Russia’s Economic “Stagnation” In Global Perspective

Иn the wake of the 2009 recession, declinist rhetoric has come to dominate discussion of Russia’s economic prospects. Jim O’Neill, the founder of the BRIC’s concept, has his work cut out defending Russia’s expulsion from the group in favor of IndonesiaMexico, or some other random middle-sized country. Journalists in the Western media claim its economy is “not growing”, as do liberal Russian newspapers such as Vedomosti. Comparisons between Putin and Brezhnev (who presided over the Soviet Union’s period of stagnation, or zastoi) are piling up. Even President Medvedev isn’t helping the situation, telling a forum of international businesspeople that Russia’s “slow growth” hides stagnation (good job promoting your country, DAM! not….).

I don’t want to exchange rhetorical barbs in this post (which you may note is not tagged as a “rant“), and my skills at mockery and picking apart tropes aren’t nearly as well developed as those of Mark Adomanis or Kremlin Stooge, so I’ll do what I do best and go straight to the statistics. And so we have Fact #1: what is described as stagnation for Russia is a growth rate of 4%. It grew 4.0% for 2010. It was 4.1% in Q1 2011, and the government predicts it will be 4.2% for the whole year. The World Bank predicts 4.4% in 2011, 4.0% in 2012; the OECD expects 4.9% in 2011 and 4.5% in 2012; and the IMF forecasts 4.8% in 2011, 4.5% in 2012, tapering off to less than 4.0% in the “medium-term.”

This does not strike me as being particularly bad by global standards. This is obviously no miracle economy of Chinese-like 10% growth rates, but Russia (4.4%; 4.0%) does not compare badly to the World Bank’s projected growth for other typical middle-income countries such as Turkey (4.1%; 4.3%), Thailand (3.2%; 4.2%), Brazil (4.4%; 4.3%), Mexico (3.6%; 3.8%), or South Africa (3.5%; 4.1%). Facing real stagnation, many countries in the developed world such as the UK could only wish for Russia’s growth rate; though this is an unfair comparison, because Russia is poorer and can therefore find it easier to grow faster (see economic convergence), it is not less unfair comparing Russia to countries such as India (8.4%; 8.7%) or Indonesia (6.2%; 6.5%) because the latter are so much poorer than Russia in their turn.

This discussion suggests that CONTEXT is vital when discussing the degree of stagnation in a country. One of the two major factors here is the current GDP of the country in question; real GDP, that is, because that is what growth refers to (i.e. if a country devalues its currency by half but output remains constant, then nominal GDP will fall by half but real GDP will remain constant; as such, real GDP per capita is also the better proxy for living standards and economic sophistication). Now there are two major estimates by international organizations of Russia’s real GDP. The IMF estimates it at $15,800 as of 2010, whereas the World Bank believes it is $19,800 (relying on recent joint research by OECD-Eurostat-Rosstat). There are grounds to believe that the latter is more accurate because the international price comparison data that goes into real GDP estimates is much more recent for the World Bank*. But regardless of which one you use, Russia’s GDP is still much higher than the other emerging markets or BRIC’s with which it is so frequently compared to – Brazil has $11,100, China has $7,500, Indonesia has $4,400, and India has $3,600.

This is extremely important for two reasons. First, it is much harder to grow quickly when you are already a mostly developed country (like Russia, Poland, Korea) than when you are a mid-level developing country (China, Brazil) or a poor developing country (India, Indonesia). The most important reasons are: (1) The potential to achieve rapid growth by transferring your population from rural agriculture to urban industry and services becomes exhausted; (2) the services sector, where productivity can’t be improved as fast as in industry, assumes a bigger share of GDP; (3) most importantly, those countries are far closer to the technological frontier or “best practice”, and hence must increasingly innovate their way to growth instead of reaping low-hanging fruit by adopting and copying from elsewhere. All this isn’t debatable – there is a ton of economic literature on this, it passes the common sense test, and it is basically a given.

Second, when your starting base is low, fast economic growth is far more necessary to achieve real improvements in living standards and catching up to the West. 5% growth in the US would be remarkable and unprecedented for decades. 5% growth in a country like Egypt, with a GDP per capita of $6,000, will not transform it into a developed or even mostly developed country for the foreseeable future. Not only that, but it will be significantly swallowed up by a population growing at nearly 2%. This is no different from the growth rates in most fiscally healthy developed nations and so in effect virtually no “catch up” happens whatsoever.

This brings us to a second point, the importance of accounting of adjusting for population growth. India’s 8% growth rate in the last decade seems remarkable, prompting talk of “Shining India” and how it is the next big superpower. But considering its very low starting base, and the fact that its population was growing by nearly 2% per year, and you have the far less impressive figure of 6% per capita growth. This is still respectable, but it is barely higher than (much wealthier) Russia, and probably doesn’t warrant the glowing accolades heaped on its “tiger” economy.

At this point, I think it will be a good idea to consolidate all these statistics into a single graph that illustrates the arguments. GDP figures are taken from the World Bank’s 2010 estimates (there is reason to believe China’s GDP is underestimated, hence it has two estimates). GDP growth refers to the mainstream consensus on how fast these countries will be growing in the medium term (e.g. Russia “stagnating” at 4% a year; China following in the historical footsteps of Korea; India growing at the realistically highest rates projected by its proponents; Brazil and Mexico continuing to conform to both their historical rates and medium-term predictions; etc). Population growth is subtracted from the GDP growth to give a per capita figure. The last column are the projected totals for 2020. Figures are rounded off.

2010 GDP /c GDP % gr. Pop % gr. 2020 GDP /c
Brazil $11,000 4% 1% $15,000
China (1) $7,500 8% 0.5% $16,000
China (2) $12,000 7.5% 0.5% $25,000
France $34,000 2% 0.5% $39,000
India $3,600 8.5% 1.5% $7,000
Indonesia $4,400 6.5% 1% $7,500
Korea $29,000 3% 0% $39,000
Mexico $15,000 3% 1% $18,000
Russia $20,000 4% 0% $30,000

The results, as you can see, are fairly stunning. A low population growth and relatively high base – Russia’s GDP per capita of $20,000 is equivalent to that of Poland, Hungary, and Estonia – means that as soon as 2020 Russia will be where Italy is today, with a GDP per capita of $31,500. Now granted Italy may have grown as well, but given its dismal record for the past decade and the growing financial tremors in the Eurozone even this is far from certain. In other words, even at “stagnant” growth rates of 4% per year Russia will have converged to the lower ranks of Western Europe’s rich countries (having overtaken Greece and Portugal outright).

But this isn’t that surprising when you consider that 4% is equivalent to the trend rate at which Korea has grown from 2003, when its GDP reached Russia’s today; the IMF predicts that by 2013, a decade later, it will hit $35,000.

(Excuse the minor digression from the main topic of this post, but the graph also convincingly demonstrates why my Sino Triumphalism is not misplaced. Even under fairly rosy assumptions for India, it will have have barely converged to China’s 2010 level in a decade’s time – and that assuming that China’s GDP isn’t underestimated. The real question isn’t why Russia isn’t growing as fast as China, but why is China growing so damn fast? See other posts for answers).

Now what about unexpected downsides? Objectively, Russia has solid macro fundamentals – far better than the over-indebted, over-leveraged Western economies (with the partial exceptions of Canada and Scandinavia). This is a trait it shares with the other BRIC’s and many other emerging markets in what is truly an amazing and perhaps unprecedented reversal of places in the last decade. This isn’t grounds for complacency – the 2009 recession is argument enough for that.

Nonetheless, the main facts remain intact: (1) It is growing from a relatively high base; (2) In an environment of approximately zero population growth; (3) The strength of state finances preclude any fundamental economic cataclysm as happened/is happening in Ireland, Greece, Latvia, etc. Taking into account these adjustments, a growth rate of 4% is entirely respectable and better than many if not most countries in the same general income bracket.

* Those interested in the details can read here and here.

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.Ru (Российская экономическая «стагнация» в глобальной перспективе).

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