Ignatyev Says Worst Of Bank Woes Over

Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatyev said Friday that the worst of the crisis is over and the bank may soon be able to lower its refinancing rate for the first time since 2007.

Speaking to the Association of Russian Banks, Ignatyev echoed comments by his deputy that the 13 percent refinancing rate was too high.

"The rate is high. ... As long as inflation decreases, we will lower the refinancing rate ... from its current level of 13 percent."

Ignatyev also dismissed recent warnings by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was also at the meeting, that the increasing number of bad loans might bring on a second wave of hardship.

"The most painful phase of the crisis is behind us. I think that in the coming months, the economy will start to grow again, albeit slowly," he said.

Data supplied by Ignatyev at the conference seemed to confirm such fears.

The amount of overdue loans taken out by individuals reached 4.4 percent on March 1, compared with 3.2 percent on Sept. 1, Ignatyev said.

"The problem is serious, but I don't share the opinion that there will be a second wave of the crisis," he said, pointing to high levels of capital in the banking system as one positive indicator.

Both Kudrin and Ignatyev took aim at executive compensation, echoing President Dmitry Medvedev's call on Thursday for bonuses to be cut for state-owned companies receiving government aid in 2008 to 2009.

The pay cuts should last "at a minimum throughout the crisis, that is, for two years exactly," Kudrin said, adding that the Finance Ministry and Economic Development Ministry were working through the details of the plan.

VTB was quick to comply with the demands. "The president said to cut the bonuses -- that means that we will cut the bonuses," VTB chief Andrei Kostin said.

Kudrin also said the laundering of government money has increased as the state has doled out billions of dollars in aid to struggling banks.

"Our analysis ... shows that, especially during the crisis, money laundering is increasing. This is one of the ways of running off with assets or foreign money," he said, adding that most of the banks that had seen their licenses pulled were involved in money laundering.

Ignatyev rounded out the conference with a mixed bag of economic indicators, which showed slowing capital outflows and atrophied levels of trade.

Net capital outflows from Russia stood at $38.8 billion in the first quarter, down 71 percent from the fourth quarter of 2008, when the figure reached $130 billion, Ignatyev said. The price of the country's Urals crude leveled off at the beginning of the year after falling to a low of $32.34 per barrel Dec. 24 from $92.32 at the start of the quarter.

The country's trade balance also fell during that period, hitting $21.7 billion from $49.9 billion in the previous quarter. First-quarter exports were $60.1 billion, compared with $110.1 billion the quarter before, while imports fell to $38.4 billion from $60.2 billion, he said.