Tag: Capital flows

Capital Flows from Russia — The Bigger Picture

A bunch of dollar bills covering table that represents capital flows in Russia

There is an increasing focus on how Russian capital flows are being channelled through Western banks to various destinations, including offshore havens. There are of course legitimate reasons and legal ways of moving capital across borders, but much of the international focus on capital flows in recent decades is linked to the financing of terrorism, tax evasion, and money laundering in connection with criminal activities. This brief provides the macro view of capital flows between Russia and the rest of the world to paint the bigger picture behind the more specific stories we read about in the news that involve individual businessmen, corrupt officials, criminals, and banks.

International capital movements have a clear role in allocating resources efficiently across countries. However, today’s media coverage instead typically focuses on the role of capital flows in financing terrorists and avoiding taxes. Recently, money laundering has been creating headlines around the world in the Panama papers and other similar stories, illuminating complicated schemes in the global financial system in connection with illegal activities such as tax evasion, corruption, drug dealing and human trafficking.

In the international policy making arena, since 1989, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has the objective “to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system”. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, the issues of anti-money laundering (AML) and combatting the financing of terrorism (CFT) also became a central area of the IMF’s work and has since become an increasingly important policy question.

In several of the news stories, money flowing from Russia features prominently. This brief provides the bigger picture of Russian capital flows based on publicly available data as a complement and background to the news stories that are based on inside information, or “leaks”, and that focus on particular individuals and banks.

Composition of capital flows

In the official balance of payments statistics, capital flows are divided into a number of different categories, for example, private vs public or banks vs non-banks. There is also a distinction made between foreign direct investments (FDI) on the one hand and portfolio flows, loans and other types of transactions (PLO) on the other. Since the balance of payments also has to balance (despite the fact that not all international transactions have been recorded) there is also a term called errors and omissions (E&O) that take care of various discrepancies. In environments with poor data collection and a large share of activities that take place “off the books”, this term tends to be large. For Russia, this term has become smaller over time as the economy and data collection has matured.

In terms of volatility and magnitude of flows, the distinction between FDI and PLO is often important and so also in Russia. Figure 1 shows the private sector flows to and from Russia over the last two plus decades.

Figure 1. Capital flows to and from Russia

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

After a rather slow start in the early years of transition, capital flows took off as Russia started to generate growth in 2001, and the flows kept growing until the global financial crisis. As expected, FDI flows have been less volatile than PLO flows but perhaps more surprising, in- and outflows in both categories seem to move closely together (see Becker (2019) on why this is the case). We can also note that there has been a marked downturn in flows at the time of the annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions and counter sanctions between the West and Russia.

Cumulative capital flows

By computing net flows from the data in Figure 1 and accumulating this over time, we get a clearer idea in Figure 2 of the massive amounts of capital that have left Russia over the last decades. In the early years, the outflows were in the form of errors and omissions (E&O) and PLO, but the PLO trend was reversed in the early 2000’s and turned total accumulated flows back to zero before the global financial crisis hit. The global financial crisis was a clear turning point for capital flows in general and PLO flows in particular.

Figure 2. Net private capital flows

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

In the year following the global financial crisis, almost USD 300 billion left Russia. Outflows then continued, albeit at a slower pace, only to accelerate again at the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. By mid-2018, USD 700 billion had left Russia since 2008, mainly in the form of PLO flows. This is equivalent to twice the amount of fixed capital investments in Russia in 2017.

For a country like Russia that is in need of increased investments both from domestic and foreign sources to generate long-term sustainable growth, these outflows are very costly at the macro level even if they are beneficial to individual entities that are behind the flows.

Destinations of capital flows

Where the money from Russia ultimately ends up should matter less to people in Russia than the fact that they are not invested and generating growth at home. However, it can matter a great deal to people, policy makers and businesses in the destination countries. Not only because it involves business opportunities and employment to some, but also because it generates concerns among regulators, law enforcement and tax authorities regarding the origins and purposes of the investments.

We do not have full coverage of where all the money Russian entities invest or park abroad end up, but official statistics are available for at least part of the investments. First of all, there is data on cross-border assets and liabilities of the banks that report to the Bank of International Settlement (BIS), which shows what foreign residents have deposited in the banks. Russian claims on BIS reporting banks are shown in Figure 3, where we can note that total claims by Russians amount to USD 131 billion. Half of this amount was deposited with French, Swiss, UK, and Belgian banks at the end of September 2018.

Figure 3. Russian claims on BIS reporting banks in different countries (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: BIS and author’s calculations

Given the recent scandal in Danske Bank, we can also note that USD 8 billion was deposited by Russian entities in Danish banks, which may not sound much in this context but amounts to around 2 per cent of Danish GDP.

Again, macro level data does not tell us if the flows behind the numbers are illicit or legitimate, but it provides some sense of the order of magnitude and possible significance for the entities involved in the transactions and their regulators and supervisors.

The next piece of information is due to the IMF’s and others’ efforts to collect and harmonize data on the destination of portfolio and FDI assets, and the data for Russia is presented in Figures 4 and 5.

The prime locations for Russian owned portfolio assets are Ireland and Luxembourg, followed far behind by the Netherlands, UK and US. In total, official portfolio assets are rather modest at USD 69 billion, which is far off the cumulative net PLO flows in Figure 2 of over USD 500 billion even if we add the BIS reporting bank deposits in Figure 3.

Figure 4. Russian portfolio assets by the destination country (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

This could have many explanations, including that a significant share of Russian PLO assets is not in BIS reporting banks or in countries that provide transparent reporting of other types of PLO assets. The fact that cumulative flows and stocks reported in international statistics are so different, though, clearly asks the question where the remaining assets are invested.

The last component for which we have data is the location of Russian FDI assets. This turns out to be the most significant asset class available in the official statistics with a total of USD 364 billion invested abroad. Given that the magnitudes of FDI flows in Figures 1 and 2 are much smaller than PLO flows, this is somewhat surprising. Less surprising is the fact that more than half of this is invested in Cyprus, which is a well-known destination for Russian money.

However, it also begs the question on how assets are classified and where; Cyprus annual GDP was USD 24 billion in 2018, or 13 per cent of what is classified as Russian FDI assets in Cyprus. The only reasonable interpretation is that Cyprus is an offshore destination to park Russian money and not the ultimate location of direct investments from Russia. It is not unlikely that similar explanations are also valid for a significant share of the assets recorded as investments in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, not to mention the British Virgin Islands (BVI) or the Bahamas. This problem is not unique for Russian data, but the magnitude of the problem regarding this data is still striking.

Figure 5. Russian FDI assets by the destination country (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

Policy conclusions

Capital leaving Russia is mainly a problem for investments and growth in Russia, but, as has become far too clear recently, some of the flows also create problems in other countries. In particular, flows that are associated with money laundering and channelled through financial institutions in the West can create massive problems for banks that do not have sufficient control mechanisms in place or are guided by short-term profit maximization that encourages staff to look the other way when illicit flows are coming in.

Given the massive scale of flows coming from Russia, it can obviously be tempting to be part of this business while at the same time very costly to implement procedures and routines that control all of the flows adequately. However, not understanding the bigger picture of Russian flows can be even costlier.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Important Policy Lessons from Swedish-Russian Capital Flows Data

A recent study of capital flows between Sweden and Russia provides many policy lessons that are highly relevant for the current economic situation in Russia. In line with studies on other countries, bilateral FDI flows were more stable than portfolio flows, which is important for a country looking for predictable external sources of funding. However, much of the FDI flows came with trade and growth of the Russian market. The sharp decline in imports and fall in GDP is therefore bad news also when it comes to attracting FDI. The conclusion is (again) that institutional reforms and reengaging with the West are crucial policies to stimulate both the domestic economy and encourage much-needed FDI.

In a recent paper (Becker 2016), I take a detailed look at the trends and nature of bilateral capital flows between Sweden and Russia over that last 15 years. Although the paper focuses on the capital flows of a relatively small country like Sweden with Russia, it sheds some light on more general theoretical and empirical issues associated with FDI and portfolio flows that are highly relevant for Russia today.

Measuring Bilateral FDI

One general qualifier for studies of bilateral capital flows is however the reliability of data; Not only is a significant share of international capital flows routed through offshore tax havens which makes identifying the true country of origin and investment difficult, but also many investing companies are multinationals (MNEs) with operations and shareholders in many countries so it is hard to have a clear definition of what is a “Swedish” or a “Russian” company. In addition, when different official data providers, in this case Statistics Sweden (SCB) and the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), report capital flows on the macro level, there are large discrepancies.

Private companies also gather company level data on FDI that can be aggregated and compared with the macro level FDI data. This data is on gross FDI flows and should not be expected to be the same as the net macro level FDI flows data but is a bit of a “reality check” of the macro data.

Figure 1. Average annual FDI flows

Fig1Sources: SCB, CBR, fDi Market, MergerMarkets

The reported annual average flow of FDI from Sweden to Russia varies from around USD500 million to USD1.2 billion depending on the data source. Russian flows to Sweden are rather insignificant regardless of the source but the different sources do not agree on the sign of the net flows (Figure 1).

The differences between data sources suggest that some caution is warranted when analyzing bilateral FDI flows. With this caveat in mind, there are still some clear patterns in the capital flows data from Sweden to Russia that emerge and carries important policy lessons in the current Russian economic environment.

FDI vs. Portfolio Investments

There is a large literature discussing the distinguishing features of FDI and portfolio flows (see Becker 2016 for a summary). Some of the key macro economic questions include which type of flows provides most international risk sharing; are most stable over time; or most likely to contribute to balance of payments crises when the flows go in reverse. In addition, there are potential differences in terms of the amount of international knowledge transfers and how different types of capital flows respond to institutional factors.

Figure 2. FDI and portfolio investments

Fig2Source: SCB

Figure 2 shows that FDI has been much more stable than portfolio flows in the years prior to and after the global financial crisis as well as in more recent years. Although all types of capital flows respond negatively to poor macroeconomic performance, and the stock of portfolio investments swing around much faster than FDI investments, i.e., portfolio flows go in reverse more easily and can contribute to external crises. This makes FDI a more preferable type of capital flow for Russia.

FDI and Trade Go Together

Since FDI is a desired type of capital flow, it is important to understand its driving forces. The first question to address is whether FDI and trade are substitutes or complements. Since the bulk of FDI comes from MNEs that operate in many countries, we can imagine cases both when FDI supports existing trade and cases when it is aimed at replacing trade by moving production to the country where the demand for the goods is high.

In the case of Sweden and Russia, the macro picture is clear; FDI has increased very much in line with Swedish exports to Russia (Figure 3). Both of these variables are of course closely correlated with the general economic development in Russia, but even so, the very close correlation between FDI and trade over the last 15 years suggests that they are compliments rather than substitutes.

Figure 3. Swedish Exports and FDI to Russia

Fig3Source: SCB

Most FDI is Horizontal

FDI flows are often categorized in terms of the main motivating force for MNEs to engage in cross-border investment: vertical (basically looking for cheaper inputs), horizontal (expanding the customer base), export-platform (producing abroad for export to third countries) or complex (a mix of the other reasons) FDI.

Looking at the sectoral composition of FDI from Sweden to Russia (Figure 4), most investments have come in sectors where it is clear that MNEs are looking to expand their customer base. Even in the case of real estate investments, a large share is IKEA developing new shopping centers that host their own outlets together with other shops. Communication and financial services are also mostly related to service providers looking for new customer. Only a small share is in natural resource sectors that would be more in line with vertical FDI, while there are very few (if any) examples of MNEs moving production to Russia to export to third countries.

Figure 4. Sectors of Swedish FDI to Russia

Fig4Source: SCB

Policy conclusions

The above figures on bilateral capital flows from Sweden to Russia carry three important policy messages: 1) FDI is more stable than portfolio flows; 2) Trade goes hand in hand with FDI; and 3) FDI to Russia has mostly been horizontal and driven by an expanding customer base.

In the current situation where Russia should focus on policies to attract private capital inflows, the goal should be to attract FDI. Instead, the government is now looking for portfolio inflows in the form of a USD3 billion bond issue. But FDI is a more stable type of international capital than portfolio flows and also come with the potential of important knowledge transfers both in terms of new technologies and management practices.

However, as we have seen above, FDI inflows have in the past been correlated with increased trade and an expanding Russian market. In the current environment, where imports with the West declined by 30-40 percent in the last year, GDP fell by around 4 percent, and the drop in consumers’ real incomes have reached double digits in recent months, it is hard to see any macro factors that will drive FDI inflows.

Instead, attracting FDI in this macro environment requires policy changes that remove political and institutional barriers to investments. The first step is to fulfill the Minsk agreement and contribute to a peaceful solution in Ukraine that is consistent with international laws. This would not only remove official sanctions but also provide a very serious signal to foreign investors that Russia plays by the international rulebook and is a safe place for investments from any country.

The second part of an FDI-friendly reform package should address the institutional weaknesses that in the past have reduced both foreign and domestic investments. It is telling that many papers that look at the determinants of FDI flows to transition countries include a ‘Russia dummy’ that is estimated to be negative and both statistically and economically significant (see e.g. Bevan, Estrin and Meyer, 2004 and Frenkel, Funke, and Stadtmann, 2004). One factor that reduces the significance of the ‘Russia dummy’ is related to how laws are implemented. Other studies point to the negative effect corruption has on FDI.

Reducing corruption and improving the rule of law are some of the key reforms that would have benefits far beyond attracting FDI and has been part of the Russian reform discussion for a very long time. It was also part of the reform program that then-President Medvedev presented to deal with the situation in 2009 together with a long list of other structural reforms that would help modernize the Russian economy and society more generally.

As the saying goes, don’t waste a good crisis! It is time that Russia implements these long-overdue reforms and creates the prospering economy that the people of Russia would benefit from for many generations.


  • Becker, T, 2016, “The Nature of Swedish-Russian Capital Flows”, SITE Working paper 35, March.
  • Bevan, A, Estrin, S & Meyer, K 2004, “Foreign investment location and institutional development in transition economies”, International Business Review, vol. 13, no. 1, pp.43-64.
  • Frenkel, M, Funke, K & Stadtmann, G 2004, “A panel analysis of bilateral FDI flows to emerging economies”, Economic Systems, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 281-300.