News Column

Jennifer Rankin: Analysis Russia starts to count the cost of sanctions

August 18, 2014

Jennifer Rankin

Six months after the confrontation over Ukraine first blew up, the damage is starting to be counted in dollars, euros and roubles. And as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France last night, he will have been aware that it is Russia that has most to lose from a protracted economic stand-off with the west.

The effects of successive rounds of sanctions on the Russian economy are starting to trickle down, despite the many loopholes and exceptions. Foreign banks have tightened credit for all Russian companies. Retail prices are rising on the back of Russia's retaliatory ban on European foodstuffs. Growth is anaemic.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 81% owned by the British taxpayer, has restricted lending to Russian companies across the board, and the Dutch bank ING is also looking to reduce its Russian loan book. Banks, especially those bailed out by the taxpayer and still battling to restore tarnished reputations, are nervous about lending to Russia, although oil companies don't share those qualms.

As a result, not a single US dollar, euro or Swiss franc was lent to a Russian company in July, according to Bloomberg research, the first time since the financial crisis that Russian companies have faced such a credit drought.

"We are starting to finally see some impact from sanctions, not because any of any of the official sanctions, but because of the accumulation of self-sanctions," says Chris Weafer of the Moscow-based Macro Advisory. "That is starting to have an impact on lending, interest rates and slowing down the economy and you have the additional problem of food inflation. It is all beginning to weigh."

For now, although Russia's state-owned banks have been banned from raising funds on western capital markets, they are not total economic outlaws. Timothy Ash, head of emerging market research at Standard Bank, said if the west was really serious it would have banned trading of Russian bank debt on secondary markets.

Ash thinks sanctions will weigh on the Russian economy, but not cause imminent panic. "Are you going to see a financial crisis in the short-term? Probably not on the back of this. Does the west have the capability to do that? Absolutely. Do they want to? Clearly not."

But the tightening of credit cascades through the economy like falling dominoes: big Russian companies, sensing reluctance from western creditors, turn to Russian banks for loans. They in turn go to the central bank, which reacts by raising interest rates.

Higher interest rates help prop up the rouble, but make it more expensive to pay off debts, so Russian consumers begin to rein in spending. Car sales were down 23% on last July.

Just as credit is becoming more expensive, Russian shoppers face higher grocery bills, after Vladimir Putin banned food imports in retaliation against western sanctions. Although pictures of empty shelves once laden with Parmesan and Brie are doing the rounds on Russian social media, there are no 1980s-style shortages. But most economists - and the Russian government - expect food prices to rise, a setback for Russia's struggle to tame inflation.

Government officials are already beginning to see the writing on the wall. Igor Sechin, the chairman of the blacklisted oil group Rosneft, has asked the government to dole out 1.5tn roubles (pounds 25bn) to help the state-owned company refinance its debts.

With other state firms are expected to join the queue for a share of the state's cash pile, economists have been downgrading growth forecasts.

The International Monetary Fund expects Russia to grow by 0.2% this year. This is worse than it sounds. Russia is still a developing economy, with 18 million people in poverty (13% of the population). Putin, hoping to run for president in 2018, wants Russia to grow like China, at 7.5%. "With growth of 1% or less [in a developing economy] you might as well be in recession," says Weafer. "There is no question. Russia is facing a difficult winter."

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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