Russia Changes Economic Reporting. The Results Improve.

MOSCOW — The Russian state statistics service has halted its monthly reports on the population’s real income, or income adjusted for inflation, after years of declining numbers suggested a fall in Russian’s standard of living.

Economists were already keeping a wary eye on the service, known as Rosstat, after the appointment of a new director in December, just days after President Vladimir V. Putin criticized what he called the poor quality of state statistics.

A flurry of new, optimistic economic data followed. The new director, Pavel Malkov, revised figures for the gross domestic product in past years to show, for example, that 2016 was not actually a recession year in Russia, but that it showed modest growth.

Last month, the agency released its estimate for 2018 growth showing the best economic results in six years: an expansion of 2.3 percent, well above the consensus of independent analysts of 1.7 percent. Even economists at Russian state banks were skeptical. The service attributed much of the unexpected growth to a fortuitous burst of construction in December.

“There were a number of surprises from Rosstat,” Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist for BCS Global Markets, said in a telephone interview. The revisions and better-than-consensus reports “cast doubt on whether this is a purely statistical event, or a dressing-up of statistics to show a slightly better picture.”

Rosstat has stood by the 2018 number but said it incorrectly listed construction data from previous months in December, and that it will revise past reports.

Still, state institutions are expected to toe the political line on a range of topics. State media, for example, have for years broadcast a uniformly rosy view of their government. A state radio station once introduced a rule that the final item in every news bulletin be positive; that might be the weather, if the weather were sunny.

The halting of monthly updates on what Russians take home in paychecks or pensions, first reported by Reuters, comes as the latest hint of the massaging of statistics.

Wages in Russia, as elsewhere, are politically sensitive. Mr. Putin has formalized in presidential decrees, most recently in 2018, a promise to raise incomes — measured by the very statistic that will no longer be published monthly.

Real incomes declined every year since 2014, though 2018 would have shown a minuscule increase if not for a one-off bonus paid to retirees the previous year. On Wednesday, the service published its first monthly report without real income data.

Igor Vagan, a spokesman for the statistics agency, denied any political motivation for the change in methodology. It has proposed publishing income data quarterly or yearly.

“Our goal is to provide accurate information, not preliminary information,” Mr. Vagan said. A month was too short a time to sample income trends in Russia, he said, an argument that some outside economists also supported at a public hearing about the change on Tuesday.

The statistics service had not overhauled its model for estimating income since 1996, Mr. Vagan said, and it was not accurately measuring income for employees of small businesses that do not report on a monthly basis. “We just measure the economy,” he said, “using the best instruments and methods.”

Source: The Newyork Times


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