THE Soviet Union has been selling off strategic gold reserves, sparking new concerns about the country's troubled economy. ``Dipping into reserves is the last resort,'' says Marshall Goldman, head of Harvard University's Russian Research Center. ``It's either a sign of desperation or because the price of gold is unusually high - I think it's a little of both.''
Two developments spurred the recent sales, analysts say. First, Moscow's hard-currency crunch is exacerbated by urgently needed consumer imports and pressing repayment demands from Western suppliers. Second, Iraq's invasion into Kuwait spiked gold prices to well over $400 an ounce, signaling a profitable time for Moscow to sell on the international market.
A financial adviser with the Comptroller of the Currency here says that reports of Soviet gold sales - as much as $1 billion over the course of several days, compared with the $2 billion to $3 billion average sale during a single year - are ``no surprise.'' Soviets are ``looking to put their payments back on track'' and good credit is essential to ``their efforts toward convertibility of the ruble,'' he says.
According to US Central Intelligence Agency estimates, Moscow holds $25 billion to $32 billion in gold reserves. But Roger Robinson, a private consultant who was senior director of international affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan administration and a former Chase Manhattan banker with Soviet and East European portfolios, puts the range at $15 billion to $22 billion. Since 1986, he says, when Soviet oil revenues plummeted due to lower world oil prices, the Soviets have sold $10 billion of strategic reserves, in addition to selling annual gold production. ``They continue to dip into dangerously low reserves to pay for imports,'' he says.
Before 1986, ``the Soviets never sold as much as they mined, which was 200 tons annually,'' says Judy Shelton, author of ``The Coming Soviet Crash.'' She says Moscow's ``credit rating has slipped dramatically'' since its payments crisis last fall when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered an emergency $16 billion consumer goods purchase to quell labor unrest.
During 1990, she says, ``the Soviets have probably been working the market, selling production and reserves for some quick cash and pledging additional gold as collateral to creditors and suppliers. I know they have been moving a lot of it - Aeroflot flights have landed in London loaded with gold to be used as collateral for new credits with commercial and central banks.''
Robinson says the current Soviet objective is to ``keep the price of gold reasonably high and stable. They don't want to dump too much on the market, or they'll look desperate and drive the market price lower.'' He predicts Moscow won't resume gold sales until the precious metal reaches $500 an ounce. ``Within two to three weeks after a shooting war in the Persian Gulf, when the Soviet Union isn't there to stabilize the market with sales, gold prices will shoot up. It's classic; they'll watch the demand curve go up while they, the suppliers, hold off.''
By Moscow's own accounts, the economy is in a desperate state. The title of the semi-annual report issued earlier this month by the USSR State Committee for Statistics Reports is revealing: ``No Economic Improvement as Yet; Crisis Phenomena in Economic Development Intensify.'' In July, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov stated that the Kremlin will not break its current total hard currency foreign debt ceiling of $56.6 billion; but Western estimates put the debt as high as $64 billion. Its trade deficit with the West reached a record $6 billion during the first half of this year. Moscow is now six months in arrears to Western suppliers, owing a debt between $2 billion and $5 billion.
Moscow may partially bridge that gap by reaping gold, oil, and gas windfall profits from the Gulf crisis. Eighty percent of Moscow's foreign exchange earnings are from four principal exports - gold, oil, gas, and arms. Robinson says that Soviet earnings from the Gulf crisis - revenues from oil, gas, and gold - could amount to $7.5 billion over one year.
``With every dollar increase in the world oil price per barrel, Soviet energy export earnings increase by $850 million,'' says Jan Vanous, director of PlanEcon Inc., a Washington-based firm specializing in East European and Soviet economies. He discounts reports that the Soviets are drawing down heavily on gold reserves, although Soviet gold production for the international market remains steady, he says.
Higher oil prices - if sustained at $25-$30 a barrel - would help reduce Soviet debt, says Mr. Vanous. If Moscow carries out its Jan. 1, 1991, plan to cancel costly preferred trading agreements with Eastern Europe and satellites such as Cuba, Soviet exports from energy to machinery will transform from subsidies to generators of foreign exchange.
At least one Soviet economist questions whether the Soviet Union can actually rely on mineral and energy exports sales. The independence-bound Russian Federation, one of 15 Soviet republics, is rich with raw materials that it now seeks to protect from Soviet exploitation, says Igor Birman, a consultant to the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. ``In no more than a couple of years, the world will be dealing directly with the republics for such resources, and not the Soviet Union.''