Category Archives: Russian economy

9/5/20: Summary of Russian COVID19 Policy Responses

Based on the Finance Ministry estimates, Russian COVID19 measures will cost between 1 and 2 percent on GDP to the Russian Exchequer, as reported by BOFIT.

The impact combines both declines in government revenues and increases in expenditures. Much of the COVID19 measures costs, however, will come from reallocation of spending priorities away from yet-to-be-launched capital expenditures and, potentially, defence budgets.

In response to COVID19, Russian government deployed significant supports for:

  • SMEs, targeting primarily employment in the private sector. The government identified over 70 sub-sectors hardest hit by the social distancing measures imposed on the general population and provided funding to cover companies' payrolls as long as the companies retain the levels of employment at 90% or more compared to the start of March levels. 
  • Tax deferrals for SMEs and significantly impacted sectors (excluding VAT, excise, natural resources extraction taxes and export tariffs). 
  • Per BOFIT, "Federal, regional and municipal government real estate landlords are postponing rental payments for all SMEs and larger firms in hard-hit [sectors]. Private landlords renting commercial real estate (other than residential properties) have been obligated to defer payments of tenants in hard-hit branches. To help participating private landlords, regions are to grant them relief from property taxes."
  • The government effectively froze all new bankruptcy proceedings for the duration of the crisis measures.
  • Special social insurance payments for families with children, increased levels of benefits for the newly unemployed, and added supports for the pensioners were put in place. Pensioners can avail of a range of enhanced services and additional payments, although these vary by region.
  • Frontline healthcare workers have been allocated supplementary pay increases.
  • Federal government also suspended debt repayments by regional and local governments.
The Central Bank of Russia moved quickly to alleviate the immediate impact of the crisis:

  1. The CBR froze banks' asset valuations at the start of March 2020 levels to delay recognition of banks' losses and prevent a wave of loans defaults.
  2. "The general loosening of regulatory rules applicable by banks also covers e.g. loss reserves, credit quality and related collateral for a very large part of corporate and household loans granted, as well as their possible restructurings," per BOFIT.
  3. "Authorities have also set up separate deferral programmes for bank debt repayments that are supported by regulatory easing, government interest-rate subsidies and low-interest CBR loans to banks."
  4. "Deferral programmes are available for households that have suffered income losses of more than 30 %, as well as SMEs and enterprises in hard-hit sectors."
  5. CBR also cut interests rates, most recently on April 24th from 6.0% to 5.5%, bringing 2020 cuts to 75 basis points.

Per BOFIT note, "the state social funds will lose revenues as wage-based social taxes of employers will be halved to 15 % for SMEs. The move will give businesses relief this year in an amount equivalent to slightly less than 0.3 % of GDP."

The latest Russian economy forecasts via CBR come in at -4% to -6% for 2020 and +3 to +5% in 2021, implying slower than V-shaped recovery in real GDP. The forecasts assume oil price averaging USD27 per barrel over 2020, which is consistent with May-December average price of USD20 per barrel, or more conservative than prior assumptions. Notably, the CBR forecast implies that Russian economy will be running a current account deficit in 2020, for the first time since 1999.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the U.S.-Government funded RFEL has been out in force decrying alleged use of COVID19 as a pretext for, shock-horror, taxing offshore wealth. The proposal has not been approved by the Russian government, yet.

21/1/20: Inflation and Growth: BRIC 2020

Via Danske Bank Research, an interesting chart showing 6-12 months forward expectations for inflation (CPI) and economic growth (GDP) for a number of countries, most notably, the BRIC economies:

Clearly suggests continued growth suppression in Russia and, at last, moderating inflationary pressures, returning the economy back toward a longer-term trend of ~2% growth and sub-3% inflation. Also shows continued problems is Brazil persisting into 2020 and only a moderate uptick in economic activity in India, where Modi 'reforms' have been largely washed out into slower growth over the recent quarters.

15/1/20: Putin’s Latest Call Option Buy

"Poekhali!" sad Vlad, refraining Yuri Gagarin's famous phrase. And just like, with a sweep of his hand, Mr. Putin has

  1. Removed the entire Russian Cabinet, including his long-serving pal, now ex-Prime Minister Medvedev;
  2. Outlined a hefty set of forward-promised reforms; and
  3. Added billions of dollars to the Global GDP by creating a tsunami of Russia-related analysis, opinion pieces, reports and updates in the vast Kremlinology Sector bridging journalism, opinnionism, and think-tankerism.
WTF happened in Moscow today?

Putin has been under some sustained pressure in the last couple of years on the domestic economy front. Russian economic growth has been anaemic, to put it mildly. Let's take a brief walk through some headline figures (to-date):
  • Despite the 'recovery' from 2015 recession (GDP down 2.3%) and 2016 stagnation (GDP up 0.3%), Russian economic growth peaked at 2.3% in 2018 and slumped to 1.1% in 2019 (based on January-September stats).
  • Industrial production is up 2.4% y/y in 2019 (latest data is for January-November) which is worse than 2.9% in 2018, but still miraculous, given the state of Russian Manufacturing PMIs (see:
  • Fixed capital investment is in a dire state: in Q1-Q3 2019, investment is up only 0.7%, down from the rate of growth of 4.6% in 2017 and 4.3% in 2018. 
  • Retail sales are up 1.6% in 2019 (January-November data), but behind 2.8% growth in 2018. Retail sales rose 1.3% in 2017. None of this enough to recover the sector from a wave of massive contractions in 2015-2016, when retail sales fell 10% and 4.8%, respectively.
  • Exports have recovered, but are still running below 2011-2014 period averages.
  • Current account surplus is still positive, but way lower than in 2018. 
  • Unemployment is a bright side, at 4.6% in H1 2019, down from 4.8% in 2018, currently - the lowest on record.
  • After years of growth, population is set to slightly contract in 2019 compared to the post-Soviet peak of 2018. The change is estimated and is not statistically significant, but it indicates one breakaway from the prior trend: inward migration into Russia has slowed down substantially in 2018-2019, in part due to anaemic economy.
  • Fiscally, Russia is doing brutally well, however. Government surplus of 2018 - at 2.6% of GDP is likely to be exceeded in 2019: January-November data puts surplus at 3.1% of GDP.
  • Central Government Debt is at 13.7% of GDP as of October 2019, a slight uptick on 11.5% in 2018 and hitting the highest level since 2005, but more than benign, given it is entirely offset by the sovereign wealth funds and is being effectively shifted out of foreign currencies and into Rubles. As a reminder, in his first year in the Presidential office, Putin faced Government Debt of 79% of GDP, with External Debt being 67% of GDP. In 2019, external debt is at around 3.9% of GDP.
  • Oil reserve funds are up massively in 2019. In 2018, the funds amounted to USD 58.1 billion. At the end of September 2019, this stood at USD 124 billion. Including FOREX and Gold reserves, and other sovereign wealth funds, Russian Government had USD 530.9 billion worth of reserves as of September 2019, almost back to the peak of USD537 billion in 2012.
  • Inflation has ticked up in 2019. inflation hit an all time low of 2.9% in 2018 and over January-November 2019 this rose to 4.6%. Inflation has been a major historical point of pain in Russia, so return to above 3% price increases environment is a troubling matter, especially as the economy is barely ticking up any growth.
  • Average monthly wages in rubles are growing: up from RB 43,431.3 in 2018 to RB 46,549.0 in 2019 (October data). And wages are up in Euro terms (from EUR587.1 in 2018 to EUR654.1 in 2019). Average wages are also rising in USDollar terms. Which is a point of improvement for the Russians.
All of which brings us back to where Mr. Putin was standing at the end of 2019: he was presiding over an anaemic economy with some marginal signs of improvement and a growing dissatisfaction amongst his electorate with the Government management of the socio-economic conditions. Here is a snapshot of Vladimir Putin's and Dmitry Medvedev's approval ratings as collected by the independent Levada Center:

Notice much? Yep. Traditionally, Russian voters have placed increasing blame for deteriorating socio-economic conditions on the Government, as opposed to the President. Recent years are no exception. The last points on these charts is November-December 2019. Putin's approval ratings have basically stagnated from 3Q 2018 on, while Mr. Medvedev's ratings continued to slip.

Here is a nice kicker: majority of Russians are increasingly not seeing an alignment between their interests and the objectives of the Government. Again via Levada:

"Probably not" and "Definitely not": 2007 = 62%, 2009 = 65%, 2011 = 68%, 2013 = 67% and ... 2019 = 72%. Other signs of pressure? Position: "The government lives off the people and isn’t concerned about how normal people live" - support = 53% in October 2019 poll.

So Putin has been facing some major dilemmas in recent months. Chief ones are:
  1. How to shift economy toward a faster growth path?
  2. How to resolve the 2024 exit strategy without triggering an internal 'civil servants war' in the corridors of power? and
  3. How to secure an upside to his legacy (remember, recency bias means that people remember more recent actions / legacies of their leaders, as opposed to the more distant ones)?
Step one in dealing with the three dilemmas is: replace the unpopular Cabinet. Step 2 is: announce new reforms that - by historical experience - must include things that haven't failed before (e.g. focus on longer term political reforms as opposed to the shorter term market reforms). Step 3 is: quietly unleash a host of economic development policy changes (these are not reforms per se, but a rather policy tools that cannot be deployed by the current, status quo-anchored, Cabinet).

Unless you are a tin-hat-wearing member of the Putin World-Domination Conspiracy club, so far - rational, right? 

So Putin announced that he will 
  • gradually (a good thing, given weak institutional capital in Russia) 
  • rebalance the executive power away from the Presidential status quo 
  • toward a more co-shared power arrangement with the Duma (Russian Lower House of the Parliament). 
  • The only three details Putin mentioned today on the subject are: 
  1. Letting Duma elect the Prime Minister; 
  2. Giving Duma the power of appointing the entire Cabinet of Ministers and all Deputy Prime Ministers; and
  3. The President will have no veto power over the Duma on these appointments.
The whole idea is not new. 

Yeltsin dramatically reduced Parliamentary powers after the 1993 'Constitutional Crisis' - an event that saw the West applauding him for bombing the Parliament. Putin subsequently tightened the Presidential grip on power, motivated, at least at first, by the reality of the post-Yeltsin Russia spiralling into a series of smaller secessionist civil wars. Yeltsin made a deal with the devil in his last election: in exchange for the regions support for his hugely unpopular Presidency run, he gave regions more autonomy. On his timescale, Russian Federation would have been a wedge of Swiss cheese, riddled with newly independent ethnic and religious enclaves, by the mid-2000s. Under Putin, Moscow had consolidated its power, suppressing ethnic strife and nationalist extremism. By 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev started talking about the need for development of a functional opposition to the Kremlin-backing party, the United Russia. Chats about devolution of power back to the Parliament were mooted. In the end, Medvedev's reforms program included none of the political reforms to challenge the Kremlin. Worse, Medvedev's Police reform of 2011 was an exercise in federalization of the police force, effectively removing much of the local control over the cops. That said, the same reform significantly curtailed the imbalance between the rights and the duties of the police, giving more rights to the citizens.

Now, the idea of devolution of power is back. Why? Because today's Russia faces three important realities:
  1. Reality of a stagnant economy - traceable back to 2011 and post-2014 collapse of oil prices. This stagnation outlived the economic promises of the Medvedev's reforms and the endless statements from Putin about the need for diversification of the Russian economy;
  2. Reality of shifting voter preferences away from supporting geopolitical re-entry of Russia into the exclusive club of countries that 'matter' toward domestic agenda; and
  3. Reality of the Putin presidency facing the end game of transition of power - something that virtually never has been achieved in the past without a major mess.
One way or the other, the idea of giving Duma a meaningful say in the formation of the Government is a good idea for Russia. And one way or the other, it will provide new incentives for a gradual (over the longer period of time) evolution of the Russian body of politics away from the rubber-stamping 'opposition' to the ruling United Russia (the status quo) and toward genuine competition in policies and ideas. This, too, is a good thing for Russia. In fact, I can't really find anything bad in the Putin's latest idea, without forcing myself to think in conspiracy theory terms.

Therefore, to me, the main question that everyone should be asking is not whether or not Putin is proposing these reforms in order to remain in power post-2024, but whether such reforms are feasible today. My gut feeling is that they might be. If the Duma is given real powers, starting with the powers of selecting the Government Cabinet, skin-in-the-game incentives for political parties participation in legislative process beyond today's political posturing will rise. This can, over time, lead to the emergence of a genuine and more effective opposition - the one, driven by policy debates and competing world views. Will it happen? I don't know. Does Putin know? I doubt. 

Frighteningly, not a single journalist I've read on the topic today asked these questions of feasibility of the reforms. Instead, all focused on scaremongering their readers into believing that the announcement is yet another dastardly Putinesque plot to [insert the humanity destroying disaster of your choice here].

CNN produced this utter garbage for analysis:

The CNBC folks decided piped in with this one" 

Neither august outfit of 'world class journalism' has managed to notice the fallacy of their 'damned if he does anything, and damned if he does nothing at all' logic. But enough morons. The real test of Putin's 'reforms' will come post 2024. Until then, watch the proposals for the referendum take shape.

PS: Will we miss Medvedev? Well, he sure beats the tax collector who will replace him. At least in charisma, diplomacy and economic thinking. But not in accountancy. 

7/1/20: BRIC Composite PMIs 4Q 2019

Composite Global economic activity, as measured by Composite PMI has slowed down markedly in 2019 compared to 2018. In 2018, average Composite Global PMI (using quarterly averages) stood at 53.6. This fell back to 51.7 in 2019. In 4Q 2019, average Global Composite activity index stood at 51.3, virtually unchanged on 51.4 in 3Q 2019. Overall, Global Composite PMI has now declined in 7 consecutive quarters. 

This weakness in the Global economic activity is traceable also to BRIC economies.

Brazil’s Composite PMI has fallen from 52.0 in 3Q 2019 to 51.5 in 4Q 2019. Things did improve, however, on the annual average basis, 2018 Composite PMI was at 49.6, and in 2019 the same index averaged 51.4. 

Russia Composite PMI has moved up markedly in 4Q 2019, thanks to booming reading for Services PMI. Russia Composite index rose to 52.7 in 4Q 2019 from 51.0 in 3Q 2019. reaching its highest level in 3 quarters. However, even this robust reading was not enough to move the annual average for 2019 (52.3) to the levels seen in 2018 (54.1). In other words, overall economic activity, as signaled by PMIs, has been slowing in 2019 compared to 2018.

China Composite PMI stood at 52.6 in 4Q 2019, up on 51.5 in 3Q 2019, rising to the highest level in 7 consecutive quarters. However, 2019 average reading was only 51.7 compared to 2018 reading of 52.2, indicating that a pick up in the Chinese economy growth indicators in 4Q 2019 was contrasted by weaker growth over 2019 overall. 

India Composite PMI remained statistically unchanged in 3Q 2019 (52.1) and 4Q 2019 (52.0). On the annual average basis, 2018 reading of 52.5 was marginally higher than 2019 reading o 52.2. 

In 4Q 2019, all BRIC economies have outperformed Global Composite PMI indicator, although Brazil was basically only a notch above the Global Composite PMI average. In 2019 as a whole, China, Russia and India all outperformed Global Composite index activity, with Brazil trailing behind.

7/1/20: BRIC Services PMIs 4Q 2019

BRIC Services PMIs have been a mixed bag in 4Q 2019, beating overall Global Services PMI, but showing similar weaknesses and renewed volatility.

Brazil Services PMI slipped  in 4Q 2019, falling from 51.8 in 3Q 2019 to 51.0. Statistically, this level of activity is consistent with zero growth conditions. In the last four quarters, Brazil's services sector activity ranged between a high of 52.3 and a low of 48.6, showing lack of sustained growth momentum in the sector.

Russia Services sector posted a surprising, and contrary to Manufacturing, robust rise from 52.0 in 3Q 2019 to 54.8 in 4Q 2019, reaching the highest level in three quarters. Statistically, the index has been in an expansion territory in every quarter starting with 2Q 2016. 4Q 2019 almost tied for the highest reading in 2019 overall, with 1Q 2019 marginally higher at 54.9. For 2019 overall, Services PMI averaged 53.3, which is below 2018 average of 54.6 with the difference being statistically significant.

China Services PMI ended 4Q 2019 at 52.4 quarter average, up on 51.7 in 3Q 2019. Nonetheless, 4Q 2019 reading was the second weakest in 8 consecutive quarters. The level of 4Q 2019 activity, however, was statistically above the 50.0 zero growth line. In 2019, China Services PMI averaged 52.5 - a slight deterioration on 53.1 average for 2018, signalling slower growth in the sector last year compared to 2018.

India Services PMI averaged 51.7 in 4Q 2019, statistically identical to 51.6 in 3Q 2019. Over the last 4 quarters, the index averaged 51.5, which is effectively identical to 51.6 average for 2018 as a whole. Both readings are barely above the statistical upper bound for 50.0 line, suggesting weak growth conditions, overall.

As the chart above indicates, BRIC Services PMI - based on global GDP weightings for BRIC countries - was indistinguishable from the Global Services PMI. Both averaged 52.2 in 2019, with BRIC services index slipping from 52.6 in 2018 and Global services index falling from 53.8 in 2018. On a quarterly basis, BRIC services PMI averaged 52.3 in 4Q 2019, compared to 51.7 in 3Q 2019 - both statistically significantly above 50.0; for Global Services PMI, comparable figures were 52.0 in 3Q and 51.6 in 4Q 2019, again showing statistically significant growth.