The Other Bear Market

The search for better economic policy.
Sept. 11 1998 3:30 AM

The Other Bear Market

The run on Russia.

(Continued from Page 1)

Another answer, which may interact with the first, is that the oligarchs are not in this for the long run anyway--that at some level they all expect the game to end fairly soon, and they are simply trying to grab as much as they can. Certainly there has been massive flight of capital into Swiss bank accounts and other hidden overseas assets. (Many Russian firms maintain subsidiaries in Cyprus, the Nassau of Europe. They are presumably not there to enjoy the weather or, for that matter, to do anything productive.) Russia, as has been pointed out in this column before ("The East Is in the Red"), has generally run huge trade surpluses. Think of those surpluses as the way an oligarch's gas or oil gets converted into a billion dollar nest egg someplace outside the reach of the resurgent Communists, or Gen. Lebed, or whoever emerges from the wreckage.

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One thing that is clear is that the West--the IMF, the Western governments who provided the funds for the last, doomed rescue package--have come out looking like chumps. There is a possible defense for their actions: They may have believed that the men who rule Russia were finally beginning to see the light, that in their own self-interest they would agree to cough up the money the country needed to avoid disaster, but they needed a little time. In that case the big loans organized a few months ago could have made the difference. But in fact the money quickly disappeared, as speculators--certainly including the oligarchs themselves--converted rubles into dollars as fast as the dollars became available. In effect we gave a lot of aid to some future residents of Gstaad.

Needless to say, in his recent visit to Moscow Bill Clinton repeated the old pieties, suggesting the West was "ready to offer further assistance if Russia stays with the path of reforms." And he sounded sincere.

Paul Krugman is a professor of economics at MIT and the author, most recently, of, The Accidental Theorist and Other Dispatches From the Dismal Science. His home page contains links to many of his other articles and essays.