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

The Annals of PreCrime: “An Absolute Nightmare”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader

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

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

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