The real GDP growth in Russia surpassed expectations in 2018, reaching 2.3 percent, mostly due to the one-off effects of energy construction. Growth forecasts of 1.2 percent in 2019 and 1.8 percent in both 2020 and 2021 reflect a more modest outlook, in line with Russia's current potential growth of about 1.5 percent, says the World Bank's latest Russia Economic Report.
In the first quarter of 2019, GDP growth slowed for several reasons, including a VAT rate increase, relatively tight monetary policy, a high base from the previous year, and a slowdown in oil production.
High levels of international reserves, low external debt, and a flexible exchange rate regime helped Russia limit exposure to external volatility and absorb external shocks. A new fiscal rule, which ushered in a stronger non-oil/gas current account, also strengthened Russia's external position.
However, difficult external financial conditions for emerging markets and elevated geopolitical tensions increased net capital outflows to US$ 67.8 billion (about 4.1 percent of GDP) in 2018 and led to a depreciation of the real effective exchange rate of 7.7 percent.
Higher oil prices, combined with a weaker ruble, better tax administration, and a conservative fiscal policy further improved fiscal balances at all levels of the budget system in 2018. The general, federal, and regional governments registered surpluses of 2.9, 2.6, and 0.5 percent of GDP, respectively.
"Russia's macro-fiscal buffers remain strong, with low public and external debt levels, and fiscal surpluses across all tiers of government," said Apurva Sanghi, World Bank Lead Economist for Russia, and main author of the report. "This stands in contrast to high and rising public debt levels and narrowing fiscal space in most emerging markets and developing economies."
Despite recent bailouts, Russia's banking sector remains relatively weak, with a lower capital adequacy ratio (12.2 percent as of April 2019) and a higher ratio of non-performing loans (10.4 percent) than in other emerging markets. The banking sector remains afflicted with high concentration and state dominance. As of April 1, 2019, the top five banks generated 57 percent of all banking sector profits, and state-owned banks accounted for 62 percent of all banking assets.
Unemployment declined further in the first quarter of 2019, to 4.8 percent. The poverty rate also declined slightly, from 13.3 percent in 2017 to 12.9 percent in 2018. This reduction was driven by growth in the main sources of income, wages and pensions.
Downside risks to Russia's medium-term growth outlook stem from the potential expansion of economic sanctions renewed financial turmoil in emerging markets and developing economies, a souring global trade environment, and a dramatic drop in oil prices. On the upside, national projects aimed at strengthening human capital and increasing productivity, if well-implemented, could positively affect Russia's potential growth in the medium-term.
"When compared to advanced economies, Russia spends less on health and education," said Andras Horvai, World Bank Country Director for Russia. "The national projects, which would increase expenditures for education by about 0.1 percent of GDP per year, and for health by 0.2 to 0.3 percent of GDP per year, would help reduce the gap."
The Special Topic of the report examines informal employment in Russia and outlines possible measures to address the lack of formal employment. The share of informal employment, a pervasive phenomenon in Russia, is estimated to range between 15.1 and 21.2 percent. And the fiscal loss of underpayment by informal workers is estimated at between 1 and 2.3 percent of GDP.
The report suggests a three-pronged policy approach that would lead to more flexible labour legislation in certain areas, backed by more effective enforcement; a stronger safety net with better unemployment benefits; and a more mobile workforce. However, systemic solutions to reduce informality will require broader policies, especially the faster creation of more formal-sector jobs.