Russia’s growth prospects remain modest, forecast at between 1.5% and 1.8% for the period 2018-20, says the World Bank’s latest Russia Economic Report (#40 in the series). Growth momentum increased in the first half of 2018, supported by robust global growth, rising oil prices and a macro policy framework that has promoted stability.
Preliminary estimates suggest, however, that growth appears to have weakened to 1.3% (year-on-year) in the third quarter of 2018, following a weak harvest, sluggish performances in manufacturing and construction, and the waning effects of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Driven by a rebound in real wages and disposable incomes, the number of poor people in Russia decreased by 1.1 million in the first half of 2018. However, the poverty rate remains over 13% and is projected to average 12% over the next three years – still above its pre-crisis rate of 10.8% in 2013.
“Russia’s goal of halving poverty to 6.6% by 2024 could be achieved, even under a modest annual growth scenario of 1.5%, by additional redistribution of about 0.4% of GDP annually through social assistance and transfers,” says Andras Horvai, World Bank Country Director and Resident Representative for Russia. “This assumes a significant improvement in coverage of the poor compared to the current social assistance system, and would be in line with other countries. Some of these additional funds could be replaced by savings through efficiency improvements in the current system.”
Monetary policy remained consistent with the inflation-targeting regime in 2018. Although inflation has been increasing since July, it stayed below the Central Bank of Russia’s target level of 4% in annual terms, with non-food products contributing the most to headline inflation. Inflationary risks stem from the value-added-tax (VAT) rate increase, a higher-than-expected rise in gasoline prices, a closing of the output gap, elevated inflation expectations and heightened external volatility.
In September, after a prolonged period of monetary loosening, the Central Bank hiked the policy rate from 7.25% to 7.5%, in the face of elevated inflationary risks, ruble depreciation prompted by elevated geopolitical tensions and turbulence in emerging markets, and the planned hike in the VAT rate.
Russia’s banking sector remains relatively weak with less of a capital buffer and a higher Non-Performing-Loans ratio than other BRICS countries. At the same time, public dominance in the banking sector increased even further: five large banks control 60% of the system’s assets – up from 52% at the end of 2013.
Furthermore, state-owned entities account for nearly 70% of Russian bank assets. As a result, private and smaller banks find it more difficult to compete, as public banks often enjoy preferential access to government programs, clients, cheaper funding and large distribution networks. As such, increasing competition in the financial sector is one of the priorities of the Central Bank’s financial sector development strategy for 2018-2021.
The fiscal balance improved at all levels of the budget system. Improvement in the fiscal stance was due to higher oil prices, combined with a weaker ruble, a better tax administration and a conservative fiscal policy. However, while the funding of the “May Decree” goals puts an impetus on revenue mobilization, it also increases fiscal risks, which, given Russia’s low public debt levels and manageable financing needs, are currently contained.
A potential sudden tightening of global financial conditions could negatively affect growth in Russia by pressuring the financial account and exchange rate, translating into higher inflation and lower domestic demand. And, with increasing downside risks from rising trade tensions, global growth could be affected, including in Russia’s main trading partners. As such, maintaining stability will continue to be an important aspect of Russia’s economic policy framework.
Taking a long-term perspective, various government initiatives could double Russia’s potential growth rate to 3% by 2028. The report concludes that the three-pronged approach of maintaining stability, doubling growth, and halving poverty can be achieved in Russia.
“Maintaining stability will require a high level of skill to navigate an increasingly uncertain external environment. Doubling growth will require, in addition to expanding the labor force through increasing the retirement age, the implementation of reforms that would increase inward migration, boost investment, and increase productivity growth,” says Apurva Sanghi, World Bank Lead Economist for Russia, and main author of the report. “Increasing competition and targeted interventions in human capital that specifically give people the skills of the 21st century would help boost productivity growth.”