Crash Faulted on Bank, 'Political Games'

While no one is certain why the ruble is falling, the currency crash has elicited explanations from the serious to the bizarre, with experts claiming everything from the Central Bank's ineptitude, to runaway speculation, to the last gasp of Cold Warriors.

"We cannot exclude that Western or Eastern European capital is behind this spontaneous move of the market," Interfax quoted a spokesman for the Central Bank saying Tuesday. "We are inclined to think that some sort of financial organization or big bank organized a shadow game."

The facts: The ruble took its worst nosedive Tuesday in two years of trading against the dollar, falling nearly 850 points and losing nearly 27.4 percent of its value.

"This is an absolute mess," said one Western currency expert. "And I don't think it's over. The ruble could drop another 800 points tomorrow and it wouldn't surprise me."

The Central Bank has spent about $2 billion propping up the ruble this year, its chairman, Viktor Gerashchenko, told Itar-Tass on Monday. But the bank began stepping back from the market last month, announcing it would allow the ruble to rise and fall on its own.

On Tuesday the bank only jumped into the market before closing, spending between $40 million and $90 million to keep the ruble below 4,000.

But many traders and analysts said the Central Bank's action came too late. Maxim Stolitsky, a ruble dealer with Most Bank, said that the interbank currency market, where banks buy and sell currency, was paralyzed by the fall.

Several analysts saw wisdom in the Central Bank's strategy, saying that a declining ruble makes Russian exports more competitive and makes it easier for the Central Bank to pay government debts by converting dollars. "It also means that they are allowing the ruble to find its own levels," said Victor Huaco, president of LTS Securities. "The Central Bank is trying to find equilibrium before it begins spending. It wastes valuable cash reserves."

But a runaway ruble could endanger Russia's free-market reforms, causing Western agencies to curtail loans and squeezing a Russian people who rely heavily on imports .

The Central Bank's last minute action caused several analysts to conclude that politics were dictating the bank's actions.

"Today it is absolutely clear that there are political games behind all this," said Yelena Ishchenko, head of the foreign economic department for the governmental Center for Economic Trends. "This is a way certain political circles are trying to make a reshuffle in the government."

Western investors in the stock market took the ruble crash in stride. Facing the difficulty of selling stocks on the illiquid Russian market, many foreign funds are trading shares outside the country, calling their Russian brokers only to record the trades, brokers said. Most of these trades are made in dollars.

"The market is up nearly 10,000 percent from where it began 18 months ago," said Dimitri Sogoloff, a partner at the New York-based Hermes capital, which has more than $75 million invested globally. "In the long-term, these skids mean nothing to us."

Analysts, however, were offering no predictions of when the slide would end.

"It's a good question," said one economist at a international organization. "I wish I had a good answer."