Russia's economy shrinks 2-4% despite Putin's positive spin

Kathrin Hille and John Thornhill in Moscow

Russia's economy contracted further in the first quarter triggering a 5 per cent slide in the rouble, a day after president Vladimir Putin sought to reassure the nation that the worst of the crisis was over.

Monthly statistics published on Friday showed that consumers turned even more bearish in March despite the currency's recent stabilisation, and economists estimated that gross domestic product was likely to have shrunk by between 2 and 4 per cent in the first quarter.

The figures came a day after Mr Putin spent the first hour of a marathon televised call-in show to reassure citizens over the state of the economy. "Nothing has failed and everything is working," he said. "We have passed the peak of our problems".

Alexey Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images

Members of Mr Putin's economic policy team have been talking up the economy for several weeks as the Russian currency has rebounded. "Overall, the situation is not bad," Arkady Dvorkovich, deputy prime minister, told the Financial Times this week.

The rouble lost more than half of its value against the dollar last year against the backdrop of intensifying international sanctions over Russia's intervention in Ukraine, and plummeting oil prices. It weakened to 51.68 to the dollar on Thursday, down 3.5 per cent on the day, but still up from 68 to the dollar at its low point in December.

Mr Dvorkovich said that while western sanctions were making it more difficult for Russian companies to raise external financing, they were adapting and cutting costs. The government, he said, expected GDP to fall by no more than 3 per cent this year and grow between 0.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent next year.

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Others paint a bleaker outlook. Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, told the FT last weekend that he expected GDP to drop 4 per cent this year and to continue contracting in 2016. His forecast is based on the assumption that investment will drop by up to 12 per cent and real incomes by up to 6 per cent this year.

"It is a fully pessimistic forecast. It is not a catastrophe. But it is a contraction and a recession," Mr Kudrin said.

In March, investment dropped 5.3 per cent compared with the same month last year. Industrial production contracted 0.6 per cent, sustained by the food and chemical industry's gaining market share after Russia restricted western imports.

But the main downward pressure comes from consumers, who helped sustain growth last year. In March, retail sales contracted 8.7 per cent. The official consumer sentiment index in the first quarter plummeted 14 percentage points compared with the previous quarter — its worst since the last financial crisis in early 2009.

This comes despite unemployment being far lower than during the last crisis. "Last time we started with about 7 per cent, and it went up to 9.5 per cent; this time we started with 5 per cent," Mr Dvorkovich said. "And we have the financial capacity to support people who need it."