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

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Macaroni Is a Vegetable

“3,500 rubles.” Graphic courtesy of Vedomosti. At the current exchange rate, 3,500 rubles is worth approximately 46 euros.

Some Can Only Afford Macaroni, But Some Cannot Even Afford That
Saratov Official’s Suggestion to Spend 3,500 Rubles on Food a Month Is a Reality for Millions of Russians
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 19, 2018

The statement by Natalya Sokolova, minister for labor and employment in Saratov Region, that 3,500 rubles a month was enough for the “minimum physiological needs” of Saratov pensioners so angered the public that she was made an ex-minister in a matter of days. Ms. Sokolova had insisted it was not worth raising the monthly minimum cost of living for unemployed pensioners by 500 rubles: an increase of 288 rubles would be enough.

“Macaroni always costs the same,” she said.

Ms. Sokolova, however, refused to go on such a diet by way of an experiment. Her status supposedly did not allow it.

But is it only Saratov pensioners who subsit on such a meager diet? Let’s compare them with other regions.

The authorities calculate the amount of the mountly minimum cost of living on the basis of the cost of the monthly minimum food basket. They add to its cost (which is 3,500 rubles in the case of Saratov pensioners) the exact same amount of money for paying for non-food items and services, for example, clothing, housing, and utilities. The monthly minimum cost of living for pensioners in Saratov Region was therefore 7,176 rubles (95 euros) in the second quarter of 2018. It was 9,354 rubles (124 euros) for the region’s able-bodied residents, and 9,022 rubles (120 euros) for its children.

That is not much, but there are even poorer regions in Russia. For example, in Belgorod Region, an able-bodied resident should be able to live on 8,995 rubles (120 euros) a month, while a pensioner should be able to survive on 6,951 rubles (92 euros) a month. In Mordovia, the corresponding figures are 9,132 rubles (121 euros) and 6,975 rubles (93 euros) a month; in Chuvashia, 9,248 rubles (123 euros) and 7,101 rubles (94 euros). The federal monthly minimum cost of living is 11,280 rubles (150 euros) for an able-bodied person, 8,583 rubles (114 euros) for a pensioner, and 10,390 rubles (138 euros) for a child. Meaning that, on average, the monthly diet in Russia as a whole is only a little more expensive than the Saratov diet: between 4,000 rubles (53 euros) and 5,500 rubles (73 rubles).

The monthly minimum food basket includes the cheapest groceries. It is meant to provide an individual with the necessary amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for a month, explains Liliya Ovcharova, director of the Institute for Social Policy at the Higher School of Economics. The basket mainly contains baked goods, a few eggs, lots of porridge, milk, and an altogether small amount of meat. According to Ms. Ovcharova, the diet will keep a person alive. It is another matter that it is “tasteless” and below rational norms of consumption, flagrantly lacking in meat, vegetables, and fruit. It is not surprising people find this diet unacceptable.

In 2017, however, the incomes of 13.2% of Russians were below the minimum cost of living, meaning that 18.9 million people in Russia could not afford even the macaroni snubbed by the ex-minister in Saratov. This figure includes children: one in five Russian children lives in family whose per capita income is below the minimum cost of living. Among old-age pensioners, however, there is practically no one who is officially poor. If their incomes are below the minimum cost of living for pensioners, they receive an additional payment to help them top up to the minimum. Children in large families are not eligible for these additional payments.

The question is what is now the more realistic approach: making the diet more humane or reducing the number of people who cannot afford even an inhumane diet. For example, the government could first reduce the number of children in need to 5%, and then improve the diet. Vladimir Putin ordered the government to reduce the number of needy people by half by 2024. If we now increased the minimum cost of living by 50%, the number of poor people would, on the contrary, double, Ms. Ovcharova estimates.

But the number of poor people can be measured not only on the basis of the minimum grocery basket, a standard that was introduced back in the 1990s. In European countries, for example, people with incomes of 50% of the median have been considered poor since the 1950s. At the same time, the Europeans base their calculations not on minimal but on rational norms of food consumption, Ms. Ovcharova notes. They compute how many specific vitamins, minerals, iron, and calcium a person needs. This food basket is much pricier and presupposes a completely different level of consumption and well-being.

It is probably best not to count how many Saratov pensioners can afford this food basket until 2024.

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

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.

fullscreen-v2

“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

Poor Russians Up to Their Necks in Debt

ruble coin 2This one-ruble coin, minted in 2014 and sporting the newish symbol for the ruble, adopted in 2013, won’t buy you love or much anything else. 

Poor Russians Go into Debt
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 11, 2017

Low-income Russians have been unable to wait for an uptick in incomes and have turned to loans to meet their consumer needs. Experts, including the Central Bank, believe such borrowers are a danger to the economy.

The demand of Russians for loans has been growing. In August, their arrears to banks rose to levels not seen since the spring of 2014. Ruble-denominated loans reached their maximum historic high, according to RANEPA’s monthly newsletter Monitoring the Economic Situation in Russia. Banks have been vigourously issuing loans. In July, they provided Russians with 23% more loans than at the same time last year. Consumer loans have been the fastest growing. According to the National Credit History Bureau, such loans increased by 27% over the past eight months.

Loans have been playing a growing role in the budgets of Russian families, notes the newsletter. In the first six months of the year, new loans made up 21% of household final consumption expenditures. This is significantly higher than the crisis levels of the last two years (15–18%), although it is still below the peak levels of 25–27% in 2013–2014. With virtually no increase in the real incomes of individuals, this generates additional risks to their financial circumstances, noted RANEPA’s analysts.

Residents of poor and distant regions are the biggest borrowers of consumer loans at the moment, along with the poorest segments of the populace, notes Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program at the Independent Institute for Social Policy. This is how they offset falling incomes. Wages in Russia have been growing since August 2016, but real incomes have continued to fall.

People cannot skimp and save forever. People turn to loans to meet their needs, says Zubarevich. What matters is that banks not issue too many loans, which would raise the specter of a huge number of defaults.

The debt burden has been growing more quickly in regions with the highest poverty levels, according to the FR Group, although the situation varies from region to region, notes project manager Anastasia Zyurkalova.

Russians have been spending more and more of their income on consumption. According to some indications, they have abandoned the savings model of financial behavior, acknowledges Yelena Grishina, head of RANEPA’s research laboratory on pension systems and social sector actuarial forecasting. One of the ways they survive is by taking out loans. Certain segments of the populace have outlived the means they once had for limiting consumption. In the first six months of 2017, a linear dependence bwtween increases in the volume of loans and poverty levels in the regions was observed, says Grishina. Russians are now more positive than a year ago: they have assessed the changes in their welfare, and the percentage of those who skimp on food and clothing has decreased, note RANEPA’s analysts [sic].

The burden of non-mortgage loans is highest in regions with high unemployment and a poorer populace, Alfabank’s chief economist Natalya Orlova wrote last autumn. The middle class [sic] would be unlikely to emerge as the main source of the growth in demand for retail loans, she noted. The average borrower is more likely to be someone with a limited income. Judging by the numbers for the first six months of 2017, nothing has changed, says Orlova. It is still less well-off Russians who want to bring their consumption up to average levels. The increase in retail loans in the poorest regions is likely due to people’s tapping out their savings and and trying to maintain a certain level of consumption, agrees Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at S&P.

A significant portion of the demand for consumer loans comes from people whose incomes are less than the median income in Russia. Often, their incomes are unstable as well, and their debt burdens are high, noted analysts in the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department. (Their opinions may differ from the financial regulator’s official stance.)  Yet banks currently do not really have the capacity for an increase in lending, and so even a moderate uptick in consumer loans is fraught with risks no less serious than during the 2010–2012 loan boom. To limit these risks, the Central Bank has been working out individual debt burden indicators, notes a source at the regulator. The share of an individual’s expenditures on repaying loans should be such she could continue to pay back the loan even if negative events were to occur.

For the time being, the largest banks surveyed by the Central Bank have reported that the percentage of borrowers with increased levels of debt burdens has not grown, and the number of people with monthly incomes of less than 20,000 rubles [approx. 290 euros] who have taken out cash loans has fallen, says the source at the regulator. The banks have been forced to behave more conservatively. Everyone well remembers the wave of late payments in 2012–2013, says Yuri Gribanov, CEO of Frank RG.

After the crisis of 2015, the quality of loan applicants has not improved considerably, notes Sergei Kapustin, deputy board chair of OTP Bank. There are still many people with problematic debts that have not been managed and refinanced at another bank. According to certain channels, the share of such debts is ten percent, and banks have been forced to lower the number of loans they issue. In addition, a number of bankers issue unsubstantially large loans to people who have borrowed money at other banks in amounts disproportionate to their incomes.

The demand for consumer loans is currently quite high, says Mikhail Matovnikov, Sberbank’s chief analyst, and there are still a lot of extant bad loans at high interest rates, especially among low-income Russians. This not at all what the economy needs, and it is bad for borrowers, too, he argues.

The banks’ fight against such loans has pushed borrowers into the arms of microfinance institutions, where the circumstances can be even worse. This year, the microlending market has grown from 186 billion rubles to 242 billion rubles [approx. 3.5 billion euros]. The banks have not met the steadily growing demand for loans, according to research by microlender Home Money.

home money

A screenshot from Russian microlender Home Money’s website. “It’s simpler to make a phone call than to borrow from somebody! Call if you need to! New services: personal legal consultant; home protection; credit history.”

Measures to limit interest rates cooled the consumer lending market in 2015–2016, notes Dmitry Vasilyev, an analyst with Fitch. Currently, the portfolio’s growth matches the nominal growth in incomes of Russians (2–3% during the first sixth months of 2017) and the percentage of risky and unsecured loans has lowered. Some borrowers have drifted to the microlenders, while some banks have been weeded out due to noncompliance with tougher standards, says Vasilyev.

Orlova points out the banking sector is at a crossroads. Maintaining quality lending means not taking on as clients people working in the informal sector and incapable of confirming how much they make and microlenders currently lending at very high rates. Or banks could increase their appetite for risk and take on inferior borrowers to increase their market shares and loan portfolios. Banks have to earn money. If there are no borrowers willing to pay (for example, the government, which would have to become much more active in the state debt market), the issue would become particularly critical. Prospects for income growth in the coming year are worsening, and the risk that not very well-off people would not be able to service their loans is growing, warns Orlova. Poverty will not seriously decline in Russia in the coming year, if we believe the government’s three-year macro forecast, as submitted to the State Duma. It will drop from 12.8% of the populace this year to 11.2% in 2020, i.e., it will not drop to the levels of  2012–2013 (lower than 11%).

Translation and image of the ruble coin by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. The original article, as published yesterday by Vedomosti on the front page of its paper edition, was behind a paywall. Thanks to Press Reader for providing me with the text of the article.