COVID-19 continues to upturn our lives and disrupt economic activity across the world. The World Bank estimates that well over 100 million people would be pushed into extreme poverty by the end of this year alone. Global food insecurity is on the rise, and the pandemic is expected to leave long-term scars, world over. How has Russia’s economy fared in the global “pandemic-onium”? What about jobs, food prices, and poverty?
First, the economy. In our most recent World Bank Russia Economic Report, we examine how Russia’s GDP fell by 3% in 2020 compared to larger contractions of 3.8% in the world economy, 5.4% in advanced economies and 4.8% in most commodity-exporting economies. Several factors helped Russia perform relatively better. Well-known ones are Russia’s sizeable fiscal buffers and supportive monetary policy. This allowed for a substantial countercyclical fiscal response (about 4.5 percent of GDP, on par with benchmark countries). Lesser-known factors, perhaps, are a relatively small services sector and a large public sector that buffered against unemployment.
Russia’s pre-pandemic advances in digitization also paid off and enabled Russian society to operate reasonably effectively during lockdowns. And closer and growing ties to a relatively fast-growing China, stabilization in new COVID-19 cases, loosening of OPEC+ production cuts - all helped. Indeed, the economic recovery is gathering pace -- and with all the caveats of uncertainty around the evolution of the pandemic - we now project Russia’s GDP to grow at 3.2% in 2021 and 2022.
Second, when it comes to jobs, although employment remains below pre-pandemic levels, the labor market is improving. The unemployment rate in March 2021 was 5.4%, down from 6.4% in last August. Interestingly, most jobs were created in the informal sector: about 828,000 in the 2nd half of 2020. Job losses have not been the same across economic activities. Total losses of 1.78 million jobs were concentrated in four sectors: manufacturing, construction, retail and hospitality, and health/social services.
Job losses in manufacturing, construction, and retail and hospitality can be explained by the lockdown measures and the difficulty of tele-work in these sectors. However, the fall of employment in health and social services during a pandemic, is more difficult to explain. It could be because of increased mental and physical fatigue of health workers, increased infections in this segment of the workforce, or the fall in employment in social care facilities (including the private ones), which were hit by the pandemic.
Third, turning to food prices, both cyclical and structural factors are behind the rise for items such as sugar and eggs. Higher global demand, global supply disruptions due to bad weather, and lower domestic harvest such as for sugar crops and oilseeds, along with the sizeable ruble depreciation last year, have contributed to this rise. Structural factors stem from the 2014 food embargo, which reduced competition in the domestic market, as domestic production has been unable to respond fully to demand.
At the same time, short-term (cyclical) policy responses to rising food prices have been geared towards export restrictions such as bans, quotas, tariffs, and price caps and subsidies. While politically attractive, and administratively easily implementable, these measures are economically distortive. A recent Higher School of Economics study found that consumer losses amounted to 2000 rubles per Russian citizens, each year, with the beneficiaries being Russian producers and non-sanctioned importers, such as Belarus. Moreover, it is the low-income families and poor who are disproportionately affected by food price increases, as they spend nearly half of their income on food. Therefore, a better approach to help those most affected by food insecurity would be to improve the targeting of Russia’s social safety nets in order to reduce food insecurity and poverty.
Finally, this brings us to poverty.
Russia has admirably contained additional spikes in the COVID-19 induced poverty rate. This success, in large part, is due to various compensatory social policies, such as the increase in unemployment benefits, child allowances, and support to single parent families. With the economic recovery now gathering pace, and assuming effective implementation of announced policies, we forecast Russia’s poverty rate by end-year 2021 to decline to 11.4 from the pre-pandemic poverty rate of 12.3%. However, double-digit poverty remains stubbornly high, and strong growth will play an important role in achieving Russia’s goal of halving it by 2030.
That being said, we believe that growth will not be enough – it will need to be complemented by a social safety net system that is more scalable and inclusive (the current welfare system transfers around only 10% of the total social assistance budget to the poor). Successful implementation of Russia’s strategic directive (Послание Президента Федеральному Собранию) will also require a safety net capable of addressing the complex financial, health, labor market and long-term care needs of the poor and vulnerable.
A concrete example of how a scalable and inclusive safety net could be weaved is through a national program, which aids people who fall below the poverty threshold. They would be provided with an income-gap-filling payment combined with incentives to graduate them out of poverty through labor activation support. With many caveats, such as excellent targeting, we estimate the lower-bound cost of such a program to be around 0.3% of GDP. As Russian policymakers tackle the goal of halving poverty, at least based on our analysis, accomplishing this laudable goal is within reach.