Russia Moving Into The Fastlane

One of the most reliable indicators of influence is access to cars. They are the standard symbol of affluence and middle-class status the world over. They are also far more understandable at the everyday level than things like the PPP GDP per capita, or the number of burgers your national McWage will buy.

Following on my last post, which focused on production, let’s now examine another indicator: The number of cars bought in any given year per 1,000 people.


As we can see from the graph above, Russians (22/1,000 as of 2012) are now buying more new cars per person than any other Central-East European country. Now, this is NOT to say that they are richer than the Czechs (18/1,000), or even the Poles (9/1,000) and Estonians (18/1,000). The latter countries’ markets are already substantially saturated and close to Western levels of auto ownership, while Russia still has some catching up to do; furthermore, they don’t have tariffs on imported second-hand cars, whereas Russia’s are quite substantial. It is also probably true that on average Czechs buy higher quality and more expensive cars than Russians. Nonetheless, the difference between Russia and countries like post-crisis Latvia (7/1,000) and Hungary (7/1,000) are now so wide that it’s hard to argue that the latter are still substantially more prosperous.


The difference is of a similar magnitude to today’s Greece (6/1,000), in the wake of its economic depression – and has also gained on other countries that were part of developed Europe but hard-hit by the crisis like Spain (17/1,000), Portugal (11/1,000), Ireland (20/1,000), and Italy (26/1,000). In a very real sense, the fact that ordinary Russians can now more readily afford relatively big-ticket items like automobiles than citizens of some countries long considered to be past of the developed world is quite a momentous affair. In fact, not only are they being overtaken by Russia, but by Brazilians (20/1,000) and the Chinese (14/1,000) too, even if the last BRICS member India (3/1,000) continues to be mediocre. That said, there is still a very considerable gap between Russia and the truly front-tier countries like Germany (41/1,000) and the US (47/1,000).

Russia Is Now An Internet Society

One of the most common arguments made to explain why Russians don’t finally overthrow the evil Putin in a bloody bunt is that they are brainwashed by the regime’s TV propaganda stations.

This isn’t actually very accurate at all. Russian TV isn’t any more propagandistic than in the West, and on some issues, less so; but that is for another time.

The more relevant issue that is presupposes that there few Russians have means of accessing the “free information on the Internet, which even Western propagandists acknowledge is not controlled in Russia. But today this is no longer actual, as revealed by this history of polls on Internet penetration from FOM.

As you can see, Internet penetration in Russia as of Spring 2012 went over the 50% mark. Those people can read all the Navalny, Snob and Echo of Moscow they want to.

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Russia Overtaking USSR, Converging With West, On Food, Housing Consumption

Just to hammer down the myth of Russian impoverishment one more time (with the help of graphs from Sergey Zhuravlev’s blog)…

In the past few years, in terms of basic necessities (food, clothing, housing) Russia has basically (re)converged to where the Soviet Union left off. Here is a graph of food consumption via Zhuravlev. At the bottom, the dark blue line is represents meat; the yellow, milk; the blue line, vegetables; the pink line, fish; the cyan line, fruits and berries; and azure line, sugar and sweets. At the top, the purple line are bread products, and the dark blue/green line are potatoes.

Meat consumption has essentially recovered to late Soviet levels, although it still lags considerably behind Poland, Germany, and other more prosperous carnivorous cultures. Milk fell and hasn’t recovered, but that is surely because it was displaced in part by fruit juices and soft drinks (which isn’t to say that’s a good thing – but not indicative of poverty either), and the fall in sugar consumption is surely a reflection of the near doubling of fruit consumption. We also see that bread and potato consumption peaked in the 1990’s, especially in the two periods of greatest crisis – the early 1990’s, and 1998. This is what we might expect of inferior goods like bread and potatoes.

There is a broadly similar story in housing construction. The chart left shows the annual area (in m2) constructed by 1,000 people. As we can see, after holding steady from the mid 1950’s to the late 1980’s, it more than halved by the late 1990’s; since then, however, construction has recovered almost to Soviet levels, the recent crisis barely making a dint.

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Russian Wages Are Fast Converging To Western Levels

Via The Economist, I’ve come across some fascinating research by Orley Ashenfelter and Stepan Jurajda (Comparing Real Wage Rates, 2012) showing how real wages can be meaningfully compared across different regions by taking notes on prices and wages in McDonald’s restaurants.

The methodology seems solid. Big Macs are a very standardized product, hence they are already used in the so-called Big Mac Index to assess international price differences (and whether currencies are undervalued or overvalued) and REAL wage rates (prices tend to be lower in poorer countries, mitigating the effects of lower nominal wages). By combining these two measures, you can derive the quantity of Big Mac a McDonald’s worker can buy through one hour of his labor (BMPH). This in turn is a good proxy for real median wages, i.e. the life of the average Joe and Ivan in comparative perspective. While we might not want to people to buy too many Big Macs it’s a positive thing if they can actually afford to.

The results for Russia are stunning, and no doubt go a very long way why Putin has retained 70% approval ratings since 2000. Russia’s BMPH increased by 152% (!) from 2000 to 2007, and a further 43% through to 2011, leaving all other economic regions in the dust, even despite a sharp recession in the latter period. The only major region with a comparable performance is China. In contrast, the BMPH has stagnated throughout the developed world since 2000; and Not So Shining India joined them from 2007.

[Read more…]

More Russians Vacationing Abroad

According to a recent Levada poll, more Russians are starting to go to fun places on vacation. The total numbers of those going to the Black Sea or the Far Abroad rises to 16% in 2012, compared with 9% in 2006, 5% in 2000, and 4% in 1997. The percentage of those saying they won’t vacation at all has halved from 31% in 1997 to 15% today. The biggest increase, albeit from a very low base, has been in the percentage of those saying they will go to the Far Abroad, which rose to 5%; the total for all foreign countries, including in the Near Abroad and Crimea, is 8%. This is still significantly below developed country levels like the US (20%) or the UK (34%) but again in this, as in cars, Internet penetration, and GDP per capita, convergence is undeniable.

  1997 2000 2003 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Dacha 23 25 27 22 21 22 24 25 24 24
Black Sea (Russia) 3 4 4 6 7 7 6 7 7 9
Crimea 1 2 1 1 2 2 2 2
Baltics <1 <1 <1 <1 1 1 <1 1 2 1
Other Russian place 7 5 5 6 6 5 5 4 5 6
Other ex-USSR place 1 2 1 3 1 2 2 3 2 1
Far Abroad 1 1 1 1 2 2 2 3 3 5
Remain at home 33 45 40 34 34 33 31 29 28 30
Won’t go on vacation 31 23 17 17 20 22 20 16 18 15
Not yet decided 10 6 8 11 11 15 13 18 14 15

Are Russians As Rich As Czechs?

In terms of new cars, they now are. According to 2011 statistics, Russians bought 17.6 new automobiles per 1000 people. This indicator is still quite a bit below most of Western Europe, such as Germany’s 38.5, France’s 33.4, Britain’s 31.9, Italy’s 30.1, and Spain’s 20.0. However, it has already overtaken most of East-Central Europe, whose figures are: Czech Republic 17.0, Slovakia 12.5, Estonia 11.7, Poland 7.2, Hungary and Ukraine both 4.5, Romania 3.7. Likewise, some countries that by the 1990’s came to be regarded as natural parts of affluent Europe are now behind Russia on this measure: Portugal 14.4, Greece 9.0.

Now this is just one example, and the market for one consumer durable good isn’t going to be perfectly reflective of the overall situation. The crises in the PIGS may be temporarily dissuading nervous consumers from making large purchases; another factor to consider is that their overall car fleets are bigger and newer than Russia’s, so there is not as much of an incentive to get new cars. And taking into account a much larger basket of goods, the World Bank estimates Russia’s GDP per capita (at PPP) to be $20,000, which is still considerably behind $25,000 in Portugal and the Czech Republic, and $32,000 in Spain.

What’s all the better is that the current improvements in Russia’s relative position are happening against the background of extremely benign debt dynamics; aggregate debt is only 74% of Russian GDP, compared to 184% in China, 280% in the US, and more than 300% in most of Europe. This leaves it with a great deal of fiscal and monetary wiggle room in the event of a renewed global crisis that is no longer available to the developed world or lauded emerging markets such as Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey, and Poland. While the affluence gap between Russia and the most developed nations remains large it is nonetheless being steadily and sustainably closed.