Power struggle rages over Russia’s state statistics

A general view of a building of the Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) in Moscow. Russia's economy expanded for the first time in two years in the fourth quarter of 2016, data from the state statistics service showed. (AFP)
Updated 03 April 2017

Power struggle rages over Russia’s state statistics

MOSCOW: Reports that Russia’s Economy Ministry is set to take control of the national statistics agency has sparked fears that indicators crucial to monitoring the country’s economic woes could become skewed.

Data from the Rosstat state statistics agency has been key in measuring the extent of the country’s economic crisis, triggered three years ago by tumbling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine, and is thus key to forecasts about when recovery is possible.
With Russians worried about their shrinking purchasing power and a presidential election due next year, perceptions about the economy and its outlook are touchy topics.
Enter into this volatile mix a switch by Rosstat to new calculation methods that are in line with European standards, which has caused rampant confusion inside the agency that has resulted in it publishing reports late and issuing major corrections to its findings.
Widespread issues over the adoption of the new methodology have prompted the government to prepare to make Rosstat — which currently reports to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — answerable to the Economy Ministry in a bid to exercise more control over it, Russian media has reported.
The prime minister’s current oversight is mostly administrative, while the Economy Ministry is responsible for producing forecasts for the government based on Rosstat data.
Analysts fear that as the presidential polls approach Rosstat could come under pressure to produce statistics that would paint a rosy picture of the economy, much as in the Soviet era when authorities used statistics for propaganda purposes, boasting about exceeding production plans.
“This is a pre-election year and if the main socioeconomic indicators are bad, this would look like a lack of respect for the promises” President Vladimir Putin made during his 2012 campaign, said Igor Nikolayev, an analyst at FBK Grant Thornton, an auditing and consulting group.
“If growth reaches 2 percent, then we will say that the sanctions bothered us but all the indicators are now positive,” he added.
Some of Rosstat’s new calculations have proved encouraging for authorities. The agency revised upward its production indicator and calculated that the economy had contracted by only 2.8 percent in 2015 — instead of the 3.7 percent it had previously estimated.
It also said that the economy contracted by only 0.2 percent last year, instead of the 0.6 percent it had previously measured. These changes in Russia’s indicators have transformed the storyline of the country’s economic crisis. With the new figures, Russia’s government can proudly proclaim that the economy has shown unexpected resistance to the double shock of low oil prices and sanctions thanks to a boost to the industry from the weak ruble and dynamic small businesses.
Last month a low indicator for industrial production that was published behind schedule by Rosstat sent a jolt through the Economy Ministry.
Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin, who took on the position in November, said Rosstat’s transition to its new methodology had been “very unfortunate” and that he expected its figures to undergo “major revisions” while his ministry prepares to announce its forecasts.
In a 2013 report, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of leading economies praised Rosstat’s “high level of professionalism” while saying the agency should improve its methodology for calculating gross domestic product (GDP) and its compliance with international standards.
Former Deputy Economy Minister Alexei Vedev told TASS news agency that Rosstat’s rocky transition to its new methods was the result of resistance by the agency’s ageing staff and the inability to offer attractive wages to young economists.
Changing the supervision of the agency will not solve the problem, Vedev said.
“Our responsibilities will not change with our status,” the head of Rosstat, Alexander Surinov, told Vedomosti business daily, stressing that Russian legislation guarantees the agency’s “professional independence.”
Analysts, however, are skeptical that Rosstat will be able to steer clear of government influence. “The statistics agency must be as independent as possible,” Nikolayev said.
“I have no doubt that a change in leadership will affect Rosstat’s activities, and this will affect the reliability of statistics.”

‘The stock market, stupid’ — Trump’s claim is looking hollow 

Updated 29 October 2020

‘The stock market, stupid’ — Trump’s claim is looking hollow 

  • The timing of the Wall Street downturn is the worst possible for the incumbent, who has declared every new peak in the S&P as a personal victory throughout his presidency
  • The likes of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook are due to declare their earnings for the third quarter, and how those numbers are received could give the indices a boost

Before the US election of 1992, candidate Bill Clinton summed up what he saw as the reason he would become president: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He was proved right as voters disowned the economic policies of President George H.W. Bush in their droves to elect Clinton. 

Until the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage the US economy in March, President Donald Trump would have been able to make the same claim. For the four years of his presidency, the US economy had continued the progress initiated by his predecessor to recover from the 2009 global financial crisis.

By most measures — growth, employment, inflation — the Trump years had been good, and those on the top of the pile had even more reason to be grateful thanks to the big tax cuts he had made a flagship policy.

The pandemic changed all that in the space of a few weeks as lockdown measures shocked the economy. Jobless claims soared to all-time records, bankruptcies and closures affected large swathes of American business, and gross domestic product collapsed. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the American economy will shrink by 4.3 percent this year.

But Trump could still claim instead that “it’s the stock market, stupid” as a reason he could be re-elected. Mainly because of the trillions of dollars injected into the economy in the form of fiscal stimulus, US share indices had swum against the economic tide.

The S&P 500 index hit an all-time high in September, allowing Trump to boast that under his administration, investors and the millions of people whose livelihoods depended on the financial industry had never had it so good.

Now, it looks as though even that final claim is looking more fragile. For the past couple of days, US and European stock markets have gone into reverse as investors took fright at the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the re-imposition of economic lockdowns in many countries.

Trump might argue, with a little justification, that Wall Street is worried about the prospect of Joe Biden being elected president by the end of next week. Certainly the contender, by definition, is something of an unknown quantity in terms of economic policy.

He is also known to favor some policies — such as tighter regulation on environmental sectors, more spending on health care, and higher taxes for federal services and projects — that have traditionally been regarded as contrary to the philosophy of “free market” America.

In particular, the energy industry is worried about possible restrictions on shale oil and gas production that Biden and his “green” team are believed to favor. However, it should be pointed out that the Democratic candidate has specifically said he will not ban shale fracking, as some environmentalists want.

In any interesting side-story, the state of Texas — one of the biggest in terms of electoral college votes — would seem to have more to lose than any other if the energy scare stories about Biden were true. Yet the contest there between Democrats and Republicans is the closest it has been for decades, according to opinion polls.

The timing of the Wall Street downturn is the worst possible for the incumbent, who has declared every new peak in the S&P as a personal victory throughout his presidency and a sign of his deal-doing prowess. If even this claim is denied to him in the final week of campaigning, it would make the uphill battle against the polls even more difficult.

There is a chance that Big Tech might offer some relief. The likes of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook are due to declare their earnings for the third quarter, and how those numbers are received could give the indices a boost, given that they were the ones largely responsible for the big market gains earlier in the year.

But for Trump, any such respite might be too little, too late. It looks as though Wall Street and Main Street are finally catching up in their gloom, and there is nothing the president can do about it.