New markets, new rules

Fifa’s decision about the 2018 World Cup showed that it takes a new kind of guts to do business toda

It is hard not to read the abject failure of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup as a metaphor. As our balding future king and toff Prime Minister bumbled around Zurich, a sense of entitlement and Boris Johnson in their wake, they stood for the death of a dream - a dream that was about a lot more than football. While the Sun spat furious headlines about bungs and Fifa corruption, our leaders were learning that, with the shift of global economic power from west to east, some less tangible relics of empire had also died. British fair play has no place in the world of 21st-century business.

The Sun wasn't the only one to draw a link between Russia's victorious bid and the Wiki­Leaks revelation that the country is a "virtual mafia state". Russia's corruption is a challenge to anyone seeking to do business there. But the same can be said for any number of the former "developing" nations that have come to dominate our economic landscape. In awarding the World Cup to a mineral-rich powerhouse whose economy grew at more than twice the rate of the UK's in 2010, Fifa has merely confirmed that the established order has been overthrown. Corruption is a cost to be factored in to any business dealings in this new world.

Lax laws

Russia ranked joint 154th in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2010 - a kind of Corruption World Cup - with the same score as Tajikistan, and below Zimbabwe, Iran and Yemen. The cost of bribery to the Russian economy is estimated at £200bn - equal to the GDP of Greece. In 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev put in place a package of anti-corruption legislation, but although some minor officials have been convicted, the laws are regarded as too lax and cannot be enforced against the most flagrant offenders - the police and military.

Trace International, which advises businesses on dealing with corrupt regimes, suggested this year that companies should consider pulling out of Russia. Yet the Russian economy continues to grow. While our politicians wring their hands, our leading companies are getting on with business in one of the world's most vibrant economies.

On 3 December, PepsiCo announced it would spend $3.8bn to acquire a two-thirds stake in the Russian dairy and fruit juice company Wimm-Bill-Dann. This will make Pepsi the biggest food and drinks business in Russia, and Russia will be Pepsi's second-largest territory after the US. The private equity firm TPG Capital, meanwhile, is engaged in a struggle to gain control of the St Petersburg hypermarket chain Lenta, in which it invested $110m in 2009.

Russia's financial markets are also growing apace. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky wrote that “a certain limitation of mind seems to be an indispensable asset, if not to all public personages, at least to all serious financiers". In fact, Russian bankers have proved remarkably astute at manufacturing a nimble financial system out of the monolithic, Soviet-era banks. This system is still developing - the credit markets, for instance, are yet to recover from the crash of the late 1990s - but the signs are that, by 2018, Russia will have a host of sophisticated international banks and finance companies. It will need them - the final bill for the World Cup is expected to near £30bn and at present Russia raises only about 10 per cent of its cash from the global capital markets.

The dramatic evolution of Russia's financial system since the fall of the Iron Curtain is demonstrated by the banks' resilience in the face of the credit crash. At the end of the 1990s, Russia was at the centre of a sovereign debt crisis that engulfed emerging markets from Argentina to Thailand. The rouble devalued by 250 per cent and inflation hit 84 per cent.

Major banks - SBS-Agro, Incombank, Mena­tep, Oneksim - failed. This time around, Russia has emerged relatively unscathed. The rouble/
dollar exchange rate remained more or less stable, inflation was kept within official limits, no retail depositors lost money and bank failures were confined to the financial offshoots of small businesses.

Giants slayed

Perhaps the recent experience of a major crisis helped the Russians. A director at one of the leading asset managers in Moscow told me: "We didn't fear what was happening, as we had seen this before. Russian investors didn't look beyond Russia during 2008. The giants of our economy - Sberbank, Gazprom, Rosneft, Norilsk Nickel - were all down 80-90 per cent. Their bonds were yielding 50 per cent returns per annum. We invested our money here and the returns were extraordinary."

Many British investors sold out of Russia in the early days of the crisis, fearing exposure to a nation whose recent history was so troubled. The 2006 bankruptcy of the oil giant Yukos after a face-off between its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the then president, Vladimir Putin, suggested that Russia was turning away from the free-market path that it had followed since the 1998 crash. An ongoing war with Georgia didn't help. But those (largely local) investors who showed faith made a killing in 2009, when the RTS share index more than doubled, making Russia the world's best-performing stock market that year.

British firms and investors are going to have to accept that, no longer able to dictate the terms on which we do business with the new giants of the global economy, we must show flexibility. This doesn't necessarily mean embracing baksheesh and bribery, but rather understanding that corruption is - and always has been - endemic within young economies. We must learn to swallow our distaste, before we get left behind.

Alex Preston's column appears fortnightly. His novel "This Bleeding City" is published by Faber.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus