MOSCOW (Reuters) - Surprisingly optimistic figures from Russia's statistics agency have alarmed some investors, who say data on the Russian economy appears to have become less accurate and more biased toward good news during the country's long recession.
Some say the problem could now get worse, after President Vladimir Putin shifted oversight of statistics agency Rosstat to the economy ministry, which is charged with delivering 2 percent growth this year after two years of contraction.
Rosstat surprised economists by recording a gross domestic product (GDP) contraction of just 0.2 percent last year, much shallower than expected, and by revising the previous year's contraction to just 2.8 percent from an initial 3.7 percent.
It has also delayed many data releases since the start of the year, twice reporting industrial output on the weekend after switching to a new methodology.
In late March, Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin called the switch to the new methodology "extremely unsuccessful" and said Rosstat's data for January and February might have to be significantly revised.
Putin, who is expected to seek a fourth term in the Kremlin next year, responded by transferring responsibility for Rosstat to Oreshkin's ministry. Previously it reported to the government as a whole, not to a specific ministry, a status intended to safeguard its independence from political influence.
Rosstat's head Alexander Surinov said the connection with the economy ministry gave the agency the resources and clout to improve its data collection and would reduce the need for revisions.
"The ministry is a powerful player, therefore it's possible that with its help we will solve our problems," Surinov told a news conference earlier this month.
But one of his predecessors as Rosstat boss has said in the past that placing it under control of the economy ministry would expose it to greater risk of political interference.
"The entity which is the main user of our data, which compiles reports and forecasts, sees a very big temptation to steer statistics in the desired direction," former Rosstat head Vladimir Sokolin told Itogi magazine in an interview in 2009 when he left the agency after 11 years in charge.
One of Oreshkin's predecessors as economy minister also said earlier this month that the decision to change Rosstat's reporting line was likely to alter the results it publishes.
"The growth figure will depend on who Rosstat reports to," German Gref, who served as economy minister from 2000-2007 and is now chief executive of Russia's largest bank Sberbank (SBER.MM), told a conference in Moscow this month.
"This is the only thing that can seriously influence economic growth numbers as the rest is predetermined to a great extent."
Alexey Krivoshapko, a Moscow-based fund manager at Prosperity Capital Management, said Rosstat's data seemed to have become less reliable during the recession, which began after oil prices fell and Western countries imposed sanctions over Russia's interference in Ukraine in 2014.
"Our experience working with Rosstat data shows that as long as the economy is in growth mode, the numbers seem to add up as there is a lot of extrapolation in the system," he said.
"However in tricky years, such as 2015 and 2016, we clearly saw a mismatch in some of the data, like nominal wages and retail sales. It's not entirely clear if this is driven by methodological issues or by some political desire to make things look a bit better than they actually are."
He said the agency should use "more data from reliable third parties, like the tax service, state-owned banks, modern food retailers, and use them in addition to surveys and company statistics to improve understanding of the economic situation".
Russia is far from the only country where investors contend with a statistics agency that some of them may regard with suspicion: investors in China, India and elsewhere have long relied on alternative measures, such as freight shipment data or power generation, to develop their own assessments of growth.
But in Russia, little such alternative data is commonly available, making it difficult for investors to obtain an independent picture if they lose trust in Rosstat.
"If you doubt too much the quality of numbers that are being produced, how can you make a sensible investment decision? The simple rule is if you don't believe the numbers, don't invest," said Zsolt Papp, a portfolio manager at JPMorgan Asset Management in London.
Surinov, Rosstat's head, said the independence of Rosstat is guaranteed by law. But he also acknowledged once receiving a request from an unidentified "big boss" to massage the figures.
He quoted the official as saying: "It would be better if inflation was slightly lower than last year. Could you not give your bosses a present before New Year?"
Financial bodies like the International Monetary Fund have complained in the past that Rosstat is under-staffed and that some of its methods are out of date. That view was shared by several economists and former officials who spoke to Reuters.
"The inability of Russian statisticians to adequately monitor the dynamics of even the most basic indicators has long been talked about," said Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy central bank governor.
Rosstat tracks prices of more than 500 items in its consumer basket of goods and services. But these include some that seem out of date, like the cost of sending a 15-word telegram.
For many goods, no producer or brand is specified, allowing "room for creativity" in collecting the prices, said Olga Molyarenko, a lecturer at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
One former economy ministry official told Reuters that in the late 2000s, Rosstat used to measure cheese prices based on the output of a single factory.
When Rosstat reported zero inflation for cheese at a time when inflation was high in the rest of the economy, the official asked the statistics agency for an explanation. It turned out the factory was shut for renovation and had produced no cheese that month. Rosstat reported that prices were flat.
"This is a vivid example of what's going on at Rosstat," said the official, who asked that his name not be published.
For a graphic on recent Russian GDP revisions, click here
Additional reporting by Zlata Garasyuta in Moscow and Sujata Rao in London; Editing by Peter Graff