Soaking the Public to Make Russia a Powerhouse

Russian Authorities Could Raise the VAT to 20%
Giving Them Two Trillion Rubles to Execute Putin’s May Decree
Yelizaveta Bazanova and Filipp Sterkin
Vedomosti
May 27, 2018

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has promised to find the eight trillion rubles [approx. €110 billion] the government lacks to carry out Putin’s new May decree. We have learned the government and the Kremlin will go looking for a considerable portion of this sum in the public’s pockets. Approximately two trillion rubles could be collected over six years by raising the VAT from 18% to 20%. Our sources, three federal officials, said this option had been discussed and was one of the most likely options, although a final decision had not been made. However, one of our sources said the Finance Ministry had proposed abolishing the 10% preferential VAT rate and replacing it with an allowance.

Another two trillion rubles or so would be supplied by an increase in the retirement age, which Medvedev had announced, said two of our sources, without specifying how quickly it would be increased and by how much.

The final four trillion rubles would be provided by measures that have already been made public. The state would raise three trillion rubles for infrastructure projects by floating fixed and variable federal bonds, and establishing a temporary fund within the budget. The remaining one trillion rubles would be supplied by reforming taxation of the oil industry, nullifying export duties and raising the severance tax to offset them.

However, some of the decisions could still be revised, our sources said. As one of them noted, everything was in a state of rapid, constant flux.

Who Will Pay the VAT Increase?
Officials have long discussed an increase in the VAT, but as part of an overall taxation maneuver, as proposed by the Finance Ministry, that would have involved reducing pension deductions while raising the VAT to a flat rate of 22%. The Finance Ministry’s idea was to sanitize the economy and pump an additional 500 billion rubles into the budget. The idea was rejected, but several officials said it had proven impossible to find the money to carry out the May decree without raising taxes. Increasing the VAT without reducing pension deductions was a common trick, said a member of the board of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP).

The VAT was pegged at 20% until 2004, when it dropped to 18%. Returning it to 20% would be a less painful solution than the other options on the table—increasing the personal income tax rate and introducing a sales tax—argued two officials. Although, as one of them noted, if the state wanted to stimulate economic growth, it should not rob it of resources.

By increasing the VAT, the state would be primarily confiscating resources from the general public, which has experienced a four-year-long slide in incomes, while businesses would be able to compensate a considerable portion of their costs by embedding them in prices and thus passing them on to consumers.

As research by the UK’s statistical service has shown, companies raise prices ahead of time when an increase in the VAT is expected. Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, has calculated that a two-percent increase in the VAT would accelerate a rise in prices of 0.8% to 1%, which would not be terrible during a period of low inflation. (In April, inflation was 2.4% in annual terms.) But along with abolishing the preferential rate, raising the VAT could deal a serious blow to the general public and have a knock-on effect on consumption, warned Alexandra Suslina at the Economic Expert Group. The preferential rate is currently valid for food products (except luxury items), children’s goods, books, textbooks, and medicines. In 2017, the preferential rate deprived the federal budget of an additional 550 billion rubles or about 0.6% of GDP.

According to a study by Alexander Isakov, chief economist at VTB Capital, when prices suddenly rise, people are less inclined to skimp on food, alcohol, and transportation. A one-percent increase in prices leads, most of all, to decreased spending on communications and medical care.

Business would pass on costs to domestic consumers, but the VAT for exports is zero percent, said the RSPP board member. There would also be victims, however. A tax increase would hit sectors where competition is intense the hardest, warned Vladimir Salnikov, deputy director of the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting (TsMAKP). This was borne out by an IMF study performed in the wake of an increase in the VAT in Germany in 2007.  When competition is intense, companies find it harder to retain their market share after price rises. Retailers, who have already slashed their profit margin amid weak consumer demand, would suffer, said a tax consultant at a major retailer. Salnikov warned the structural effect would be bad, increasing the burden on manufacturing industries, not on raw materials exporters.

Most of all, it would increase the burden on the machine-building and transportation sectors (by 6.8% and 6.6%, respectively), the electricity sector (by 6.8%), construction (by 5.6%), the information sector (by 5.4%), and the hotel business (by 4.4%), according to Salnikov’s calculations. On the other hand, it would decrease the burden on chemicals manufacturing, wood processing, and agriculture.

Officials have little time to decide who will pay for Putin’s May decree. The cabinet has drafted proposals for the tax system, and final decisions would have to be made during the State Duma’s spring session, Anton Siluanov, appointed first deputy prime minister and finance minister, said earlier. Currently, no decisions had been made, his adviser Andrei Lavrov confirmed, but in the near future the government would be deciding on measures for adjusting the tax system. Natalya Timakova, the prime minister’s spokesperson, would not comment on the subject, while Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, was unavailable for comment on Sunday.

fullscreen-1tqbPerformance of actual pensions and wages vis-à-vis the same period during the previous year. Red line=actual amount of allocated pensions; blue line=actual paid wages; *=lump-sum payments taken into account. Source: Rosstat. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Working for the Decree
Saving two trillion rubles over six years would mean raising the retirement age by at least one year annually for both women and men, noted Yuri Gorlin, deputy director of RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting. This would make it possible decrease transfers from the federal budget by two trillion rubles, agreed Tatyana Omelchuk, senior researcher at the Finance Ministry’s Financial Research Institute (NIFI). This option for increasing the pension age was tabled by the Center for Strategic Research when it was headed by Alexei Kudrin, who has now been tapped to chair the Accounting Chamber. Annually, around 40% of the Pension Fund’s income is provided by the federal budget. In 2018, 3.34 trillion rubles will be transferred from the budget to the Pension Fund.

The pension age should be raised not only to save two trillion rubles for executing Putin’s decree but also to generate resources for increasing pensions at the same rate as salary increases, said an official. There was the danger the government would try to minimize the transfer as much as possible, and then there could not be enough money to step up the indexing of pensions, Gorlin noted.

Options for raising the pension age were discussed even before Tatyana Golikova was appointed deputy prime minister for social issues. In an interview with RBC, she said the government had only discussed the decision. The final parameters had not been agreed. Her spokesperson declined to comment.

Gorlin said the main goal of raising the retirement age was to ensure a more acceptable increase in pensions. An excessively radical approach to the problem would significantly increase the danger of unemployment’s rising, while also spurring the demand for disability pensions, he argued. Referring to the findings of a sociological survey, experts at the Higher School of Economics have claimed the most acceptable option for raising the retirement age would be sixty years for women and up to sixty-three years for men. Gorlin argued the most rational option would be between sixty-two and sixty-three years for men, and between fifty-nineand sixty-one years for women.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Vladislav Inozemtsev: The Calm before the Storm

A common sight: first-floor commercial space for rent in downtown Petersburg
A common sight: first-floor commercial space for rent in downtown Petersburg.

The Calm before the Storm: Can We Avoid Economic Collapse in 2018?
Vladislav Inozemtsev
Slon.ru
August 1, 2016

Last week, Tatyana Nesterenko, one of Russia’s most experienced financiers and a person distant from politics, a person who has held the post of deputy finance minister and head of the Federal Treasury for almost twenty years, said the Russian economy should expect serious financial problems as early as next year, comparing the current situation with the “eye of a storm, [meaning] a condition in which everything [merely] looks quiet and safe.”

In my view, Nesterenko is undoubtedly right. The government has recently appeared to be the epitome of tranquility. It has even been drafting a new three-year budget, although in terms of revenues for 2016, the previous such plan (for 2014–2016) was off by 42%! Revenues were projected at 15.9 trillion rubles, but actual revenues in the first six months of the year were 4.6 trillion rubles. I don’t think the new draft budget will prove more accurate, if only because no sources of income for covering the deficit are envisioned after 2017. The president, who from time to time meets with economists and recommends developing a new development strategy for the country “roughly within a year,” meaning when the Finance Ministry’s reserves will run out and the budget’s huge social commitments will prove impracticable, has mainly been busy reshuffling the security forces, believing, apparently, that a sum changes by rearranging its components.

Coins tossed for good luck onto a stanchion in the Fontanka River
Coins tossed for good luck onto a cable spool anchored in the Fontanka River.

Today, Russia’s economy, to invoke Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev‘s maxim, really has hit rock bottom. The authorities are elated that the rate at which the GDP has been falling fell to 0.6% in the second quarter, but we should note this reduction took place in conjunction with an accelerating reduction of real incomes (by 6.2% in May, and 4.8% in June) and a considerable increase in inflationary expectations. Annual inflation was 7.5% as of June and showed no tendency toward decreasing.

Moreover, oil prices have fallen considerably. Brent fell by 15.2% during July, and, apparently, black gold is near a new equilibrium price ranging between 38.5 and 43 dollars a barrel. A 15–16% fall in the oil price will cost the Russian budget 430 to 460 billion rubles in the remaining five months of 2016, which is also no cause for optimism. Responding to it by “managing” the descent of the ruble will not be easy. Devaluing the national currency will no longer lead to a growth in exports, which this year has lagged behind last year’s figures by 30.5%. On the other hand, imports, which have basically not shrunk (they are down by only 10.4%) will inevitably become more expensive, dragging along with them the prices for a wide range of goods, thereby causing inflation and setting the tone for high interest rates.

Empty billboards are also not hard to come by in the city center.
Empty billboards are also not hard to come by in the city center.

In mid 2016, the Russian economy really is situated in the eye of a kind of storm. It is quite calm there at the moment: the authorities have become accustomed to the new circumstances. They have no hesitation in spending reserve funds. Generally, fears of popular discontent over lowing living standards have been overcome. Seemingly, a certain reduction in the degree of hostility toward western countries might do the trick of restoring relations with them.  There has been a glimmer of hope the EU’s problems will deepen with the UK’s exit. The possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidential race in the US has been taken seriously. Putin feels like a winner in his confrontation with Turkey. It is no wonder officials have dubbed the situation the “new normal.” It really is the new normal, so as long we take into account two factors: oil at 50 dollars a barrel and spending accumulated reserves at the rate of 600 billion rubles a quarter. That is around 8% of the overall amount in both sovereign wealth funds, the Reserve Fund and the National Wealth Fund.

Another empty billboard
Another empty billboard

However, the problem is not so much that sooner or later we will have to break back into the open sea through the hurricane’s eye wall, but the fact that the eye of the storm might move, and it would appear we have no instruments for tracking it. The country has not been trying to find the best place in this “quiet corner.” It has simply been drifting, humbling waiting for what happens next.

Evaluating the numerous programs and strategies that experts affiliated with one or another wing of the government are now trying to draft, one cannot help thinking that none of them is capable of boosting the Russian economy in view of two circumstances.

An elderly woman turning in scrap paper and other junk to supplement her pension.
An elderly woman turning in scrap paper and other junk to supplement her pension.

On the one hand, anti-crisis measures should have been implemented yesterday, rather than postponing their preliminary discussion to 2017. By the way, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov warned in early 2016 that, at current oil prices, the Russian budget would be short 3 trillion rubles, which in turn would lead to spending the greater part of the National Wealth Fund. Little has changed since then. In the absence of reserve funds, the hole in the budget cannot be closed in 2018 either by raising funds on the international capital market (in this case, we would have to raise considerably more money than all the central government’s current international obligations) or by privatizing. (One year’s deficit could be papered over only by selling off the lion’s share of the state’s holdings in Gazprom and Rosneft.) Whatever economic development strategy the Kremlin approves a year from now, it will not prevent a large-scale collapse in 2018, with all the attendant consequences.

On the other hand, all the existing programs, however much Alexei Kudrin and Boris Titov stress their differences, are generally focused on the same thing: relaunching the economy on behalf of manufacturers. There is in fact only one difference between them. Titov’s Stolypin Club has suggested priming major enterprises with money through the earmarked and regulated distribution of cheap loans, subsidized by the Central Bank, while Kudrin’s Center for Strategic Research favors institutional reforms that could include reducing taxes on business and limiting the rights and opportunities of security services and the bureaucracy for extracting additional income from business. The assumption is that either by getting its hands on cheap money or ridding itself of the unbearable pressure of regulators, business will be reanimated, sparking life-saving economic growth.

More commercial real estate for rent in the city center.
More commercial real estate for rent in the city center.

I would love to be wrong, but I don’t think these measures will produce any meaningful outcomes, because the most important factor in the economic slowdown of 2014–2016 has been the crisis in consumer demand. The state has diligently performed its investment obligations, saturating heavy industry with funds via defense sector orders. It has not halted its sometimes pointless but expensive infrastructure projects. It has been encouraging state companies to build new pipelines and railways, but none of it can compensate the effect of declining consumer demand. Moreover, this demand has increasingly shifted towards the continuing flow of imports, while the share of domestic goods on the market has stopped growing. As I understand it, none of the economic development programs has so far offered a solution to this problem.

Therefore, in my opinion, we should introduce as least three new story lines into the ongoing debates.

First, we should stop regarding increases in wages for low-paid earners, pensions, allowances, and other payments to low-income Russians as “costly measures.” Saving money by reducing the incomes of doctors, teachers or pensioners is much more destructive than reducing costs at Gazprom or expenditures in the program for rearming the Russian army. These segments of the populace are most focused on purchasing domestic goods and services, and investing in them produces a multiplier effect in the sales and production of consumer goods. The crisis of 2008–2009 was negotiated much more successfully than the current crisis not only due to the relatively radical reversal in oil prices but also because the government considerably increased people’s incomes at the time, despite budget problems, whereas 41% of the population now say they lack money for food and clothing.

Second, we should think hard about a one-time credit and debt amnesty for people whose indebtedness to banks, the tax authorities or housing and utilities sector companies does not exceed, say, 30 thousand rubles.  Obligations of this amount now account for around 20% of the population’s entire debt burden, and a measure like this would affect 10 to 12 million people. The state would have to allocate up to 2 trillion rubles to implement the program, but both the social and political (why deny it) effect of such a measure would be incomparable with a Stolypin Club-style emission of a similar scale, which would completely vanish in the offshore accounts of executives of major companies in bed with the state and sympathetic officials. In my view, we cannot do without this measure now, but none of the people involved in the current discussion has deigned to mention it in their programs.

Third, direct measures for stimulating demand are necessary. They were adopted by all the governments of developed countries hit by the crisis of  2008–2009, but our officials were quite reluctant to copy them. I have in mind not only programs for encouraging purchases of new automobiles but also a system of issuing food stamps, analogous to the American one, to poor people. For example, pensioners could buy stamps nominally worth four to six thousand rubles for two to three thousand rubles at welfare offices. The stamps would be accepted in shops as payment for domestic food products only, with the exception of cigarettes and alcohol, and commercial outlets would then turn them in at banks at face value and have the amount credited to their accounts. This could be a powerful stimulus both to domestic manufacturers and commerce, not to mention the popularity of such a step among socially vulnerable groups themselves.

Ads like this one for a prostitute service are stenciled and pasted on every available surface in the city center.
Ads like this one for a prostitute service are stenciled and pasted on every available surface in the city center.

In other words, now it is not enough to say that Russia has sailed into a perfect storm. It must be understand that not only the captain and his mates will have to fight for our ship’s survival but absolutely all the passengers as well, and so the basis of an anti-crisis program should be attention to the general population, not to state corporations. And, of course, to be at least relatively prepared to fend off the mighty blows of the elements, we must stop postponing actual steps until tomorrow, and begin taking them today.

Source of original text: Worldcrisis.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader.

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Russia’s Welfare Chainsaw Massacre

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds

Welfare Chainsaw Massacre
Ivan Ovsyannikov (Russian Socialist Movement)
September 30, 2013
anticapitalist.ru

A “welfare chainsaw massacre” is exactly what we might call the government’s actions and statements over the last few months. The ruling class is once again attempting to pay for the latest uptick in the economic crisis from out of the pockets of workers.

On September 1, while speaking to students at the Far East Federal University, Putin announced the transition to a policy of austerity and reduced social spending. “The world economy has slumped a bit, and ours is hunkering down behind it,” the president said in his typical manner by way of explaining the upcoming unpopular measures. And he supported an earlier proposal, voiced by Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov, to replace the “maternity capital” program with “targeted assistance to poor families.”

However, a few days later, Dmitry Medvedev said that the maternity capital program would not be cancelled. “But it will be modified,” Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Maxim Topilin added in a whisper.

The fact that public opinion has been probed on such a sensitive point is quite significant. The maternity capital program is almost the only widely publicized social achievement of the Putin era. Putin has repeatedly stated it was his idea. And now this essential element of Putin’s social populism has been openly questioned.

No less provocative looking are the experiment with introducing social norms for electricity consumption (see Andrei Zavodskoi, “Cruel Economy”) and the de facto raising of the retirement age, which has long been discussed and is today closer than ever to realization. According to Deputy Primer Minister Olga Golodets, “We are not discussing raising the [retirement] age for any category of workers. We’ve gone another direction by promoting voluntary postponement of retirement. That is our principled position, and the government’s position.” However, such tricks are unlikely to mislead anyone.

The most scandalous revelations, however, are the statements made by government officials concerning labor relations. If, until recently, Mr. Topilin based his ministry’s decision not to index Russia’s penny-ante unemployment benefits on the fact that “at present there remains a high probability of finding employment in the labor market,” Mr. Medvedev has now said the exact opposite. He argues it is time to get away from the policy of preserving employment at all costs and not be afraid of cutting inefficient jobs: “The times all of us now face are not the easiest. […] Some people—perhaps a significant portion of the population—will have to change not only their jobs but also their professions and place of residence.” There is no doubt we have fallen on hard times, but the Prime Minister is clearly disingenuous when he talks about “all of us.” Russia’s ruling elite has no intention of depriving itself of jobs and handsome profits. So, in a conversation with François Fillon, Mr. Putin elegantly hinted that he would “not exclude” the possibility of seeking a fourth term as president.

But has the Russian economy “hunkered down” badly enough to warrant such painful experiments on the population? Isn’t “stagnation” only a plausible excuse for implementing the longstanding plans of the gentlemen from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs?

As was reported in late August, the Ministry of Finance planned to save 1.1 trillion rubles [approx. 25 billion euros] over three years by eliminating the maternal capital program and reducing expenditures on pensions. At the same time, federal and regional budget expenditures on preparations for the 2018 World Cup should amount to 438 billion rubles, that is, almost half a trillion. The mass protests and riots in Brazil, sparked by excessive government spending on the 2014 World Cup, are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Russians could learn a lesson or two from Brazilians.

But maybe massive sports venue construction projects will generate many new jobs and return the taxpayer money spent on them? No, they will not. Unlike the great construction projects of the Soviet era, when funds were invested primarily in developing production, Olympiads, Universiades, and World Cups are, by definition, loss makers for national governments. Many analysts trace the current economic disaster in Greece to the 2004 Summer Olympics, which enriched transnational corporations while depleting public finances. The London Olympics have also been declared unprofitable. As for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, its unprofitability has been recognized by nearly all serious experts, including Vnesheconombank chair Vladimir Dmitriev, who said in an interview with Vedomosti newspaper that “a serious percentage of [Olympics-related construction] projects are calculated to make a loss.” According to Dmitriev, “Given the current model and market trends, there are big problems with returns on investments. For example, one million square meters of hotel space are being built in the Imereti Lowland. When this space goes onto the market after the Olympics, a sixty percent occupancy rate will be hard to achieve. The costs of many projects have seriously risen as they have been implemented. […] For many sites, there is no complete project documentation or confirmed cost estimates. All this confirms our doubts.”

As for jobs, they really will be generated—for thousands of migrant workers. Federal Law No. FZ-108, adopted specifically for the World Cup, leaves no doubt about that. First, the law establishes special lightweight entry requirements for foreign workers involved in preparations for the World Cup. Second, it limits the applicability of a number of existing labor laws, effectively legalizing slavery. As the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) declared in their statement on the subject, “The potential for runaway importation and recruitment of cheap labor, undermining the national labor market, and leading to a decrease in wages and legal guarantees in the area of labor relations, and an increase in the level of unemployment among the population, has been legally enshrined in the Russian Federation.”

The government could not care less about the fortunes of workers during the crisis, and it does almost nothing to hide it. How else can we account (to cite just one example) for Mr. Topilin’s proposal to deny free health care to all informally employed and unemployed people not registered with an employment bureau?

In light of the foregoing, the Kremlin’s actions aimed at reconciliation with the liberal opposition also become intelligible, as do unexpected initiatives to put the “against all” option back on voting ballots. The authorities fear that public discontent will grow and want to channel it in a direction that presents no danger to the ruling elite. Whether this political maneuver succeeds depends in part on the willingness of leftist political forces and trade unions to win over public opinion and make the fight against austerity measures as much of a mobilizing factor as it has been in Greece, Spain, and other countries facing the consequences of the capitalist system’s crisis.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of deviantart.net