Some interesting new trends emerging in Russian public opinion as the next Presidential election approaches. State-linked Russian
Academy of Sciences publishes relatively regular polls of public opinion that look into voters' preferences, including preferences for either "significant changes" in policy course in Russia or "stability" of the present course.
Here is the latest data:
Some 'Russia analysts' in the Western media have been quick to interpret these numbers as a sign of rising anti-Putin sentiment. Things are more subtle than that.
There is, indeed, a rather remarkable shift in public preferences in favor of "significant changes". Which can be attributed to the younger demographic who are predominantly supportive of reforms over their preferences for "stability". This is good. However, we do not know which changes the voters would prefer. Another potential driver for this shift is the ongoing weak recovery in the Russian economy from the 2014-2016 crisis - a recovery that fades to the background voters' previous concerns with the Russian State's geopolitical standing in the international arena (key pillar of Putin's third presidency) and the movement to the forefront of economic concerns (key pillar of Medvedev's interim presidency and, so far, an apparent area of significant interest for Putin looking forward to his fourth term).
These gel well with other public opinion data.
Here is Pew data from earlier 2017 showing that Russian voters nascent sentiment in favor of reforms may not be incongruent with their simultaneously continued support for Putin's leadership:
When one looks at the same polls data on core areas of domestic policy that the Russians feel more concerned about, these are: corruption (#1 priority), economy (#2 priority) and civil society (#3 priority). In other words, more liberal issues are ranked toward lower priority than other reforms (economy and corruption, which are both seen by the majority of the Russians as the domain of State power, not liberal order reforms). Civil society is an outlier to this. And an interesting one. Perhaps, indicative of the aforementioned demographics shift. But, perhaps, also indicative of the dire lack of alternatives to Putin-centric political spectrum in Russia. Again, whether the voters actually see Putin as a barrier to achieving these reforms is the key unknown.
Worse, not a single one area of domestic policies has plurality disapproval rating.
Somewhat confusing, Putin's personal approval ratings - for specific areas of policy - have been deteriorating over time:
This is significant, because traditionally, Russians view Presidential office as distinct from the Government (the 'good Tzar, bad Boyars' heuristic) and the tendency to view domestic objectives as key priorities or targets for disapproval would normally be reflected in falling support for the Government, not the President. This time around, things appear to be different: Russian voters may not be blaming Putin's Presidency outright, but their confidence in the President's ability to manage the policy areas of their key concerns is deteriorating.
The 'Putin call' - past bet on forward growth to sustain power centralization - is now out of money:
Weakest points are: corruption and economy. And these are the toughest nuts to crack for Putin's regime because it rests strong Federalization drive of 1999-present on the foundations of balancing the interests of the rent-seekers surrounding it (aka, on corruption around it, a trade-off between loyalty to the Federal State and the President, in return for access to wealth and the ability to offshore this wealth to the likes of London, a world's capital for grey and black Russian money). Ironically, Western sanctions and broader policies toward Russia are actively constraining the scope and the feasibility of all reforms - be it reforms of the economy or civil society, anti-corruption measures or political liberalization.
Note: an interesting read on the changes in the Kremlin-backing 'opposition' is also afoot, as exemplified by the new leadership emerging within the Russian Communist Party (read this well-researched and unbiased view, a rarity for WaPo, via David Filipov: https://t.co/8OfqCZzdOY).
Taken together, the above suggests that Putin needs some quick wins on the hardest-to-tackle issues: corruption and economy, if he were to address the pivot in voters' preferences for change. The 'if' bit in this statement reflects severe uncertainty and some ambiguity. But assuming Putin does opt to react to changes in the public opinion, we can expect two policy-related moves in months ahead:
- Corruption: we are likely to see public acceleration in prosecution of smaller/lower-end bureaucrats, deflecting attention from the top brass surrounding the centre. Alongside promotion of some fresh names to regional leadership posts (governors etc), already ongoing, we are also likely to see some additional consolidation of the oligarchic power in the economy. There will be no cardinal wide-spread change in power ministries and within the Deep State institutions. But, even the beginnings of such acceleration in cleaning up mid-tier of the top echelons of power will prompt hysterical comparatives to Stalin's purges in the Western media.
- Economy: we are also likely to see a new 'Program for 2030' aiming to 'modernize' the economy, deepen capital investment, on-shore funds stashed away in Cyprus, Austria, Germany, the Baltics, the UK and elsewhere. Note, the list of Russian-preferred offshore havens - it is littered with the countries currently beating the Russophobic drums, which will make such on-shoring double-palatable for Kremlin, and more acceptable to the Russian power circles. The process of on-shoring has already began, even if only in the more public and more benign context (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-21/russia-to-issue-fx-bonds-to-help-repatriate-cash-putin-says). The Program is also likely to see some reforms of the tax code (potentially, raising 13% flat tax rate and tweaking capital gains tax regime). A deeper push can come on enforcement and compliance side, with Moscow finally attempting to shift tax enforcement away from its current, highly arbitrary and politicized, practices. Putin is acutely aware of the fact that Russian public investment sits too low, while ammortization and depreciation are accelerating. We can expect some announcements on this front before the election, and, assuming economic growth becomes a new priority of the fourth term, an acceleration in State funding for infrastructure projects. This time around, new funding will have to flow to key public services - health and education - and not into large-scale transport projects, .e.g Crimean and Vladivostok bridges. Russia is well-positioned to support these initiatives through some monetary policy accommodation, with current inflationary dynamics implying that the current 7.75% benchmark CBR rate can be lowered to around 6% mark (this process is also ongoing). beyond fiscal and monetary aspects of reforms, Russia can opt to move more aggressively with revamping its Byzantine system of standards and certification systems to align them more closely to the best practices (in particular, those prevalent in the EU). Such alignment can support, over time, diversification of Russian exports to Europe and to other regions, where european standards effectively goldplate local ones.
As a number of more astute observers, e.g. Leonid Bershidsky (@Bershidsky) and David Filipov (@davidfilipov) have implied/stated in the past, promising reforms after nearly two decades in power will be a hard sell proposition for Putin. Which means Programs alone won't cut it. Kremlin will need to deliver and deliver fast, in order to break away from the 'Putin 3' track:
An interesting note on the latest data updates for the Russian economy via Bofit.
Per Bofit: "Industrial output in Russian regions rises, while consumption gradually recovers." This is important, because regional recovery has been quite spotty and overall economic recovery has been dominated by a handful of regions and bigger urban centres.
"Industrial output growth continued in the first half of this year in all of Russia’s eight federal districts," with production up 1.5–2% y/y in the Northwest, Central and Volga Federal Districts, as well as in the Moscow city and region. St. Petersburg regional output rose 3-4% y/y.
An interesting observation is that during the recent recession, there has been no contraction in manufacturing and industrial output. Per Bofit: "Over the past couple of years, neither industrial output overall nor manufacturing overall has not contracted in any of Russia’s federal districts. Industrial output has even increased briskly in 2015–16 and this year in the Southern Federal
District due to high growth in manufacturing and in the Far East Federal District driven by growth in the mineral extraction industries."
This is striking, until you consider the nature of the 2014-2016 crisis: a negative shock of collapsing oil and raw materials prices was mitigated by rapid devaluation of the ruble. This cushioned domestic production costs and shifted more demand into imports substitutes. While investment drop off was sharp and negative on demand side for industrial equipment and machinery, it was offset by cost mitigation and improved price competitiveness in the domestic and exports markets.
Another aspect of this week's report is that Russian retail sales continue to slowly inch upward. Retail sales have been lagging industrial production during the first 12 months of the recovery. This is a latent factor that still offers significant upside to future growth in the later stages of the recovery, with investment lagging behind consumer demand.
Now, "retail sales have turned to growth, albeit slowly, in six [out of eight] federal districts."
Here is why these news matter. As I noted above, the recovery in Russian economy has three phases (coincident with three key areas of potential economic activity): industrial production, consumption and investment. The first stage - the industrial production growth stage - is on-going at a moderate pace. The 0.4-0.6 percent annual growth rate contribution to GDP from industrial production and manufacturing can be sustained without a major boom in investment. The second stage - delayed due to ruble devaluation taking a bite from the household real incomes - is just starting. This can add 0.5-1 percent in annual growth, implying that second stage of recovery can see growth of around 2 percent per annum. The next stage of recovery will involve investment re-start (and this requires first and foremost Central Bank support). Investment re-start can add another 0.2-0.3 percentage points to industrial production and a whole 1 percent or so to GDP growth on its own. Which means that with a shift toward monetary accommodation and some moderate reforms and incentives, Russian economy's growth potential should be closer to 3.3 percent per annum once the third stage of recovery kicks in and assuming the other two stages continue running at sustainable capacity levels.
However, until that happens, the economy will be stuck at around the rates of growth below 2 percent.
A quick top level update on the Russian economy from Bofit and Fitch Ratings.
Fitch Ratings today: “The recovery in Russia continues to gain traction. Domestic demand is responding to greater confidence in the economic policy framework, particularly as the inflation-targeting regime becomes entrenched. Activity in Turkey has bounced back rapidly from the coup attempt, with growth hitting 5% yoy in 1Q17. Momentum was supported by government incentives, including temporary fiscal measures and a jump in the Treasury commitment to the fund that backs lending to SMEs.”
Chart from BOFIT confirms the above:
Overall, the recovery is still on track, and remains gradual at best, posing elevated risks of reversals. For example, industrial output, having previously posted gains in January-May 2017, contracted in June 2017 on a quarterly basis. Still, industrial output was up 2% in 1H 2017 y/y. Despite the U.S. and European sanctions, and generally adverse trends in the commodities sectors, mineral extraction sector expanded 3% y/y in 1H 2017 according to BOFIT. Oil output was up 2% and gas output was up 13%. The above figures imply that higher value added manufacturing posted sub-1% y/y growth in 1H 2017.
Agricultural production was basically flat - due, in part, to poor weather conditions, rising only 0.2% y/y in 1H 2017 and unlikely to post significant growth for FY2017 as crops reports are coming in relatively weak. That said, 2015-2016 saw record crops and very strong growth in agricultural output, so barring a major decline this year, agricultural sector activity will remain robust. Food production sector was the fourth highest growth sector over 2013- 1H 2017 period across the entire Russian economy, rising cumulative 17% in 1H 2017 compared to 1H 2013 in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.
Construction sector posted a robust 4-5 percent expansion in 1H 2017 compered to 1H 2016, a rather positive sign of improving investment.
Pharmaceuticals (+36%), plastics (+25%), Chemical industry (+22%), paper industry (+19%) were the main sectors of positive growth over 2013-2017 period, according to data compiled by Rossstat.
Really good news is that household demand is now recovering. Retail sales by volume were up ca 1% y/y on a seasonally-adjusted basis and real disposable household income rose from the cycle lows to the levels last seen in May-June 2016. Bad news is that with income growth slower than retail sales and even slower than actual household consumption (which grew faster than domestic retail sales due to accelerating purchases abroad), Russian households are dipping into savings and credit to fund consumption increases.
We shall wait until July 2017 PMI figures come out over the next few days to see more current trends in the Russian economy, but overall all signs point to a moderate 1H and 3Q (ongoing) expansion in the economy, consistent with 1.2-1.3% real growth. The Economy Ministry recently reiterated its view that Russian GDP will expand at more than 2% rate in 2017. Achieving this will clearly require a large and accelerated cut in the Central Bank rate from current 9% to below 8%. Even with this, it is hard to see how above-2% growth can be achieved.
Agricultural and food production are quite significant variable in the growth equation. In 2016, Russia became number one exporter of wheat in the world, with annual production tipping 120 million tons - historical record. Bad weather conditions in 2017 mean that current expected output is estimated at around 17% below 2016 levels. Russia consumes 70 percent of its wheat output internally, so cuts to exports are likely to be on the magnitude of 1/2 or more in 2017. Domestically, food prices inflation is rising this year, threatening overall Central Bank target and putting pressure on CBR to stay out of cutting the key policy rate. Inflation rose in June to 4.4% - moderate by historical standards, but above 4% CBR target.
Per latest report from the Economy Ministry, Russian GDP contracted 0.3% m/m in November in real terms and is down 3.7% y/y over 11 months through November 2015. Compared to 12 months ago, November GDP was down 4%.
This implies that, the economy will likely be down 3.8 percent (by my estimates: 3.8-3.9 percent) in 2015 as a whole. More significantly, with November GDP being down on foot of weaker oil prices and with crude prices continuing to contract through December, we are now less likely to see stabilisation in the economy (zero growth or return to positive growth) in 1Q 2016.
Meanwhile, in November, real wages were down 10% y/y while retail sales were down 13% for eleventh month in a row, according to Rosstat.
Rosstat data shows that over the last 12 months through November, food sales were down more than 11% and non-food goods sales fell nearly 15%. The figures for November 2015 show sharper contraction, in part because in November 2014 retail sales in Russia actually rose on foot of rapid devaluation of the Ruble. But overall, private consumption in Russia continues to run at a level consistent with where it was back in 2011. As noted recently by BOFIT, private consumption in Russia is still some 10 percent above where it was pre-crisis in 2008. Which is no mean feat, as for example, in the case of Ireland private consumption currently remains below its pre crisis levels despite the fact that Irish economy has been recovering very robustly from the crisis in recent years.
Rosstat data shows that seasonally adjusted industrial output fell again in November. Activity in extractive industries in November was unchanged from a year earlier, having supported the output to the upside in previous months. Manufacturing production, however, fell for the third month in a row, down ca 5% y/y in November. BOFIT noted that this suggests that “the impact of increased defence spending that supported manufacturing industries earlier this year is likely fading. First-half defence spending grew on-year by over a third, but since autumn defence spending has fallen.”
All of this supports negative view of the Russian economy going into 2016, summarised in my earlier post here: http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/12/281215-bofit-summary-of-2016-outlook.html
The outrun so far has been quite disappointing for the forecasting hawks, including for example Danske Bank analysts who at the end of May 2015 predicted Russian economy will shrink 7.9% y/y in 2015 ( forecast they revised to -6.2% at the end of August 2015).
Or for that matter for seasoned hawks, like Andres Aslund who in January prediction put the matters thus: “Russia’s GDP is likely to plunge in 2015. Indeed, it would be prudent to expect a slump on the order of 10 percent. In many ways, Russia’s financial situation is eerily similar to the fall of 2008, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called his country a safe haven in the global financial crisis. In 2009, Russia’s GDP dropped by 7.8 percent. In other ways, the situation seems even worse.” (H/T to @27khv for the link: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/01/15/russias-output-will-slump-sharply-in-2015/).
But the outrun is also a bit on a reality check to some Russian political and Government figures (including President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev) who bought into the fragile and dynamically uncertain improvements over Summer 2015 to announce the bottoming out of the economic crisis.
Truth is, Russian economy is a very hard nut to crack for any forecaster, as it is currently subject to a series of coincident shocks that themselves are hard to price and predict: oil prices and gas prices slump, contracting demand for energy globally, including on foot of both geopolitical changes and warm weather; broader commodities prices collapse, including on foot of global demand weaknesses and regional (e.g. China) weaknesses; geopolitical risks and sanctions (including financial sanctions); ongoing deleveraging of the Russian banking sector (including outside Russia, especially in Ukraine and the rest of the Former USSR and in parts of Central and Eastern Europe); domestic structural weaknesses (including those that started manifesting themselves in late 2011 and continue to play weak economic hand to-date); and so on. Thus, we shall be kind to forecasters and politicians making bets on Russian economy’s direction.
I wrote about most of the above already, including the banking sector woes (http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/12/231215-vnesheconombank-where-things.html). And the trends in both manufacturing and services sectors were pretty clear in the PMIs (see http://trueeconomics.blogspot.ie/2015/12/41215-bric-composite-pmis-november.html).
But translating these indicators into actual growth performance is a perilous task... as the November figures showed.