Putin Facing Junk That Rates Powerless to Prevent: Russia Credit

The prospect of Russia being cut to
junk amid the escalating crisis with Ukraine threatens to
rekindle a market selloff that last week's surprise interest-rate increase appears powerless to prevent.
The ruble, which slid after Standard amp; Poor's lowered the
nation to its lowest investment grade and said more cuts may
follow, closed weaker still even as Bank Rossii raised its key
rate by 50 basis points. The cost of insuring against losses on
government debt rose to the highest level in more than two
years, and bond yields climbed to a six-week high.
While President Vladimir Putin downplayed the significance
of ratings changes prior to the Samp;P decision, investor outflows
may pick up in anticipation of the nation possibly being
returned to junk, a category it escaped in 2005. Higher rates
could backfire as they push up corporate funding costs and
hamper the economy as the US and Europe ready deeper sanctions
against Russia over Ukraine, according to Royal Bank of Scotland
Group Plc.
"For investors it could mean more selling and getting out
of Russian investments," Ogeday Topcular, who oversees $300
million of assets at RAM Capital SA in Geneva, said by e-mail on
April 25. "This would add a lot of pressure and create a
vicious cycle for investments. The central bank is trying to put
a patch on a big wound, but I don't think it would help much."
Capital Exodus
The premium investors demand to hold Russian dollar debt
over Treasuries rose 31 basis points to 359 at the end of last
week, the highest in more than two years, JPMorgan Chase amp; Co.
indexes show. The spread averaged 232 basis points, or 2.32
percentage points, in the past 12 months.
The US will impose sanctions as early as today on Russian
companies and individuals close to Putin, Deputy White House
National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said yesterday.
Samp;P's downgrade is Russia's first since Fitch Ratings cut
the country to BBB in February 2009 after the collapse of Lehman
Brothers Holdings Inc. triggered a rout in commodity prices.
The world's biggest energy exporter was placed on review
for a downgrade last month by Moody's Investors Service, while
Fitch lowered its outlook to negative. Russia's rating may be
cut again if the economic slowdown persists, Samp;P said last week.
Gross domestic product may expand less than 0.5 percent
this year or not grow at all, according to Finance Minister
Anton Siluanov. GDP grew 1.3 percent in 2013, the slowest pace
in four years. Capital outflows surged to $50.6 billion in the
first quarter compared with $63 billion in all of 2013.
Junk Status
"If the crisis with Ukraine escalates, the probability
increases that Russia will lose its investment-grade status,"
said Marco Ruijer, who helps oversee about $8 billion in
emerging-market bonds at ING Investment Management in The Hague.
A cut to junk would "impact the Russian economy almost
like a tougher sanction" as its bonds would be dropped from
indexes tracked by funds and holders who can only own
investment-grade securities, Ruijer said by e-mail on April 25.
The central bank raised the one-week auction rate to 7.5
percent from 7 percent, citing "higher inflation risks" in a
website statement on April 25. All but one of 23 economists in a
Bloomberg survey had forecast no change.
The measure follows a surprise 150 basis-point increase
last month, as the central bank sought to shore up Russian
assets after Putin's incursion in Ukraine's Crimea region
triggered a sell-off in the stock market and the ruble.
The currency has lost more than 8 percent this year against
the dollar, the second-worst performance among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg, after Argentina's peso.
'Partly Political'
Samp;P's downgrade of Russia's rating was expected by
investors and won't significantly change their behavior, Economy
Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said April 25. The cut was "partly
political" and partly based on the economic situation, he said.
Russia, which gains half of its tax revenue from oil and
gas activities, has public debt amounting to 10 percent of GDP,
compared with 37 percent for Brazil, also rated BBB- at Samp;P.
Investors routinely ignore ratings companies' decisions. In
almost half the instances, yields on government bonds fall when
a rating action by Moody's and Samp;P suggests they should climb,
or they increase even as a change signals a decline, according
to data compiled by Bloomberg on 314 upgrades, downgrades and
outlook changes starting from the 1970s.
The Samp;P action and rate increase "could hurt the banks via
higher funding costs, and therefore the bearish reaction might
not be over," Richard Segal, a strategist at Jefferies
International Ltd. in London, said by e-mail on April 25.
US Standoff
Credit-default swaps insuring Russian debt against non-payment climbed 19 basis points to a two-year high of 284,
compared with an average of 182 in the past 12 months.
The yield on Russia's benchmark 2027 ruble bonds jumped 65
basis points last week to 9.65 percent. The ruble weakened 0.8
percent to 42.2707 against the central bank's target basket of
dollars and euros on April 25. It was trading at about 42.17 to
the basket when the central bank announced the rate increase.
The currency gained 0.2 percent to 42.2006 as of 10:30 am in
Moscow today.
Putin's seizure of Crimea last month prompted the worst
standoff with the US and its allies since the collapse of the
Soviet Union, leaving Russian policy makers to grapple with an
economy on the brink of recession and an inflation rate above
the central bank's target for the 19th month.
The US and its allies have an additional list of
sanctions ready and will act if there is no progress in de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine, where security forces are
moving against pro-Russia separatists, US President Barack
Obama said on April 24 in Tokyo.
The downgrade "sours the mood in the market," Tatiana Orlova, an economist at RBS in London, said in e-mailed comments
April 25. "I am more surprised that the central bank hikes
rates at the time when there is a risk of a further blow to the
economy from additional sanctions."
To contact the reporters on this story:
Ksenia Galouchko in Moscow at
Vladimir Kuznetsov in Moscow at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Wojciech Moskwa at
Daniel Tilles at
Alex Nicholson
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