What is SPIEF?
The St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) is the most prominent annual business event in Russia. It brings together key government and business stakeholders, a wide variety of foreign investors and political leaders.
Objectives at SPIEF
|For Officials||For Businesses|
This year’s backdrop
SPIEF returned in 2021 after a one-year pause due to COVID-19. The event was highly anticipated not only as Russia’s central annual event, but also as a symbolic first “offline” event of this scale since the beginning of the pandemic. Naturally, SPIEF 2021’s theme was the post-COVID reality.
For the Russian Government, this year’s event was a long awaited opportunity to emerge from he shadows of dealing with pressing COVID-19 issues and to start defining the outlines of the economic course ahead. PBN H+K Strategies has analyzed the Forum’s highlights to provide an understanding of the directions to be taken within Russia’s path to economic growth and its impact for the business environment.
This year Qatar was the guest country and bilateral relations and investment projects were a major focus. The main guest delegation at the Forum was led by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Than himself, which is indicative of the importance of Qatar as a trade partner – in 2020, trade with the country rose 22%. The focus of discussions was on deepening strategic cooperation on infrastructure projects, oil & gas and in the banking sector. Qatar signed 65 agreements at SPIEF and initiated discussions on the creation of a direct sea link to Russia. From Europe, Austria was a significant partner at this year’s SPIEF. Chancellor Kurz attended the plenary session via video link and shared that Russia remains one of the country’s main trade partners outside the EU. Austria’s role at SPIEF and warm rhetoric was designed to demonstrate that Russia remains open for political dialogue and doing business with the EU. Despite political tensions, the biggest foreign delegation originated from the US (although it was not an official one, with no Government officials). Both the Russian president and Deputy Prime Minister Belousov acknowledged strong business ties despite political rhetoric. This level of attention translates a somewhat welcoming message towards foreign businesses and an openness to distance business from political discourse.
SPIEF’s most anticipated event
As the main subject of the Forum was economic recovery, Russian officials at all levels focused on communicating a reassuring message of economic recovery and directions for growth. The central role at SPIEF was traditionally given to the Russian head of state. President Vladimir Putin used his physical participation in the plenary session on June 4 as yet another opportunity to address the nation and make several major announcements. His messaging was mainly directed to the domestic audience. However, some of it was obviously intended to be heard from abroad, given current tensions.
Main political anouncements
- Russia’s economy and labor market are heading toward pre-pandemic levels. Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov backed up this assessment –
the Russian economy is recovering faster than expected and could return to Q4 2019 levels by June/July 2021.
- The first line of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was completed on June 4.
- By the end of June 2021, foreign citizens will have access to vaccination in Russia.
Measures in support of the domestic economy
- The preferential mortgage program was extended, as one of the key social and economic crisis measures that has mobilized more than two trillion rubles in housing construction.
- By 2024, every region of Russia should provide a transparent and predictable regime for investment, including priority areas for regional development.
- To reduce administrative barriers, 4,000 construction regulations will be abolished as of September 1, 2021.
- It was also proposed to waive the need for the Federal Antimonopoly Service to approve mergers and acquisitions under 800 million rubles.
- Another suggestion was to increase the share of procurement from SMEs and NGOs by state companies to a level of at least 25%.
- Putin also proposed to exempt restaurants from value added tax when revenues do not exceed 2 billion rubles.
Increasingly important environmental agenda
- By 2050, accumulated net greenhouse gas emissions in Russia must be lower than in the European Union. The President tasked the Government to prepare a detailed action plan on this by October 1, 2021.
- The Russian Government will start issuing green bonds to modernize infrastructure. A pilot carbon market project was announced in the Sakhalin region, designed to be the first step towards the creation of a national cap-and-trade system (profits could exceed 50 billion dollars a year).
In line with the president’s speech, a key message from the Government at SPIEF is the recovery of the economy and the need to focus on strategic development. The Central Bank shared the prospects at the Forum – Russian GDP should increase by 3-4% and the growth rate in 2022 is set to be 2.5-3.5%. However, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov described the Russian economy as “overheated” due to soft monetary policy and increased budgetary spending amid the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a deviation of the inflation rate to 5.9% from the target of 4%. As it leads to decreasing levels of consumer spending and a fall in sales for businesses, inflation remains a major concern. Investors will be looking to the next Central Bank meeting in June, as interest rate hikes are to be expected.
Following the end of temporary price regulation of a number of essential goods (oil & sugar), Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina argued that the government should focus on creating competitive conditions and predictable regulation on the market instead of introducing additional regulation. Whether price regulation will become standard practice for certain categories remains yet unclear. However, collateral
impact on other industries (e.g. retail & logistics) has been acknowledged and taken into consideration.
Abandoning USD reserves
Against the backdrop of increasing sanctions and discussions about the possible blocking of Russia from the SWIFT system, the Finance Minister made an unprecedented statement about plans to fully abandon the US currency in the structure of the National Wealth Fund (Russia’s reserve fund) within just one month. The politically motivated decision will restructure the share of the US dollar (currently around 35%) in favor of the Chinese Yuan, gold and Euro. Despite President Putin denying the possibility, it might be a step towards Russian
oil & gas companies abandoning US dollars in international transactions. If so, foreign counterparts might have to reevaluate their deals and transactions with Russian companies
Regions for investing
The Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI) presented its rating, of the investment climate at the forum, highlighting the following regions as the best for investment:
Diversification of hydrocarbon exports
Hydrocarbons remain vital for Russia’s economic stability and growth, accounting for the larger part of its exports. The global energy market is undergoing major changes and Russia has been making efforts to diversify its energy export policy for a long time now. This year’s discussions and agreements at SPIEF were once again focused on both geographic diversification and alternative solutions.
In line with the President’s statement, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak announced that work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will be entirely completed by the end of 2021. In the eastern direction, Novatek (Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer) and China’s Zhejiang Energy signed agreements on long-term LNG supplies from the Arctic LNG-2 project.
Suggestions to expand the presence of Russia in the hydrogen market have been another highlight of SPIEF. Anatoly Chubais, Special Representative of the President, said that Russia has an opportunity to retain its status as a great energy power by reorienting from hydrocarbon exports to hydrogen exports. Experts assess that the existing pipeline network can reorient up to 10% of its capacity without the need for major modernization. If pursued, Russia’s input in the creation of a hydrogen market has the power to transform the global energy market.
Environmental concerns are now clearly a part of Russia’s economic course. This is now the third time this year that Putin has addressed the green agenda in an official speech. Inevitably, a major focus on sustainable development was made at SPIEF. This has both a political and economic implication for the Russian Government. On the one hand, the environmental agenda appears to be a possible common ground with the West, while on the other hand, it allows to launch ambitious projects and create attractive financial instruments.
“Green bond” or Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) bonds (debt securities, used to implement green projects) are set to become the future of sustainable finance in Russia. VEB.RF (the Russian state development corporation) shared that the volume of the green bonds market may reach 300 billion rubles by 2024, with an increase in volume of 30-40% each year. The Russian government is set to issue bonds for a total of 100 billion rubles and define instruments for environmental transformation, according to the Ministry of Economic Development. The availability of green bonds issued by government bodies and private companies make them more attractive and in demand among foreign investors. Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia, also announced plans to issue unique investment bonds, the additional income on which is tied to the dynamics of the market value of futures on CO2 emissions.
Sergey Ivanov, Special Representative of the President, announced that the ecological fee for packaging producers will be substantially increased in the near future, as such packaging is harmful for the environment. This will affect not only packaging companies, but also have an impact on pricing of products. The President also urged the government to develop an action plan to reduce pollution from hydrocarbon extraction and create a system of climate statistics and the necessary legal base. This level of attention to the environmental agenda in Russia means several things: first, Russia is set for sustainable growth. All businesses operating on the market will have to deal with increased environmental responsibility, often n the form of control and additional costs. Second, Russia is on a path to become attractive for investors and businesses interested in the ecological agenda.
Domestic Tech & Digital
This year at SPIEF special attention was paid to the IT & digital industry, which is considered to be the backbone of Russian economic recovery and growth. Representatives from the IT & telecom ndustry at the forum accounted for 39% of all attendees, compared to 9% in 2019, according to Aeroclub. The Minister of Digital Development defined the main Government priorities in developing the industry as: creating skilled specialists, stimulating domestic demand, protectionist measures for the domestic industry to create equal conditions with international players and promoting exports. The focus of the debate remains the same – import substitution. The impact from that policy will translate into further attempts to control international players, try to push them into the Russian jurisdiction and provide domestic companies with preferences.
New IT association
In line with that approach, state-owned companies across several industries – Rostelecom, Rosatom, Roscosmos and Gazprom Neft – agreed to create an association of the largest consumers of software and equipment in order to achieve breakthrough IT solutions that can be scaled up for export. Within the framework of the association, large customers from various fields will work on the formation of software requirements that will help domestic developers of digital products improve their products and increase their global competitiveness.
Tech in transport
The Ministry of Transport announced an initiative to create infrastructure for the launch of driverless vehicles, the formation of logistics corridors for which will begin with the M-11 Neva Highway (the pay road between Moscow and St Petersburg). The Minister of Digital Development added that a standard for such roads will be developed in Russia. Sberbank also used the opportunity at SPIEF to unveil a domestic self-driving electric car called Flip.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry were an important part of the debate at the Forum. The focus was primary on vaccination, digitalization and localization of production in Russia. Having received both a push and a test during the pandemic, the industry seems to be key for economic development.
Vaccination for all
The Russian Direct Investment Fund’s (RDIF) announcement about Russia opening up for vaccine tourism was backed by President Putin’s directive to prepare for vaccination of foreign citizens in Russia. As Russia has been the first country to introduce its COVID-19 vaccine, it remains an area of strong interest and further exploration for the Russian Government.
Tech revolution in healthcare
Maxim Oreshkin, aide to the Russian President, shared that the healthcare market is already double the size of the oil sector and its share in the Russian economy will only increase in years to come. He expects a true revolution to happen in that direction within 10-15 years to come, thus defining a direction for businesses to explore. While details of that transformation are yet unclear, RDIF and Sanofi announced cooperation in the development of digital projects in healthcare. Cooperation plans include the creation and maintenance of virtual medical products in four therapeutic areas, including diabetes and hypertension, that will contribute to the implementation of innovative digital solutions in healthcare.
SPIEF showed once again that the Russian market remains appealing for international companies.
The Russian government is pursuing the tactic of developing the pharmaceutical industry through foreign investments: Takeda signed an agreement about investing 2.3 billion rubles to expand production in Russia, while Stada formalized intentions to invest 10 million Euros.
*Header Image by Roscongress Foundation