Nationalizing Russia’s Middle Class

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the last decade or two, Russia’s monied classes and middle classes have been wildly enriched or merely kept afloat by cheap, disenfranchised labor from Central Asia. I took this photo on April 10, 2017, in the container village inhabited by Central Asian migrant workers building Petersburg’s so-called Marine Façade on 476 hectares of reclaimed land in the Neva Bay next to Vasilyevsky Island.  

Nationalizing the Middle Class: Society’s Previously Most Dynamic Group Seeks to Rely on the State
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 26, 2019

Analysts at Alfa Bank have concluded Russia’s middle class has been shrinking. More importantly, it is being nationalized, which distances the prospects of qualitative economic growth.

What constitutes the Russian middle class is mostly a philosophical question: a specific definition of it has never gained a foothold. Some researchers argue it never emerged in the social sense and remains akin to a folklore character. Other researchers, focusing on income levels, have claimed to have sighted it in Russia, but in recent years their observations have been suffused with sadness.

In a new report, “The Russian Middle Class: Lowering the Appetite for Risk,” analysts at Alfa Banks have defined the middle class as a group of people whose monthly income is between 39,000 and 99,000 rubles per person [i.e., between 546 euros and 1,387 euros at current rates], that is, 110–250% of the median income in Russia, and who are able to buy durable goods.

In the noughties, the middle class grew. By 2014, it constituted 37% of the Russian populace. In four years, however, all of this growth had been forfeited. In 2017, only 30% of the populace could be counted as middle class, which was less than in 2004 (34%). Simultaneously, the group’s share in the populace’s total income dropped from 48% in 2014 to 39% in 2017.

The middle class has lost its economic clout, becoming more vulnerable. In some ways, it has lost more than other classes. Alfa Bank’s analysts write that the middle class’s real incomes stagnated in the ten-year period between 2008 and 2018, while the incomes of the country’s most impoverished groups rose by four percent, and the incomes of the wealthiest Russians increased by eleven percent. An indicator of the middle class’s fading fortunes was that its core spent three percentage points more on groceries during the ten-year period, just like the country’s lower classes, while its expenditures on holidays and education dropped by one to two percentage points. In 2014–2018, the middle class’s loan payments grew by 20% in nominal terms. This is probably why it has not been involved in the new consumer loan boom.

Simultaneously, the middle class has been undergoing nationalization. It is a commonplace the middle class consists of people independent of the state and living on their own means. Its progress has been regarded as a vital driver of economic growth, including in Russia.

Its potential, however, appears to have weakened. Whereas in 2003 approximately ten percent of the middle class was employed in the state sector, this figure had grown to fifteen percent in 2017, according to Alfa Bank.

This is not a disaster yet, especially since middle-class employment in commerce, the restaurant business, finance, real estate, and health care has grown. However, the middle class’s share of business income has decreased more than it has among the general populace.

Traditionally considered the core of civil society, the middle class has come to rely more and more on the state for employment, claims Natalya Orlova, Alfa Bank’s chief economist. Even if the middle class does not shrink anymore, its nationalization worsens the prospects for Russia’s progress, since its ranks will be replenished by people who do not power the economy but count on the regime for their livelihoods.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russian Import Substitution Blues

cherry coke 2018“Try Ripe Cherry Coca-Cola.” Billboard, Petersburg, July 28, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Consequences of Countersanctions: Food Import Embargo Makes Russian Producers More Inefficient
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 25, 2019

Vladimir Putin has extended Russia’s food embargo until the end of 2020, but the policy’s positive effect has dried up. Instead, it has been making Russian producers less efficient and driving up prices. The Kremlin imagined an embargo would be a good response to western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, but Russian consumers have had to foot the bill.

Putin’s ban has been in effect since August 2014. It prohibits the import of meat, fish, and dairy products from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway. During his televised “direct line” to the nation the other day, Putin explained that, over the past five years, the sanctions those countries imposed on Russia had led to the loss of $50 billion for the Russian economy since 2014. The west, however, had lost more. According to Putin, the EU had lost $140 billion, while the US had lost $17 billion. Apparently, Russians should take heart knowing they have not been the main losers in the sanctions war.

First, however, the economies of the EU and the US are many times bigger than Russia’s, so, in fact, Russia has lost the most. Second, the losses do not boil down to simple arithmetics. Third, the subject of countersanctions has not really been discussed. Natalya Volchkova, director of applied research at the Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR), has calculated the protectionist policy costs every Russian 2,000 rubles a year: this is the sum total of what we overpay for products in the fourteen categories affected by the countersanctions. She argues that, out of this sum, 1,250 rubles go to Russian producers and 500 rubles go to companies importing food from countries not covered by countersanctions, while the toll on the Russian economy’s efficiency amounts to 250 rubles per person per year.

Full import substitution has not been achieved: suppliers from the sanctioned countries have been replaced by suppliers who work with other countries, who often charge more for their goods. Restricting competition was meant to give Russian agriculture a leg up, and some domestic producers have, in fact, increased output. According to Rosstat, retail food imports decreased from 34% in 2014 to 24% in 2018. Since 2016, however, the dropoff in imports has trailed off. Volchkova complains that most Russian import-substituted goods have increased in price. They are produced by businesses that had been loss-making. This is the source of the overall inefficiency.

Natalya Orlova, the chief economist at Alfa Bank, divides countersanctions into two phases. When they are implemented they have a positive effect, but over time the risks of negative consequences increase.  The only good option on the horizon is the lifting of the sanctions. When it might happen is not clear, says Orlova: it is currently not on the agenda. When it does happen, however, it will be bad news for Russian producers. Countersanctions have helped major players increase their shares of the domestic market. They have become more visible in such cushy conditions but less competitive as well. The longer the conditions are maintained, the less ready the Russian agro-industry will be to face the harsh competition. When the walls come tumbling down, we will see again that European producers are more sophisticated technologically.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Stability

DSCN1722Russians queued up at a popular currency exchange in central Petersburg on September 19, 2018, as the ruble took yet another plunge, fueled by rumors that the regime was planning to “dedollarize” the Russian economy. Photo by the Russian Reader

Foreign Currency Deposits Withdrawn from Sberbank: Depositors Take Out Over $2 Billion in Two Months 
Vitaly Soldatskikh
Kommersant
October 6, 2018

In September, Russians continued to aggressively withdraw foreign currency from accounts in Sberbank (Savings Bank). Over the past month, the amount of these deposits decreased by $900,000,000, while the amount has decreased by more than $2 billion dollars since the beginning of August. The outflow of funds from the savings accounts of individual depositors took place as rumors of a possible forced conversion of foreign currency deposits grew. However, after reasurring statements by Elvira Nabiullina, chair of the Russian Central Bank, as well as a rise in rates on foreign currency deposits, the outflows may decrease.

On Friday, Sberbank published its monthly statement before other Russian banks, as usual. According to these figures, as we have analyzed them, the populace’s foreign currency-denominated bank deposits in Sberbank decreased by $901 million or 2.7% in September and now total $32.5 billion. Likely as not, Russians simply withdrew this money from the bank without exchanging it for rubles and redepositing it. According to Sberbank’s statement, the populace’s ruble-denominated sight deposits and term deposits descreased last month by 45.78 billion rubles or half a percent to 9.65 trillion rubles. Overall, the outflow of foreign currecy deposits slowed compared with August, when individual clients withdrew $1.18 billion from the bank.

Sberbank’s press service confirmed the outflow of $900 million in deposits by retail clients in September, but noted the inflow of funds from commercial clients amounted to approximately $1.5 billion. (This calculation was made using the bank’s in-house method.)

Sberbank termed August’s outflow of foreign currency deposits the product of a “managed evolution of the bank’s balance sheets.”

Meanwhile, in late August, Sberbank introduced a new seasonal foreign currency deposit plan, valid until the end of September, with annual interest rates that varied from 1.5% to 3%. (The highest rates was for customers willing to deposit a minimum of $150 million for a period of three years.) Currently, Sberbank’s highest interest rate for dollar-denominated deposits is 2.06%, whereas a number of major banks, including VTB Bank, Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank), Alfa Bank, and Rosbank, offer interest rates on dollar-denominated deposits of 2.5% per annum.

September’s outflow of deposits from Sberbank occurred as VTB Bank chair Andrey Kostin made a series of statements about the possible implementation of harsher sanctions, under which Russia’s state-owned banks could be stripped of the ability to make dollar-denominated transactions. Were this to occur, Kostin said, VTB Bank could not rule out having to disburse funds from dollar-denominated accounts in another currency as a way of upholding the bank’s obligations to its clients. These statements by the head of Russia’s second largest bank did not go unnoticed. Central Bank chair Elvira Naibullina was forced to calm bank customers by denying the possibility of a compulsory conversion of deposits. According to Naibullina, such moves would only undermine confidence in Russia’s banking system.

According to our analysis, foreign currency deposits held by commercial clients at Sberbank increased by $1.43 billion in September. This occurred largely due to the growth of long-term deposits by commercial firms. Deposits made for terms of three years or longer grew by $1.56 billion, while deposits for shorter terms shrunk. Also, the balances on the accounts of foreign companies grew by $902 million. The ruble-denominated balances on Sberbank accounts held by commercial clients grew by more than 222 billion rubles in September. This increase was mainly due to the nearly 151 billion rubles in additional monies raised by the Federal Treasury.

According to Fitch Ratings, the most considerable outflows in corporate funds, adjusted for fluctuations in the foreign currency exchange rate, were observed at Sberbank (117 billion rubles or 1.7%), Gazprombank (87 billion rubles or 2.8%), and Rossiya Bank (58 billion rubles or 9.4%). Retail deposits also declined mainly at Sberbank (107 billion rubles or 0.9%) and banks undergoing reorganization by the Central Bank (35 billion rubles or 3.2%), while other banks enjoyed a fairly uniform increase in retail deposits.

According to Ruslan Korshunov, director for bank ratings at Expert RA, the largest Russian credit rating agency, “Rumors of the Russian economy’s dedollarization and the possible conversion of foreign currency deposits into rubles could have pushed a segment of the populace to withdraw their money from state-owned banks, against which sanctions could be strengthened.”

At the same, Korshunov noted the outflow of retail deposits in September could also have been caused by a seasonal factor: the return of the populace from holiday and, consequently, an increase in consumer activity. However, he believed these factors had a one-off effect and such outflows were highly unlikely in October.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Life on the Installment Plan, Part Three

DSCN9641The “handy lawyer” at a place calling itself the Civil Legal Defense Center promises to relieve people “of their debts 100% quickly and legally.” Photo taken in central Petersburg on 22 July 2018 by the Russian Reader

Russians’ Bank Debts Grow Twice as Fast as Their Wages
Central Bank and Economic Development Ministry Plan to Reduce Banks’ Interest in Loaning to General Public
Tatyana Lomskaya and Emma Terchenko
Vedomosti
August 1, 2018

The Economic Development Ministry has reported individual consumer loans have been growing faster than wages and savings. In June, they grew by 15.9% in annual terms after a 15.1% uptick in May. If the season were not taken into account, this would amount to an increase of over 20%. However, real wage growth during the same period slowed to 7.2%, while the growth rate of savings deposits fell 7.1%. (The figures for May were 7.6% and 7.7%, respectively.)

The entire portfolio of loans to the general public increased by ₽1.1 trillion to ₽13.3 trillion [approx. €181 billion] during the first six months of 2018, according to figures from the Central Bank. Sberbank alone lent a record-breaking ₽714 million [approx. €9.7 million] in consumer loans during this period, which was 74% more than a year ago, while VTB Bank supplied the general public with ₽400 million in loans or 32% more than over the same period in 2017.

The public’s demand for consumer loans has grown. Inflation is relatively low in the wake of 2014, the Central Bank’s key rate has stabilized at a low level, and wage growth has picked up, explains Sergei Shirokov, managing director of Sberbank’s Borrow and Save Division.  Since the start of the year, VTB has twice improved the terms of its loan programs and increased the issuance of loans by 17%, notes Dmitry Polyakov, a vice-president at the bank.

Companies, on the contrary, have increasingly gone on a savings binge, writes the Economic Development Ministry. In June, they increased their bank deposits by 8.3% in annual terms. (The increase in May was 6.5%.) Their outstanding loans have also grown, but only by 2.8%, compared to the same period in 2017, or by 3.3% when corporate bonds are taken into account. (In May, the same figures grew by 2.6% and 3.1%, respectively.)

Banks have focused on lending to the public. Under current regulations, they find this more profitable than lending to businesses, complained Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin. This circumstance worried his ministry, he said. He suggested the Central Bank should make it more profitable for banks to loan to companies as opposed to making consumer loans. The ministry did not respond when we asked whether Minister Oreshkin, as a member of Sberbank’s advisory board, had voiced his concern about the high rate of consumer loans issued by Sberbank.

Retail lending has actually been recovering faster than corporate lending, partly because the public vigorously decreased their debts to banks in 2015–2016, whereas now, as wages have increased and rates have hit bottom, they have again accumulated debts, says Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank. Banks are also more interested in lending to individual due to western sanctions against Russian companies, she continues. If a company is at risk of western sanctions, it might also have trouble paying back its loans. Unlike mortgages, however, the growth of consumer loans has almost been exhausted. Outstanding loans have nearly reached 10% of GDP, the maximum for Eastern Europe, warns Orlova.

Consumer lending started to recover last year amid falling personal incomes. People were able to increase consumption only by taking out retail loans, analysts at RANEPA noted. In early 2018, on the eve of the presidential election, the salaries of state-sector employees increased dramatically. The government had to make good on President Putin’s May 2012 decrees and bring the salaries of teachers, doctors, and researchers to 100–200% of average regional wages. On the heels of the wage increases, personal incomes rose by 4,2–5,6% in annual terms from February to April. In May and June, however, real personal incomes of Russians returned to a near-zero growth rate. This sparked an increase—from 12% in May to 22% in June—in the percentage of Russians who anticipated that their family’s financial circumstances would worsen over the next year. The percentage of people who excepted their fortunes to change for the better shrunk from 24% to 19%, according to a poll conducted by inFOM.

The Central Bank has already been reducing the profitability of consumer loans for banks. The risk ratio for unsecured consumer loans was increased on May 1, and the regulator plans to raise it again on September 1 for loans whose total cost exceeds 10% per annum. The Central Bank has been also been reviewing other proposals for stabilizing the growth of consumer loans, said Vasily Pozdyshev, the Central Bank’s deputy chair, as quoted by RIA Novosti. For example, increased oversight requirements could be applied to banks whose consumer loan portfolios increased much more quickly than the market average, or the growth of such loans could be restricted, said Pozdyshev. According to him, the banks had made an interesting propose to introduce differentiated risk ratios for consumer loans depending on their amount: large loans in amounts greater than ₽300,000 [approx. €4,000] would bear the greatest risk ratio. In addition, as of 2019, banks should start regularly calculating the PTI (payment to income) ratio as a means of determining a customer’s credit worthiness, although the Central Bank would not use it as a regulatory instrument befored 2020, added Pozdyshev.

High-risk borrowers are more likely to seek loans from microfinance institutions (MFIs). According to the National Credit History Bureau, MFIs issued ₽26.3 billion [approx. €358 million] in so-called payday loans from April to June, which was 23.8% more than last year. Vulnerable segments of the populace are already seriously indebted, says Georgy Okromchedlishvili, principal analyst at ITS Wealth Management, and significant growth in these loans is not anticipated in the future, but nor is a noticeable decline expected. Stable economic growth has to be in place for that to happen, he argues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

precriminals.jpegUnder legislation currently tabled in the Russian parliament, these up-and-coming Russian businesswomen could do hard time in a penal colony for the wholly fanciful crime of “complying” with western sanctions against target businesses and individuals. Image courtesy of Credit Bank of Moscow

Sanctions Victims Refuse the Russian State’s Protection
Big Business Categorically Rejects Adopting Law on Anti-Sanctions
Yelizaveta Bazanova, Anna Kholyavko and Yekaterina Burlakova
Vedomosti
May 16, 2018

“An absolute nightmare”: that was the phrase used by the majority of lawyers and executives of Russian and foreign companies whom we asked to comment on plans to imprison people who “implemented” foreign sanctions. On Monday, a law bill to this effect, tabled by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, and leaders of all four parliamentary factions was passed in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for Thursday.

Under the law bill, if a company refuses to sign a public contract with an entity on the sanctions list, the company and its executives would be threatened with a maximum fine of ₽600,000 [approx. €8,200] and a maximum prison term of four years.

The board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) has decided passage of the law would be completely unacceptable. Companies would find themselves between the frying pan and the fire: violations of sanctions would threaten them with secondary sanctions, while complying with sanctions would make them criminally prosecutable in Russia.

The RSPP’s resolution was supported even by board members who had themselves been sanctioned.

“We believe it would cause further damage to the Russian economy, including business with foreign and Russian companies, and both Comrade Vekselberg [Renova Group Chair Viktor Vekselberg] and I voted for the resolution,” Interfax has quoted VTB Bank president Andrei Kostin as saying.

A spokesperson for Vekselberg did not respond to our questions. We were also unable to contact a spokesperson for Oleg Deripaska, another target of western sanctions, yesterday evening.

If passed, the law would be unlikely to have a considerable impact on how businesses operate, but it could be a means of threatening and pressuring them, the entrepreneurs we surveyed said unanimously. The wording of the law bill is harsh. Nearly anyone could be prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretexts, complained an executive at a transnational food producer.

The key risk is the absence of clear criteria for defining what would constitute a violation of the proposed law, our sources all agreed. Even the Russian Finance Ministry could be prosecuted. In its Eurobonds prospectus, it pledged not to use the funds raised to support entities targeted by western sanctions. In January, Alfa Bank warned Russian defense companies it would not handle their accounts due to sanctions. Spokespeople for the Finance Ministry and Alfa Bank did not respond to our inquiries.

The Kremlin has also been unhappy with the law bill, said a federal official close to the presidential administration.

The law bill, if passed, would also generate risks for those companies who refuse to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, said Alexei Panich, a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. These include the state banks Sberbank and VTB, as well as mobile telecom operators. Andrei Isayev, deputy head of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, claimed  companies who do not open branches in Crimea would not be affected by the law. What was at stake, he said, were the ordinary deals and transactions companies perform almost automatically. However, refusal to do business with counterparts in Crimea could be considered a criminal offense under the terms of the law, said an attorney at a major international law firm. The law could complicate public offerings, the issuing of loans, and contracts and transactions, he specified.

An employee at a major international firm explained it would be hard to determine whether a company refused a deal with a counterpart due to their bad reputation or the threat of sanctions. An auto dealer agreed the threat of criminal prosecution would be powerful leverage. To encourage its partners to agree to a deal, a business could threaten to report them to law enforcement agencies, argued Panich.

The proposed measures were excessive, agreed a spokesperson for an agricultural commodities trader. Some companies have in-house rules restricting such deals. Our source said the law bill appeared to be means of coercing such companies. Theoretically, it could be used as leverage. A company or person on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN) could show up and demand another company do business with them, agreed the head of major private bank. It was difficult to imagine how banks would solve such dilemmas, he said.

“There are many ambiguities in how the law would be interpreted, and what specific actions or inactions would be punishable,” he concluded.

Foreign businesses could interpret the law bill as a signal it was time to wrap up their operations in Russia, said the vice-president of a major foreign company that produces popular consumer products. No one has any intention of sacrificing their top executives to the Russian law enforcement and judicial system.

All issuers of bonds include in their covenants the refusal to do business with entities targeted by sanctions. Perhaps expatriates who do not want to take risks would leave the country, argued an employee at a large foreign company.

Passing the bill into law would be a mistake, said political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko. The law would have to be seriously amended over time.

“Knowing how this could affect both Russian companies and foreign business operating in Russia, this is very risky decision in my opinion,” Minchenko told us.

Spokespeople for Sberbank and Credit Bank of Moscow declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Vladimir Shtanov, Darya Borisyak, Alexandra Astapenko, and Svetlana Bocharova

Translated by the Russian Reader

How Rosstat Stopped People’s Incomes from Falling by Fudging the Stats

1024px-Centrosoyuz_Moscow_-_Ak_Sakharova_viewThe Tsentrosoyuz Building, on Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, was designed in 1933 by Le Corbusier and Nikolai Kolli. Originally built as headquarters of the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives, it now houses Rosstat and the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Rosstat “Stopped” Populace’s Incomes from Falling
Analysts Accuse Agency of Fudging the Figures
Yelizaveta Bazanova and Filipp Sterkin
Vedomosti
February 19, 2019