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Analysis: Crisis Of Confidence In Russia's Central Bank?

As the shockwaves from the recent crisis of confidence that passed through the Russian banking sector recede, analysts and pundits have struggled to identify the effects of that crisis and to predict future developments in the sector. No consensus has emerged on the crucial questions of what caused the crisis, who benefited from it, and whether a second wave of instability looms in the near future. Perhaps most importantly, the role of the government -- and especially the Central Bank -- has come under harshly critical scrutiny.

The crisis is widely perceived as having been initiated by a Central Bank decision in May to withdraw the license of Sodbiznesbank on suspicion that it facilitated money laundering in the amount of more than $1 billion. Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatev told Interfax on 19 May that the decision to revoke the license had been "thought out very carefully" and he sought to assure panicked depositors that they would get their money, although he stopped short of offering a guarantee.

Center for Political Technologies General Director Igor Bunin told on 20 July that the shock going through the banking sector was "a strange crisis." After revoking the Sodbiznesbank license, "the Central Bank not only didn't bother to settle problems using politically correct methods and to manage the crisis, but it actually gave it an additional push," Bunin said.

At almost the same time, reports began to appear in the media to the effect that the Central Bank had prepared a "blacklist" of banks that were to be liquidated. Although Ignatev and other Central Bank and government officials repeatedly denied the reports, the panic was fomented by numerous earlier statements that the Central Bank is pursuing a policy of consolidation in the sector. "The most important element in the state's policy regarding credit organizations will be the stimulation of their enlargement through voluntary combination and mergers," Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told a cabinet session on 8 July at the height of the banking crisis, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on 9 July. "Ekspert," No. 26, noted that one of the elements of the government policy that Fradkov articulated at that meeting is a move to compel banks to identify publicly their shareholders.
Reports appeared indicating that the Central Bank had prepared a "blacklist" of banks that were to be liquidated.

Despite the nervousness such statements provoked on the edgy interbank market, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov on 20 July told Interfax that the Central Bank's steps to ameliorate the crisis "will encourage bank mergers and instill true competition in the industry."

Shortly after the Sodbiznesbank episode, the panic spread to Guta Bank, one of the 30 largest banks in Russia. Banking-sector analysts argued that Guta Bank was fundamentally healthy and urged the Central Bank to offer it a stabilization loan to carry it through the crisis. The Central Bank, however, responded by brokering the purchase of Guta Bank by the state-owned Vneshtorgbank at a price that many observers considered highly suspicious. On 21 July it was made public that an 85.8 percent stake in Guta Bank, which listed assets of about $1 billion, was sold for just 1 million rubles ($33,000). "Russkii fokus" this month speculated that the owners of troubled Guta Bank might have agreed so quickly to sell to state-owned Vneshtorgbank because they were "inspired by the example of 'jailbird' Mikhail Khodorkovskii," the jailed former CEO of embattled oil giant Yukos.

Many analysts have emphasized a connection between the perceived threat to property rights inherent in the Yukos affair and the nervousness in the banking sector. Moscow Interbank Currency Association President Aleksei Mamontov, writing in "Vedomosti" on 19 July, said "the authorities have never recognized the fact that the reasons for the banking crisis lie not in the psychological or the regulatory sphere but specifically in the sphere of adhering to rights of ownership." He added that the banking crisis demonstrated most clearly that "incursion into these rights may be both sudden and ruinous to any credit institution." Presidential economics adviser Andrei Illarionov said on 10 July that the crisis was provoked by the actions of state agencies, particularly the Central Bank, that are leading to "the socialization or communalization of the banking system, which, strictly speaking, leads directly to nationalization," "Russkii fokus" reported.
A recent study found that 56 percent of Russians believe that a crisis similar to the August 1998 financial meltdown could happen again in the near future.

The Center for Development on 23 July released a report predicting that capital flight from Russia will rise dramatically to $17.2 billion this year, "Vedomosti" reported. The center attributed the rise to both the Yukos affair and the banking crisis. Institute for Problems of Globalization head Mikhail Delyagin, who served as an economics adviser to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, told "Novaya gazeta," No. 52, that the state takeover of Guta Bank shows that "nationalization is being performed to instill fear, in order to frighten business, so as to turn it into a cash cow in someone's private interests."

Association of Regional Banks Vice President and former Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Sedov, in a 19 July interview with the popular daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," was unambiguous in blaming the Central Bank for the recent crisis and for creating the atmosphere for another. "[The Central Bank] cleaned up the small Sodbiznesbank, but they cleaned it up so clumsily that the entire banking system nearly collapsed," Sedov said. "Our people have a good memory. They haven't forgotten the [August 1998] default. Now it will be a long time before their confidence is restored. In effect, the banking system has been thrown back several years."

RBK reported on 26 July that a study conducted by the Levada Center on 16-19 July found that 56 percent of Russians believe that a crisis similar to the August 1998 financial meltdown could happen again in the near future, an increase of 12 percent over last year. Against the background of such jitters and the widespread lack of confidence in the motives and methods of the Central Bank, any misstep on the part of the authorities could produce an unpredictable resonance in what a 23 July "Vedomosti" editorial called "our fragile financial system."

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