The credit crunch reaches the home of the rotten apple and the ‘Rolexo’ watch
James Gregory Pool III is an elderly, stooping Canadian with a most un-usual job. Every month he boards a plane from Canada with 200 sedated heifers and flies with them to Almaty to beef up and variegate Kazakhstan’s breeding livestock. He’s the archetypal eccentric foreign entrepreneur one finds in this eccentric Central Asian city. A recent trip threw up several such oddities: a German wine trader trying — and largely failing — to interest the Kazakhs in £100-a-bottle claret; a Norwegian flogging confessedly second-rate salmon to hotels and restaurants; a 19-year-old British geologist so driven to succeed in the mining industry that she carried a glass construct of the element molybdenum in her pocket. All are attracted as much by the beauty of a city in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains as by its mineral wealth. Kazakhstan boasts the world’s largest seam of coal; its biggest untapped oilfield, Kashagan, with 40 billion barrels of reserves; and unmeasured hoards of copper, gold, ferrochrome and copper.
Yet these are troubling times for Kazakhstan’s 15 million citizens. The economy is slowing — from over 9 per cent growth in 2006 to an expected 4 or 5 per cent this year. Leading Almaty-based lenders — notably BTA and London-listed Kazkommertsbank — are in all sorts of difficulties. Only the super-conservative Halyk Bank, also London-listed, has avoided the meltdown. Many bank staff haven’t been paid for months. Almaty’s genial people are eager to elevate their living standards above those of parents and grandparents who toiled under the Soviet yoke. The fear is that economic slowdown, allied to contraction in the construction industry and an almost total lack of bank liquidity, will quickly shred their raised aspirations.