"If you're standing at the ATM and it is not giving you your money, you don't care where something is going wrong..."
MOSCOW —“Sanctions don’t worry me. On the contrary, I am proud of them. I consider them a type of political ‘Oscar’ from America, in the category of ‘Best Male Supporting Actor.’ ” So declared Vladislav Surkov, one of President Vladimir Putin’s advisors, the day after the United States, European Union and Canada announced sanctions against Russia.
It’s true the sanctions pose little real threat. Just a handful of private individuals have been forbidden to enter the EU and U.S. and have had their assets frozen. It’s not likely to have a significant effect on the Russian economy, and those people on the blacklist can revel in the attention they are getting.
The rest of Russia’s citizens should evaluate the economic situation and risks for themselves and their savings. Because even if the sanctions are toothless now, that’s no guarantee they will remain so.
But there are plenty of other reasons for worry even without economic sanctions from the West.
Devaluation The ruble has already lost 12% of its value since the beginning of 2014. The Russian Central Bank has said it is willing to spend as much as necessary to prop up the currency, and it has already spent $38.5 billion toward that end since the beginning of the year.
Financial experts minimized the risks to people with nest eggs in rubles, stressing that as long as the Central Bank is willing to support the Russian currency, there is no sense in converting more than a third of your savings into dollars.
There is, however, a “but.” It’s not clear whether the Central Bank will be as committed to supporting the ruble’s current value of around 36 rubles to the dollar given the flight of capital from the country, which has picked up substantially since last year.
“In all likelihood, the ruble will continue to get weaker,” explains Aleksandr Golovstov, a director at the Uralsib analysis center. “The Central Bank has enough reserves to prevent it from crashing, but it’s more likely that we’ll see an exchange rate of 40 rubles per dollar by the end of the year than 38 rubles per dollar, which is what we were estimating in December.”
Inflation is the second most worrying trend in the Russian economy and a direct result of the ruble’s devaluation. According to federal statistics, inflation is currently three times higher than it was last year. “Historically, a 10% devaluation in the ruble results in a one percentage point increase in inflation,” Golovstov explains. “But demand has been dropping, so it’s likely to be less this time, because manufacturers and retailers are going to have a harder time raising prices.” He estimates that inflation will be around 7% this year.
That’s not good news for the Central Bank, which had wanted to keep inflation under 5%. It’s also not good news for Russian consumers, who are likely to see prices rising faster than their incomes.
Dropping Asset Values If you regard Russian stocks as assets, then there’s no reason to be worried about future losses because Russian stocks are already losing money. For most people, though, the largest assets are in real estate, and whether those values are rising or falling depends largely on how they are measured.
“The ruble’s devaluation means that the prices in rubles of real estate are rising,” says Oleg Repchenko, head of the IRN.ru analysis center. “But in dollars, the prices have been dropping for three months now. In other words, the price of a dollar is rising faster than the price of a square meter of real estate.” Moscow real estate values have dropped by 6% since the beginning of the year when measured in dollars, but they’ve gain 3% percent in the same time period when measured in rubles.
Plastic Payments? Experts seemed to think that global credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard would only cease services under the most extreme of sanctions. Clients of Rossiya Bank know better, as both Visa and Mastercard stopped serving the bank’s clients after President Barack Obama announced that it would be sanctioned.
But sanctions aren’t the only concern for card holders. Just ask clients of the now-defunct Master Bank, many of whose clients were stuck abroad with no way to access their funds. “If you’re standing at the ATM and it is not giving you your money, you don’t care where something is going wrong,” quips Dmitrii Miroshnichenko, a researcher at the Higher School of Economics.
But even in Russia, account holders at banks that are having financial difficulties are running into limits on how much they can withdraw per month, and it’s possible that some banks may go bankrupt. Anyone with with less than $20,000 is protected, but not necessarily clients with more than that.
Most experts agree, however, that it’s highly unlikely that people will completely lose their savings in a widespread bank run of the kind that would be impossible for government banking insurance to cover.
Do ordinary Russians trust these assurances that their savings are safe? Devaluation and currency issues are not abstract ideas in Russia. Many remember the devaluation of the ruble in 1998, when anyone with their savings in the Russian currency lost nearly everything. Experts might not see many parallels between the current economic problems and those in 1998, but they do share at least one common feature: deep uncertainty.
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