S&P Lowers Rating Of Russian Standard

Standard & Poor's docked Russian Standard Bank's long-term rating by one notch Thursday, lowering it to B+ from BB- in the first downgrade of a major domestic lender since the financial crisis began.

Ratings agencies have cut the outlooks on many Russian and foreign banks amid tightening liquidity markets and deposit withdrawals, but so far, only smaller lenders have had their ratings cut.

"The downgrade reflects the bank's pressured refinancing capacity and near-term growth prospects amid the deepening global liquidity and credit crisis and local banking sector turbulence," said Yekaterina Trofimova, a ratings analyst at S&P.

Russian Standard Bank, owned by billionaire Rustam Tariko, is the country's largest specialized consumer finance bank, with assets of 207 billion rubles ($8.2 billion) as of Sept. 30.

Yekaterina Sidorova, an analyst at Troika Dialog, called the downgrade "the result of increased systematic risk in the country as a whole," rather than a reflection of any major change in the bank's position.

"When there is risk of a sovereign rating downgrade, a one-notch downgrade of Russian Standard Bank is not that relevant," Sidorova said, referring to the negative outlook on Russia's sovereign debt.

Russian Standard Bank had seen several years of strong growth, but profitability slumped in the third quarter of 2007, when the bank tightened credit standards to improve the quality of its loan portfolio.

"The decision of the rating agency is based solely on the situation on the capital markets, not on the valuation of Russian Standard Bank," spokesman Preston Mendenhall said. "The bank has high turnover, quality short-term assets and is well-positioned to service its debt obligations, as well as maintain high levels of lending to the population, which it performs in the national currency and on competitive terms relative to its competitors."

The bank finances itself primarily abroad, with 65 percent of its liabilities represented by foreign debt obligations and another 12 percent in domestic borrowings, including state funds. About 28 percent, or $2.2 billion, of its debt could come due by the end of 2009.

"We are confident that the bank has enough resources to make its payment obligations, but because the volume of financing is very large, it is reflected in the overall credit profile of the bank," said Trofimova of S&P.

Trofimova said the state was "not a sustainable funding source" and that the practice "exacerbates the bank's refinancing needs, particularly if it proves only short term."

But the downgrade, which typically complicates growth prospects and refinancing, should not have a material effect on Russian Standard's operations, Troika's Sidorova said. The bank still has a BB- rating at Fitch and a Ba2 rating at Moody's, both of which qualify it to participate in Finance Ministry depositary auctions, she said.

"There is always a risk that they will review their ratings, but there is some cushion there," Sidorova said.