The Russian ‘currency collapse’

The price of oil—the commodity upon which the Russian economy is built—began to fall sharply, draining the nation’s economy of foreign money and crimping its growth. This dynamic drove the ruble sharply lower, culminating in an 11% drop on Monday, which forced Russia’s central bank to raise interest rates by a whopping 650 basis points, all but assuring a deep and painful recession in 2015.

But with strict sanctions in place against Russian companies—in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hostilities with Ukraine earlier this year—and the continuous fall in oil prices, the interest rate hike did not satisfy traders, who sent the the ruble tumbling another 8% following the announcement.

The fall of the ruble has been swift and devastating. Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, referred to the currency’s plummet as “an unrecoverable spiral” in a note to clients on Tuesday. He argues that what we are seeing now is a classic “currency collapse,” brought on by both economic factors like sanctions and falling oil prices as well as financial factors like the Russian central bank printing money to help state-owned oil company Rosneft cover its debt denominated in foreign currencies.

What makes the situation in Russia that much worse is that the nation’s companies, both private and state-owned, hold $670 billion in debt denominated in foreign currencies. This debt is about one-third the size of the entire Russian economy, and it will become impossible for Russian companies to service it if the ruble continues to fall. Writes Weinberg:

The amount of rubles local borrowers have to give up to pay off foreign debt obligations just increased by 20 percent overnight, by 50 percent since the start of this month, and by 90% since the start of November…. The effective interest rate on foreign borrowing for Russians is over 6000%, enough to kill any economy.

Normally, when countries find themselves in a situation like Russia’s, they turn to the IMF, which would provide funding and debt restructuring in exchange for the enactment of economic reforms. But as University of Oregon economist Tim Duy writes, it’s tough to see either the IMF swooping in to help an international pariah like Russia or Vladimir Putin submitting to any reforms imposed by the West.

So, how will Russia’s currency crisis affect the U.S.? It’s tough to say for sure. A recession in Russia won’t have much of an effect on the American economy, as the two nations conduct very little trade with each other. But make no mistake, the crisis in Russia today is at least partially a result of the diplomatic policies of the United States. We are seeing the kind of economic misery the U.S. and Europe aimed to inflict on Russia as a result of its aggression in Ukraine.

The question now is whether the economic pain will convince Russia to back down, or double down, in Eastern Europe. Weinberg, for one, worries that Putin will instruct Russian companies to renege on their foreign obligations. This could spell bad news for banks and investors across Europe and the U.S. that have loaned money to Russian companies, and it could allow Russia’s financial instability to infect other emerging markets and the already shaky E.U. economy.

By: Chris Matthews – Fortune, December 16th