First, as we know Russia is (in)famous for the opulence of it oligarchy. But according to the research firm Wealth-X, despite a relatively high number of billionaires, its overall share of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNW) is far more modest as you can see in the table below. As a percentage of GDP (caveat: this is comparing apples and oranges, but still instructive since national wealth is correlated to yearly output), the wealth of the Russian UHNW’s is equal to 43% of a 1.5tn GDP in 2010 (as compared with 28% in China, 43% in Brazil, 44% in the US, and 55% in India).
So, same picture as with income inequality – as I’ve noted before on this blog, Russia’s levels of inequality are in fact quite modest by world standards – with a Gini index of about 40, it is higher than most European countries (25-35) but lower than the US and China (45) and most Latin American countries (50+).
Now what’s really distinctive about Russia’s ultra-rich is that billionaires comprise a high percentage of all UHNW individuals – some 7% of them, as opposed to about 1% in the other countries; and those same billionaires control 84% of that group’s total wealth, as opposed to 33% in Brazil and China, 25% in the US, and 20% in India.
Is Russia’s concentration of wealth at the very top of the top good or bad? It’s hard to say. It ultimately depends on your view of the merits of the upper middle class and their values. If you believe it reinforces social stability and creates economic dynamism, then this is a weakness. If on the other hand restricting the emergence of a class system and enhancing state power are held to be important, then Russia’s structure is better (after all, it’s easier to influence 100 odd billionaires than keep track of thousands of multimillionaires).
One interesting (and puzzling?) thing I’ve noticed is that Sweden seems to have a similar structure of wealth ownership. This country of 9 million has 10 billionaires – that is almost as many as France (12) or Italy (13), whose populations are six or seven times bigger, and almost as many per capita as the United States. Considering that it’s one of the most equal countries in the world, this leaves very little room for the millionaire class (which I guess makes sense on account of its high income tax rates).
Second, I was trolling Forbes’ list of Russia billionaires for 2011 and counted up the wealth of those known to be friends of Putin (Gennady Timchenko of Gunvor, oil transport and Yury Kovalchuk, banking – through the Ozero dacha coop; and Arkady Rotenberg, of construction, inc. of the controversial Khimki route – through judo). It came up to around $8.1 billion of the total $432.7 billion.
That is a very comfortable sum, of course, but doesn’t really support the oft peddled line that friends of Putin are corruptly buying up most of the Russian economy. Little doubt that Timchenko et al. got by some or most of their wealth “unfairly” (and I assume they’ll be expected to return some of the favors to Putin & Co. once they retire) but that’s just really existing capitalism most places in the world for you.
* Kudos to those who got the Pelevin reference.