Category Archives: CBR

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.

10/4/15:Ruble’s Mysterious Rise: Some Thoughts

There is an interesting debate starting up around the Ruble: in recent weeks, Ruble appreciation against the USD has pushed it out of its traditional long term alignment with oil prices, as noted in the chart below:

Source: @Schuldensuehner 

There are several possible factor that can account for this.

  1. Oil price expectations - if the markets expect oil prices to rise further, Ruble buyers can bid the currency up ahead of the oil price changes. This is unlikely in my view, as we are not seeing oil price firming significantly in both spot and futures markets.
  2. Oil price revelation - if the markets priced in severe forecasts uncertainty linked to oil price dynamics to the Russian economy back in October-December 2014, then the new information about Russian economy's performance in Q1 2015 should lead to re-pricing of risks. In my opinion, Ruble was heavily oversold in December (not in october-November) and there is some upside potential, given that the Q1 2015 data coming out of the Russian economy is not as apocalyptic as some currency markets analysts expected. Notably, there has been a significant cut in USD long positions vis-a-vis Ruble in recent days, which signals speculative re-alignment toward long-Ruble.
  3. Demand Factor 1 - March is the end of Q1, so it is the month of rising demand for Ruble to cover corporate tax liabilities (Russian corporates pay taxes in Rubles). VAT receipts are also coming due. And estimated forward taxes and charges. In my opinion, this helps to temporarily boost Ruble valuations.
  4. Demand Factor 2 - March is the last month before major companies in Russia are due to reverse their forex holdings to October 2014 levels (per December agreement hammered out by President Putin). This means increased supply of USD and other currencies, and increased demand for Rubles. Again, a temporary factor, in my opinion.
  5. Supply Factor - March and April are also large months for corporates to book in energy-related exports earnings. Note that Russian Central Bank is recording a small rise in reserves in late March, followed by a decline in April.
  6. Demand Factor 3 - March also was the month of largest (for 2015) external debt redemptions by Russian banks and corporates. Repayment of these debts involves buying dollars and selling Rubles, but timing-wise, companies have been pre-building their forex reserves for some time, so it is most likely that in recent 3 weeks there has been less demand for dollars (and other forex) than in previous 2 months. Note, I covered this here:
  7. Demand factor 4 - since the start of 2014, Russia actively pursued reduction of the degree of dollarisation in its economy. The first stage of this process involved increasing trade settlements in other currencies (most recent one - announced this week - with Indonesia). This, alongside with imports collapse, reduced external trade-linked demand for dollars. The second phase of de-dollarisation started in February, when Russian retail deposits started exiting dollars and shifting back into Ruble on improved confidence in the banks and high deposit rates. Again - a temporary support for the Ruble.
  8. Demand factor 5 - as Russian CDS show, probability of default declines for Russia sustained in recent weeks implies improved demand for Russian Government (and local) bonds, issued in Ruble markets. The result is improved demand for OFZs and, thus, for Ruble. 
  9. Real vs Nominal exchange Rates - inflation dynamics in Russia are most likely drawing a gap between real and nominal exchange rates, so nominal rate firming up is not imposing equivalent increase in the real rates. 

In other words, we have many, many moving parts to one equation. One can't tell the dominant one, or which are likely to last longer, but my sense is that majority of these forces are temporary and the long-run link between Ruble and oil price will be regained.

Now, assuming oil price dynamics remain where they are today (weak upside), Ruble is likely to devalue again, back to USD/RUB 55-57 range. If inflation does not fall toward 10% in Q2 2015 (and I do not think it will), we are likely to see Ruble move into USD/RUB 60-65 range over this quarter. On the other hand, improved outlook for the economy (signalling, say annual contraction closer to 3.5-4 percent) can see Ruble staying within the USD/RUB 50-53 range.

One thing is for sure: so far, the Central Bank of Russia has managed damn well its dance in a very tight monetary policy corner between runaway inflation, prohibitively high interest rates and a massive squeeze on forex valuations. How long this 'smart game' in multidimensional and highly dynamic chess can go on is everyone's guess.

4/4/15: A Sign of Ruble Stabilisation? Russian Forex Reserves Rise

The latest data (through last week) published two days ago by the Central Bank of Russia shows that Russian Forex reserves have risen for the second week in a row. In the week of 27/03/2015 Forex reserves rose USD7.9 billion to USD360.8 billion and in the week prior they were up USD1.2 billion. Thus, relative to the crisis period low of USD351.7 billion set in the week of 13/03/2015, Russian Forex reserves are up USD9.1 billion. This puts weekly reserves at USD2.2 billion below end of February reading.

This is a very uncertain development at this point in time. Russian Forex reserves were down 15 consecutive weeks prior to the last two weeks of increases, so it is too early to read the latest upticks as reversal of the trend, but it is pretty clear that, for now, things have stabilised somewhat.

Monthly data, not yet fully available, but reflective of the last week results, suggests that the aggregate reserves are slightly up m/m. At the end of March, Forex reserves at USD360.8 billion appear to be up USD579 million on the end of February.

In the year through the end of March 2015, the reserves are down USD125.33 billion (-25.8%) and on the start of the sanctions, these are down USD132.53 billion (-26.9%). Q1 2015 (end of quarter) reserves are down USD24.66 billion on end of Q4 2014. In other words, we need to see several more weeks of improved reserves before we can call a new trend.

16/3/2015: Some new 2015-2018 forecasts for the Russian Economy

Amidst much of the (occasionally informed) speculation as to the whereabouts of Russian President Putin (see for example this rather informative piece:, President Putin has finally reappeared from wherever he might have been over the last how-many days... Of course, his reappearance promptly led to some 'highly informed' Western analysts seeing President Putin's double...

The matters of conspiracy aside (for their endless supply makes their value trend toward absolute zero pretty fast), the Economy Ministry has been busy preparing new forecasts for Russia for 2016, trailing behind the recent forecasts from the Central Bank.

Minister Ulyukaev today said that the economic outlook for Russia is based on the view that Western sanctions will remain in place "at least over the period of 2015-2016" and "most likely, in the following years". Beyond this, the Minister said that 2016-2018 will likely see 2.5%-3% average rate of growth in real GDP and that 2016 growth is likely to be in the same range. New forecasts, according to Mr. Ukyukaev - currently in preparation stages - see economic recovery starting in 2016. This, if confirmed in the official forecasts, would represent a dose of optimism not matched by many independent analysts, and well in excess of the cautious gloom of the Central Bank (see below).

Meanwhile, as The Moscow Times (not a paper known for expressing pro-Kremlin sentiments) noted: foreign investors are heading back into Russian markets I wish them well - they are in for a rough ride, but should enjoy some upside, on average. Do note some of the risks and concerns voiced at the end of the article.

Of course, amidst all this positivity, the real signs are pointing to growing concerns about the state of the economy.

Central Bank published forecasts show "at risk scenario" forecast of -5.8% contraction in GDP in 2015. This assumes average oil prices in the range of USD40-45pb.

Under the base scenario, oil prices are expected to average USD50-55pb in 2015, rising to USD60-65pb in 2016 and USD70-75pb in 2017. These assumptions support GDP growth forecast of -3.4% to -4.0% in 2015, followed by a contraction of -1.0% to -1.6% in 2016, and growth of 5.5% to 6.3% in 2017. In effect, these forecasts imply 2015-2017 growth of between 0.4% and 0.9%, cumulative. Under the base scenario, growth of 4.6% in 2017 would be required to get Russian economy back to the end-2014 levels.

The CBR forecasts decline of USD50 billion in its forex reserves to around USD307 billion in 2015 and no change in reserves in 2016. The balancing out of reserves is based on current account surplus forecast of USD90 billion in 2016 up on USD64 billion in 2015. CBR projects current account surplus of USD119 billion in 2017.

My view is that the above figures err on optimistic side. I expect Russian economy to shrink by around 4-5% in 2015, post GDP growth of between -1.5% to +0.5% in 2016 and grow by around 3% in 2017. I also expect CBR forex reserves to drop by around USD80 billion in 2015 and closer to USD40-50 billion in 2016 to USD225-230 billion at the end of 2017.

Note: a fascinating and exhaustingly detailed account of the short history of Russian Government and business struggles for who will be building the bridge to Crimea: (in Russian).