Tag: macroeconomic performance

Vaccination Progress and the Opening Up of Economies

20210622 Reopening Soon Webinar Image 01

In this brief, we report on the FREE network webinar on the state of vaccinations and the challenges ahead for opening up economies while containing the pandemic, held on June 22, 2021. The current state of the pandemic in each respective country was presented, suggesting that infection rates have gone down quite substantially recently in all countries of the network, except in Russia which is currently facing a surge in infections driven by the delta-version of the virus. Vaccination progress is very uneven, limited by lacking access to vaccines (primarily Ukraine and Georgia) and vaccine scepticism among the population (primarily in Russia and Belarus but for certain groups also in Latvia, Poland and to some extent Sweden). This also creates challenges for governments eager to open their societies to benefit their economies and ease the social consequences of the restrictions on mobility and social gatherings. Finally, the medium to long term consequences for labour markets reveal challenges but also potential opportunities through wider availability of workfrom-home policies. 


In many countries in Europe, citizens and governments are starting to see an end to the most intense impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their societies. Infection and death rates are coming down and governments are starting to put in place policies for a gradual opening up of societies, as reflected in the Covid-19 stringency index developed by Oxford University. These developments are partially seasonal, but also largely a function of the progress of vaccination programs reaching an increasing share of the adult population. These developments, though, are taking place to different degrees and at different pace across countries.  This is very evident at a global level, but also within Europe and among the countries represented in the FREE network. This has implications for the development within Europe as a whole, but also for the persistent inequalities we see across countries.   

Short overview of the current situation

The current epidemiological situation in Latvia, Sweden, Ukraine, and Georgia looks pretty similar in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths but when it comes to the vaccination status there is substantial variation.

Latvia experienced a somewhat weaker third wave in the spring of 2021 after being hit badly in the second wave during the fall and winter of 2020 (see Figure 1). The Latvian government started vaccinating at the beginning of 2021, and by early June, 26% of the Latvian population had been fully vaccinated.

Sweden, that chose a somewhat controversial strategy to the pandemic built on individual responsibility, had reached almost 15 thousand Covid-19 deaths by the end of June of 2021, the second highest among the FREE network member countries relative to population size. The spread of the pandemic has slowed down substantially, though, during the early summer, and the percentage of fully vaccinated is about to reach 30% of the population.

Figure 1. Cumulative Covid-19 deaths 

Source: Aggregated data sources from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, compiled by Our World in Data.

Following a severe second wave, the number of infected in Ukraine started to go down in the winter of 2020, with the total deaths settling at about 27 thousand in the month of February. Then the third wave hit in the spring, but the number of new daily cases has decreased again and is currently three times lower than at the beginning of the lastwave. However, a large part of the reduction is likely not thanks to successful epidemiological policies but rather due to low detection rates and seasonal variation

In June 2021, Georgia faces a similar situation as Ukraine and Latvia, with the number of cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants reaching around 1300 (in total 2500 people) following a rather detrimental spring 2021 wave. At the moment, both Georgia and Ukraine have very low vaccination coverage relative to other countries in the region(see Figure 5).

In contrast to the above countries, Russia started vaccinating early. Unfortunately, the country is now experiencing an increase in the number of cases (as can be seen in Figure 2), contrary to most other countries in the region. This negative development is likely due to the fact that the new Covid-19 delta variant is spreading in the country, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the early start to vaccinations, though, the total number of vaccinated people remains low, only reaching 10.5% of the population.

Figure 2. New Covid-19 cases

Source: Aggregated data sources from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, compiled by Our World in Data.

In some ways similar to Sweden, the government of Belarus did not impose any formal restrictions on individuals’ mobility. According to the official statistics, in the month of June, the rise in the cumulative number of covid-19 deaths and new daily infections has declined rapidly and reached about 400 deceased and 800 infections per one million inhabitants, respectively. Vaccination goes slowly, and by now, around 8% of the population has gotten the first dose and 5% have received the second.

There were two major waves in Poland during the autumn 2020 and spring 2021. In the latter period, the country experienced a vast number of deaths.  As can be seen in Figure 3, the excess mortality P-score – the percentage difference between the weekly number of deaths in 2020-2021 and the average number of deaths over the years 2015-2019 – peaked in November 2020, reaching approximately 115%. The excess deaths numbers in Poland were also the highest among the FREE Network countries in the Spring of 2021, culminating at about 70% higher compared to the baseline. By mid-June, the number of deaths and cases have steeply declined and 36% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated.

Figure 3. Excess deaths

Turning to the economy, after a devastating year, almost all countries are expected to bounce back by the end of 2021 according to the IMF (see Figure 4). Much of these predictions build on the expectations that governments across the region will lift Covid-19 restrictions. These forecasts may not be unrealistic for the countries where vaccinations have come relatively far and restrictions have started to ease. However, for countries where vaccination rates remain low and new variations of the virus is spreading, the downside risk is still very present, and forecasts contain much uncertainty.

 Figure 4. GDP-growth

Vaccination challenges

Since immunization plays such a central role in re-opening the economy and society going back to normal, issues related to vaccinations were an important and recurring topic at the event. The variation in progress and speed is substantial across the countries, though.

Ukraine and Georgia are still facing big challenges with vaccine availability and have fully vaccinated only 1.3% and 2.3% of the population by the end of June, respectively. Vaccination rates have in the recent month started to pick up, but both countries face an uphill battle before reaching levels close to the more successful countries.

Figure 5. Percent fully vaccinated

Other countries a bit further ahead in the vaccine race are still facing difficulties in increasing the vaccination coverage, though not so much due to lack of availability but instead because of vaccine skepticism. In Belarus, a country that initially had bottleneck issues similar to Ukraine and Georgia, all citizens have the opportunity to get vaccinated. However, Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at BEROC in Belarus, argued that vaccination rates are still low largely because many Belarusians feel reluctant towards the vaccine at offer (Sputnik V).

This vaccination scepticism turns out to be a common theme in many countries. According to different survey results presented by the participants at the webinar, the percentage of people willing or planning to get vaccinated is 30% in Belarus and 44% in Russia. In Latvia, this number also varies significantly across different groups as vaccination rates are significantly lower among older age cohorts and in regions with a higher share of Russian-speaking residents, according to Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at BICEPS in Latvia.

Webinar participants discussed potential solutions to these issues. First, there seemed to be consensus that offering people the opportunity to choose which vaccine they get will likely be effective in increasing the uptake rate. Second, governments need to improve their communication regarding the benefits of vaccinations to the public. Several countries in the region, such as Poland and Belarus, have had statements made by officials that deviate from one another, potentially harming the government’s credibility with regards to vaccine recommendations. In Belarus, there have even been government sponsored disinformation campaigns against particular vaccines. In Latvia, the main problem is rather the need to reach and convince groups who are generally more reluctant to get vaccinated. Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at KSE in Ukraine, exemplified how Ukraine has attempted to overcome this problem by launching campaigns specifically designed to persuade certain age cohorts to get vaccinated. Natalya Volchkova, Director of CEFIR at NES in Russia, argued that new, more modern channels of information, such as professional influencers, need to be explored and that the current model of information delivery is not working.

Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at ISET PI in Georgia, suggested that researchers can contribute to solving vaccine uptake issues by studying incentive mechanisms such as monetary rewards for those taking the vaccine, for instance in the form of lottery tickets. 

Labour markets looking forward

Participants at the webinar also discussed how the pandemic has affected labour markets and whether its consequences will bring about any long-term changes.

Regarding unemployment statistics, Michal Myck, the Director of CenEA in Poland, made the important point that some of the relatively low unemployment numbers that we have seen in the region during this pandemic are misleading. This is because the traditional definition of being unemployed implies that an individual is actively searching for work, and lockdowns and other mobility restrictions have limited this possibility. Official data on unemployment thus underestimates the drop in employment that has happened, as those losing their jobs in many cases have left the labour market altogether. We thus need to see how labor markets will develop in the next couple of months as economies open up to give a more precise verdict.

Jesper Roine, Professor at SITE in Sweden, stressed that unemployment will be the biggest challenge for Sweden since its economy depends on high labor force participation and high employment rates. He explained that the pandemic and economic crisis has disproportionately affected the labor market status of certain groups. Foreign-born and young people, two groups with relatively high unemployment rates already prior to the pandemic, have become unemployed to an even greater extent. Many are worried that these groups will face issues with re-entering the labour market as in particular long-term unemployment has increased. At the same time, there have been more positive discussions about structural changes to the labour market following the pandemic. Particularly how more employers will allow for distance work, a step already confirmed by several large Swedish firms for instance.

In Russia, a country with a labour market that allowed for very little distance work before the pandemic, similar discussions are now taking place. Natalya Volchkova reported that, in Russia, the number of vacancies which assumed distance-work increased by 10% each month starting from last year, according to one of Russia’s leading job-search platforms HeadHunter. These developments could be particularly beneficial for the regional development in Russia, as firms in more remote regions can hire workers living in other parts of the country.

Concluding Remarks

It has been over a year since the Covid-19 virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. This webinar highlighted that, though vaccination campaigns in principle have been rolled out across the region, their reach varies greatly, and countries are facing different challenges of re-opening and recovering from the pandemic recession. Ukraine and Georgia have gotten a very slow start to their vaccination effort due to a combination of lack of access to vaccines and vaccine skepticism. Countries like Belarus and Latvia have had better access to vaccines but are suffering from widespread vaccine skepticism, in particular in some segments of the population and to certain vaccines. Russia, which is also dealing with a broad reluctance towards vaccines, is on top of that dealing with a surge in infections caused by the delta-version of the virus.

IMF Economic Outlook suggests that most economies in the region are expected to bounce back in their GDP growth in 2021. While this positive prognosis is encouraging, the webinar reminded us that there is a great deal of uncertainty remaining not only from an epidemiological perspective but also in terms of the medium to long-term economic consequences of the pandemic.


  • Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at Kyiv School of Economics (KSE/Ukraine)
  • Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at the Baltic International Centre for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS/ Latvia)
  • Natalya Volchkova, Director of the Centre for Economic and Financial Research at New Economic School (CEFIR at NES/ Russia)
  • Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at the ISET Policy Institute (ISET PI/ Georgia)
  • Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC/ Belarus)
  • Jesper Roine, Professor at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE / Sweden)
  • Michal Myck, Director of the Centre for Economic Analysis (CenEA / Poland)
  • Anders Olofsgård, Deputy Director of SITE and Associate Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics (SITE / Sweden)

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.

Russia Economic Update — Brace for the Covid-19 Impact!

A view of central Moscow City at dawn representing the sudden stop of Russian economy

Russia’s oil dependence will once again contribute to an economic downturn that most certainly will follow the Covid-19 outbreak in Russia as in other countries. The decline in oil prices alone could lead to a drop in GDP of more than 8 percent. On the positive side, Russia manages its macro economy well. However, its fiscal reserves are not unlimited and the recent massive fall in oil prices has not been matched by a similar decline in the ruble exchange rate which means potential extra problems for the budget. Furthermore, monetary policy will have less of a role to play in dealing with this type of crisis. This means that Russia like other countries will face difficult trade-offs in dealing with the crisis at a time when some of the previously announced economic policy changes have not been well received by the public.


The corona virus crisis will destroy both lives and economies as it spreads across the globe. Fortunately, the corona virus death toll in Russia so far is relatively modest compared to many other countries, but the economy is most certainly heading for very difficult times. This is (again) due to the fact that the Russian economy is too dependent on the developments of international oil prices (see e.g. Becker, 2016a,b). In recent years, Russia had to deal with two severe declines in oil prices that hit its economy, first in connection with the global financial crises 2008/09, and second, in 2014/15, when there was a fall in oil prices simultaneously with Russia being hit by international sanctions after the illegal annexation of Crimea. Although these episodes were very costly for the Russian economy, they also provided important lessons for policy makers on fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policies that come in handy today. They also contributed with data on the relationship between large movements in oil prices and the effects they had on GDP growth in Russia. This is useful at this stage to assess what can happen with the economy after the significant decline in oil prices that has followed in the course of the corona outbreak.

Dramatic Decline in Oil Prices

We still do not know when this crisis will be over, but when it comes to the fall in international oil prices the start has been far more severe than the two crises referred to above. Since the beginning of 2020, oil prices have fallen from around $60/barrel to around $15/barrel or as Figure 1 shows, a barrel is now worth around 25 percent of what it was worth three months ago. Furthermore, prices are rather volatile and will continue to be so and there will most certainly also be periods of sharp increases in oil prices going forward – but the overall result for the year compared to the previous year is most likely a very sharp fall in prices. This decline in oil prices has so far been much more dramatic than the two previous crisis episodes the Russian economy has experienced under Putin as president or prime minister.

Figure 1. Oil price developments in recent crises

Note: This graph is based on the European Brent spot price FOB published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the axis shows trading days, so that the graph covers the period from January 1 to March 30. Different qualities of oil of course have different prices, but the patterns shown here are similar for other oil prices as well.

Exchange Rate and Stock Market

As in previous crises, the Russian stock market and exchange rate are following the evolution of oil prices. However, neither the stock market, nor the exchange rate has fallen as rapidly as oil prices. This can be due to many factors, but one likely explanation is that investors think that the decline in oil prices will not last for as long as it has in past crises. Whether this assumption is correct remains to be seen of course, but if oil prices stay low for an extended period, we can expect to see further declines in both the exchange rate and stock market.

Figure 2. Oil prices, exchange rate and stock market

Sources: Oil prices as in Figure 1, the exchange rate from Central Bank of Russia, RTS index from Moscow Stock Exchange.

The fact that the exchange rate this time has “only” depreciated by 20 percent when oil prices have fallen by 70-80 percent means that the oil price measured in rubles has fallen much more dramatically in this crisis compared to the previous ones. In the 2008/09 global financial crisis, the oil price in ruble terms was, in the end, unchanged compared to the start of the crisis. In 2014/15 this was not the case, but the decline in the ruble oil price was a more modest 25 percent compared to the 60 percent drop right now. This has serious implications for the government’s budget which is ruble-based and highly dependent on oil revenues.

Economic Policy

The Russian government now has plenty of experience in dealing with crises. The first lesson after the crisis at the end of the 90s was to have enough fiscal resources to deal with a crisis without having to go to the IMF again. The second lesson came in the global financial crisis when the fixed exchange rate had to be abandoned to avoid depleting the central bank’s international reserves. A prudent fiscal policy backed by the National Wealth Fund and a flexible exchange rate is still the backbone of the macroeconomic policies that can help mitigate the impact of lower oil prices.

The central bank is pursuing inflation targeting and uses a 4 percent inflation rate as the target that guides its policy decisions. The main tool is setting the key interest rate at a rate that will achieve the inflation target. The key interest rate is currently 6 percent, significantly down from the high of 17 percent in January 2015. The central bank states clearly in its monetary policy documents that “Monetary policy lays the groundwork for economic development; however, it cannot be a source of a sustainable rise in economic potential” (see page 6 in Central Bank of Russia, 2020). This implies that the central bank will only lower the key interest rate if inflation falls, not to support growth or try to achieve other, potentially conflicting goals. This is good news for macroeconomic stability but may become an issue of political tension if there is a serious downturn in the economy while inflation remains higher than the target rate.

In mid-2019, the National Wealth Fund was doubled and went from $60 billion to just over $120 billion (Ministry of Finance, 2020). This was done as a one-off transfer of surplus funds from the government’s budget. However, at its peak in the global financial crisis, the combined reserve fund and wealth fund that existed then had assets of over $220 billion but by the start of 2011, the assets were down to $111 billion. In other words, a year and a half into that crisis episode, the government had used an amount from the funds that roughly corresponds to the total amount available in the National Wealth Fund today. The fiscal space is, therefore, less impressive than it may look at a first glace and just burning through the cash in the National Wealth Fund is not a sustainable fiscal policy if this crisis continues a few more months.

Instead, the government will have to plan other measures as soon as the most immediate spending to deal with the crisis is done. This will entail difficult trade-offs since the health system will need increased resources at the same time as households and companies will need support to mitigate the impact from lost jobs and closed businesses in the wake of corona-induced shut-downs rather than the decline in oil prices, so adding to the pressure coming from declining oil prices. Increasing taxes in a time of already depressed purchasing power and profits is also not an appealing option and although there are still tax increases in the pipeline, the government has announced that these will not come in effect this year. Like in many other countries, the Russian government is proposing several measures to support the economy that will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming FREE policy brief. However, these measures will add to the costs of the government at a time of falling revenues. From an economic perspective, reallocating resources from the military and security sectors to other parts of the economy seems like an obvious choice under these circumstances, but most likely not the outcome of this process given the government’s geopolitical and domestic power ambitions. Again, the fiscal reserves will allow postponing these harder decisions, but if the crisis goes on for some time, alternative measures such as borrowing domestically or internationally will most certainly be discussed also in Russia. However, many governments will be in need of borrowing on international markets going forward and the rates required to access this type of funding may not be very attractive and still force domestic budget reallocations.

Growth Impact of the Oil Price Fall

It is of course too early in the crisis to make very precise forecasts on how the economy will fare in 2020. This will in the end crucially depend on how the Covid-19 pandemic develops and on government responses to the crisis not only in Russia but also in the rest of the world. A partial analysis of the impact of falling oil prices can however be done with the models presented in Becker (2016a) which link changes in oil prices to growth. This paper shows a few alternative specifications that differ in the GDP measure being in dollars or real rubles, and in some other dimensions. All specifications are highly statistically significant and able to explain between 60 and 90 percent of variations in GDP growth in the period 2000-2015. Focusing on the relationship between the percentage change in oil prices and growth in real ruble GDP, the estimated coefficient is 0.14. This implies that for every 10-percentage point drop of oil prices, GDP growth goes down by 1.4 percent. Currently, oil prices have declined by 75 percent since the beginning of the year. However, the model estimates are based on comparing how average oil prices change between years so this is the numbers we need to compute and compare. The average price of Brent oil (which is used in this model) was $64/barrel in 2019 but we obviously do not know what the average oil price will be this year. We therefore need to first “forecast” oil prices for the rest of the year before we can compute the impact on growth. If we make the simple assumption that oil prices stay at the current level and take into account that they were significantly higher the first couple of months this year, the average price would end up being $25/barrel. That would amount to a 60 percent decline in average oil prices between 2019 and 2020. The partial effect of this oil price decline would therefore make Russian real GDP drop by 8.5 percent in 2020. Again, this is the partial effect based on the estimated coefficient in a linear relationship between oil price changes and real GDP growth. In plainer English, we are not looking at the first order effect of closing stores etc. to avoid the virus from spreading but only the additional effect that we think will come from falling oil prices. In addition, the effect this massive decline in oil prices is assumed to have on GDP is derived by a coefficient that is estimated on smaller changes in oil prices and real GDP. Nevertheless, this exercise provides a first, and rather daunting, assessment of what can happen to GDP given the decline in oil prices alone.

Concluding Remarks with OPEC and IEA update

This brief has provided a first assessment of how the Russian economy may be impacted by the massive decline in oil prices that has followed in the course of the corona pandemic. It has shown that the economic downturn this time can be significantly worse than both the 2008/09 and the 2014/15 crises. A base line estimate suggests that GDP may fall by more than 8 percent only because of the fall in oil prices. The above calculation obviously includes neither the impact the health situation will have on companies or households, nor the government’s ability to mitigate the negative consequences. If the other problems the economy is facing as a direct result of the health crisis also lead to a significant decline in supply and demand, Russia could easily see real GDP declining by more than 10 percent in 2020.

Our estimate is an important reminder that Russia’s continued oil dependency is a risk to the economy and its citizens. Now is not the time for ambitious structural and institutional changes to generate growth, but hopefully the urgent crisis period passes without policy makers forgetting the risks the country’s oil dependence entails. They learnt the fiscal and monetary lessons well from past crises, now is the time to learn something new. The most appealing road to sustainable economic growth is still building credible property rights institutions and rule of law in a framework that would make Russia the innovative business-oriented superpower it could be.

A few days after the first version of this brief was published, oil prices started to rise as the OPEC together with Russia started discussions to cut production to support oil prices. A tentative agreement was reached which is supposed to cut production by 10 million barrels per day in May and June, the largest cut in OPEC’s history. Had this movements in prices continued, the forecast for the Russian economy would have been affected. However, this recovery in prices was soon reversed and oil prices started to fall again. The decline continued on April 15 as the International Energy Agency presented a dire forecast of oil demand and stated that this year may be the worst year ever in terms of declining demand. All in all, the price movements that have followed the OPEC meeting and the statements of the IEA do not change the baseline prediction this brief has provided.


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. This brief was first published on April 6, 2020 and then revised on April 15, 2020.

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.