31 December 2008

Oligarchs of the world unite

Almost lost among the myriad recent failings of western capitalism was the story that Gazprom is broke. This time last year it was vying to become the world's largest company, and now investors are deserting it like a new year's party after the booze has run out. Having once had the governments of western Europe over a barrel, the unofficial private monopoly of Russian gas has been forced to go cap in hand to the government for a cash bailout, after running up debts of $49.5 billion.

I realise in these days of trillion dollar debt this might not seem like a lot, but to give it some context, that is roughly the equivalent of the combined public and private debt of India, China and Brazil for next year. For those of us uneasy with the fact that our central heating bills were bank-rolling Vladimir Putin's political agenda, this is an unexpected silver lining to the rather big black cloud in the economic sky. And it also gives western governments a chance to laugh up their sleeve - after all, it seemed a touch unfair that Russian capitalism was quite so dynamic, as the Johnny-come-latelys of the free market.

But I guess the fact that Gazprom will soon be a basket-case company, propped up by government money to protect its inefficient practices, in many ways, shows how far the Russians have come in 18 years. It took General Motors nearly one hundred years to achieve that level of business acumen.

No comments: