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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Putin vs. Marcos: Who is the Bigger Kleptocrat?

Bill Browder, the former CEO of the hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management and who was once Russia's largest foreign investor, told Fareed Zakaria of CNN that he believes that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is the world's richest man, with an estimated net worth of US$ 200 billion.  This would make Putin more than twice as rich as Bill Gates, the world's richest man, with an estimated net worth of US$79 billion.  Bill Browder would be in a strong position to know.  He once conducted a "stealing analysis" of Gazprom, Russia's largest oil company, and concluded that "only 10%" of Gazprom's assets were being stolen, instead of 99% as indicated by Gazprom's market price, hence Gazprom's gross undervaluation.

Given that many of Russia's billionaires have strong ties to Putin, particularly in the oil and gas industries, Russia's main export and one of its largest natural resources, it is unsurprising that Putin, the one with the actual power to distribute Russia's biggest exported commodity, would have the biggest share of the Russian economic pie.

This is not hard to believe at all.  One just has to look at the cost overruns of 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. With a revised budget of US$ 51 billion, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi costs more than three times the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, roughly $14 billion. But the Sochi Winter Olympics was a much smaller event, with only 2,873 athletes representing 88 countries.  In contrast, the London Summer Olympics was a much more massive affair, with around 10,700 athletes from over 205 countries.  This is just one event in the course of Putin's 14 year reign.  Multiply this by all the transactions that go through in Russia's US$ 2.1 trillion economy and US$ 200 billion in plunder sounds pretty darn realistic.

Bill Browder went on to claim that during "the first eight or 10 years of Putin's reign over Russia, it was about stealing as much money as he could."  Sound familiar?

In absolute numbers, the size of Putin's loot would dwarf the US$ 35 billion that President Suharto was reported to have amassed in his 31 years in power.  But Putin's rapaciousness ranks only 5th in the world, behind Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, our very own President Marcos of the Philippines, and President Suharto of Indonesia.  Why?  A robber's ability to rob is determined by the size of the vault he is robbing.  It just so happens that Putin's vault, namely the Russian economy, was so much bigger than the others. With a cumulative GDP of US$ 15.88 trillion from 1999 to 2014, Putin's vault is almost 6 times President's Suharto's cumulative GDP of $2.66 trillion from 1967 to 1998.  But in terms of amount stolen as a share of the economic vault, Putin's loot amounts to only 1.26% of the cumulative Russian GDP in the 14 years that Putin has been in power.

So who was the bigger kleptocrat: Putin or Marcos?  In this case, Macoy still comes out on top!