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Russia Ruble Crisis: Currency Falls Further Amid Threats Of Tighter Sanctions

ruble
An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at a private company’s office in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Dec.17, 2014. The ruble dropped more than 3 percent from 63.7 to the dollar to 65.7 on Monday.

 

The ruble dropped more than 3 percent from 63.7 to the dollar to 65.7 on Monday amid plunging oil prices and threats of stricter U.S. sanctions against Moscow, its biggest dip in two weeks, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday that Western leaders would work to “ratchet up the pressure on Russia” in the wake of heightened violence in Ukraine over the weekend. Rocket fire in the Kiev-controlled coastal city of Mariupol in east Ukraine killed 30 civilians on Saturday, the AP reported.

International leaders said the attack by Russian-backed separatists violated a cease-fire in place since September. “We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the cease-fire and the aggression that these separatists — with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops — are conducting,”

Obama told reporters over the weekend. “I will look at all additional options that are available to us short of military confrontation and try to address this issue. And we will be in close consultation with our international partners, particularly European partners.” It was unclear when any new sanctions against Russia would take effect.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had declined since the September cease-fire, but escalating violence over the past week ended the relative quiet streak.

On Saturday, Russian rebels attacked Mariupol, a city of 500,000 people located between the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula and mainland Russia that is still under Ukrainian government control. More than 5,100 people have died so far since fighting erupted in Ukraine in April.

Russia faces its worst currency crisis since 1998 with the ruble tumbling more than 10 percent against the dollar so far in 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. Falling oil prices have been largely to blame, but the ongoing Ukraine conflict has further pressured Russia’s economy.

The lower price of oil has further weakened Russia’s economy. The country’s 2015 federal budget was based on average oil prices of around $100. Instead, several of Russia’s major crude oil producers settled at around $45 to $49 on Friday, according to Forbes.

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The Ruble Is Getting Slammed After S&P Cuts Russia To ‘Junk’

The ruble is getting slammed again after S&P cut Russia to junk.

The currency fell over 7%, to over 68 to the dollar, after the S&P cut Russia’s credit rating to BB+.

All ratings below BBB- are considered “junk,” as they are below the lowest investment-grade rating.

ruble

Earlier in the day, the ruble closed at about 66.3, which was the biggest decline for the ruble in over two weeks.

The currency’s drop earlier Monday followed the escalation of violence in Ukraine over the weekend, when Russian-backed rebels launched an assault on the vital Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, killing 30 people and injuring 83.

Following the attack, the European Union’s foreign policy chief warned of a further “grave deterioration” in relations between Russia and the European Union.

“It was pure illusion that peace could be achieved now,” Enrique Menendez, a former advertising agency owner who now runs a humanitarian relief operation in eastern Ukraine, told The New York Times. “None of the sides has yet achieved its goals. The only real surprise is that the fighting started in the winter instead of the spring.”

“Geopolitics are expected to return to the picture on the escalation in eastern Ukraine and talks in the West about new sanctions against Russia,” Vladimir Miklashevsky, an analyst at Danske Bank A/S in Helsinki, told Bloomberg by email. “Falling oil and a possible fear premium will weigh on the ruble this week.”

What we see in Ukraine now is a full-blown war, which is a red light for investors into Russian assets,” Andrey Vashevnik, who manages $25 million as the chief investment officer at R&B Investment Fund Ltd. in Moscow, told Bloomberg. “There’s a strong chance of an S&P downgrade to junk and that would be really painful for Russia in the long run.”

Screenshot 2015 01 26 13.28.31

The Kremlin continues to officially maintain it has not provided troops or equipment to the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Ukraine’s army was a NATO legion whose geopolitical aim was to constrain Russia.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama threatened to step up measures against Russia following the latest episode in Mariupol.

ruble us dollarBloombergThe ruble versus the dollar, one year to Monday.

Russia’s Net Outflows Hit Their Highest Level Ever

putin

Net capital outflows from Russia were at their highest level ever in 2014.

Net outflows by companies and banks reached $151.5 billion in 2014, more than two times as much as in 2013, according to the Russian Central Bank. The last time the level of outflows was this high was during the global financial crisis in 2008, when it reached $133.6 billion.

The fourth quarter in particular saw a huge spike. Net outflows surged up to $72.9 billion, from $16.9 billion in the previous quarter, following the drop in oil prices and the ruble’s plunge.

In dire circumstances like this, a country may choose to implement capital controls in an attempt to curb outflows, and people are worried that Russia is getting to that point.

“We now think that Russia is willing to tap more intensively one of the dearest reserves it still has: central bank credibility,” Wolf-Fabian Hungerland, an economist at Berenberg Bank in Hamburg, told Bloomberg. “Should capital outflows not decline, the last option effective in the eyes of the central bank would be capital controls.”

Russia in 2006 became the only one of the biggest emerging economies to allow unrestricted flows of money across borders,” Bloomberg reports. “Reintroducing such limits would undermine the country’s monetary-policy achievements, [central bank head Elvira] Nabiullina said in October.”

But so far, officials have repeatedly insisted that Russia has no plans to limit capital movement.

Russia is currently on the edge of its first recession since 2009. Its economy took a serious beating following the sanctions imposed by the EU and US over the country’s invasion of Ukraine, along with plunging oil prices worldwide.

Additionally, the ruble was one of the worst-performing currencies in 2014. Over the course of the year, the ruble fell approximately 40% against the dollar. It is currently trading at around 65 rubles per dollar.

Putin’s Eurasian Dream Is Over Before It Began

Putin’s Eurasian Dream Is Over Before It Began

The Eurasian Union that came into effect on Jan. 1 isn’t a sign of Moscow’s growing regional influence. It’s a sign of its decline.

 

 

The Eurasian Union that came into effect on Jan. 1 isn’t a sign of Moscow’s growing regional influence. It’s a sign of its decline.

The Eurasian Economic Union — a post-Soviet economic bloc of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia — was designed to allow the Kremlin to reassert influence in its backyard and counterbalance the Brussels-based, 28-member-state European Union, which has inched towards Russia’s borders over the past decade.

Instead, the Kremlin’s prestige project, announced in 2011, but floated as an idea since 1994, limped out of the start gate in 2015.

Lángoló gázvezeték Ukrajnában - AFP PHOTO / URKAINIAN EMERGENCY PRESS

Since taking power in 2000, Putin moved to rewrite the history of Russia’s tumultuous 1990s, a decade marred by war in Chechnya, an economic crisis in 1998, and a rudderless foreign policy in its former backyard.

Putin not only made Russia’s military relevant once again by modernizing it and setting up military bases in neighboring countries, but also wielded influence with former Soviet countries by controlling economically vital oil and gas pipelines.

The Eurasian Union was meant to be the next step to secure Moscow’s standing as the economic champion of the post-Soviet space.

The Eurasian Customs Union, the Eurasian Union’s precursor, formed in 2010 and designed to remove trade barriers and harmonize tariffs between prospective members, has already faced its share of problems.

 

Originally comprised of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, the integration project expanded to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in 2014, but has not delivered the economic boom that its members were promised.

Both Kazakhstan and Belarus have seen their exports become more expensive in the crucial Russian market due to the ruble’s exchange rate troubles, while cheaper Russian goods have made it hard for domestic producers to compete.

As the ruble’s value tumbled some 20 percent in mid-December, consumers from Belarus and Kazakhstan crossed the border into Russia to snatch up deals on anything from cars to fruit as they found their buying power suddenly increased.

But the ruble’s fall will continue to create economic strain for the Eurasian Union’s four non-Russian members and 180-million-person market. In the medium and long term, the economic bloc will likely fail to deliver on its promises of breathing new life into its members’ industries and stimulating much-needed economic growth.

Katonák Moszkvában, a Vörös téren -  Vladimir Astapkovich/RIA Novosti

 

“As Russia’s economy grows weaker, the Eurasian Union becomes increasingly irrelevant and unappealing for its other members,” says Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow. “Eurasian integration was supposed to be about economic development, but it’s coming with a much larger price tag than its members expected,” adds Anceschi.

With Belarus and Kazakhstan slowly realizing the economic costs of allying with Russia, cracks in the Eurasian Union are already beginning to show even before the foundations are set.

Since Western countries imposed the first round of sanctions on Russia in March, trade spats between Belarus and Russia have become the norm.

Zavargások AFP PHOTO

 

Despite the political alliance between Minsk and Moscow, Russia banned meat imports from its neighbor in November, saying that Belarus had become a smuggling route for foods banned under the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions against the West. Belarus’s autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko calledthe restrictions “indecent.”

This was followed by another incident, on Dec. 18, when Lukashenko tried to head off devaluing the Belarussian ruble byordering the government to denominate trade with Russia in U.S. dollars or euros.

About 40 percent of Belarus’s exports go to Russia, according to Belarus’s Foreign Ministry, and much of the rest goes to other former Soviet countries closely linked to the Russian economy. The Belarussian ruble lost 13 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in 2014 and Minsk is clearly worried about the spread of economic contagion from Russia and is looking for added protection.

Káposztaföld Oroszországban - Konstantin Chalabov/RIA Novosti

The Eurasian Union will only yoke the isolated Belarus even tighter to a very unhelpful partner.

The Eurasian Union will only yoke the isolated Belarus even tighter to a very unhelpful partner.

In Kazakhstan, a key country for Moscow’s plans for Eurasian integration, relations with Russia have been strained by mounting economic and political pressures over the past year. Like Russia, Kazakhstan relies heavily on oil to finance its budget and has been hard hit by the price slump for crude.

In February, Kazakhstan’s government devalued its currency, the tenge, by nearly 20 percent in one day due to falling oil prices. Sanctions on Russia have also taken an inadvertent toll on Kazakhstan, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting that growth in Kazakhstan will slip from 6 percent of GDP to 4.6 percent in 2014 as a result of falling oil prices and the importance of trade with the Russian market.

Orosz katonák a Krím-félszigeten - AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV

To keep itself afloat and back its way out of Moscow’s economic shadow, Kazakhstan is trying to show the world that it’s still a good place to do business. In November, Kazakhstan’s president of 25 years, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced a $9 billion stimulus from the country’s national oil fund to boost infrastructure development and attract foreign investment.

This summer, the government unveiled new exemptions that allow foreign investors to avoid paying taxes for 10 years. The government in Astana has also announced that it is prepared to offer 30 percent reimbursement of capital costs to investors once a foreign facility is up and running in the country.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is also actively strengthening ties with Western Europe. The European Union is already Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, a relationship that will grow further after Brussels and Astana signed anenhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in October — a deal similar to the one Ukraine signed in September.

 

“The government is taking a gutsy approach to attracting foreign investment and it could actually work,” says Janet Heckman, the head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

A szláv lakosság részaránya a teljes lakossághoz képest Kazahsztánban - Wikipédia
Slavic population in Russia

 

“Our foreign policy has always been about the national interests of Kazakhstan first and foremost,” Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. In addition to looking West, Kazakhstan has also been deepening ties with neighboring China.

In 2013, China signed $30 billion worth of gas and oil deals and became the top investor in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field — the largest in the world outside the Middle East.

The trend continued on Dec. 14 as China and Kazakhstaninked $14 billion worth of infrastructure and energy deals — an important move for Kazakh economic independence, given that 80 percent of its oil exports are currently dependent on Russia-controlled pipelines and railways.

“We are not pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, pro-European, or pro-American in our foreign policy. We are pro-Kazakh,” Idrissov said. “If Russia can help us, we will turn to Moscow, but if Russia can’t offer us what we need to pursue our interests, we will turn elsewhere.

It’s simply pragmatic.” In Oct. 2013, Nazarbayev accused Moscow of erecting unfair barriers to trade, describing the Customs Union’s Russian-dominated regulatory body as politicized and complaining that foreign trade distortions were causing major difficulties for his country’s market.

Kazakhstan hoped that joining the union would help it develop a strong market for its local exports beyond hydrocarbons, but since accession to the Customs Union in 2010 the country has been flooded with Russian imports.

Kazakhstan hoped that joining the union would help it develop a strong market for its local exports beyond hydrocarbons, but since accession to the Customs Union in 2010 the country has been flooded with Russian imports.

All of this has raised fears in Astana, as well as Minsk, that the Eurasian Union they just entered will, as per Russian design, lock the post-Soviet states into Russia’s political orbit. Fears over sovereignty were increased following the annexation of Crimea in March.

“In the eyes of Kazakhstan, Crimea’s annexation was an announcement that Russia does not respect the sovereignty of post-Soviet states,” says Nargis Kassenova of Kazakhstan’s KIMEP University’s Central Asian Studies Center.

Crimea has left both Kazakhstan and Belarus walking a diplomatic tightrope, unable to fully split with Russia, but weary of its new face. Lukashenko, despite advocating support for Putin, called the annexation of Crimea a “bad precedent” for the region in March.

Speaking on Dec. 15, on the eve of two-day official independence anniversary celebrations, Nazarbayev said that Kazakhstan will celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate in 2015 and urged his citizens to defend the country’s independence.

The speech appeared to be a direct answer to a statement by Putin in August, who publicly said that Kazakhs had never had statehood before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And while Kazakhstan and Belarus are diversifying their economic and political options, the Eurasian Union’s smaller members seem resigned to accept their fates as Russian satellites. Armenia’s National Assembly voted 103-7 on Dec. 4 to join the Eurasian Union along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia on Jan. 1.

But even lawmakers who voted “yes” were less than enthused about linking their future to Russia. “We cannot survive without the Russian people,” said Mher Sadrakyan, a member of parliament from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, echoing the view that an alliance with Russia is a necessary evil.

Without Russia, Armenia would be left without support in its conflict with Azerbaijan over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict there has been in limbo since a Russia-brokered cease-fire in 1994. Russia has a military base in Armenia and is the main supplier of arms to the Armenian military. “Without them [the Russians], they will devour us,” Sadrakyan said, referring to Azerbaijan.

Kyrgyzstan will also become a member of the nascent union — but with caveats. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line on Dec. 23, while noting that his country’s economy would not be ready for accession until May 2015. Major doubts persist in Kyrgyzstan about how joining the Eurasian Union will benefit the country’s economy, which relies heavily on the lucrative re-export trade of Chinese goods to other former Soviet countries.

Eurasian Union membership will place new tariffs on Chinese goods, which will effectively strangle the re-export trade and could close major markets in the country — a development that the Kyrgyz Ministry of Labor, Migration, and Youth warned could double unemployment. Still, Moscow is Kyrgyzstan’s main benefactor, providing billions of dollars’ worthof aid to prop up its struggling economy. The country’s leadership is not prepared to put that vital lifeline in jeopardy.

The Eurasian Union looks like a major dud. With Armenia and Kyrgyzstan reluctant members at best, and Belarus and Kazakhstan looking for alternatives to closer ties with Moscow, it’s becoming clear that the Eurasian Union won’t be the geopolitical game-changer Putin hoped for. Eurasian integration was meant to be the final step in Russia’s return to dignity and leadership, but instead the union is evidence of the Kremlin’s decaying foreign-policy aspirations.

Raiffeisen, SocGen Plummet as Ruble Slide Triggers Bank Worries

Raiffeisen Bank International AG (RBI) and Societe Generale SA (GLE), the European banks with most at stake in Russia, led European lenders lower as the ruble continued its slide today, defying a surprise rate increase.

Raiffeisen fell as much as 10.3 percent to 11.40 euros in Vienna, the lowest level since it went public in 2005. Societe Generale dropped as much as 7.3 percent to 31.85 euros, hitting the lowest intraday level since August 2013. The STOXX 600 Banks index was 1.4 percent lower at 2:25 p.m. in London.

“More fundamental concerns are building over the outlook for Russia’s economy and the likely policy response,” Neil Shearing, an economist at Capital Economics in London, wrote in a note to clients. “There remains a huge amount of uncertainty at this juncture, but the key point is that there are no benign scenarios. Even if the ruble does stabilize over the coming weeks, the economic crisis facing Russia has much further to run.”

Societe Generale is the bank that has the biggest absolute exposure to Russia, at 25 billion euros ($31 billion), according to Citigroup Inc. analysts led by Kinner Lakhani. That’s equivalent to 62 percent of the Paris-based bank’s tangible equity.

Raiffeisen has 15 billion euros at risk in Russia, almost twice its tangible equity, and it also has the biggest exposure to Ukraine, with 4.9 billion euros, according to Citigroup.

UniCredit, the third European bank strongly invested in the former Soviet Union, has 18 billion euros at stake in Russia, or 40 percent of its tangible book value, Citigroup said.

The ruble plunged to 80 a dollar for the first time today as investors speculated Russia will announce capital controls after the largest interest-rate increase in 16 years failed to revive confidence in the currency.

The currency sank as much as 19 percent to 80.10, before trading at 78 at 3:14 p.m. in Moscow. That was the biggest drop since 1998, the year Russia defaulted on its local debt.

Russian Tourists Are Cancelling Their Vacation Plans In Thailand

Pattaya Skyline

Hard times have fallen on Pattaya, a beach resort about 60 miles southeast of Bangkok, as Russian tourists cancel their vacation plans amid the collapse of the ruble.

“Hotel room reservations from the Russian market have already dropped by 70% for this high season,” Sanpetch Suppabawonsathien, president of the Thai Hotels Association, told The Bangkok Post.

According to figures from the Kasikorn Research Center, visitors from Russia to Thailand dropped by 5.5% in 2014 to 1.65 million from 1.75 million. Russia is currently the third-biggest market for Thai tourism, according to the Post.

It’s a stark change from the mid-1990s when the Thai beach resort was considered a “dream destination” for wealthy Russians, as described in a 1995 essay by American journalist Ron Gluckman.

“The Russians come in large numbers, generally as couples or families on holiday. They settle into Pattaya for up to two weeks and rely heavily on hotel food-and-beverage services, the most profitable portion of a hotel’s business,” Gluckman writes.

They had money. And enjoyed spending it.

Pattaya_sunset KayEss 1The Pattaya Bay Area is one of Asia’s largest beach resorts.

“They also eat and drink like feasting monarchs,” Gluckman adds. “At Pattaya’s Russkii Restaurant — serving beetroot salads, borscht and liver stroganoff — proprietor Konstantine Povolotski stocks $300 bottles of champagne.”

Now, Pattaya hoteliers are being pressured by travel agents to “cut surcharges and gala dinners from tour programmes in the peak season and to sell special packages for Russian tourists,” The Bangkok Post said.

Suppabawonsathien said he expects the number of Russian vistors to Pattaya to plunge by more than 50% in 2014, compared to last year, due to the weakening of the ruble, which fell to an all-time low against the dollar this week.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow on Thursday, in which he said that the central bank and government are taking adequate measures to put the country on a positive track and that Russia would bounce back from the current economic crisis within two years.

Russian Rich Lose $10 Billion in Two Days as Ruble Drops

Russia’s 20 richest people lost $10 billion this week as the central bank raised interest rates to counter western sanctions that have crushed the ruble and sent the country’s RTS Index to its lowest point since March 2009.

The billionaires have dropped a combined $62 billion in 2014, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and control a combined $174 billion. The European Union and U.S. limited Russian companies’ access to financing to punish President Vladimir Putin after he annexed Crimea in March. Russia’s troubles have been worsened by the corresponding plunge in the price of oil, a bedrock of the country’s economy.

The ruble has plummeted 50 percent since the end of June. Crude fell to a five-year low after the United Arab Emirates said OPEC won’t rein in production. In response,

Ruble to dollar
Ruble to US dollar in 2014.

 

Russia’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent in the middle of the night in Moscow on Dec. 15 as the ruble slid below 64 per dollar for the first time.

“The optimists who thought in March that everything would be all right in the end now understand that nothing will be OK,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin adviser during Putin’s first term who now consults for Moscow’s Institute for National Strategy, a research firm. “Russia’s richest take this situation very negatively, but they do not have the tools to reverse it.”

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Leonid Mikhelson has been the biggest loser in dollar terms among those remaining in the country’s 20 richest, dropping $8.7 billion since the start of the year. The 59-year-old is the chief executive officer of OAO Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer. He has a $9.2 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg ranking.

Putin Ties

Gennady Timchenko, 62, turned in the second-worst dollar drop, losing $7.8 billion this year. Timchenko, who has close ties with Putin, owns 23.5 percent of Novatek and was hit with individual sanctions by the U.S. in March and has a $3.2 billion net worth.

The third-biggest U.S. dollar drop was registered by Vladimir Lisin, 58, the chairman and largest shareholder of OAO Novolipetsk Steel. The steelmaker has slumped 42 percent this year, helping cut Lisin’s wealth by $7.5 billion.

The declines also knocked Alisher Usmanov from his perch as Russia’s richest person. The 61-year-old owns more than 20 percent of OAO MegaFon, Russia’s second-largest wireless operator, which has fallen 58 percent in 2014. Usmanov, whose Russian losses have been mitigated by gains in Chinese technology companies Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and JD.Com Inc., has dropped $6.8 billion year-to-date.

Vladimir Lisin
Vladimir Lisin, chairman of Novoliptesk Steel.

 

Western Sanctions

Usmanov ceded the top spot to Viktor Vekselberg, who held the position for 17 days in late 2012, after he and four billionaire partners agreed to sell their half of the TNK-BP oil venture to state-controlled OAO Rosneft for $28 billion.

Vekselberg, 57, a former Soviet engineer who made his first fortune selling copper from used industrial power cables, founded closely held Renova Group in 1990 and profited from the Russian privatization program after the fall of the Soviet Union. He has a $13.6 billion fortune, $239 million more than Usmanov.

Nobody was hit harder in percentage terms than Vladimir Evtushenkov. Once Russia’s 14th-richest person, the 66-year-old has seen almost 90 percent of his wealth disappear, dropping him from the top 20. The billionaire was sentenced to house arrest by a Moscow court in September after a money-laundering investigation connected to the $2.5 billion purchase of shares in oil producer OAO Bashneft.

Lone Riser

The court also ruled in favor of nationalizing his stake in Bashneft, which he controlled through publicly traded AFK Sistema. Evtushenkov’s fortune has fallen $9 billion, the most of any Russian in 2014.

Arkady Rotenberg, another Putin ally sanctioned by the west, has lost $2.3 billion this year leaving him with a net worth of $898 million, a 72 percent drop.

Aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who owns a 48 percent stake in Hong Kong-listed United Co. Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum maker, is the only Russian billionaire whose fortune increased this year.

The 46-year-old has gained $855 million as the slumping ruble has lifted metal and mining companies that have costs in rubles and collect revenue in foreign currencies. United Co. Rusal has risen 101 percent this year. Rusal stock declined 4.9 percent to HK$4.62 in Hong Kong trading yesterday.

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