Hassan Malik on Bankers and Bolsheviks

In a year that has seen emerging markets, including Argentina and Turkey, experience major market crashes, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks is a timely reminder of the long history of emerging market booms and busts. Bankers and Bolsheviks charts the story of the foreign investment surge that made Russia the largest net international borrower in the global bond market, and the collapse which culminated in the largest default in history in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Based on research in government and banking archives in four countries and three languages, the story is truly global. It focuses on the leading gatekeepers of international finance in Europe and the United States, showing their thinking about the most significant emerging market of the age through some of the most important events in world history.

Many scholars, writers and filmmakers have engaged with the period you chose to write about. What in particular attracted you to it?

I was always struck by how frequently financial history surveys focus on a few set stories and episodes – the Dutch Tulipmania of the seventeenth century, the hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, or the 1929 stock market crash – but how rarely they mention Russia, especially given the scale of the Russian borrowing binge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a banker living and working in Moscow during mid 2000s, I was constantly walking by pre-revolutionary buildings that had once housed banks. These vestiges of a previous Russian boom piqued my interest in the role of finance during the revolutionary period and inspired me to approach the subject through the archives and writings of key individual players in this drama. The Russian case was particularly interesting given that all the major players in global finance were able to participate in Russian markets. Unlike other emerging markets that were dominated by a single country or bank, the Russian story featured a diverse group of actors, and so provided an ideal vantage point from which to write about global finance during the first modern age of globalization.

What are the parallels with today’s standoff between Ukraine and Russia over sovereign debt?

Central to the book is the notion of “odious debt” – the idea that a population cannot be held liable for the debts contracted on its behalf but without its consent by an illegitimate regime. The Bolshevik default of 1918 was remarkable for reasons other than sheer magnitude. Unlike Argentina in 2001 or Greece in 2012, the Bolsheviks not only defaulted but repudiated the debts contracted by pre-revolutionary governments. It is notable that the Bolsheviks were not outliers in this respect – moderate liberals in Russia also objected to debts the Tsarist government in particular raised in international bond markets.

Fully 100 years on, the Ukrainian government is fighting Russian claims on a similar basis with respect to a bilateral loan structured as a $3bn Eurobond contracted by the government of Viktor Yanukovych in December 2013, shortly before it was overthrown in the 2014 uprising. The Ukrainian government ultimately defaulted on the loan in 2015. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918, the current Ukrainian government claims that Yanukovych was a dictator ruling without the consent of his people, and that therefore, they should not be held accountable for debts contracted by his government. Like the Bolsheviks and liberal opponents to the Tsarist regime in the early twentieth century, the present Ukrainian government is also claiming that the creditor in question actively sought to undermine and control the debtor country.

What lessons does the book hold for investors in emerging market bonds today?

Another of the book’s central messages is that investment in emerging markets does not happen in a vacuum. Politics matter, on several levels. Most obviously, managing and hedging against geopolitical risk remains very important. Global politics also influenced thinking about Russia, even amongst ostensibly clear-eyed investors. Fears of an ascendant Germany during the time period discussed in the book are mirrored in present-day apprehension about the rise of China and relative decline of “the West.” More specifically, such fears can generate biases and influence investment decisions. The strategic decisions of the first National City Bank of New York – one of the largest in the world at the time, and a forerunner to Citigroup – were heavily influenced, for example, by the wartime context, and led to a remarkable expansion of the bank’s operations in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.

Politics also operate on a subtler level. The case of Russia, for example, demonstrates how the act of investing itself became a political act–when investors enter an emerging market, they often are aligning themselves with a particular set of political forces. Bankers in Russia at the time failed to appreciate the degree to which they were becoming entwined in domestic politics – and with the Tsarist regime in particular. Today, a similar theme is evident along the New Silk Road that China is developing across Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean as part of President Xi Jingping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What are the implications for China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The investment wave Russia witnessed during the first modern age of globalization was inextricably intertwined with contemporary geopolitics. While notionally private French, British, and American banks were key gatekeepers channeling capital into Russia, they did so in a particular geopolitical context. The French and Russian authorities in particular cooperated to a significant degree in channeling French savings to Russian markets. The French, however, frequently failed to persuade Russia to direct industrial orders to French firms, which often lost out to their German rivals.

In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is markedly different from the Franco-Russian financial ties of the Belle Époque. Under the BRI, China extends loans largely to developing countries for infrastructure projects built primarily by Chinese workers employed by Chinese engineering firms, using mainly Chinese equipment and materials. At a time when Chinese economic growth is slowing and there are signs of excess capacity in areas such as the construction industry, the BRI holds significant promise for China, not least since it diversifies the country’s trade routes away from contested territory such as the South China Sea. The benefit to countries receiving BRI funds is less clear. While there is little doubt that infrastructure is being built, the utility of some projects is arguable; and crucially, there is little transparency with regard to the commercial terms of the deals, to say nothing of contracting processes.

Several cases of questionable China-related deals are already evident. Before the formal launch of the BRI in 2013, Sri Lanka infamously signed a deal for a Chinese port of dubious feasibility and under terms that saw Sri Lanka’s debt balloon. When a new government faced difficulties in making payments, the Chinese ultimately took control of the strategic asset via a 99-year lease. More recently, erstwhile Malaysian premier Najib Razak signed major Chinese investment deals under the BRI. His successor has attacked the deals as shady and wasteful, and has already announced their cancellation in the amount of at least $22bn.

As the Malaysian case shows, the Chinese government – like foreign investors in Tsarist Russia – is willing to sign deals with leaders of contested legitimacy. The latter, in turn, are incentivized to seek BRI funding given the relatively higher degree of scrutiny and conditionality imposed by more traditional lenders such as the World Bank or individual developed countries. As both the Malaysian and Russian cases show, however, such an approach carries the risk that new regimes – whether they arrive through revolution or the ballot box – can question, push to renegotiate, or outright repudiate debts contracted by their predecessors.

Have emerging markets evolved, or have they repeated cycles of boom and bust that are fundamentally the same, with only superficial changes in context? Are the mistakes of the past vis-à-vis emerging markets destined to be repeated?

It would be simplistic to say that history repeats itself in emerging markets, but at the same time, financial history can be useful in thinking about historical analogs to current market conditions and potential future scenarios. Of course, government and businesses in emerging markets have evolved both over the centuries, as well as in the last several decades that witnessed the growth of “emerging markets” as a specific institutional asset class. For instance, macroeconomic management has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years in markets from Argentina to Russia, not least through the abandonment of fixed exchange rate regimes that contributed to past crises. At the same time, macroeconomic prescriptions directed at emerging markets from institutions such as the IMF, academia, and the investment community have themselves changed as investors and economists learn and re-learn lessons from the major EM crises of recent years.

Emerging markets have changed in other respects, too. Tsarist Russia attracted investors in part due to its relatively large population and resource base. Today, Russia’s demographics are seen as a handicap by investors, as is the economy’s dependence on commodity exports. Of course, even high-growth Asian economies have become victims of their success, with improvements in living standards and life expectancies contributing to ageing populations in major emerging markets such as China and India.

Nevertheless, there are strong continuities. The political dimension in particular remains very real in emerging markets, as seen in the major market moves surrounding regime changes in places such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Malaysia in recent years. In this respect, there are strong parallels between emerging markets today and in the past.

Hassan Malik is an investment strategist and financial historian. He earned a PhD at Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute in Florence and the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. He lives and works in London.