Ruble May Soon Lose Central Bank Support

The Central Bank may soon capitulate in its fight to defend the ruble because of plummeting oil and an exit of capital, which has knocked 70 percent off the value of its stock markets since August.

The Central Bank spent around another $13 billion of its more-than $500 billion in gold and foreign currency reserves last week on supporting the ruble against the dollar-euro basket.

Reserves have fallen less than a fifth since August, but major Western banks say falling oil prices and Moscow's plans to spend heavily propping up the economy mean that the Central Bank cannot go on supporting the currency indefinitely.

"Ultimately, they need to depreciate," said Rory MacFarquhar, managing director at Goldman Sachs in Moscow.

"At this oil price, with this credit market, the ruble is at the wrong level -- it is a basic uncontestable statement."

Oil tumbled more than 3 percent to another 17-month low on Monday amid growing doubts over world governments' ability to avert global recession. The price for Urals, Russia's main export blend, fell to $56.3 per barrel on Monday. The financial markets, which lost over one-tenth of their value Friday, were shut Monday.

"If the oil price falls to $50 per barrel, there will be a devaluation, if it climbs back to $70, there will be no devaluation," said a currency dealer at a Western bank in Moscow, who declined to be identified.

The country's reserves have fallen $82 billion since Aug. 8, when it sent tanks into neighboring Georgia. The government plans to spend over $200 billion to prop up growth.

Officials have said the drop in reserves was partly because of a weaker euro. The Central Bank has been forced to sell euros to keep the currency makeup of reserves stable during the dollar-selling interventions.

Officials maintain that the gold and forex reserves are enough to defend the ruble, once described by a senior Central Bank official as an "oil canister" from the point of view of global markets.

"I think they are inclined to wait until things calm down, there is more visibility on the economy and the oil price finds some kind of range," said Goldman's MacFarquhar, who sees a 5 percent depreciation against the basket over the next 12 months.

Credit Suisse analysts predicted the trading range for the ruble against the basket widening to 15 percent to 20 percent from the current 4 percent over the next two to three months, which, given net private capital outflows, amounts to devaluation.

The analysts calculated that commodity exporters and some manufacturers will gain from a 20 percent ruble depreciation against the dollar, while banks, real estate and telecoms firms were likely to lose.

ING analysts said the devaluation could take place after a reintroduction of capital movement controls, which the country abolished with great pomp in 2006.