine from its transit portfolio.
Exxon is also betting on Russia, though sanctions prevent any immediate return. In 2014, Exxon added 52.3 million net acres to its Russian holdings. The company has 14.6 million net acres in the United States.
In Asia, China has begun construction on its share of the Power of Siberia pipeline, slated to deliver 38 bcm of Russian gas annually to China beginning in 2017. Further, construction of a 30 bcm western spur – Power of Siberia-2, or the Altai route – may soon start, pending a final agreement.
The Asian market is the future for most crude oil and natural gas suppliers and Russia has done well to carve out its position. In 2014, Russia increased sales to China, Japan, and South Korea by 25 percent, grabbing market share from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. State oil conglomerate Rosneft expects to boost crude shipments to the east by 30 percent this year.
They may compete in the East, but cooperation has been the story thus far this year between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have signed a nuclear power agreement that would see Russia construct and operate as many as 16 nuclear power plants in the Middle Eastern kingdom. Saudi Arabia currently has none. Conversely, Russia hopes Saudi Arabia will become an important partner in existing or future oil and gas development projects.
Perspective is needed though, and to be sure, things have looked better, a lot better. In May, several key sectors of the economy recorded some of their steepest monthly declines since the global financial crisis in 2009. Production of goods and services across industrial, retail trade, construction, agriculture, and wholesale trade sectors fell 6.8 percent, after recording lesser declines in each previous month to start 2015. In all, the economy is expected to contract 2.7 percent this year, and has the weakest medium-term growth outlook of any major emerging market.
After last year’s utter collapse, the ruble is the world’s strongest performing currency in 2015. However – despite being down roughly 30 percent from its 2014 average – it may still be overvalued. As measured by the real effective exchange rate, Russia’s sky-high inflation is killing the ruble’s competitiveness abroad. Despite the best efforts of the Central Bank of Russia to curb the ruble’s rapid appreciation and extend an already shrinking economic “window of opportunity,” a high degree of volatility is expected in the third and fourth quarters.
What’s more, the sanctions aren’t going anywhere. On June 22, European leaders unanimously agreed to extend economic sanctions against Russia until January 31 2016. Russia is considering further retaliatory measures against the sanctions, which target trade in the financial, energy, and defense sectors.
The economic indicators and rigorous bureaucracy don’t exactly equal a welcoming business climate, but a handful of moves suggest Russia, its minerals, and state corporations have their fair share of suitors.
First published at Oilprice.com