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Russia's rouble comes roaring back

by Staff reporter
08 Apr 2022 at 06:40hrs | Views
The rouble has surged all the way back to where it was before Russia invaded Ukraine, closing at 79,7 in Moscow on Wednesday.

In the days after the Ukraine war began, the rouble's collapse was a potent symbol of Russia's newfound financial isolation.

International sanctions on President Vladimir Putin's regime sank it to a record low of 121.5 roubles per dollar, triggering memories of the battering it took during the 1998 Russian financial crisis.

Things looked dire enough that US President Joe Biden once said the rouble had been reduced to "rubble."

Now, though, it sure hasn't. The rouble has surged all the way back to were it was before Putin invaded Ukraine, closing at 79,7 in Moscow on Wednesday.

What's become clear is that despite an incredibly wide-ranging package of sanctions on the Russian government and its oligarchs, and an exodus of foreign businesses, the actions are largely toothless if foreigners keep guzzling Russian oil and natural gas — supporting the rouble by stocking Putin's coffers.

Even as Russia remains mostly cut off otherwise from the global economy, Bloomberg Economics expects the country will earn nearly US$321 billion from energy exports this year, up more than a third from 2021.

The rapid rouble recovery gives President Putin a major victory back in Russia, where many people fixate on the currency's ups and downs.

"For the politicians, it is a good PR tool by saying that sanctions don't have any impact. And it will help to limit the inflation impact," said Guillaume Tresca, a senior emerging-market strategist at Generali Insurance Asset Management.

In Russia's post-Soviet history, the rouble-dollar exchange rate has arguably been the economic indicator Russians care most about. The rate was broadcast by the exchange kiosks that sprung up in every town and city, flagging the currency's collapse as hyperinflation erupted in the early 1990s. The rouble dived again after Russia defaulted in 1998.

Once that chaos subsided, the government lopped off three zeros. Then during the 2008 crisis, the authorities burned through billions of dollars to slow the currency's slide, in part to avoid spooking the population and sparking a run on the nation's banks. Governor Elvira Nabiullina decided to risk that in 2014 when sanctions over the military operation in Crimea and slumping oil prompted her to switch the currency to a free float.

In response to this year's sanctions, Russia has enacted capital controls that also appear to be supporting the rouble. That includes freezing the assets held by non-resident investors, and telling Russian companies to convert 80 percent of the foreign currencies they hold into roubles.

This has some observers doubting the significance of the rouble's recovery to pre-invasion levels — which is also happening amid the lightest trading volume in a decade. "It is not a free-floating currency given all the measures imposed by the authorities," Tresca said. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said basically the same thing Wednesday when testifying before Congress, warning against drawing deeper messages about sanctions from the rouble's rebound.

Still, it's hard to ignore the lifeline other nations are tossing Russia by purchasing the country's oil and gas. Doing so gives Russia a current-account surplus — economics jargon for exporting more than you import, which tends to lift the country's currency — and undermines the attempt to pummel Russia with sanctions.

"A current-account surplus should actually be another source of stability for the rouble," said Brendan McKenna, a strategist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC.

"If energy prices remain high and major importers of Russian energy and commodities continue to purchase, the current account should stay in surplus." He says the rouble could hit 78 per dollar, partly because of Putin's counter-sanctions.

Russia has been able to stabilize local markets and even stave off a messy foreign default — at least for now. This means that if the coalition of governments who oppose President Putin want to hurt the rouble again, they'll likely have to change tack. Just this week, the US Treasury barred dollar debt payments from Russian accounts at US banks, an attempt to make Russia drain its domestic dollar reserves or default.

"As Russia's economy and financial sector adapt to a new equilibrium of capital controls, managed prices, and economic autarky, it is not surprising that some of the domestic markets stabilize," said Elina Ribakova and Benjamin Hilgenstock, economists at the Institute of International Finance.

Source - Bloomberg