Banks Agree to Cap Interest Rates at 18%

The Central Bank and lenders have “reached an agreement” that beginning next month, no new deposits will be offered at interest rates above 18 percent, First Deputy Chairman Gennady Melikyan said Wednesday.

With inflation beginning to slow, the Central Bank has been trying to reduce interest rates across the board to stimulate the economy, and it has cut its benchmark refinancing rate four times since April, most recently on Monday to 11 percent.    

The agreement was reached after the Central Bank met with a number of banks offering rates of 18 to 20 percent, Melikyan told reporters. Most reacted positively to the idea, he said, although he also warned that lenders that do not comply with the agreement could face administrative measures.

The move appears to be an attempt to head off situations where banks, faced with lower revenue because of the economic crisis, would have difficulty paying out the high rates to depositors.

“All banks are having some income problems, and [the Central Bank] wants to avoid high-risk situations,” said Dmitry Murzin, a director at the Russian Association of Regional Banks.

“This would have happened naturally. Lending money at those rates is becoming expensive for banks, and they will have a hard time returning it,” he said. “In any case, they can get cash at a better rate from the Central Bank.”

Most regional banks are already lending within the “14, 15 or 16 percent range,” he added.

Earlier this month, First Deputy Chairman Alexei Ulyukayev said the Central Bank would punish lenders who did not lower interest rates on deposits and credit facilities by limiting their access to Central Bank funding.

“If the Central Bank lowers its refinancing rate and all its other interest rates, reduces the cost of funding for banks, that should be the basis for banks to moderate their approach to deposits and loans,” Ulyukayev said.

It applied similar restrictions earlier this year on cash and loans secured by bonds or other collateral to limit bets on the ruble devaluation.

When asked last month why rates at state-controlled Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, were significantly lower than the competition, president German Gref scoffed at depositors who sought sky-high percentages on their money.

“We’re not a casino. There are plenty of banks that are offering 20 percent [per year]. People who want to lose, I’ll send to those banks. We’ll see later how they’re going to get their money back out,” he said, adding that Sberbank’s 12 percent rate on ruble deposits was “balanced.”

The following day, Sberbank cut its ruble rates by another percentage point.