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

Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards

DSCN2995“Change Yourself for the Better.” If you read the following article, about the OECD’s forecast for economic growth in Russia, between the lines, you will discover a takeaway message that has been apparent to numerous observers for a long time. Until Russia does away with official kleptocracy, rampant corruption, outrageously bad governance, and the shock-and-awe policing of politics and business by the siloviki—i.e., unless it renounces Putinism and all its ways—there is little chance the living standards of ordinary Russians will improve much in the next forty years. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards
OECD’s Experts Have Predicted the Futures of the World’s Major Economies
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
March 7, 2018

Russia is one of the few member states and parters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in which real per capita GDP will fall by 2060 relative to the benchmark, the United States, according to an OECD reported entitled “Long-Term Prospects: Scenarios for the World Economy, 2060.” Vedomosti has had access to the eport. A source at the OECD confirmed its authenticity while noting it was a preliminary draft.

In the absence of reforms, Russia’s per capita GDP will grow only 0.7% in the next twelve years, predict OECD economists. The stumbling block is low workforce productivity. In recent years, it has not increased at all, and it will accelerate to a mere 0.5% in the period 2018–2030. Another brake on economic growth is poor demography: the economically active and able-bodied segment of the populace has been declining. By way of comparison, due to its positive demographic circumstances, Turkey’s standard of living will increase considerably by 2060 to about three fourths of the figures for the US, write the report’s authors.  In Russia, it will increase to 40% of the benchmark before decreasing slightly.

It is hard not concur with the diagnosis, notes Alexander Isakov, VTB Capital’s chief economist for Russia. Demography and workforce productivity are the biggest constraints on economic growth in Russia.

In his March 1, 2018, address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin promised to increase per capita GDP by 50% by 2025. He said = Russia must firmly gain a foothold among the world’s top five economies by then. Putin meant GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP), Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin explained on the TV program Pozner. According to the IMF, Russia is now in sixth place in terms of GDP (PPP), four percent points behind Germany. The goal is to “bypass Germany,” explained the minister.

The goal can be brought within reach by applying active budgetary (e.g., tax cuts and increases in oil and gas costs) and monetary (e.g., lending) stimuli, says Kirill Tremasov, director of the analytics department at Locko Invest, but this is fraught with great risks.

Without reforms, Russian and the other BRICS countries will slow the growth of the world’s real GDP for forty years beginning in 2019, warn the report’s authors. To accelerate growth, they must increase workforce productivity by reforming governance, increasing the duration of schooling, and reducing trade tariffs.

If during the period 2020–2060, the BRICS countries develop the rule of law (which the World Bank evaluates on a scale from minus two to plus two), increase schooling to the median level of the OECD countries, and decrease trade tariffs to OECD median levels by 2030, the growth of per capita GDP will be 25% to 40% higher than in the baseline scenario. A key factor is governance reforms: combating corruption, improving law enforcement and the judiciary, increasing the efficiency of the civil service, and involving ordinary citizens more actively in politics.

The report notes this is especially important for Russia. Among the BRICS countries, Russia has the worst score for rule of law (-0.8) and the best score for average length of schooling (10.8 years). The Russian civil service has been adapted to the current political system, which assumes maximum centralization and the absence of political competition. Tremasov is skeptical: it is impossible and pointless to reform the civil service without democratizing the political system.

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“How Living Standards Will Change: The OECD’s Baseline Scenario. Real Per Capita GDP at Purchasing Power Parity in 2010 Prices (US=100).” The blue horizontal lines represent predicted outcomes for 2018; the red lines, predicted figures for 2060. The countries included in the survey, as  listed from top to bottom, are Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Great Britain, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Ireland. Source: Preliminary Calculations from the OECD. Courtesy of Vedomosti

In his May 2012 decrees, Putin charged the government with increasing workforce productivity by one and a half times by 2018, but it had increased only by 3.8% as of 2016. Minister Oreshkin listed the obstacles: underinvestment, insufficiently developed infrastructure, and a lack of resources to upgrade productive assets.

Managers do not have a “culture of constantly improving efficiency and productivity,” he complained.

Workforce productivity is indeed the main obstacle to economic growth, but an increase of investments is needed in order to increase it, notes Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank. In 2017, about 50% of the increased investments in Russia were due to the extractive resources sector, although the bulk of GDP is generated in other sectors, says Orlova. Investments in agriculture grew by a mere 1.3%, fell in manufacturing and construction, and the commercial sector crashed altogther, falling 9.7%. Investment growth has been hindered by economic and geopolitical uncertainty, and the government has an ever harder time of reducing that uncertaintlywith sanctions in place, notes Orlova. Business, on the contrary, needs guarantees the rules of the game will not change for a long time.

Growth in productivity is impossible without increased competition, Tremasov points out. It is competition that compels companies to introduce new technology, reduce costs, and improve management. The more intense the competition in a sector, the higher the productivity, he notes, citing the retail trade and metallurgy as examples. Therefore, the main means of increasing economic efficiency is reducing the state’s share in the economy, argues Tremasov, as well as attracting foreign investors, reforming the judiciary, and reining in the security services [siloviki].

Measures to improve the country’s demographic circumstances will bear fruit in twenty-five years, when the corresponding generation enters the labor market, notes Isakov. The authorities should thus concentrate on increasing productivity.  If the market functions smoothly, the difference in productivity between companies in the same industry decreases, he argues, because they borrow technology and methods from each other, while inefficient companies are forced out of the market. In Russia, on the contrary, differences in productivity within industries are some of the highest in the world, due in part to gray sector employment practices, Isakov concludes.

Economic growth could take off if reforms are implemented, argues Orlova. The Russian economy is currently so inefficient that the jumpstart supplied by reforms would be huge.

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