12th VTB Capital Russia Calling – Investment Forum addressed by President Vladimir Putin

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12th VTB Capital Russia Calling - Investment Forum addressed by President Vladimir Putin
12th VTB Capital Russia Calling - Investment Forum addressed by President Vladimir Putin

Russia Calling! Investment Forum

Vladimir Putin addressed the plenary session of the 12th VTB Capital Russia Calling! Investment Forum.

Novo-Ogaryovo, Moscow Region, 29 October, 2020

President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board Andrei Kostin before the Russia Calling! Investment Forum.
With President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board Andrei Kostin at the Russia Calling! Investment Forum.

2 of 6With President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board Andrei Kostin at the Russia Calling! Investment Forum.

The 12th VTB Capital Russia Calling! Investment Forum is taking place, via videoconference, on October 29–30, 2020. The main theme of the event is Global Challenges, Local Remedies.

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President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to welcome all of you at the Russia Calling! Forum. As usual, the forum has brought together our friends from all over the world, business leaders, investment managers and consultants, as well as international experts in the field of the economy and finance.

This year the forum is taking place in an unusual format, via videoconference. But I hope that this will not stop us from openly and frankly discussing burning issues on the economic agenda, which are a matter of concern for the professional community both in Russia and the world.

Of course, the main factor that determined the global economic dynamics this year is the novel coronavirus pandemic. We can see the serious decline it has provoked in industrialised countries and emerging economies and the huge funds that have been allocated to support national economies.

The indisputable priority for Russia in this situation is the protection of the life and health of Russian citizens, of our families. I mentioned this on numerous occasions. This is the logic by which our actions have been and will be guided during the pandemic, when we coordinated a package of anti-crisis measures designed to save jobs and protect people’s incomes and to stimulate new contracts in the production chain. I would like to point out that total federal allocations approved for these support measures amounted to some 4.5 percent of the GDP. We know that some countries have allocated even more.

I have no doubt that our decisions have been adopted on time and that they were sufficiently effective. In my opinion, this is the main thing. We have seriously mitigated the consequences of the epidemic in the national economy. Economic decline is even smaller than in many other countries, as you are well aware.

However, the risks persist, of course. At the same time, I would like to note that, despite the complicated epidemiological situation, we are now much better prepared to work in conditions of a pandemic than before. Yes, I realise that we need to pay special attention to some matters and problems, and there are regions that require our special attention – we have recently discussed this matter at a meeting with the Government. But on the whole, the situation is better. This is due to the experience of mobilising the healthcare system and implementing essential preventive measures.

We clearly understand how we should act, and we therefore do not plan to introduce all-out restrictive measures or to launch a nationwide lockdown, when the economy and all business operations virtually grind to a halt.

If an objective need arises, the authorities will make justified pinpoint decisions, with due consideration for doctors’ recommendations, as regards the situation in specific regions, cities and municipalities. These decisions will make it possible to maintain people’s safety to the greatest possible extent and to facilitate the uninterrupted work of enterprises and organisations.

In this connection, I would like to ask business owners and managers to be socially responsible and to comply with all recommendations of doctors and specialists regarding the working conditions of their employees and workers.

Of course, we must fine-tune measures for supporting companies and businesspeople in the current conditions. This includes both short-term and long-term measures.

We are focusing on support for small and medium-sized businesses. We have halved the insurance premiums for these companies, from 30 to 15 percent. This is a permanent decision that does not apply to the current crisis period alone.

Small and medium-sized businesses working in the affected sectors can delay tax and insurance premium payments for the first quarter of 2020 by up to six months.

However, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that not all companies in the affected sectors were objectively able to restore their earlier positions. They continue to face problems. First of all, this concerns restaurants and other services. I suggest extending the delay in tax and insurance premium payments for these companies by another three months.

It has also been decided to extend the moratorium for planned inspections of small businesses until the end of 2021.

We are therefore reducing the administrative and tax burdens for tens of thousands of companies employing millions of Russian citizens, thus preserving jobs and people’s incomes.

Friends,

Despite a very difficult year, Russia has maintained macroeconomic stability, prevented an inflation hike and ensured financial market stability.

This is a solid basis for taking further steps to consolidate the efforts of the state and the business community, overcome the decline, restore employment and bring the national economy back to the growth trajectory.

We intend to act and are already taking measures in such key spheres as stimulating investment, promoting exports and ensuring a broad-based introduction of digital technologies. These factors can definitely set the trend for long-term quality growth.

I would like to emphasise that joint coordinated action is especially important, when government measures to develop the infrastructure, improve legislation and provide direct support to economic sectors are complemented with business investment in the creation of new, modern and highly paid jobs. Only in this case will we see a combined effect and a real result for the entire economy and for the welfare of the people.

I would like to reiterate that the macroeconomic stability we have attained is important for and directly benefits both the people and the real economy. This stability has allowed the Central Bank to lower the key interest rate and enhance the accessibility of loans, as you are aware, while the Government used it to launch new instruments in the interests of small and medium-sized businesses and Russian families.

Let us consider, as an example, the easy term mortgage programme with a 6.5 percent interest rate. This form of targeted support has proved effective. According to forecasts, the amount of mortgage loans issued this year will be record-high at more than 3.5 trillion rubles. In addition, this measure has not only helped the construction industry but has also encouraged additional demand for the output of related sectors, which employ millions of our citizens.

I have said already that a decision was taken to extend the easy term mortgage programme until July 1, 2021. We will also allocate considerable funds from the federal budget to promote rural mortgages. Next year we will nearly triple them.

At the same time, I would like to remind you about our goal: while making mortgage loans more affordable, we must also expand supply on the housing market to prevent imbalances and a rapid growth of prices – we are aware of this danger. Otherwise, the lowering of the mortgage interest rate will have no effect at all.

In this regard, special focus should be on the infrastructure support for housing construction and, in general, the development of regional infrastructure, including motorways, utilities, public transport and social facilities.

We will expand long-term debt financing, remove regulatory restrictions and create lucrative opportunities for safe investment of free capital and savings, so that companies and regions can bring in additional resources to achieve these goals.

All the more so as the activity of domestic, including retail, investors is on the rise in Russia. This goes to show the level of trust in the domestic economy. Of course, this is also due to the rate cut. Nevertheless, it is also a measure of trust in the economy in general. It is a major investment source that should be used to promote sustainable development and implement infrastructure and other projects of Russian companies.

Notably, despite the current difficult period, Russian assets enjoy demand on the market. Since earlier this year, the domestic issuers have raised $37 billion on public debt markets, and the securities market placements have brought in over $6 billion, a record-breaking amount over the past few years.

On a separate note, I would like to note a new model for attracting private investment that we tested just three weeks ago when Sovcomflot held a public offering on the Moscow Exchange.

Over 42 billion rubles have been raised. Moreover, these funds will be invested in new projects, including the construction of gas carriers at domestic shipyards, rather than go to the budget. To reiterate, I am talking specifically about additional resources, which will be used to expand the company and implement industrial projects. Thus, we will hopefully get a cumulative effect for many industries and high-tech sectors.

Close cooperation between the state and businesses is critically important if we want to reinforce and improve the securities market. The issue of perpetual bonds by our major infrastructure company, Russian Railways, is quite notable. With the assistance of the Government and the Central Bank, these securities provided resources to back the Russian Railways’ investment programme and, importantly, helped create a portfolio of orders for domestic manufacturers of equipment, cars and locomotives.

In addition, the state is supporting the green bond instrument designed to finance the transition of Russian enterprises to the best available technology. The state will cover up to 90 percent of the bond coupon payments.

I would like to say this once again: stimulating investment is our priority at the current moment, bearing in mind the goal of long-term future-oriented economic development. Of course, I would also like to point out that reliable and safe mechanisms for investing in new financial instruments are available to both Russian and international investors. We value every partner who wants to work together with us.

In addition to this, another instrument for the implementation of large projects important for entire regions and territories should be investment protection and encouragement agreements, which have a so-called stabilisation clause that guarantees the stability of tax terms, use of land and construction conditions for investors, whose spending on infrastructure will be made up for through the amount of taxes paid.

About two dozen projects with an aggregate budget of some 900 billion rubles have applied for this instrument. I have recently discussed this with the Government, and I would like our colleagues in the Government to remember that these plans must be implemented and become a reality a soon as possible.

And the last thing. You are aware that digital transformation is one of Russia’s national goals in the coming decade. It is an extremely important condition for enhancing economic growth and improving the quality of life for the people.

Russia’s leading companies, first of all Yandex, Sber and VTB (Mr Kostin can vouch for this), have been long and very successfully investing in these spheres, spreading to new niches and products and actually growing into what is now described as “econsystems.”

I am quite sure that the speed we have accumulated and the development of competition in this sphere (this is very important, and we will probably talk about this later today) will give a powerful impetus to our economy and will also help many small and medium-sized companies expand their marketing channels. This is extremely important, and I am certain that this subject is interesting for our colleagues, including those wo are attending this event.

Thank you. With this, I would like to conclude my opening remarks.

I have the pleasure of giving the floor to our host today, Mr Kostin. Please. 

President and Chairman of the Management Board of VTB Bank Andrei Kostin: Mr President,

First of all, thank you for your participation and substantive remarks. This is your 12th consecutive address at our forum and this is what primarily attracts investors from all over the world.

You have already mentioned that this forum is being held in unusual circumstances, although we are gradually getting used to it. We really doubted for a long time whether we should hold the forum this year, because, as we know, most of the forums both in Russia and abroad were cancelled this year for reasons that are well known.

However, investors are an impatient group and view the crisis not only as a time to count their losses, but also as an opportunity to make lucrative investments, because crisis is usually a good time to buy and the likelihood of making a profit is probably higher. Therefore, we took the chance and decided to hold this forum the way it is being held now. There is probably an upside to it, because with the help of our partners, the Russian media and international news agencies, our session is being broadcast to 70 countries online. Almost anyone who wants to hear and see it, and there will certainly be hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, will have this opportunity.

So, if you do not mind, then, as is customary, we will start the Q&A session. I hope modern technology will allow investors from different countries to ask their questions.

Colleagues, please introduce yourselves and tell us what financial organisations you represent, where you are located and what country you represent.

Let us start our discussion. Please.

Yakov Arnopolin: Good afternoon, Mr President.

My name is Yakov Arnopolin, and I am from the PIMCO Investment Fund in London.

Mr President, here is my question for you. It has come to our attention that the growth rates of the Russian economy have decreased over the past five years amid demographic problems, weaker inflow of migrants and still relatively low amounts of direct foreign investment. Additional costs to combat the virus may cause the postponement of the national projects to a later date. Accordingly, what measures is Russia considering to achieve higher growth rates in the long term?

Vladimir Putin: This is actually the main issue from which we proceeded. I am not going to give an extended answer now, because this would take time. But I would like to note that the economy has slumped not only in Russia but throughout the world as well. As you know, the Russian economy has slowed but not as steeply as the other economies, including those of the so-called industrialised countries.

The economy declined by 8 percent in the second quarter in Russia, 9 percent in the United States, as far as I am aware, and by as much as 17 percent in the Eurozone, from 14.7 percent to more than 17 percent in some countries. So there is nothing out of the ordinary; we are in line with global trends. As I have said, we are even better off in this respect than some other countries.

However, foreign analysts who analyse the situation say this has to do primarily with the structure of Russia’s economy, where the flagship sectors have been affected less than other industries. I do not think so, because, for example, the demand for energy (we are aware of the role and importance of our energy companies in our economy) has fallen considerably, yet the overall indicator is not bad at all. This is primarily the result of the stability of our macroeconomic policy in the past few years.

I would like to emphasise that the Central Bank transitioned to a floating exchange rate of the ruble several years ago. This has allowed us to mitigate the effects of changes on global markets, in particular, the energy market. By doing this, we have largely, though not entirely yet, “unfastened” our economy and its main indicators from global price fluctuations, because we have also introduced the Budget Rule and are strictly complying with it. We have preserved and even increased our reserves precisely thanks to our decision on the Budget Rule.

As of today, or more precisely as of the middle of October, our gold and currency reserves totalled about $585 billion. Our National Wealth Fund equals approximately $176 billion. At the same time, we are sticking to the target inflation rate of around 4 percent. We have one of the smallest sovereign debts in the world, approximately 3 percent, and our aggregate debt is about 17 percent. Taken together, this allows us to feel secure, including to continue developing our economy and to coordinate new economic development plans.

Of course, one of the main factors, as you have pointed out, is attracting investment, not only direct foreign investment but also other types of investment. We proceed from the assumption that the macroeconomic conditions I have mentioned will serve as a guideline for our potential partners. 

Here is what I would like to point out. Surveys conducted by international institutions, not us, who questioned our partners and foreign investors in general showed that no one refuses to work in the Russian market, but on the contrary (I cannot provide specific numbers, but they are readily available in the public domain), the number of companies planning to work in the Russian market is on the rise.

We will make every effort to create proper conditions for our investors, both domestic and foreign. We are also well aware of where our main investors come from – Cyprus, the Netherlands, and so on. This is about reinvesting Russian capital, and that is good, too. We do not mind that we have free movement of capital. We do not restrict this and do not intend to. This is our principled position. This was the case during the 2008–2009 crisis, and this is the case now amid the crisis caused by the pandemic. I hope this, too, inspires trust in the Russian economy and Russia’s economic policy, as we can see from the capital returning in the form of foreign investment.

So, all of that is causing optimism despite the known risks. Look, we will, of course, have a decline in the economy, but it will be much less pronounced than in other countries at about 4 percent this year and 4.2 percent next year. In a year, growth will resume, including an increase in our surplus. I have just given you the numbers showing the deficit and ensuing budget surplus. This year, the budget deficit will amount to 4.4 percent, and next year we expect about 2.4 percent. The year after that there will be a surplus of about 1 percent. The economy will grow in step. Overall, I am more optimistic than pessimistic, and I hope our potential partners will appreciate this.

The factor that you mentioned – achieving targets under the national projects – is critically important. Indeed, we are shifting certain elements to the right of the chart, but these goals do not go away. Moreover, the goals have been set even higher in the projects that you mentioned, namely, infrastructure projects involving the creation of new opportunities under railway and motorway projects. In general, this year we are over 80 billion rubles in excess of the plan. We have planned and will implement a number of large investment projects, and I hope, in some cases even at an earlier date than planned.

I will be happy to hear that this answered your question.

Andrei Kostin: Mr President, may I ask one more question?

Our expert community is heatedly discussing whether the government can increase investment. Even Alexei Kudrin, once an ardent supporter of scrimping and saving, recently said in an interview that investment can and must by increased through augmenting sovereign debt and tapping the NWF more vigorously.

Indeed, you quoted Russia’s sovereign debt at 17 percent, one of the lowest in the world. According to IMF methodology, up to 40 percent debt is actually acceptable, low risk. Aren’t we pursuing an overly conservative policy in this area? Could we possibly increase spending on investment projects by augmenting debt and, perhaps, use a little more of the National Wealth Fund, which we seem to be keeping for a rainy day? It seems like the right time to use it, doesn’t it?

Vladimir Putin: You asked if we could increase spending. The answer is yes, we could. But there is another side to your question that you have not asked – whether this should be done now or not. I can tell you that we are doing it now. I am referring to the support measures I have mentioned many times and we will probably discuss them later today. These measures primarily involve support for specific industries, support for Russian citizens, families, primarily families with children. Where does this money come from? It comes from the reserve funds. We have a very low federal budget deficit, somewhere around 3.9 percent this year, I believe. Why is it so moderate? Because we are using our reserve funds, including the NWF.

Do we need to do more? This question is pending in a thorough study by the Government and the Central Bank. I am watching this closely. My colleagues and I are adjusting our actions. Boosting government spending unreasonably would mean running risks that we may not be able to predict.

I have just mentioned the construction industry. Yes, we have lowered the mortgage rate to 6.5 percent. An all-time record inflow of funds to the construction industry and a record number of mortgage loans people have taken out. But I also mentioned the risks, one of them being rising prices, and we must closely monitor this situation. The same holds true for other industries. We could pump in more money, but then the increased prices and inflation would eat up our good intentions. We have to be very careful here. And this is how we have acted so far.

Andrei Kostin: Thank you very much.

Colleagues, please, who is next? Please, go ahead.

Kaan Nazli: Good afternoon, Mr President. Thank you for your comments. My name is Kaan Nazli. I am with Neuberger Berman in London, a new investment fund.

My question is partly answered, and it is again about the national projects – in particular, infrastructure spending. You have emphasised these projects since 2018, and they were an important part of the economic growth for the past two years. So now with, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changing both global and local dynamics, I wanted to ask if there is perhaps a change in focus of these projects, perhaps tackling more public health issues or some social inequality issues that might stem from the pandemic or, in addition to the pandemic, climate change is another risk. So I would really appreciate your comments on this. 

Vladimir Putin: You mentioned national programmes and infrastructure projects, in particular, and a potential shift in emphasis towards alleviating the problems associated with social inequality and the efforts to preserve the environment. Of course, social inequality and fighting poverty are the key tasks of the Government and the Russian state. This is obvious. Maybe, we will talk about this later today.

The same goes for our environmental goals. This is important for Russia since 70 percent of its territory is located in the northern latitudes and a significant part, 60 percent, is beyond the Arctic Circle. We have people living there. There are residential buildings, industries and infrastructure, which could be damaged (I spoke about this publicly not long ago) if the permafrost starts thawing, which it is doing, and will continue to thaw. This is a very serious challenge for us, and of course, we are monitoring it. We will continue to cooperate with our partners, including within the Paris Agreement, we will strive to fulfill our obligations. I can discuss this in more detail later.

However, this does not mean at all that we are abandoning major projects that are part of our national development goals. This, not lastly, perhaps even primarily, concerns infrastructure. We are not canceling our infrastructure plans. On the contrary, I hope that we will even be able to implement them earlier than planned. I have already said that we have allocated an additional 80-plus billion rubles this year to this end. We will continue to implement these projects.

What are they? They are widely known, but I will list them again. This includes the development of the Eastern area, the capacities of the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) and the Transsib, so that businesses that plan to invest their money in developing certain deposits are able to export these products to the Asia-Pacific region and its promising and growing markets. This, of course, includes the development of railway infrastructure and access roads to the Black Sea and the Azov Sea – Black Sea basin. This also includes the development of the railway infrastructure in the Central Federal District, and the central transport hub in general. This includes the construction of a new Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod-Kazan motorway, which we agreed on with our Kazakh and Chinese partners.

These are the biggest projects that crossed my mind, but it is not limited to these. For example, transport infrastructure development around our big cities with over a million people, around Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar and other large cities, are also part of our infrastructure development plans with a view to “stitching together” the territory of the Russian Federation. It also involves seaports, airports and so on. None of that has been put on the backburner; it will all be done.

Andrei Kostin: A question, if I may. Our bank has already pooled around 850 billion rubles this year as investments for participating in concessions, private concessions, including toll roads, airports and the like. I think this has been a fairly successful experience and it was developed in Russia, too. But now we see that the Government wants to shift the emphasis to substitute more private concessions with concessions of state-owned enterprises which issue infrastructure bonds. For example, Avtodor gets a concession and raises bonds. On one hand, it will probably attract portfolio investors who are interested in these kinds of equities, but I believe we will miss other investors who prefer to invest in concessions directly. Meanwhile, we have such investors, Arab and Chinese investors in Pulkovo airport and Europeans in toll roads. Do you think private concessions have a right to exist in Russia and will they get state support?

Vladimir Putin: Of course. However, our major goal is to attract private investment, including foreign private investment. The first speaker mentioned that, and I reaffirm it. Let me repeat, we are trying to ensure that their participation in our economy is attractive to them, not just break-even.

When we talk about the infrastructure bonds of our biggest companies, with the positive experience of, say, Russian Railways that issued perpetual bonds, people are happy to invest their money in these fiscal instruments. And rightly so, because it is guaranteed by the state, it is the biggest company and it is impossible to imagine effective sustainable performance of the entire economy without the efficient operation of that company, this is true. However, it does exclude the need to attract private investment, including for infrastructure. And this is what we are doing.

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