Lessons from the Russian Meltdown: The Economics of Soft Legal Constraints
On August 17, 1998, Russia defaulted on its domestic public debt, declared a moratorium on the private banks' foreign liabilities, which was equivalent to an outright default, and abandoned its exchange rate regime. The depth of the Russian meltdown shocked the international markets, and precipitated a period of serious financial instability. It is important to understand the roots of such a crisis to learn about possible lessons on both issues of bank supervision and international stability. While the visible cause of the crisis was an unsustainable fiscal deficit couples with massive capital flight, the critical question concerns the origin of such circumstances. This paper argues that the structure of individual incentives in the Russian legal context, compounded by the exceptional support granted by international institutions to Russia, explains the cycle of nonpayment, capital flight and fiscal unbalances leading to the dramatic 1998 crisis. We offer an interpretative model of noncompliance, cash-stripping and rational collective nonpayment, which led to the fiscal and banking crisis and ultimately to a complete meltdown. In our view, the banking sector was already insolvent prior to the crisis, and contributed directly and indirectly to it. The last section of the paper puts forward a radical medium-term policy proposal for a stable banking and payment system for Russia. Russia needs to create a basic foundation for savings and intermediation by asset restrictions and market segmentation, crude but effective rules used in all underdeveloped systems to restrain asset stripping and opportunism. Concretely, we propose a cautious extension of deposit insurance away from the monopolistic Sberbank and towards a narrow banking layer. The proposal also proposes to restore charter value in the commercial banking sector.
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