Can a slowing economy still rack up big budget surpluses? Russia says yes.
With oil prices easing, Russia is growing at less than half last year’s rate. First-quarter growth in gross domestic product is around 3 or 4 percent; it was over 8 percent a year ago. But federal revenues are up, and federal spending, except for interest payments, is down.
Even when interest is factored in, the federal government this year is still running a surplus, and a huge one. Through April, the treasury took in about $4 billion more than it spent. That is about 4.4 percent of GDP. A comparable surplus in the United States would be about $450 billion a year.
The federal tax bite has risen in just one year from 14 percent to 17 percent of GDP. (The comparable number in the United States is about 20.5 percent, including Social Security). Nontax receipts add another point to the government’s take.
And because the whole economy has grown, the boost to the budget is greater still. Adjusted for inflation, the treasury is taking in five rubles for every four it received a year ago.
Data on individual taxes has not been released, but it is clear that Russia’s switch last year from a highly bracketed and widely evaded progressive income tax to a 13 percent flat rate has not hurt tax collection.
Federal spending is flat at around 13 percent of GDP (the U.S. figure is 18.3 percent). But debt service, especially interest on the foreign debt, is up over 60 percent from a year ago, while other spending is down. Despite the war in Chechnya and the drive for military reform, spending on the “power ministries” of defense, interior and the Federal Security Service has dropped from 5 percent to 4 percent of GDP. Revenue-sharing, however, is up. Federal subsidies to subfederal governments more than doubled to over 3 percent of GDP–clear evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s drive to shift power from the regions to the Kremlin.
Of course every silver lining has a cloud. High world prices for oil and gas, not improved productivity or more real goods, account for last year’s surge in economic growth. That kind of price-based growth can fuel inflation–and consumer prices are already up about 25 percent in the past twelve months. Holding government money back is one way of taking cash out of the economy and slowing inflationary trends. So members of the economic team have hardened their hearts. Despite the many claims on government revenues–for pensions, for military pay, for health care, for education, for infrastructure–idle treasury accounts have risen to $2 billion and are likely to rise some more. There’s no tax-cut fervor or spending fever in Moscow now.