Survey: World's Richest Expats Live in Russia

Forget the American dream. If you want to make money in a foreign country, the place to go is Russia, which a new survey found to be home to the "wealthiest expats in the world."

A third of all expats in Russia — the highest proportion in the world — make more than $250,000 per year, with almost half reporting an income of $200,000 per year or more, according to a survey commissioned by HSBC Bank International.

The survey, released last week, examined the financial circumstances of 3,100 expats living in 26 different countries. It based its rankings on a series of interrelated factors, such as annual income, disposable income, savings and money spent on luxuries.

By any standard — and especially given the crisis-fraught times — Russia's expats live well, the survey said.

Almost 60 percent say they have $4,000 or more every month in disposable income, the second-highest proportion in the world, while 70 percent earn enough to be able to employ at least one person as domestic staff, significantly higher than the global average of 48 percent.

When comparing their lives in Russia with their lifestyles back home, 97 percent say they have more disposable income here, while the same number said they were saving and investing more money than they did when they lived in their home country.

Not surprisingly, while almost three-quarters of expats in Russia said the crisis had affected their spending habits, an overwhelming majority — 83 percent — said they were staying put and not considering a move home.

Recruitment specialists said the numbers did not surprise them, even with a financial crisis that has seen both top executives and rank-and-filers take substantial pay cuts.

"There is a massive lack of competition here in Russia in nearly every sector," said Luc Jones, a partner at the Antal recruiting agency. "Back home, it's much harder to differentiate yourself, while here you can stand out."

High salaries could also be a consequence of the market rather than one's status as a foreigner. There is little difference in compensation between expat and Russian executives, Jones said.

And while the crisis might have thinned the ranks, executives will command high salaries regardless of the economic picture, he said.

"If somebody's doing a good job, they will still be here on the same package, bottom line," Jones said.

Moscow's expats had a mixed reaction to the survey, from nonchalance to anger to confusion.

"Why do you think I'm here?" said one American banker. "I would probably do okay back home but not this well."

He said there was "still plenty of money being made" by expat investment bankers despite the crisis. "Of course, it's not like it was before, but if you've established connections in Russia it's a much better place to sit this thing out than anywhere else."

Others, however, railed against what they saw as untalented executives reaping unjust rewards.

While there was a need to pay out big salaries to attract certain types of experts that Russia lacked, like those with experience in international law or GAAP accounting, most foreign hires were overpaid, said one American, who has been working as a senior executive at a Russian company for more than five years. "I have no idea what these idiots do besides live high on the hog and drive up real estate prices for honest guys like me," he said. "They can't do that well at home, and they add no value here because they don't understand the market or the clients."

Other expats cast doubt on the survey's methodology.

"I don't think it's true," said Peter Spinella, 26, an English teacher from the United States. "Everyone I know here is hustling, teaching English, doing editing and translation work. Maybe they just didn't talk to the right people?"