The head of Russia’s second-largest bank on Friday threatened to “fist fight” anyone who accused his firm of speculation against the rouble.
Andrei Kostin, the head of state-owned VTB bank, told TV channel Russia-24 that he rejected the “completely unfounded allegations” that his company was involved in betting against the currency.
“The Central Bank unreservedly denies that any of our [Russia’s] major banks are involved in these [speculative] schemes,” he said. “I am absolutely ready to argue with anyone and fist fight those who make these completely unfounded allegations about what that the bank is doing.”
Kostin’s comments were widely seen as a response to Sergei Mironov, the leader of “A Fair Russia” political party, who was quoted by independent Russian news service Interfax last week as saying that “the five largest banks in Russia [are] the biggest speculators in the foreign exchange market”.
Russian authorities have been threatening to take action against businesses in the country that are trying to profit from driving down the value of the rouble. President Vladimir Putin recently called on the Russian central bank to take tough action against currency speculators.
“I ask the government and the Bank of Russia to hold tight coordinated action to discourage so-called speculators play on the Russian currency exchange rate fluctuations,” Putin said in his annual address to the nation last Thursday. “The authorities know who these speculators are, and have tools to influence them. It’s time to take advantage of these tools.”
The latest criticism of currency speculators is strongly reminiscent of the events of 2008-09. In February 2009, then-Prime Minister Putin told banks receiving emergency loans from the central bank that the funds “should be spent not on financial speculations but go to the real sector in the form of loans to enterprises”.
At the time, it was suspected that financial institutions were using cheap dollars provided by the central bank to finance bets against the rouble. This forced the central banks to set limits on its foreign-exchange swap operations to prevent banks from setting up these speculative positions.
It remains unclear what the authorities plan to do this time around, however. Despite a commitment last month to allow the currency to free float, sharp falls in the rouble last week forced the central bank to intervene in currency markets once again. The bank spent $US2.6 billion last week buying up roubles as the currency slid against the dollar and the euro on the back for further weakening in global oil prices.
One possible action would be to impose capital controls to either prevent money from leaving the country or to force sales of foreign currency reserves held by private companies. The downside is that these could be seen as as panic measures undertaken by the government that would cause Russian consumers to lose more faith in the value of their own currency.
Furthermore, depriving banks from being able to access central bank foreign currency reserves entirely could cause them to struggle to meet their debt repayment obligations, putting the already fragile Russian economy into an even more parlous state.
Putin has repeatedly ruled out imposing currency controls at this stage. But as the rouble crisis wears on, these extreme measures are becoming ever more likely. As Igor Nikolaev, director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis FBK, told Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta: “Some time ago, all these fears of currency restrictions might have seemed nonsense, because for so many years progress was being made to ensure the liberalisation of this sector of activity. But now they do not seem like nonsense.”