Stephen Jennings is giving up control over Renaissance Capital, once a leading Russian investment bank, to Mikhail Prokhorov’s Onexim Group. In his farewell letter Jennings expressed hope that with the new ownership structure the bank he founded 17 years ago “will be much more part of the ‘system’ in Russia”. Most likely, after Jennings’ departure, Renaissance Capital will concentrate on serving the business of Onexim group.
Financial institutions are in rough waters everywhere in the world. The Russian government took advantage of the financial crisis to tighten its grip on the investment banking industry. When in 2007 state-owned VTB entered the booming investment banking industry, its aggressive recruitment practices were a first blow to the run-for-profit investment firms. Soon after that, the government unofficially instructed state controlled companies, comprising about a half of Russian economy, to hire VTB Capital as a financial adviser for important transactions. Many Russian oligarchs, often dependent from the government, also were advised to work with VTB Capital whenever possible. Besides direct backing from the government, VTB also leveraged its unrestricted access to the government funds to win business from its capital-deprived private competitors.
Faced with decline in revenues, independent investment firms either quit the market or were acquired by state-controlled institutions. In 2011 state-controlled Sberbank acquired Troika Dialog, a leading Russian investment bank. Explaining the deal, Troika Dialog’s founder Ruben Vardanyan admitted that there was no room for non-state controlled banks in the Russian market. Last week, after several years of losses, Stephen Jennings followed the suit.
The alliance of bureaucrats, state-controlled companies and investment banks creates the machinery for structuring high-scale fraud and corruption into legal financial transactions. Now investment bankers can take any risks, knowing that the government will always back them if something goes wrong.
Besides that, monopoly in financial services could be useful in punishing bold businessmen. Recently VTB-Capital refused to underwrite bonds for National Reserve Bank just several days before the issue should have taken place. Alexander Lebedev, the politically active owner of the National Reserve Bank, had to sell his assets and cut financing of Novay Gazeta, the last but one newspaper not controlled by Kremlin.
Having access to the most intimate information about their clients, investment banks could be instrumental in tightening control both over business and corrupted officials. No surprise that nowadays all major Russian companies prefer to work through their own investment firms. Igor Sechin recently hired several prominent bankers in order to create one for his Rosneft. Likewise, Gazprombank is in charge for most of its parent company financial transactions.
Open and competitive financial markets could have foster the diversification of the oil-dependent Russian economy by enabling the flow of money from cash rich natural resource industries to new sectors of the economy. Alas, Russian investment banking is becoming both fragmented and monopolized. The quality and availability of financial services for Main Street will deteriorate, limiting the investment and economic growth.