MOSCOW — Despite the Russian central bank’s extraordinary move to defend the currency, the ruble’s value continued to slide on Tuesday, presenting President Vladimir V. Putin with an acute set of political and economic challenges.
Scenes that Russians hoped had receded into the past reappeared on the streets. Currency exchange signs blinked ever-changing digits. Russians rushed to appliance stores to buy washing machines or televisions to unload rubles. Unsure of prices, car dealerships like Volvo in Russia halted business, while Apple stopped online sales in the country.
After a middle-of-the night interest rate hike, a sense of economic chaos settled over the Russian capital. The ruble was in free fall, dropping under 80 rubles to the dollar, after opening the day at 64 to the dollar.
“We are seeing an economic crisis,” Natalia V. Akindinova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said in a telephone interview. “We are seeing a sharp devaluation of the ruble at a time when the central bank doesn’t have the reserves to influence the market, as it did in the past crises.”
The Russian economy is getting battered by the painful combination of Western sanctions and low oil prices. The country is expected to fall into a recession next year.
Global investors are increasingly concerned that tumult in Russia might not be isolated. Many emerging markets like Venezuela and Nigeria are dependent on their energy exports, which are being hurt by the deep and sustained decline in oil prices. Oil is now trading at around $55 a barrel, compared to more than $100 a barrel this summer.
Emerging markets are also under pressure as the Federal Reserve in the United States shifts strategy. Some countries like Turkey and South Africa have depended heavily on external financing to aid their growth. They have been hurt by expectations that the Fed would raise rates.
“There is country-specific risk for Russia that’s not going to go away,” said Phyllis Papadavid, a foreign exchange strategist at BNP Paribas in London. “But there’s a larger story.”
In Russia, investors are growing increasingly worried that the Kremlin has in effect decided to print money to address a growing debt problem. Traders are also raising concern that the cronyism and opaque insider dealings that have plagued business here have now spread to monetary policy.
According to analysts, the ruble’s fall on Monday was sparked by word of an opaque deal involving the central bank and the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft. The well-connected business executive running the company, Igor I. Sechin, a longtime associate of Mr. Putin, had apparently persuaded the central bank to effectively issue billions of new rubles to his company to help cover debts.
The governor of the central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, speaking on Russian television, said the interest rate decision had been made to stanch the fall of the ruble. In its moves, the Russian central bank also increased allotments of dollars to the Russian banking system to finance the purchase of rubles as part of the effort to stabilize the currency.
“We have to learn to live in a different zone, to orient ourselves more toward our own sources of financing,” she said. In her televised remarks, Ms. Nabiullina said Russia would not resort to capital controls to stem the ruble’s fall.
But traders have long fretted that Ms. Nabiullina, a former economy minister, lacked the political spine to stand up to Mr. Putin or his longtime allies like Mr. Sechin. And yet, though the absence of any credible independence by the central bank is at the heart of the ruble crisis today, it is unclear any figure in Russia could provide it given the ever more authoritarian nature of Mr. Putin’s rule.
Aleksei L. Kudrin, a former finance minister, wrote on Twitter that “the fall of the ruble and the stock market is not just a reaction to the low price of oil and to sanctions, but also due to a lack of confidence in the government’s economic policy.”
In the oil boom years, the government of Mr. Putin assumed an ever-larger role in the economy. Longtime associates of Mr. Putin’s from his hometown, St. Petersburg, or from his years in the Soviet KGB intelligence agency took the helms of huge new state-owned enterprises. All the while, the central bank and a liberal wing of economic policy advisers kept aloof from this politically driven divvying up of assets.
Now, market sentiment is shifting. A continued fall in the value of the ruble could present Mr. Putin with difficult choices and could make it more difficult to sustain the political support he has enjoyed at home even as his relations with the West have frayed.
He faces a particularly delicate dance with Russian companies, which are under significant financing strains. Russian corporations and banks are scheduled to repay $30 billion in foreign loans this month.
And next year, about $130 billion will be due. There is no obvious source for these hard currency payments other than the central bank, whose credibility is now being called into question.
Rosneft, for example, had been clamoring for months for a government bailout to refinance debt the company ran up while making acquisitions when oil prices were high. Because of sanctions, those loans cannot be rolled over with Western banks. Debt payments are coming due later this month.
Relying only on the company’s own cash reserves would disrupt oil development projects that Russia is relying on for future revenue. With the oil giant in a bind, the central bank ruled that it would accept Rosneft bonds held by commercial banks as collateral for loans.
Rosneft issued 625 billion rubles about $10.9 billion at the exchange rate at the time, in new bonds on Friday. The identities of the buyers were not publicly disclosed, but analysts say that large state banks bought the issue.
When these banks deposit the bonds with the central bank in exchange for loans, Rosneft will have been financed, in effect, with an emission of rubles from the central bank. The deal roiled the ruble on Monday, according to analysts.
The reason for Monday’s currency crash is “well known,” Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now in the political opposition, wrote on his Facebook page. “The central bank started the printing press to help the Sechin-Putin business, and gave Rosneft 625 billion newly printed rubles. The money immediately appeared on the currency market, and the rate collapsed.” Rosneft, in a statement, denied it had exchanged funds raised from the bonds for hard currency.
“This is a result of aggression and insanity in foreign policy, which led to sanctions,” Mr. Nemtsov wrote of the ruble’s collapse.
Source: the newyorktimes, 16 dec 2014