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Russia: Bank Industry Is Young But Learning

  • Robert Lyle



New York, 9 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Garerin Tocunyan does not fit the usual image of a banker in any country -- he's only 33 years old, studied physics at university and heads a major bank founded only six years ago.

Yet despite his relative youth and lack of formal training, Tocunyan is a fitting symbol of the new, still untrained but learning fast Russian commercial banking industry.

Tocunyan, president of the Moscow-based Technobank, was among four Russian commercial bank leaders who, accompanied by the president of the Association of Russian Banks, Sergei Yergerov, discussed the state of Russian banking with American bankers and business leaders in New York city Tuesday.

Alternately brash and humble, Tocunyan reflected the quandry of many Russian private-sector bankers -- wanting to be accepted by Western bankers as equals heading institutions that are often larger than historic American or West European banks, but at the same time desperately needing to learn the ropes of a banking system that is so entirely new to those who grew up in the old Soviet communist system.

"We appeal to you to have more confidence in us, without thinking of our old ideologies," Tocunyan told the conference sponsored by the U.S.-Russia Business Council. "We want you to fall in love with the Russian banking system."

At the same time, the young banker said: "We appreciate the help of Western banks. Without this cooperation, we can't join the international banking community."

The process of developing a commercial banking system in Russia is a difficult one, said Tocunyan.

"It's scary for us," he confessed.

Progress has been made and critical elements such as a national clearing system is now in the pilot stages while the Central Bank is constantly learning and improving in its supervision of banks across the country, he said.

The head of the bank association, Sergei Yegorov, who alone among the commercial bankers had experience dating back more than 15 years into the old Soviet state bank, noted that he had never seen such an array of young bank leaders in any country.

But he also said this was a system being built from the "bottom up" and that while it is not yet on a par with Western industrial countries, it is developing well and needs to receive reciprocity from Western countries.

"We are now restructuring the whole essence of our system's existence," said Yegorov. Under this "new system" banks are learning to interact with clients. "We're trying to be as universal as possible," he said.

The head of the Russian Central Bank, which oversees commercial banks as well as operates the country's monetary policy, admits the system has problems.

"It's not anything nice, but it's not catastrophic," says Central Bank Chairman Sergei Dubinin.

Dubinin says that only about 40 percent of Russia's over 2,000 commercial banks are now in full compliance with the basic standards set by the BIS (Bank for International Settlements) on capital reserves, lending and other policies for commercial banks.

Around 10 to 15 percent of Russian banks, at the other extreme, says Dubinin, have "negative capital," which means that they lost more money in the last year than they had in their original capitalization. Those institutions pose a "very difficult situation," he says, and may require being closed or merged with stronger banks.

The largest share of Russia's banks are, however, much closer to meeting the BIS standards than they are to being bankrupt.

"All of them have some problems, but they're not serious and each has an agenda on how to improve its situation," he says.

Still, in more candid moments, Dubinin admits that regulating the commercial banks is "a big headache" that he wishes he could pass off to some other agency.

But, with a sigh, he says that if Russia is to follow the global model, the Central Bank must retain primary responsibility for regulating private commercial banks.

More of a problem for him, says Dubinin, is trying to help Russia's bankers learn the basics of Western banking while protecting the depositors and preventing a banking crisis from rocking Russia during the difficult transition period.

"We try to be reasonable," he told the conference, "but it is difficult doing business during restructuring."

Dubinin, Yegorov and others bristle, however, when they hear accusations that the banking industry is riddled with corruption or has been taken over by organized crime.

Dubinin says he worked for a year in the private sector before joining the central bank and dealt extensively with banks all across Russia and in other nations. The situation in Russia, he said, was "not worse than many in the West and certainly not worse than in the European Union (EU)."

Yegorov says he simply "doesn't understand the charge of criminal" activity generally in banks. He said the bankers association challenged an interior ministry official who claimed there was strong mafia influence in a number of banks and got an apology from the man.

"If a person actually knows of some criminal involvement in a bank, he should act on it," says Yegorov. That's not to deny that there has been some attention to banking by organized criminal elements, he admits. But the fact that a criminal deposits some money in a bank does make the bank corrupt.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement of the progress Russian banks have made in the few years since the break-up of the Soviet Union came from the long-time head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Gerald Corrigan.

Corrigan, now the chairman of international advisers for the leading investment banking firm Goldman, Sachs & Company, led the first U.S. banking teams to Russia in 1992 when there was virtually no knowledge of Western banking.

He told the conference that what the Russian banking system has achieved since then is nothing short of phenomenal.

"If Russian banks achieve just half the progress in the next five years that they made in the past five, it will be utterly unbelievable," he said.

Corrigan noted, however, that expectations should not be too high.

"There are going to be problems and there are going to be banks that fail," he says. "That is a natural part of the process."

But remember that even in the United States, it takes two to three years to train a bank examiner who has already had a long involvement with the system.

"We must have patience and not expect so much overnight."

Still, Corrigan urged Russian bankers not to ease off in their efforts to come up to world standards of a system which instills confidence in depositors and provides a careful, trustworthy and dependable system of credits and clearance for the country.

In another five years Russian banks will be close to that goal, he said, "and I want to be there."

As Corrigan addressed the conference, a cellular telephone rang out in the hall. Garerin Tocunyan jumped to his feet, and with the phone to his ear, dashed for the door. The American bankers understood completely.
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