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Claus Vistesen and I also have a number of country briefings and study papers available for download in PDF format. The latest are:

Bank Rossii Eases Further As Russia's Economy Contracts At A Record Rate

The ECB's Balance Sheet At A Glance.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Is The Ruble Set To Rise?

Speculation is mounting that one of the first policy decisions Dmitry Medvedev take after he's sworn in as Russia's president this week is to allow a stronger currency.

Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank are predicting gains of as much as 4 percent over the next six months. They say pressure will mount on the central bank to let the ruble appreciate to stem inflation even if it risks damping profits of oil and energy exporters, which according to Merrill Lynch fund more than half of the federal budget. The last time Bank Rossii allowed the ruble to strengthen was in August, when the inflation rate was 8.5 percent. It's now at 13.3 percent, and may well still be rising.

The central bank sets the price of the ruble against a so- called currency basket made up of 0.55 dollars and 0.45 euros. It let the currency appreciate against the basket three times last year by a total of about 1.3 percent. The ruble traded at 36.8220 per euro and 23.7560 per dollar at 1:31 p.m.today in Tokyo. The central bank also estimates the pass-through rate - or the rate at which and increase in the ruble would cut inflation - to be 0.3, that is to say a 1 percentage point increase in the ruble against the currency basket would cut inflation by 0.3 percentage points.

The downside of a stronger ruble for Rosneft is that it may diminish profit because half the oil produced by the company is sold into the dollar-denominated export market.

Interest rates aren't changes are thought not to as effective in controlling inflation in Russia as in more developed economies since Russia doesn't have a highly developed consumer-credit market, with mortgages and credit cards little-used outside larger cities, while the corporate sector has access to foreign currency denominated loans carrying lower interest rates which may not look especially risky given the background of potential ruble rises.

Many observers now fear that Russia is riding so high on rising oil and gas prices that it has little incentive to diversify economic activity beyond commodities. The energy industry produced more than two-thirds of the nation's export earnings and more than a third of the state's 2007 revenues, which totaled $315 billion.

The government has ignored advice from the World Bank and other organizations to invest in other industries, start-up companies and infrastructure. Instead, the central bank has amassed $530 billion in gold and foreign-currency reserves; Putin has put $130 billion of that in a sovereign-wealth fund that would provide no more than a two-year cushion if energy prices fall.

``This route may lead to a dead end,'' Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina said at a Finance Ministry meeting last month. ``We no longer have the advantages of a cheap ruble, cheap labor'' after a decade of average annual economic growth of 7 percent that pushed up wages and the currency, making Russia less competitive.

Russia, the world's biggest energy exporter, has expanded an average of about 7 percent a year since President Vladimir Putin, 55, took office in 2000. During that time, the price of oil has risen almost fivefold to a record $119.93 a barrel. The economy will grow 6.6 percent this year, more than five times the 1.2 percent average of the G-7, according to Merrill Lynch.

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