Even though, the Russian central bank had spent years and years building up a giant, well diversified war chest of foreign reserves.
The Russian Ruble is in big trouble.
I mean, only a months ago, I made a provocative video about how smart Russia’s strategy really was. Going on and on about how Europe had strong incentives not to go along with American sanctions, given its reliance on Russian gas…..
And for the first few days of the war, this prediction actually held up pretty well.
European nations such as Germany and Italy were hesitant… holding back sanctions…
That is until they didn’t.
So, did the West outsmart Russia’s central bank? And how is Russian central bank going to retaliate?
Let’s get into it.
Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions
As it stands, Western sanctions targeting targ three groups in particular:
The first group are wealthy and or well connected Russian’s
The second group are banks, potentially also through the Swift messaging system
Finally, the third group is the central bank itself
So, let’s talk about the lightest and most common form of sanctions:
targeting wealthy individual Russians, especially those connected to the regime.
The idea here is that these are the most important supporters of Putin’s regime. By hitting them where it hurts, they might turn against the War and therefore pressure Putin to back off.
In this case, this could be extra effective since roughly 20% of Russian household wealth is held off-shore in nations such as Cyprus, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
But, in all honesty economic historians typically find that such sanctions are not very effective at discouraging invasions such as these.
So, that brings us to the sanctions that are putting the Ruble under pressure. These will make it more difficult for Russia to fund its war. But, more importantly, a lower Ruble will hurt Russia by increasing inflation through more expensive imports. And, even though Russia’s economy is pretty self-sufficient in some key sectors such as energy, and food, the country still imports a lot of goods such as machinery, cloths, and cars.
So, how does sanctioning the second group, Russian banks, hurt the Ruble?
Well, by not allowing Western banks to do business with them, Russian banks can no longer facilitate international transactions. On top of this, the much hyped exclusion of Russian banks from the Western SWIFT messaging system achieves the same thing.
Sure, both of these could be worked around by Russian banks.
They could opt not to use the Swift messaging system and picking up a phone for example. Or they could use a less efficient system developed by China or Russia.
The same goes for individual sanctions.
Banks could theoretically get around these by working via non-Western banks.
However, this is not easy.
Imagine this. Russian bankers are facing one of the worst disruptions of their business ever and now they are expected to change their biggest systems and client networks all at the same time?
Yeah, that is not going to happen any time soon.
And that is where Russia’s central bank was supposed to come in. In my previous video, I discussed how it could use its massive war-chest of foreign currency reserves to cushion the impact of bank sanctions.
Basically, selling reserve assets such as Treasuries and using these to buy a lot of Rubles.
And to counter a potential freezing of reserve assets by the USA, the Russian central bank was smart enough to keep most reserves in Europe, which depends heavily on Russia’s gas.
Booooom sanction immunity achieved.
But, look, the thing in economics is that the participants in it act strategically. This means that an action by one player might evoke a counter action by another.
And, this is exactly what happened.
I mean who know, maybe European leaders had even seen my original video.
In any case, after the war in Ukraine stalled, Europe did commit to sanctions. And together with Japan, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, they assaulted Putin’s war chest directly.
Which is really quite unprecedented.
You see, together these countries are threatening to freeze Russia’s Euro, Dollar, Yen, and Franc denominated reserves that fall under their jurisdictions.
And while this all sounds very complicated.
In practice, it means that when the Russian central bank calls their broker to sell French Government Bonds or some other instrument, the broker will just say no. Or if they want to access the accounts that they have at the German Bundesbank,the German bundesbank will just say Nein.
And with this move the West has basically broken Russia’s central bank,
and yes, by that they also invalidated the analysis that I made in my previous video.
The consequence, is that now the sanctions on banks weigh much more heavily. The Ruble is plunging hard. There are ques outside of Russian banks. Russian inflation is expected to surge. And the Kremlin will find it harder to finance its invasion forces.
But, there are two important points here that might complicate matters.
The first is that some of the sanctions might yet turn out to be smoke and mirrors. And The second point is that Russia might be able to defend its currency even without its war chest.
Smoke & Mirrors
Let’s talk about smoke & mirrors first.
Sure, all of these sanctions sound extreme and market participants now already reacting to them, as if they are in place.
But, it is important to remember that they are not yet all in place.
Yes, some banks have lost access SWIFT. But, importantly, they are still allowed to use the system for energy transactions.
So, perhaps Russian banks can get around this by just indicating many more transactions are ….. energy transactions?
And even if this is not possible, the most important transactions actually are energy transactions.
So…. yeah… big loophole.
And about these central bank reserves. It is not yet clear how much of them will actually be frozen. This means that the Russian central bank might still have some time to move most of them to other jurisdictions.
And, on top of that, Russia is fighting back against sanctions in other ways.
Russia Strikes Back?
For example, many fear that Russia will counter Europe’s by cutting them off from their precious gas.
Then again, it is also not in Russia’s interest to do this because it will leave them with even less money to prop up its currency.
In other words, the more it cuts off Europe, the more quickly its war chest will deplete.
So, for now, Russia’s central bank is trying to attract foreign money by raising its interest rate from 9.5% to a whopping 20%. On top of that it has initiated capital controls to prevent citizens from sending money out of the country. Finally, it has pledged to provide liquidity to all banks in need.
So, with the West having broken Russia central banking strategy. The ball is back in Russia’s court.
If Russia does cut energy to Europe, the fallout will be bad. Furthermore, Russia is looking at freezing Western assets. And finally, as Credit Suisse economist Zoltan Poszar has noted, Russia’s energy surpluses, were funding the West for a large part. So, stopping that flow might lead to tremendous stress in Western financial markets as well.
And what about the long-term impact of these sanctions on the use of the Dollar or the Russian economy?