Standard Deviations: How An IMF Forecast For Russia Kicked Up A Storm

For more than a year now, Russia's economy has been pummeled by a series of Western sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

So when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted the economy would in fact grow in 2023 -- a meager 0.3 percent, but growth nonetheless -- the Washington-based lender raised eyebrows among Russia watchers and economists.

For some, the conclusion suggested something troubling: a whitewash, or a willing parroting of Russian statistics whose credibility was already in question.

The controversy comes as Russia's invasion of Ukraine nears its 14th month and its economy, ranked 11th in the world in 2021, lurches into a new model.

As before, the new evolving model will still be fueled by oil and gas -- but at the same time, it will be hampered by dwindling human capital as younger workers flee the country and a growing proportion of the workforce is killed or maimed in battle.

And the new model is now one dominated by state companies, even more reliant on revenues from oil and gas -- increasingly sold at a discount to China and India -- and largely isolated from the international financial system.

Also accompanying that shift is a subtle move away from Western measures that Moscow had embraced for years, including accounting standards and transparent releases of data sets and statistics used by economists, investors, and market watchers to guide decisions.

"It's like North Korea, they don’t release their data either," Oleg Korenok, a professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"Now everyone is just guessing," he said.

A Bad Year. But Not That Bad.

By a wide margin, the consensus on Russia's economy in 2022 was this: It was a bad year, but it could have been worse.

Western policymakers had hoped sanctions would grind the economy to a halt and force the Kremlin to change its decisions regarding Ukraine.

That didn’t happen. Russia's economy proved more resilient than many Western experts expected or hoped.

Part of that was due to continued exports of oil and gas to the West at or near record-high prices, and customers in other parts of the world. Part of that was due to years of conservative fiscal policies, which had stuffed Russia's sovereign-wealth coffers full of reserves, to buffer against foreign economic shocks. Part of that was also some of the investment that Russian businesses made to find new supply chains away from Western markets: new port facilities, new railroads, new pipeline facilities.

In the weeks after the IMF's forecast was released in January, commentators jumped on its findings, alleging that they were implausible, wrong, or something more nefarious.

The Russian Central Bank's own survey of economists forecast a 1.5 percent fall in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2023.

In an article published on February 10 under the headline "The IMF's Outlook On Russia Is Too Rosy To Be True," Reuters columnist Pierre Briancon argued that the IMF's forecast may have been based on misguided assumptions about world oil prices and a Western-imposed price cap on Russian oil.

Set at $60 a barrel, that cap is imposed on seaborne Russian oil. That means that customers who want to buy Russian oil have to pay that price, or less, if they want oil shipped via companies, or covered by insurers, based in the European Union or other countries that agreed to the cap.

A month later, Yale University professor Jeffrey Sonnenfield took the criticism further.

"Far from serving as the independent arbiter of the statistical underpinnings of global economic activity, the IMF has been asleep at the switch," he said in a column published on March 6. "With respect to Russia, it is naively echoing Putin's own invented GDP forecasts, in effect, canonizing and legitimating these economic myths with no verification -- in fact, no independent analysis at all."

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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