The Washington Post published an article this morning titled “THREE DOZEN TYCOONS MET PUTIN ON INVASION DAY. MOST HAD MOVED MONEY ABROAD.”“Offshore Putin Russia Oligarchs Pandora” It said things like “many of them had been moving their wealth out of the country for years,” and “The money often ends up offshore.” While where income is claimed is important for tax purposes, which is another interesting and complicated story, the abandon with which this story discusses moving wealth around drives us economists up the wall.
Wealth can be physical (factories, stores, etc.) or human (the knowledge or skills of people). Financial wealth, such as money, is a claim on physical or human wealth. People can move abroad, and many skilled Russian’s are doing so. Moving physical capital abroad is more difficult if even possible. A yacht built in Russia can be sailed off to another country, but not a shopping mall. What this and similar articles generally mean by moving wealth abroad, is, as the headline states, moving money abroad. This is often done to minimize taxation, which is usually based on where income is recorded. “The corporate income tax” That is an interesting subject of its own but not my focus today.
How do people “move money abroad?” Money is rarely moved in suitcases anymore, and a bag full of rubles can’t be spent abroad in most places anyway. So, let’s take a deeper look at what is really happening when Russian tycoons (or anyone else) “move money abroad.”
The easiest example is when Russian exporters are paid in foreign currency (generally US dollars). If the exporter has a dollar account in a bank abroad (in a US bank to keep it simple) the payment for his export can be deposited directly there by a debit to Shell Oil’s bank account and a credit to the Russian exporter’s US bank account via the normal interbank transfer process. He can hold it there or buy US treasures or other US financial assets. His money is moved abroad by moving (selling) his goods abroad and keeping the payment abroad. This helps explain why Russia is insisting that German and other buyers of its oil must pay in rubles.
To pay for oil or any other Russian export with rubles the foreign buyers must first buy rubles in the foreign exchange market. The increased demand for rubles increases its exchange rate (or keeps it from falling as Russian importers sell rubles for dollars to pay for imports). Russia has made the process of paying dollars then buying rubles simple and almost automatic, but critically the Russian exporter receives ruble. Normally Russian exporters would convert dollar payments into ruble with which to pay for their workers and local suppliers, etc. But by keeping the dollar payment abroad, they have effectively “moved money abroad” by shipping goods (and services) abroad.
If a tycoon’s income/wealth is local (in rubles), and he wants to move it abroad, he can’t just write a check (or SWIFT payment order) to deposit X amount of money in his account with the Bank of America. The funds in his local bank, which will be in rubles, will need to be exchanged for dollars in the foreign exchange market. He (his bank) will deposit his ruble in the ruble account of the seller of the dollars and will receive those dollars in his Bank of America account in the U.S. If the supply of dollars to the foreign exchange market are not being supplied as the result of Russian exports, the increased demand for dollars will depreciate the ruble (increase the ruble price of a dollar). With a balance of imports and exports the ruble/dollar exchange rate should be stable. But a net increase in the movement of money abroad would depreciate the ruble. In short, underlying the movement of money abroad, there is a net movement of goods (exports minus imports) abroad.
If there was a sudden increase in money being moved abroad from Russia (often called capital flight) the ruble’s exchange rate would depreciate and the cost of imports would thereby increase.