On July 27, the Financial Times published "Too Big to Fail." US readers may have expected an article on an automaker, or an investment bank, but Catherine Belton's piece is about Russian industrial tycoons. The economic turmoil of the past year has twisted the fortunes of Russia's oligarchs, its government, and its foreign lenders. The title's irony is that each of these three groups has seemed, for a time, to be "too big to fail" without bringing the others down too.
It's a fascinating chain of events, and it dramatizes the fungibility of power. Monetary transactions between banks, states and corporations can be distorted by non-financial demands; as the global crisis has shown, political considerations can suddenly change the value of loans and companies.
Three Elephants: Banks, Tycoons, and the Kremlin
When commodity prices were high, Russian energy and mining companies made big profits. The Russian government's revenues also spiked. As the global economy slowed in 2008, overextended companies seemed on the verge of default to US and EU creditors. Fearing the social impact of a wave of bankruptcies, the Russian government paid off companies' debts to foreign banks – for a while.
Ms. Belton describes how, as 2009 has progressed, some Russian companies have stopped repaying foreign debts. Government pressure, she writes, is driving these decisions by private firms:
"Part of the reason for the oligarchs' stay of execution lies in a partial recovery in commodity prices. But mainly it resides in the Kremlin. Officials fear a social backlash if bankruptcies and ownership upheavals come at a time when output has fallen by its steepest in almost two decades and unemployment has touched eight-year highs. As the government stretches to put out economic fires, pragmatism is prevailing over how far it should extend its management capabilities. … "At a time when global banks are being squeezed all round, the government and Russia's tycoons have come to believe that they may have the upper hand. As a person familiar with the matter quotes one hardnosed Russian tycoon as saying: 'If I can't pay [a large French bank] $4 billion, is it my problem or is it theirs?' … "In January this year, things looked much safer for the international banks and more dangerous for the oligarchs. Bankers from Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas were still congratulating themselves on winning a $4.5 billion [Russian] government loan last October…"
Look Out Below
In fact, it's our problem, as investors, taxpayers and citizens. "When elephants fight," says a proverb, "it is the poor grass that suffers."
If a French bank's loans are stuck in a non-performing limbo because of Russian politics, what is that bank's stock worth? What is the value of a pension fund that owns that stock? No amount of purely financial analysis can reveal the value – or risks – hidden inside a firm. A corporation is inevitably a political animal, and its value is shaped by politics – at home and abroad.
In this context, investors must "learn to deal in grays," KLD President Peter Kinder recently said, describing extra-financial responsible investing analysis. "Investors cannot judge companies without looking at past performance, and they also can't read too much into any one measure of performance. Sound analysis depends on a bigger picture."
The hard numbers of a financial statement, or a share price, can hide more than they reveal. In a world where states and corporations grapple, and teeter, the investors below need a better view.