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Friday, October 3, 2008

Russia's Crisis Spreads Right Across The Domestic Credit Market

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well the action in Russia this week has moved on slightly, and the damage has started to spread from pressure on the domestic stock market (accompanied by capital flight) to the real economy - via a very rapid tightening in credit conditions for Russian domestic users. We are also seeing a rapid slowdown in Russian manufacturing industry as internal demand slows while the inflation-driven decline in cost competitiveness continues to make imported products (where available) an attractive alternative to the home produced variant.

Emerging-market bonds have been generally falling this week as the U.S. Senate's approval of a $700 billion bank rescue package did little to revive demand for riskier debt, and Russia has, unsurprisingly, been among the worst affected. The extra yield investors demand to own developing-nation bonds rather than U.S. Treasuries rose 8 basis points yestreday to 4.14 percentage points after widening 12 basis points on Wednesday, according to the JPMorgan Chase EMBI+ index. At the same time the MSCI Emerging Markets Index of stocks fell 0.3 percent to 783.79, its lowest point in four days. While such data readouts do not of course exclusively define the outlook for the Russian economy, they do give us a good indication of the context within which economic activity occurs, and they also give us a very clear measure of the current level of global risk sentiment whose influence, as we will see below, lies right at the heart of the immediate shock that is hitting Russian households and businesses.

Central Bank Reserves Actually Rise

One indication of the slightly different panorama to be found in Russia this week - and of the way in which the recent government intervention is moving the focal point of the crisis away from the equity markets and into the credit ones - is to be found in the little detail that the dollar value of Russia's international reserves actually rose $3.4 billion last week, following consecutive declines during each of the three previous weeks, according to data released this week by Bank Rosii. The value of Russia's Forex reserves increased to $562.8 billion in the week to Sept. 26, after decreasing $900 million to $559.4 billion in the previous week. A significant decline in the value of the dollar (which only represents about 47% of the reserves basket) seems to have been behind what is really a technical revaluation - given that the effect is produced by the rest of the currencies in the basket rising in value against the dollar. But there is no doubting the fact that the capital flight has - for the time being - lost momentum, even though the central bank felt forced to sell an estimated $4.9 billion from the reserves last week to support the ruble, and an estimated $20.6 billion over the last four weeks.

About 47 percent of Russia's reserves are held in U.S. dollars, 42 percent in euros, 10 percent in pounds and 1 percent in yen, according to the most recent figures released by the central bank on June 30, 2007. The share of the reserves held in Swiss francs was reported as being "insignificant''.

Moody's Dowgrades Russian Banks

But while the bloodletting on the foreign exchange side seems to have abated for the time being - PNB Paribas estmated that some $57 billion were taken out of the country between Aug. 8 and Sept. 19, BNP Paribas - the outlook for Russia's banking system has deteriorated significantly after been downgraded to a "negative'' rating by Moody's Investors Services last week.

Slowing asset growth, higher inflation and a decline in equities may constitute as lethal cocktail which produce a sytematic deterioration in the undelying fundamental of Russian banks, is the conclusion many investors are drawing from Moody's latest "Banking System Outlook for Russia" report. Moody's main expressed concern was the way in which Russian banks hadn't cut back their lending in response to the recent change in risk sentiment, thus increasing their risk profile. The "structural weaknesses'' that surfaced this month in Russia's banking system and the possible impact of the global credit squeeze may hurt the ability of banks to repay debt and attract financing, Moody's said in the report. Both OAO Sberbank and VTB Group, Russia's biggest banks, declined following the issuing of the Moody's report. Indeed only this morning (Friday) VTB shares have fallen back one more time, after the bank announced it lost 9.31 billion rubles ($360 million) in September due to ``negative market dynamics.'' Nine-month net income for the bank (under Russian accounting standards) fell to 7.44 billion rubles from the 16.8 billion rubles in the first eight months of the year declared in August. The drop followed a "revaluation of the bank's securities portfolio,'' according to the accompanying statement.

And the other main credit rating agencies have not exactly been silent, with Fitch stating earlier this month that Russian real estate and construction companies are the most at risk as domestic and international banks curb lending, while Russia's credit outlook was cut to "stable'' from "positive'' by Standard & Poor's on Sept. 19. S&P's made the point that the Russian authorities face growing pressure to spend the country's oil generated reserve funds, undermining the country's longer term credit strength. They did however maintain Russia's rating of BBB+, the third- lowest investment grade ranking.

Lending Conditions Tighten

Of course the result of these downgrades (coming hard on the heels of the loss of confidence in the ability of the Russian institutional system to reform itself) wasn't hard to anticipate or slow in coming, and Russia's largest lender, the state-controlled, Sberbank reported on Wednesday that it was going to raise interest rates on retail loans due to the sharp rise in its own borrowing costs. This would seem to be the first major trickle-down from the global financial turmoil onto ordinary Russian citizens, who are already struggling to see the wood from the trees under the impact of double-digit inflation rates. The point about Russia's 15% inflation rate isn't simply the "Alice in Wonderland" quality it has given to Russia's recent growth spurt, what we need to think about is the way in which it distorts all those fundamental day to day decisions which the economy's principal actors (households, companies and the government) need to take. Thus, there is much more to think about in the Russian context than the evident fact that it is a "resource rich country": long term structural distortions which go unattended are never good news.

And with 32 percent of the retail lending market, Sberbank's move will have a rapid impact on millions of ordinary Russians - since interest rates on loans are set to rise by anything between 0.25-2.25 percentage points, depending on the type of loan, and the quality of the collateral offered as guarantee. And, of course, the other consumer banks are all set to follow Sberbank's lead in adjusting their lending conditions.

Sberbank is reported to be in the process of securing a $1.2 billion loan which will be 40 basis points more expensive than its last syndicated loan - a $750 million credit taken out in December 2007, before the impact of the credit crunch was really felt. Sberbank has said it will start passing these extra costs on to new customers immediately, while loan agreements that have already been signed will remain unchanged.

Hardest hit will be rates on mortgage loans taken out in roubles, which will increase by 1.25-2.25 percentage points, while rates for mortgages in foreign currencies will go up between 0.75-1.75 percentage points. Thus interest charged on these loans will rise to between 12.75 and 15.5 percent, depending on the type of collateral and other factors. Interest on other consumer loans - such as cash loans or for consumer durables - will be up by an estimated 1 percentage point on average.

Property Market Starts To Crash

And the trickle-down on loans is rapidly becoming a torrent on the mortgages front. One of the first casualties here would seem to be Moscow's decade-long building boom as the sharp rise in interest rates squeezes developers in what has suddenly become the world's third most expensive property market - bettered only by Monaco and London, according to Global Property Guide.

The case of the Mirax Group - the Moscow-based company that's building the Federation Tower, which will be Europe's tallest skyscraper when completed - is typical, since Mirax have just had to cancel plans to develop 10 million square meters (108 million square feet) of commercial and residential space after they found that interest rates on some loans had risen to as high as 25 percent.

Higher borrowing costs already are hitting demand for apartments, and Moscow-based Real Estate Market Indicators report that prices may fall in the fourth quarter of 2008 and continue falling in 2009. If this happens it will be the first decline in Moscow property prices in 11 years, they say. The property consultants suggest the drop may reach as much as 30 percent for some types of apartments by the end of 2009. This assertion is very hard to judge, but does give some indication of the kind of decline we may see.

Prices for homes in Moscow have risen more than sixfold since 2003. In the first six months of 2008 they were up 25 percent, reaching a record average price of 136,404 rubles ($5,318) per square meter, according to data from Metrinfo.ru, a market research company. Since June prices have climbed another 13 percent.

And it isn't just in Moscow that the credit crunch is tightening its grip, Russian developers are also cutting apartment prices in the regions as a decline in mortgage lending lowers demand for housing. According to Russia's regional press, sales of new apartments in Rostov-on-Don are down 40 percent this month from August, while sales in St. Petersburg have fallen by half since the spring. Prices are said to have declined as much as 24 percent as a result.

And the investment analysts are hitting Russian real estate hard. JPMorgan advised investors, in a research note this week, to "steer clear'' of Russian real-estate stocks since the Russian property sector is expected to be one of the "hardest hit'' in a global recession, while Unicredit analysts state that "The current situation in Moscow partly resembles Japan's real-estate crisis of the 1990s" - personally I think that this is altogether the wrong comparison, but it does give some idea of the seriousness of the situation.

Russia's builders have also started to take a beating. Shares of Sistema-Hals, the property company owned by billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, dropped 25 percent to 75 cents at one point in London trading on Wednesday, touching their lowest level since shares began trading in November 2006, while PIK, the Russian developer with the highest market cap, has lost 78 percent of its value since going ahead with an initial public offering in June 2007. OAO Open Investment, Russia's second-largest publicly traded property company, has declined 52 percent this year. LSR Group, the Russian developer and building-materials maker controlled by billionaire Andrei Molchanov, has fallen 64 percent.

Oh, How Are The Mighty Fallen

"The Federation Tower, which is due to be completed by the company in 2010, will be 506 meters (1,660 feet) tall and will replace Commerzbank AG's headquarters in Frankfurt as Europe's tallest building". And this, we may like to ask ourselves, will be a monument to what, exactly?

Russia's Railways Delay Bond Issue

In another sign of the way in which the global credit strains are now biting, OAO Russian Railways, Russia's state owned rail monopoly, has said it is going to "hold off'' on selling $7 billion of 30-year bonds due to the turmoil in global financial markets. The company had planned to sell $600 million of Eurobonds by the end of 2008 to finance an upgrade in what is effectively the world's longest rail network. ING Groep NV, Barclays Capital and Morgan Stanley, the financial advisers on the loan, recommended waiting to sell the Eurobonds after they saw investor interest waning while the cost of borrowing surged. The impression that all this creates is that the global wholesale money markets are now firmly, but politely, closing their doors in Russia's face.

Back in July, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was busying himself advocating a $525 billion overhaul of Russia's railway system, lauding the rail network as "one of the foundations of Russia's political, social, economic and cultural unity.'' Now, wasn't it Lenin who once said that Russian socialism was nationalisation plus electricity, well Vladimir Putin seems to be suggesting that the new Russian capitalism is lots of public money to support the price of Russian equities plus railways, or words to that effect.

In fact the sad reality is, after all those ambitious words have been spoken and forgotten, that the current credit crunch will probably lead OAO Russian railways to reduce spending both this year and next (and after that we'll see), both delaying and reducing the scope of the principal projected projects. Of course, the Russian govenment could fund some of the activity itself from the National Wealth Fund, but wouldn't that be just the kind of activity which S&P's are warning about? At the present time Russian Railways claim to have sufficient funds to pay off their current debt and state that they won't need to tap the state-run development bank VEB for refinancing. The rail operator does, however, have 128 billion rubles of loans and bonds outstanding, including 16 billion rubles worth due next year according to estimates, so the validity and realism of their recent statements looks like it is about to be tested.

Moody's Investors Service rates Russian Railways A3, the fourth-lowest investment grade level, while Standard & Poor's rates it one step lower at BBB+.

Russia's Manufacturing Output Falls

Obviously the credit crunch and construction slowdown is bound to work its way through to Russia's real economy one of these fine days (as we have already seen in places like Spain and the Baltics), and one early warning sign on this front could be considered to be the recent evolution in Russian industrial output. In fact Russian manufacturing shrank for a second month in September, and in so doing registered its first back-to-back contraction since November 1998, as companies cut jobs and growth in new orders slowed, according to the latest VTB Bank Europe Purchasing Managers Report. The PMI came in at a seasonally adjusted 49.8, compared with 49.4 in August. The August reading was the lowest figure in three and a half years, according to the bank statement. On such indexes a figure above 50 indicates growth while one below 50 indicates a contraction.

Russia's economic growth is obviously slowing quite quickly - and evidently far more rapidly than the government anticipated - largely due to the impact of the global credit crunch, the downward movement in oil prices and investor reaction to Russia's "go it alone" attitude in international disputes.

In the present environment inflation is likely to slow quite rapidly, and in September this easing in infaltion was noted in the prices that manufacturers pay and charge, as highlighted in the VTB report: "The rate of increase in prices charged by Russian manufacturers eased for the fifth straight month to its weakest' since at least January 2003".

Oil Output Down

And just to cap it all, Russia's oil production also fell in September as companies struggled with costs and maturing fields, effectively bringing the world's second-largest crude exporter closer to its first annual drop in output since 1998. Production fell to 9.83 million barrels of crude a day (40.2 million metric tons a month), 0.4 percent less than a year earlier, according to figures released by the Energy Ministry's CDU-TEK unit.

So What Can We Expect?

Well, in broad outline I don't think the outlook has changed that much from when I wrote my last analysis two weeks ago.

As I said at that point, Russia is hardly the Baltics, so we should not expect the economy to go into a complete nosedive. A lot depends on the view you take about the future of energy prices. While the global economy is now evidently set to slow considerably - in addition to the reduction in growth rates already seen so far this year -and especially in the aftermath of the most recent bout of financial turmoil. Cleary oil prices are set to drop even further - and this will only keep pushing Russian growth down - but at some point the market will find a floor, possibly in the region of $80 a barrel. More importantly when it comes to the future of oil prices, I would not be banking on some kind of long and deep global recession. Many of those developed economies who are significantly affected by the bursting of their construction booms (and the banking issues which have gone with it) will probably have weak domestic consumer demand for some time to come, but a solid core of emerging economies may well take off again quite rapidly as we move into 2009 -and especially if energy prices drop back, and the current near panic in the financial markets settles down (people do, after all, have to put their money somewhere). So the emergent (and numerous in population terms) emerging economies should give another strong shove to what may have become a rather listless global economy. As a knock on effect this should also serve to put some life back into export dependent economies like Germany and Japan (who by and large are not reeling under the impact of the construction bust, although their banks may have been lending to people who are).

So the bottom line here, I think, is be ready for a sharp slowdown in headline Russian GDP, but don't expect to see any imminent meltdown in the Russian financial system, one way or another they have the wherewithall at this point to keep limping forward. Of course, in the longer term, well, you know......