Category Archives: Russian reserves

28/8/15: CBR and Ruble: Fiscal Balance in Oil’s Shadow

As I noted earlier this month, Russia has officially entered the recession. The key drivers for 3.4% contraction in 1H 2015 were the same as the key pressures on growth back in 2H 2014: oil prices, investment collapse on foot of high interest rates, inflationary environment that restricts CBR's room for cutting rates, and sanctions (or rather geopolitical risks and pressures, linked in part to sanctions).

That said, in June and early July there were some hopes for economy starting to stabilise, although fixed investment was down 7.1% y/y in June, marking 18th consecutive month of y/y declines. These are now once again under pressure and the cause is... oil price.

Here is how closely paired has Russian Ruble been to oil prices in trend terms since July 2014, although correlation was weaker in preceding period. Overall, as the chat shows, there are two very distinct periods of Ruble valuations catch up with oil prices: June 2014-February 2015 and mid-July 2015 through present.

Russia's Central Bank is switching between little concern for Ruble to interventions and back to staying out of the markets appears to be more than a simply random walk. Instead, it is a game consistent with rebalancing Ruble valuations to fit budgetary dynamics.

The reason for this is that (as shown in the chart above) Ruble strengthening above oil-linked fundamentals earlier this year was an actual threat to budgetary dynamics, and over the last couple of weeks, correcting valuations of Ruble re-established closer connection to oil prices. Hence, in July, CBR managed to deliver a shallower cut to interest rates (-50bps) compared to June (-100bps).

With CBR continuing to stick to its June 2016 forecast for inflation to fall to 'under 7%' by then and hit 4% in 2017 compared to July 2015 CPI at 15.6%, Russia went on to issue its first CPI-linked bonds / linkers amounting to RUB75 billion (OFZ-IN, 8 year notes) at 91% of nominal, on cover of RUB200 billion (more than 25% of demand coming from foreign investors). Real yield at issuance was 3.84% - relatively high-ish, implying underpricing of the bond in a market with relatively hefty demand and forward expectations for significant easing in inflation. Something is slightly amiss here.

In line with up-down interventions, the CBR continued to trend flat on foreign exchange reserves. End of June, total Russian FX reserves stood at USD361.575 billion, and by end of July these fell to USD357.626 billion. As of last week, the reserves were back up at USD364.6 billion.

Weekly data from CBR does not allow for compositional analysis of reserves, but looking at the monthly data the pattern repeats.

Actual liquid FX reserves and gold stood at USD347.1 billion at the end of July against USD350.957 billion at the end of June. This is barely up on end-April period low of USD345.373 billion, although well within the FX- and gold-valuations range of change.

Meanwhile, data through July 2015 shows net purchases of dollars of USD3.76 billion against USD3.831 billion in June and USD2.531 billion in May by CBR. Overall, from January 2015 through July 2015, CBR bought (net) USD7.8 billion and there were no net purchases/sales of euro.

All of the above suggests that CBR will likely resume rate cuts if Ruble firms up from its recent valuations. Two weeks ago, RUB/USD was at 64.947 (72.197 to Euro), peaking at 70.887 four days ago (82.373 to the Euro) and currently at 66.8875 (74.984 to Euro), not exactly warranting a move by the CBR yet, but back in the relative comfort zone for the Bank to sit on its hands once again.

18/6/15: Russian Central Bank Targets Rebuilding of Foreign Reserves

Recently, speaking at a banking conference in St Petersburg, Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Central Bank of Russia outlined the CBR position on foreign exchange reserves. Nabiullina note that Russian reserves are large - sufficient to cover almost 11 months of imports. However, Nabiullina's 'comfort zone' target for the reserves to cover 2-3 years of "substantial capital outflows", implying she would like to see Russian reserves rising back to USD500 billion mark. Nabiullina is now targeting purchases of forex over the next few years to drive up reserves and to that objective she has been buying on average USD200mln worth of forex per day since mid-May.

In line with forex reserves rebuilding objective, Nabiullina cautioned about markets expectations of further large scale cuts to interest rates as the CBR is trying to balance out inflation targeting (requiring tighter monetary policy), investment supports (requiring looser policy) and accumulation of reserves (implying looser policy).

Per Nabiullina: "Attempts to reduce the interest rates too fast or even acquire certain assets may simply lead to stronger inflation, to an outflow of capital or to dollarisation of the economy, and that would slow down the economic growth, other than promote it."

In its latest outlook, CBR forecast unemployment reaching 6.5% this year from the current rate of 5.6%, before falling to 5.6-5.8% by 2018. GDP is expected to shrink 3.2% in 2015, returning to trend growth of 1.7-2.4% around 2017-2018. Inflation is expected to hit 11% at the end of 2015 with rather optimistic outlook for a decline to "less than 7%" by June 2016, and "close to the target level" of 4% in 2017.

Net capital outflows are expected to decline from USD90 billion in 2015 to USD55-65 billion in 2018. "We are expecting the financial sanctions against Russia to remain in place. Payments on foreign debts during this period will constitute the bulk of the capital outflow. It will gradually reduce from $90 billion to about $55-65 billion during 2015-2018, depending on the scenario," according to Nabiullina.

Russian International Reserves reached USD360.6 billion at the end of last week, up on USD356 billion low registered in April 2015. Still, the reserves are down USD117.7 billion y/y (-24.6%) and down USD132.73 billion (-26.9%) on pre-sanctions period.

15/4/15: Russian Foreign Exchange Reserves

Few weeks ago, based on the three weeks data from the Central Bank, I noted an improvement in Russian Forex reserves, while warning that this requires a number of weekly observations to the upside to confirm any reversal in the downward trend.

Now, with monthly data available for the full month of March, my concerns about temporary nature of improvements have been confirmed. Full month of March data shows a decline, not a rise, in forex reserves. Specifically, total reserves dipped from USD360.221 billion at the end of February to USD356.365 billion at the end of March - a m/m decline of USD3.856 billion.

Now, in monthly terms, March decline was the smallest since October 2014 and the second smallest (after September 2014) in 17 months. Nonetheless, forex reserves are now down to the levels of March-April 2007, having fallen USD129.766 billion y/y (-26.7%). Over the period of sanctions, total reserves are down USD136.961 billion (-27.8%). Over Q1 2015 the reserves are down USD29.095 billion.

Month on month, foreign exchange reserves (combining foreign exchange, SDRs and reserve position in the iMF) are down USD4.338 billion, with USD3.646 billion of this decline coming from foreign exchange alone. Gold holdings are up USD482 million month on month.

Gold, as percentage of total reserves, currently stands at 13.265%, the highest since November 2000. Gold holdings performed well for Russia over the period of this crisis, rising USD3.917 billion year on year through March 2015 (+9%) and up USD2.684 million since the start of the sanctions.

In terms of liquid cash reserves, foreign exchange holdings are down at USD298.665 billion at the end of March 2015, a level comparable to January-February 2007. end of March figure represents a decline of USD131.024 billion y/y (-30.5%) and the decline during the period of the sanctions is even steeper at USD136.9 billion (-31.4%).

Good news: Russian economy is past the 2015 peak of external debt redemptions (see:

Bad news: there is another USD54 billion worth of external debt that will need repaying (net of easy inter-company roll overs) in Q2-Q4 2015. Worse news: Q1 declines in foreign reserves comes with CBR not intervening in the Ruble markets.

Good news: capital flight is slowing down.

Bad news: capital flight is still at USD32.6 billion over Q1 2015 ( although much of that is down to debt redemptions.

Which means there is little room for manoeuvre anywhere in sight - should the macroeconomic conditions deteriorate or a run on the Ruble return, there is a very much diminishing amount of reserves available to deploy. Enough for now, but declining…

As I said before: watch incoming risks.

20/3/15: Central Bank Interventions in Ruble Markets down to Zero in February

Don't hear much of "Panic at the Central Bank of Russia" reports as of late in the Western media - the ones that whipped into frenzy Russia 'analysts' back in November-December? Why, no surprise:

Per latest data, CBR interventions in forex markets defending the Ruble have shrunk in February 2015 to zero for USD and zero for EUR. Yep, zero.

Oh, and the table above shows, the panic of November-December 2014 Ruble crisis - real as it was - was not as bad as CBR supporting Ruble prior to the free float and during the peak of Crimean crisis.

So was the decision to let Ruble float wise? You decide. On the trend, it saved CBR some USD8.5 billion and EUR1.2 billion, even counting in December 2014 crisis.

3/3/15: Those ‘tanked’ Russian Forex reserves

So, according to some Western media, Russian forex reserves have tanked in February 2015. What happened, folks?

At the end of January 2015, Russian forex reserves stood at USD376.208 billion. Of which USD327 was in currency and liquid assets form. The latest data, given to us is for February 20, 2015 when, according to the Russian Central Bank, the reserves dropped to USD364.6 billion - a drop of 3.11% or USD11.6 billion. That's a lot of cash. But is not qualifying it as 'tanked'. Here's a chart plotting all reserves changes m/m

So (incomplete still) data for February puts drawdowns from the Forex reserves at USD11.61 billion against 12 mo running average monthly drawdown of USD10.73 billion. February marks the fourth biggest drawdown in 12 months. Again - large, significant, but 'tanking'?!

What is more critical is the source of drawdowns: how much of this is due to repayment of corporate and sovereign debt? How much is down to changing dollar value of other assets held? How much taken in form of loans to companies and banks (at least in theory or in part - repayable)? and so on.

No, the numbers are not catastrophic. Although they are unpleasant. Just as the gloating in the media is unpleasant: if the U.S. were to cut its external deficit by 2/3rds - what would be the headlines in Western media? And now note: February drawdowns from the forex reserves marked:

  • 2/3rds reduction in drawdowns compared to December (real disaster of a month); and
  • Large chunk of these drawdowns probably (we will know later for sure) went to fund debt reductions of Russian banks, companies and sovereign.