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

Advertisements

Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Why Most Russians Will Stay Home for New Year’s

Why Most Russians Will Stay Home for New Year’s
As Incomes Crumble, Even Celebrating with Friends Is Too Expensive for Them
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
December 27, 2018

New Year’s, apparently, has become a truly stay-at-home holiday. The number of Russians who plan to spend the long New Year’s holiday at home has jumped from 41% in late 2015 to 70% in late 2018, according to a survey by Romir, a Russian research company. The main reason is the rapid return to the conservative tradition of growing poverty and uncertainty in the future, combined with the desire to maintain previous levels of consumption of the most vital goods and services, which no longer include a winter holiday away from home.

fullscreen-m4

“How do you plan to spend the upcoming New Year’s holidays?” Overall: at home, 70%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 19%; traveling in Russia, 2%; working, 6%; traveling abroad, 2%; other, 1%. Average monthly income per family member of 10,000 rubles: at home, 73%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 18%; traveling in Russia, 2%; working, 6%. Average monthly income per family member of 10,000 rubles–25,000 rubles: at home, 74%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 17%; traveling in Russia, 1%; working, 5%; traveling abroad, 1%; other, 1%. Average monthly income per family member of 25,000 rubles or greater: at home, 56%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 25%; traveling in Russia, 4%; working, 8%; traveling abroad, 5%; other, 2%. Source: Romir, December 2018. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Surveys of the same representative selection of respondents have shown a drop-off in all other ways of spending the New Year’s holidays, which have basically become yet another period of time off work for Russians. The number of Russians planning to spend the holidays at the dacha or visiting friends or relatives has decreased from 34% to 19% in three years. Trips within Russia have dropped from 8% to 2%, while trips abroad have fallen from 4% to 2%.  Nearly everyone has been scrimping, including Russians with above-median incomes. Fifty-six percent of Russian with monthly incomes of 25,000 rubles [approx. $364] per family memberwill stay home, as will 74% of Russians with monthly incomes between 10,000 rubles and 25,000 rubles per family member. As Tatyana Maleva, an economist from RANEPA, notes, the Russian urban middle class, which has grown accustomed to traveling, cannot afford it.

The picture emerging from the survey reflects the mood of many Russians. Since 2014, real incomes have fallen four years in a row, and all indications are they will be shown to have fallen in 2018 as well. According to Rosstat, the monthly modal income in in 2017 was 13,274 rubles [approx. $233], while the monthly median income was 23,500 rubles [approx. $412]. Given these circumstances, the ruble’s devaluation, which has made trips abroad more expensive, is not such an important factor. In December 2015, one dollar cost as much as it does currently, 67 rubles, and its value was rising.

Holidays at home are not cheap, either. In November 2018, the percentage of Russians who had noticed a rise in prices had grown in comparison with October 2018, according to the Russian Central Bank. Forty percent of Russians noticed upticks in prices for meat and poultry; 32%, rises in the price of petrol; 28%, rising prices for cheese and sausage; while 26% had noticed that milk and dairy products were more expensive. All of these goods are part of the home holiday menu.

In comparison with 2014, consumption levels have fallen. They have not returned to their previous levels. Attempting to wriggle their way out of poverty or maintain their previous income levels, Russians have taken out an ever-growing number of consumer loans, which have proven difficult to pay back. Every fourth Russian who had outstanding loans in 2015–2017 spent 30% of their incomes paying them off, note Olga Kuzina and Nikita Krupensky, economists at the Higher School of Economics, in an article entitled “The High Debt of Russians: Myth or Reality?” published in the November 2018 issue of the journal Voprosy ekonomiki.

Generally, the Russian populace has transitioned to a minimalist model of consumerism, notes Maleva. Scrimping begins literally with the New Year. As Romir’s survey indicates, this transition has become a trend that will, apparently, shape the strategies and tactics of Russian consumers in the future, too. The only thing that has not changed over the years is the president’s televised New Year’s greeting: it costs nothing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Falling

200 ruble note-1

200 ruble note-2A year ago, Russian Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina triumphantly introduced the new Crimea-themed two hundred ruble banknote into circulation. Since the economy is shaped more by flows of goods, resources, people, services, knowledge, and money, and the actions of ordinary people, decision makers, and the snake oil salesmen known as capitalists, and less by puerile revanchist neo-imperalist symbolism, the new banknote, pegged at €2.90 by Deutsche Welle only a year ago, is now worth a mere €2.65. I am keeping my specimen as a souvenir of the current bad times until better days arrive. Image by the Russian Reader

Fall in Real Incomes of Russians Accelerated Sharply in September
Economists Say Government’s Forecast No Longer Realistic
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 17, 2018

Real incomes of Russians have declined for a second month in a row, Rosstat has reported. Their decline accelerated in September to 1.5% in annual terms after falling by 0.9% in August. Prior to that, they had grown for seven months, from the start of the year, by 1.7%. (This figure excludes the one-time 5,000-ruble payments made to pensioners in January 2017.) Real wages accelerated their growth in September, from 7.2% to 6.8% in the previous month.

Incomes of ordinary Russian had been falling for four years in a row, from 2014 to 2017, resuming growth only this year. In the first half of the year, they increased by 2.6%, mainly due to wage increases, notes Igor Polyakov from the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis and Short-Term Forecasting (TsMAKP). Business income increased only by 0.7%, while social transfers (excluding the one-time payment to pensioners) increased by 1.2%, which was significantly weaker than all incomes generally. Other sources of income decreased. There was a slight increase in incomes derived from property, but incomes received from securities and deposits decreased, as did, apparently, incomes from unreported activity, says Mr. Polyakov. He argues it is unlikely circumstances have changed considerably in recent months.

But the anxiety of Russians caused by the volatility of financial markets has increased, says Mr. Polyakov. People have taken to withdrawing cash from foreign currency accounts and transferring it to safe deposit boxes, as well as spending it abroad on holiday. Rosstat cannot register these expenditures and thus reduces its assessment of miscellaneous income. In August, the public’s net demand for US dollars grew by comparison with July from $0.8 billion to $1.7 billion, an increase of nearly 53%, the Central Bank reported.

Retail growth slowed in September to 2.2% in annual terms from 2.8% a month earlier. It is likely the public preferred buying foreign currency while curtailing consumption, argues Mr. Polyakov.

The drop in incomes combined with the serious increase in wages [sic] remains a mystery, writes Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist at the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The growth in real incomes in the first half of 2018 was mainly due to the presidential election campaign, notes Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at BCS Global Markets. Salaries in the public sector and pensions increased rapidly. [That is, the Kremlin bribed Russians directly dependent on its largesse to get out the vote for President-for-Life Vladimir Putin—TRR.] After the election, growth stalled. And, after a palpable devaluation of the ruble in April and accelerating inflation, a dip in incomes was anticipated, argues Mr. Tikhomirov. In September, prices for imported goods rose. In addition, the seasonal discount on fruits and vegetables ended, and the July increase in utilities rates made itself felt, explains Mr. Tikhomirov.

By the end of the year, the incomes of Russians will gradually decline a little, while overall incomes will grow less than 1% on the year, predicts Mr. Tikhomirov. Real incomes might grow by 2% on the year, counters Mr. Polyakov. In any case, this is noticeably lower than official forecasts. The Russian Economic Development Ministry anticipated a 3.4% growth in real incomes in 2018.

Real incomes of ordinary Russians fell by 1.7% in 2017, although the government had forecast a 1.3% increase, the Federal Audit Chamber noted in its opinion on the draft federal budget for 2019–2021. When the forecast was corrected, incomes had decline dsteadily from the beginning of the year, and there were no preconditions for rapid growth by year’s end, the auditors write.

Income growth depends on whether private enterprise will increase wages, argues Mr. Polyakov, but thos wages will be subject to the planned rise in the VAT to 20% in 2019.

President Putin has set a goal of halving poverty by 2024. (The official poverty rate last year was 13.2% of the populace.) The Economic Development Ministry’s forecast significantly increased the growth rate of real wages and anticipated higher growth rates for real incomes, which has raised doubts at the Audit Chamber. There is no wage increase for public sector employees planned in 2019, while the growth of wages in the private sector will depend on growths in productivity.

Rank-and-file Russians have been forced into debt, write analysts from RANEPA and the Gaidar Institute in their opinion on the draft budget. By mid 2018, Russians owed banks 13.7 trillion rubles (approx. 181 billion euros), an increase of 19% from the previous year, they write, and an amount that significantly outpaces the increase in nominal incomes. It is an alarming trend that means an increase in the amounts of money ordinary Russians spend servicing loans, experts warn.

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