Russia Seen Spending Further $70 Billion to Fight Ruble Rout

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Ruble's Freefall
Pedestrians pass a neon sign displaying the latest Russian ruble euro dollar exchange rate outside a currency exchange bureau in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 16, 2014. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

The Bank of Russia will probably intensify interventions and spend almost a sixth of its reserves after its emergency increase of interest rates failed to stem the ruble’s worst crisis since 1998, according to a survey of economists.

Unlimited currency interventions are the most likely response to the ruble’s freefall, and the central bank will deploy $70 billion to counter the turmoil, according to the survey of 18 economists and the median of estimates given. Further rate increases and the imposition of capital controls ranked as the next most probable policy actions.

The country’s $416 billion reserves are moving back into the first line of defense against the crisis ravaging Russia after the central bank shifted to a free-floating exchange rate ahead of schedule last month. It’s failed to prop up the ruble with 750 basis points of rate increases and more than $10 billion of interventions this month, allowing the currency to sink beyond 80 a dollar, a record low.

“The full-blown crisis of confidence requires nothing less than aggressive, committed FX intervention,” Phoenix Kalen, an emerging-market strategist at Societe Generale SA in London, said by e-mail. “With that said, the window of time for which direct intervention would be effective in staunching the ruble bloodbath is quickly running out, beyond which the next set of measures to be contemplated would likely be capital controls.”

Emergency Measures

The central bank announced steps to stabilize the financial system. Among the measures is a temporary moratorium on mark-to-market accounting, allowing banks to use the third-quarter exchange rate in valuing risk-weighted assets.

The measures are intended to balance supply and demand on the currency market, helping stabilize the ruble rate as soon as possible and assisting banks with repaying external debt, central bank First Deputy Governor Ksenia Yudaeva said in a statement.

The ruble surged 9.8 percent after the central bank’s announcement, ending a seven-day slide and prompting a rally in the RTS Index and Russian bonds.

Russia’s Finance Ministry started selling foreign currency remaining on the Treasury’s accounts, saying the ruble is “very undervalued.” It has an estimated $7 billion in residual amounts that is available for sale, Svetlana Nikitina, an aide to the finance minister, said by phone.

Currency Sales

To counter the panic sweeping the market, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered his first deputy, Igor Shuvalov, to work with the central bank and the Federal Financial Monitoring Service to conduct daily oversight of currency sales by exporters.

The central bank, led by Governor Elvira Nabiullina, has so far struggled to reverse the currency plunge even after spending a fifth of its international reserves this year. It can use $85 billion for currency operations next year in case of a crisis scenario that puts crude at $60 a barrel, Nabiullina, a former economy minister and aide to President Vladimir Putin, said Dec. 11.

Decisive policy action that may include interventions or currency controls will probably be unveiled in the next few days, according to nine of the 18 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

‘Concerted Action’

“Concerted action by the government and President Putin to support the central bank’s stabilization efforts is likely, such as putting more intensive pressure on exporters to sell foreign currency,” said Tatiana Orlova, the chief economist for Russia at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London.

The surprise rate increase announced in the middle of the night in Moscow has failed to stem the run on the currency. The 6.5 percentage-point move, to 17 percent, only stoked a brief rally in the ruble before it began falling. Central bank First Deputy Governor Sergey Shvetsov described the emergency increase as a choice between “very bad and very very bad.”

“If the central bank were to hike the key rate above 20 percent, real economic growth would be annihilated next year, and economic contraction would be measured in multiples of a percentage point,” said Cristian Maggio, head of emerging markets research at Toronto-Dominion Bank in London. “I don’t think the central bank would be ready to pay this price.”

Ukraine, Oil

The ruble has been under pressure since Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea in March prompted sanctions. Crude oil, which tumbled to a five-year low, helped send the currency into a tailspin. Russia gets about half of its revenue from oil and gas taxes.

Not a single economist in the survey identified a dramatic change in Putin’s approach to the conflict over Ukraine as the most likely step to defuse the currency crisis.

“Economic calculus does not seem to steer Putin’s Ukraine policy,” said Wolf-Fabian Hungerland, an economist at Berenberg Bank in Hamburg. “If that would have been the case, he would not have invaded the Ukraine in the first place. Rather, Putin seems to balance de-escalating moves with escalating ones.”

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