VIEW FROM VEDOMOSTI: Banking Dinosaurs Rise Up From Ashes of August Crisis




Last fall, it seemed that large Russian banks would never rise again. But these remarkable institutions are now out to prove that life after death can be followed by resurrection. Some of them even talk about reviving their old brand names.


Only a year ago, these brand names appeared tarnished beyond repair. Who would put his savings in a bank that once forced depositors to flood courts with lawsuits? Who would ever trust a banking system that depended solely on a state-run debt pyramid? Who would ever forget last fall's hostage-takings in insolvent banks by angry clients wielding ancient shotguns?


People, however, tend to be forgetful, and creditors, once they get over the initial shock of default, can be forgiving.


Now Uneximbank, with debts totaling over $1 billion, has its license back, and, on Tuesday, a court should stop bankruptcy proceedings against it. Earlier, Mezhkombank had managed to win back its license and start implementing a debt restructuring scheme that has been hailed by analysts as the fairest in the industry. Bank Rossiisky Kredit seems to have found a solution acceptable to its creditors, and it promised to resume operations next year.


Even Inkombank, one of the deadest of the Russia's dead financial institutions, appears to be making progress in its talks with creditors.


The deals that former titans of the Russian financial sector are making with creditors differ wildly.


Mezhkombank has apparently found a scheme that fully suits the foreign banks to which Mezhkombank now owes $70 million. The creditors, in particular American Express Bank, are willing to take equity in place of money. AmEx would then use the bank to service American Express cards in Russia.


Mezhkombank has mostly repaid its debts to private depositors. It was different from other large insolvent banks because its president, Alexander Grigoryev, chose not to hide assets from creditors and fought openly to revive the bank he had built. Sometimes that fight took an ugly form. Grigoryev, for example, published an ad in Moscow's most popular daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets, listing private individuals who owed money to Mezhkombank. Not all the information in the ad was accurate, and some lawsuits have resulted from its publication. But creditors were certainly grateful to Grigoryev for his zeal in trying to preserve every penny for them.


Uneximbank, however, is only offering to repay about $100 million more immediately. It would issue eurobonds for $150 million and pay off the rest of the debt with assets, possibly including some of the industrial holdings of Vladimir Potanin's Interros group. This means that Interros, which moved its viable assets to Rosbank last year, failed to fully avoid exposure to creditors' claims.


The bank itself, unlike Mezhkombank, does not interest the creditors as an investment. They also have less trust in the bank's shareholders than AmEx seems to have in Grigoryev. But they have accepted the restructuring scheme for fear of more losses. Now Uneximbank will be able to merge with Rosbank, probably keeping the latter's brand name since it is less discredited.


Rossiisky Kredit, however, wants to keep its old name when it merges with its own "bridge bank" - Impexbank. "We have never been ashamed of what we did before [the crisis]," said Rossiisky Kredit deputy chairman Dmitry Yeropkin in an interview with Vedomosti.


That means putting old signs back on some of Moscow's best real estate, where Rossiisky Kredit will get back its branches once transferred to Impexbank. Rossiisky Kredit's debts total 25.4 billion rubles without various fines and punitive rates, which the bank has been able to write off. The state will get back its debt over six years, while commercial creditors and private depositors will get a one-time cash payment and some new debentures.


As in the case of Uneximbank, Rossiisky Kredit shareholders may have to part with some of the industrial assets that have been moved to the Metallinvest holding.


In most of the aforementioned miraculous revival cases, shareholders retain control over their banks. This is quite unorthodox in terms of Western tradition, but in Russia the new capitalists are like bulldogs who, once they get their hands on a piece of property, will not give it up. Creditors, except perhaps in Mezhkombank's case, are getting a much less attractive deal than they would have in any Western banking system.


Yet there is a hopeful side to the resurrection of old Russian banks. The hope is that Alexander Smolensky's SBS-Agro, the bank with the most unrepentant shareholders, will not be revived like the others. And the odds are that Smolensky's bank will be liquidated. That would set a much-needed negative example to future generations of bankers who might want to build new empires in Russia.