VTB Says Belarus Bound for Meltdown, Ruble Plunge, as Locals Hoard Fridges

Belarus is headed for an economic “meltdown” and the ruble will need to depreciate another 51 percent, VTB Capital said, as locals lay siege to shops and protest price increases after the central bank devalued the currency.

The Belarusian central bank let the managed ruble weaken by 36 percent versus the dollar on May 24 as demand for dollars and euros from importers and households threatened to derail an economy already laboring under a current-account deficit equal to 16 percent of gross domestic product. Russia and other former Soviet partners last week agreed to give Belarus a $3 billion loan and urged President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government to sell $7.5 billion of assets to replenish the state’s coffers.

“A ‘91-style meltdown is almost inevitable,’’ said Alexei Moiseev, chief economist at VTB Capital, the investment-banking arm of Russia’s second-largest lender, referring to the country’s economic slump after the collapse of the Soviet Union. ‘‘Rapid privatization is the only way that can help avert complete disaster.”

The International Monetary Fund urged Belarus to reform its economy in March, calling on Lukashenko to rein in “unsustainable” spending and for the central bank to increase benchmark interest rates to fight inflation.

Finance ministers from former Soviet nations agreed in Minsk on May 19 to give Belarus up to $3.5 billion over three years, with the first $800 million payment expected in the week after a separate meeting on June 4, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in Moscow yesterday.

Restrictions

The Nationalnyi Bank Respubliki Belarus set its official dollar-ruble rate at 4,931 for today’s trading, from 3,155 on May 23, according to its web site. Trading of foreign currency between companies, banks and individuals needs to stay within a 2 percent range of the daily rate, the regulator said May 23, when it announced the devaluation and reintroduced restrictions lifted on the interbank market on April 19 and for households on May 11.

Devaluing the currency will only worsen the situation for Belarus, VTB’s Moiseev said.

“The main problem is that the economy produces goods which consist of little else than a combination of imported spare parts,” he said. “So devaluation only makes things worse.”

Belarus’s economy effectively collapsed in 1991 as the disintegration of the Soviet Union eliminated natural markets for the country’s exports of farm machinery, textiles and agricultural products.

‘Market Socialism’

Lukashenko reintroduced controls on prices and the currency and re-nationalized some companies and infrastructure after coming to power in July, 1994, on a platform of “market socialism.” The nation’s economy returned to growth in 1996, according to World Bank data.

At the Minsk Refrigerator Plant Co. shop in the capital today, about 20 people queued in drizzling rain to use their rubles to buy fridges. While the shop didn’t open on the day of the devaluation, most of the models in the store already had ‘Sold Out’ stickers on their doors.

“I came on Saturday and it was a nightmare, the store was stormed by people who wanted to spend their rubles because of rumors about the devaluation,” said Nikolay, a 74-year-old pensioner who declined to provide his last name. His entire savings of 6 million rubles now buy one fridge compared with three before the devaluation, he said.

‘Obscenities’

The ruble traded at 5,019.75 per dollar at banks and currency kiosks around the country today, according to the median mid-price of six banks compiled by Bloomberg from the lenders’ websites. That’s 1.8 percent weaker than the official rate.

The devaluation lifted the local price of automobile fuels as much as 24 percent, according to Belneftekhim, an industry group for the country’s oil sector. Last night, about 50 people protested the price increase in the car park of a Minsk hypermarket.

“I can’t describe how I feel without using obscenities, this is all our government’s fault,” said Sergey, a 32-year old attending the protest who works for a computer importer. “The whole world tells them, guys, you have economic problems, you should do something, and all they did was live off getting more and more loans.”

IMF Bailout

Both the IMF and the EBRD have blamed Lukashenko’s spending before last year’s presidential election for much of the economy’s woes. Lending was increased by 38 percent last year and public-sector salaries rose by about 50 percent, the Washington-based IMF said in a March 9 report.

Belarus got a $3.5 billion bailout loan from the IMF during the global credit crisis and the country has more than $2 billion of ruble and dollar debt outstanding. Foreign-currency reserves hit a 1 1/2-year low in March.

“The ruble is probably still too strong, but devaluation hurts the average consumer through imported inflation and deteriorating purchasing power,” Sanna Kurronen, an economist in Helsinki at Danske Bank A/S, said by e-mail yesterday. “There is really no easy way out of this economic distress and the only way is to do a major reform in the country.”

The average monthly wage in Belarus was 1.6 million rubles in April, according to the government statistician. Converted into dollars, it fell to $325 after the May 24 devaluation, from $507 a day earlier, using central bank exchange rates.

Diapers

The price of children’s diapers has “gone completely insane” in Minsk, said Natalia, a 24-year-old mother also queuing outside the refrigerator store. “I used to buy a pack for 69,000 rubles, now they cost 140,000,” or almost half the 343,260-ruble monthly child benefit paid by the government, she said.

“We have become paupers,” said Tatiana, a 70-year-old woman in the line who also declined to give her last name. “We have been squeezed into a corner by this devaluation.”

Belarus’s dollar debt has been buoyed by news of the Russian loan, with the yield on the government’s debt due 2015 dropping four basis points to 9.881 percent by 6:35 p.m. in Minsk, the lowest since March 14. Dollar-denominated notes due 2018 yielded 10.38 percent, down six basis points.

The country has raised its refinancing rate twice since April 20 to 14 percent, the highest in Europe. The central bank also stopped selling foreign currency out of its reserves in March and will continue to stay out of currency markets, spokesman Anatoly Drozdov said by phone in Minsk yesterday.

Hyperinflation

Unless Belarus heeds Russia’s call for mass privatization of state assets, it is headed for “hyperinflation, massive un- and under-employment, and a shutdown of production,” VTB’s Moiseev said. The ruble will slide to 10,000 per dollar, he added.

Unemployment was 0.7 percent in December, according to government data. Inflation accelerated to 14 percent in March, the fastest since April 2009 and more than neighboring Russia’s 9.6 percent in April. Imports into Belarus exceeded exports by $7.3 billion at the end of 2009, according to the latest annual data available.

Russian media are creating a “flurry” of speculation about the nation’s asset sales so they can “make good at our expense,” Lukashenko said today in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, according to comments reported by state news agency Belta. “But we will not throw anything to anybody for nothing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Emma O’Brien in Moscow at eobrien6@bloomberg.net; Alex Kudrytski in Minsk, via the Moscow newsroom on .

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gavin Serkin at gserkin@bloomberg.net

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