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5 reasons Russia’s banking system is heading for trouble

Russia’s recent bailout of two major banks will cost the country billions of rubles. But the future of the Russian banking system, and its impact on the nation’s economy, is still uncertain.

Russia is finally emerging from a serious recession, with growth predicted for 2018. However, the recent rescue of B&N Bank and Otkritie Bank highlighted serious problems in Russia’s banking industry – problems that have not gone away following the bailouts, and could endanger the economic recovery if it doesn’t progress quickly enough.

A tale of two banks

Bank Otkritie FC, Russia’s biggest private lender in term of assets, started seeing huge cash outflows in June 2017. Then, in August, came a sudden ratings drop by Fitch.

“Otkritie, B&N Bank, Prosuyazbank and Credit Bank of Moscow are among the banks that have been subject to Russian media speculation in recent weeks, regarding the liquidity position of some and the potential knock-on effect on others.”

Fitch Ratings report, 18 August

The day before, Moody’s had placed Otkritie on review for a possible downgrade, citing increased financing of assets held by its parent company Otkritie Holdings, and volatility of customer deposits.

“Since mid-2017 and following the recent regulatory changes regarding the placement of non-state pension funds’ and state budget deposits, BOFC has experienced a significant outflow of customer deposits.”

Moody’s report, 17 August

It wasn’t long before the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) was forced to intervene. In late August, it became the biggest owner of Otkritie with a 75 percent stake, worth approximately US$51 billion. The strategy was to assuage depositors’ fears of losing their deposits, and stabilise the Russian banking system.

The Russian ruble has lost value in recent years leading to a lack of liquidity for the nation’s banks. In an attempt to stabilize the ruble exchange rate, the Bank of Russia raised interest rates to 17 percent from 10.5 percent.  But this move was not enough and the ruble devalued further. The combination of a depreciating ruble and rising inflation has made it more difficult for large, and especially small Russian banks, to remain liquid. As many Russian banks rely on cash as their main asset, the ruble’s depreciation causes them to lose value and have to acquire more funds. This means increased borrowing at possibly higher rates or seeking government bailouts so they can stay solvent.

5. High number of bankruptcies

As if Russia does not have enough financial headaches, the country has seen a wave of bankruptcies among banks in recent years. Adding to these closings is the increased amount of non-performing loans (NPLs). For example, NPLs went from 6 percent in all of 2013 to 9.2 percent in the first quarter of 2016. The higher the number of NPLs, the greater the chance of bankruptcies among Russia’s financial institutions. Officially, these NPLs make up about 10% of all loans. However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the true level of bad loans could be closer to 13.5%. Either way, many Russian banks are facing financial catastrophe. In order to stem the tide of these bankruptcies, between January 2014 and mid-2016, the CBR revoked 214 bank licenses and placed 28 banks into open bank resolution, using public moneys totaling 1.1 percent of Russia’s GDP.

Bad loans in Russia

Source: Bloomberg.com

Persistent risks

“The bailout was good for investors, probably bad for the system. They prevented the Lehman effect in the Russian banking system and created a too-big-to-fail mentality.  How many other banks in Russia with the same sort of problems will need a bailout soon?”

Dmitri Barinov, Portfolio Investor, to Bloomberg News

In September there seemed to be a glimmer of hope when Fitch revised upwards the outlooks of 23 Russian banks. Tellingly however, this was off the back of a sovereign outlook upgrade, meaning that it wasn’t the strength of the sector that prompted the change, but the allegedly improved ability of the state to bail them out if required.

Even that capability is in question. Russia is probably in worse financial and economic shape than its policymakers and leaders are willing to admit. It’s well known but worth repeating, that Russia has become too dependent on oil at a time of sustained low oil prices. Oil was supposed to be Russia’s source of financial capital that it could put into its banks and always provide them with the cash flow they needed in good and bad economic times.

But now Russia is walking a financial tightrope that could impact the nation’s banking system for years to come. Unless Russia makes a strong economic recovery in the near future, its banking sector could see more hard times that the CRB will not have the power or resources to bring under control.

This article first ran on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Arthur Guarino.

 

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