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The Cost Of Putin’s Ukrainian Adventure: Russia’s Currency Is Plummeting

The Russian ruble is worth 41% less, in dollar terms, than it was on January 1. U.S. and E.U. sanctions, plus a big drop in oil prices, are to blame.

Pool / Reuters

The Russian currency, the ruble, has plummeted this year, hitting fresh lows of 46 rubles to the dollar on Thursday. It traded at 40 rubles to the dollar just in the last month, and has depreciated 41.8% this year.

That means that if you had $100 worth of rubles on January 1, they would be worth less than $60 today.

The ruble-to-dollar exchange rate has risen fast this year, meaning holders of the Russian currency need to spend more on imported goods priced in foreign currencies. Bloomberg

This rapid fall in the value of the currency is thanks largely to sanctions imposed by the E.U. and U.S. in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and interference in Eastern Ukraine.

The sanctions have hit the Russian financial sector particularly hard, limiting the ability of its biggest banks to operate in the global financial system.

Members of an honor guard hold their weapons as they wait for the arrival of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko in front of a theatre in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, November 4, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Russia, the world’s third largest producer of oil, has also been hit by the dramatic drop in oil prices, which have fallen 28% since June and have dropped to just over $82.

Prices have gone well below Citi’s $105 estimate for Russia’s “break-even” price — the oil price needed for Russia to balance its budget, with half the state’s revenues coming from oil and gas.

Bogdan Cristel / Reuters

This is hitting Russian consumers hard, as the price of imported goods skyrockets.

Their weakening currency means food prices have shot upward, and the overall inflation rate is over 8%. That’s very high - many central banks aim for inflation rates of around 2%, while U.S. inflation is currently at 1.7% and in the economically struggling Eurozone, it’s 0.4%.

The inflation rate has hit 8%, shooting up from 6.5% at the beginning of the year. Bloomberg

Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Meat prices alone have gone up 18% in the last year, while dairy prices are up 15%.

REUTERS © RIA Novosti / Reuters

In response, the Central Bank of Russia has repeatedly hiked its key interest rate to try to keep money in the country and support the ruble’s value, including a 1.5% hike to 9.5%.

In theory, a high interest rate should encourage money to stay in Russian bank accounts rather than be converted into dollars or sent abroad.

A series of interest rate hikes, including a one-time jump of 1.5 percentage points, have brought up the Russian benchmark rate from 5% at the start of the year to 9.5% today. Bloomberg

The Central Bank of Russia also has bought a lot of rubles to prop up the currency’s value, spending nearly $10 billion at the end of October.

Acting as a buyer of last resort can keep a currency from losing its value, but it can be extremely expensive. The Central Bank of Russia has burned through about $93 billion of its $420 billion in reserves, according to Standard Bank analyst Timothy Ash.

Combined with losses on the Central Bank’s stores of gold, the Central Bank has lost $100 billion this year in foreign reserves, about a fifth of its total, Ash said. “Putin has seemed willing to put an awful lot of money where his mouth is.”

Pool / Reuters

The bank announced yesterday, however, that it would limit its foreign exchange purchases to $350 million a day, potentially slowing the rate that it burns through its reserves.

But the decision also makes it easier for the currency to fall in value.

A chain is seen wrapped around a road sign for parking, with the coat of arms of the Central Bank seen on it, near the headquarters of the bank in central Moscow. Reuters

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Matthew Zeitlin is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Zeitlin reports on Wall Street and big banks.
Contact Matthew Zeitlin at matt.zeitlin@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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