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Analysis: Russia's Banking Sector -- Nervousness Plus Incompetence Equals Crisis?

Central Bank head Sergei Ignatev (file photo) The traditional question in Russia of what crisis this autumn will bring was given added urgency this year by the crisis of confidence that rocked the banking sector in the early summer. Despite the overall impression among analysts that there are no objective reasons to expect a wider crisis in the immediate future, the steady stream of bank closures in the ensuing weeks has done little to calm jittery financiers and bank customers. On 13 August, Moscow's Paveletskii Bank became the eighth bank to lose its license and to be put into receivership since the crisis started in May.

Most analysts agree that the crisis this summer was provoked by a combination of overall nervousness in the sector -- preconditioned largely by the Yukos affair and generally insecure property rights in Russia, as well as by the governments oft-stated policy of encouraging "consolidation" in the banking sector -- and the ham-handed actions and statements of the Central Bank and other regulators. Troika Dialog analyst Yevgenii Gavrilenkov summed up the consensus for "Vremya novostei" on 17 August. "To some extent the crisis was initiated by the regulators. It is clear that it is necessary to clean up the banking system, but this must be done professionally, cautiously, taking into consideration the sensitive character of the economy," Gavrilenkov said.

"It was a classic example of how not to act," he continued. "I think this example will be written into textbooks."

Gavrilenkov said that the overall nervousness in the sector is acerbated by "the general intrigue surrounding the course of reform." "This is a country of elevated nervousness," he said. "Any careless statement or action could fundamentally destabilize the situation."

Moscow Interbank Currency Association President Aleksei Mamontov wrote a scathing criticism of the Central Bank in "Vedomosti" on 19 July. He lambasted the government for not recognizing "that the reasons for the banking crisis lie not in the psychological or regulatory sphere, but specifically in the sphere of adhering to the rights of ownership." In order to avoid future crises in the sector, "political decisions are needed that testify to the fact that the authorities consider the protection of property rights to be their priority function," Mamontov concluded.
"It was a classic example of how not to act. I think this example will be written into textbooks." - Gavrilenkov

In an interview published in mid-August in "Moskovskie novosti," No. 30, the head of the Institute for Problems of Globalization and former economic adviser to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Mikhail Delyagin, said that the crisis was triggered by the Central Bank's drawn-out conflict with Sodbiznesbank. In the weeks prior to the 13 May revocation of Sodbiznesbank's license on suspicion of money laundering, the bank's management attempted to protect itself by attracting as many individual depositors as possible, Delyagin said, describing the depositors as "a human shield" for the bank. By the time the Central Bank began to act, Sodbiznesbank had accumulated more than 45,000 such accounts, greatly increasing the public resonance of its closure.

Moreover, Delyagin said, Sodbiznesbank was apparently counting on some high-level protection from within the government and did not believe that the Central Bank would actually close it down. "After all, why is money laundered in Russian banks?" Delyagin said. "It isn't because of drug traffickers or Islamist terrorists but because of bribes taken by 'big fish.' So the management of Sodbiznesbank, apparently, simply didn't believe the bank would be closed. And so for two weeks the defense of Sodbiznesbank was waged...."

Delyagin's suspicions that the Sodbiznesbank money laundering revolved around official corruption would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, despite taking the radical action of revoking the bank's license, the Central Bank has revealed almost no details of its suspicions. Mamontov also wrote that the authorities must not be allowed to use the struggle against money laundering as a cover for politically motivated ploys. Current anti-money-laundering legislation "directs both the authorities and society from solving real problems to seeking out more and more new 'enemies,'" he argued.

Delyagin and Mamontov both criticized the Central Bank's handling of the takeover of Guta Bank by the state-owned Vneshtorgbank. Both analysts said that the bank was wrong to offer Vneshtorgbank a loan to purchase Guta instead of offering Guta a stabilization loan. This decision, which was never thoroughly explained, fuelled speculation that the authorities are seeking to expand the state portion of the banking sector. "We must reject the practice of the nationalization of problem banks by means of providing Central Bank loans for this purpose, and instead credit the banks themselves," Mamontov wrote. Delyagin speculated that the Central Bank was too incompetent or too passive to monitor how Guta Bank would use a stabilization loan and therefore decided it was more convenient merely to absorb it into the state sector.

Although no statistics have yet been released, it would seem likely that the current uncertainty in the banking sector is beneficial to the larger, state-owned banks. Individual and corporate depositors might well be quietly moving their assets to stronger banks as reports of further closures of private banks trickle out.

Delyagin speculated that the Central Banks lapses were not caused by any nefarious intention on the part of Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatev. "I have the impression that he does not completely control the Central Bank," Delyagin said. "There are several influence groups there and each of them is trying to pull things in their direction." Moreover, Mamontov argues that competition among regulators, especially between the Central Bank and the Federal Financial Markets Monitoring Service, further aggravate the situation.

Delyagin, like most analysts, stressed that there are no objective reasons why there should be a banking crisis. In fact, the most frightening thing about this summer's events for him is that it happened when everything objectively seemed to be going fine. The overall condition of nervousness -- particularly unassuaged doubts about the government's real intentions -- and the unpredictability of the regulators obviously still characterize the business environment in Russia. So although there is no reason to expect a crisis, many observers nonetheless do.