The Bank of Russia acted quickly to shield the nation’s $1.5 trillion economy from sweeping sanctions that have imperiled backstops for the financial sector and left President Vladimir Putin unable to access much of his war chest of more than $640 billion.
The bank more than doubled its key interest rate to 20%, the highest in almost two decades, and imposed some controls on the flow of capital.
Facing the risk of a bank run, a rapid sell-off in assets and the steepest depreciation in the ruble since 1998, policy makers banned brokers from selling securities held by foreigners starting Monday on the Moscow Exchange.
Exporters were ordered to start mandatory hard-currency revenue sales and stock trading was temporarily suspended in Moscow.
In another decision that partially reversed a free-floating exchange rate regime in place since 2014, the Russian currency won’t be allowed to breach a certain range unless the central bank shifts the trading corridor
Governor Elvira Nabiullina is due to speak at 4 p.m. in Moscow, the central bank said.
“This is an act of desperation to stop the ruble from falling,” said Karsten Junius, chief economist at Bank J. Safra Sarasin Ltd.
“Because Russia can’t access its reserves, it’s dependent on income from gas deliveries. They’ll think twice about turning off the gas tap. They need foreign exchange to keep their economy running.”
Less than a week after Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine, Russia is at risk of succumbing to the biggest financial crisis of his more than two decades in power.
The steps taken so far on Monday represent the most forceful measures by Russia after the latest round of sanctions, with the U.S. and the European Union agreeing to block access to much of the $640 billion the country’s central bank has built up as a buffer to protect the economy.
“Sanctions against the central bank have deprived the Russians of an important instrument to combat ruble weakness -- that’s why the focus is now on interest rates,” said Joerg Kraemer, chief economist at Commerzbank AG.
It wasn’t clear if the central bank was intervening to defend the ruble and the exchange rate broadly converged with the offshore market within hours.
Since setting the trading limit at 76.145 to 90 per dollar, the corridor has been allowed to move higher several times already.
The ruble’s 26% drop so far this year is the worst slump globally, followed by the Kazakh tenge and Ukraine’s hryvnia, prices compiled by Bloomberg show.
At current levels the ruble’s slump is the biggest since 1998, the year the nation’s economy went into a tailspin and the government defaulted on its local debt.
Additional measures taken by Western governments to exclude some Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system could further choke up the country’s banking system.
Sanctioned institutions dominate Russia’s financial sector with $1 trillion in assets.
S&P Global Ratings lowered Russia’s credit score below investment grade on Friday, while Moody’s Investors Service -- which rates Russia one notch above junk -- put the nation on review for a downgrade.
“What comes next? We expect the government to announce some form of direct support for depositors. Together with higher rates, that could reward households for holding tight. But policy makers won’t ask nicely -- we also expect capital controls.”
Policy makers are counting that the steep rate hike, alongside the mandatory conversion of export revenues and a halt to outflows from the financial market, will help restore confidence and minimize losses at home even as war continues to rage across the border.
“This is merely a reaction by the central bank to the fact that sanctions have weakened, completely neutralized their defense arsenal that they’ve built up in the past five to 10 years,” said Simon Harvey, head of FX analysis at Monex Europe Ltd. “It’s unprecedented escalation and markets are very poorly positioned for it.”
Russians were already lining up at cash machines around the country as demand for foreign currency soared.
The central bank has said it was increasing supplies to ATMs to meet need and issued another statement Sunday vowing to provide banks “uninterrupted” supplies of rubles.
Most of Europe has closed its airspace to Russian carriers, which could make it difficult to physically transport cash into the country.
“I think rubles will be plenty, the question is FX,” said Viktor Szabo, an investor at Aberdeen Asset Management Plc. in London.
“With reserves partially blocked, the central bank will have to prioritize, and I guess population will not be on top of the list.”
Oil and gas revenue remains a lifeline as the sale and transport of energy have largely escaped disruptions. At current prices, Russia was running a monthly current-account surplus of about $20 billion.
Still, damage to the economy will be severe from the combination of wild swings in the exchange rate and the soaring cost of money.
Bloomberg Economics was already predicting a contraction in the first and second quarter even before the weekend’s sanctions and now sees the risk of an even “deeper downturn.”
The continued flow of oil will likely provide some relief, given the World Bank calculates commodities account for almost 70% of goods exports.
About 43% of the country’s crude and condensate output is sold abroad.
If crude prices stay around $90 this year, the country’s budget could get more than $65 billion in extra revenue, adding to the Kremlin’s financial strength, economists said recently.
Oil at $100 would boost the windfall closer to $73 billion.
In Russia, memories linger of hyperinflation that peaked at more than 2,500 percent in 1992 and wiped out savings in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
Price growth is already running at more than double the central bank’s target, despite a series of rate hikes since last March.
“These measures may help calm down the increased market nervousness, but at the same time they undermine the foundation of monetary policy, which is focused on inflation targeting and a flexible exchange rate,” said Natalia Lavrova, chief economist at BCS Financial Group in Moscow. “We do not rule out a possible rate hike going forward or further unexpected and non-market decisions.”