Russia's ruble is the strongest currency in the world this year

What's behind the rebound of Russia's ruble?

Even as Russia marks a historic default on its debt, the nation's currency is gaining strength. The ruble hit a new high against the dollar this week, continuing its streak as the best-performing currency in the world this year.

Three months after the ruble's value fell to less than a U.S. penny amid the toughest economic sanctions imposed on a country in modern history, Russia's currency has mounted a stunning turnaround. The ruble has jumped 45% against the dollar since January, with one dollar worth 53.45 rubles as of Tuesday.

"It's an unusual situation," said Jeffrey Frankel, professor of capital formation and growth at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Normally, a country facing international sanctions and a major military conflict would see investors fleeing and a steady outflow of capital, causing its currency to drop. But Russia's unusually aggressive measures to keep money from leaving the country, in combination with a dramatic rise in fossil-fuel prices, are working to create demand for the ruble and pushing up its value.  

The ruble's resiliency means that Russia is partly insulated from the punishing economic penalties imposed by Western nations after its invasion of Ukraine, although how long that protection will last is uncertain.

At the same time, Russia appears to have defaulted on its international debts for the first time in over a century. After a key payment deadline passed on Sunday, bondholders said they had not been paid, according to Bloomberg and Reuters. 

Why the ruble recovered

The main reason for the ruble's recovery is soaring commodity prices. After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, already high oil and natural gas prices rose even further.

"Commodity prices are currently sky-high, and even though there is a drop in the volume of Russian exports due to embargoes and sanctioning, the increase in commodity prices more than compensates for these drops," Tatiana Orlova, lead emerging markets economist at Oxford Economics, told CBS MoneyWatch recently.

Russia is pulling in nearly $20 billion a month from energy exports. Since the end of March, many foreign buyers have complied with a demand to pay for energy in rubles, pushing up the currency's value. 

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At the same time, Western sanctions and a wave of businesses leaving the country have led to a drop in imports. In the first four months of the year, Russia's account surplus — the difference between exports and imports — rose to a record $96 billion

"We have this coincidence that, as imports have collapsed, exports are soaring," Orlova said. 

Closing the floodgates

Russia's central bank has also propped up the ruble with strict capital controls that make it harder to convert it to other currencies. That includes a ban on foreign holders of Russian stock and bonds taking dividend payments out of the country. 

"That used to be quite a significant source of outflows for currency from Russia — now that channel is closed," Orlova said. 

Meanwhile, Russian exporters are required to convert half of their excess revenues into rubles, creating demand for the currency. (The conversion requirement was 80% until the end of May, when it dropped to 50%.) On top of that, Orlova noted, it's extremely difficult for foreign companies to sell their Russian investments, another obstacle to capital flight.

"Although we are seeing these announcements that Western companies are leaving Russia, quite often they simply have to hand over their stakes to their local partners. It doesn't actually mean they are being paid a fair price for their stakes, so they are not moving large amounts of cash from the country," she said.

All these factors are creating demand for rubles, boosting the currency's value.

"While this is not a free market-determined exchange rate, ruble stability is at the same time 'real,' in the sense that it's driven by Russia's all-time high current account inflows," Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance (IIF), said via email.

Economic fallout continues for Russia after defaulting on foreign debts

Russia still feeling the pain

The ruble's rally has created some problems for Russia's central bank, which has taken steps to bring its currency closer to historic levels, including loosening capital controls and lowering interest rates.

A strong currency doesn't mean Russia is immune to economic pain, however. Although the ruble's bounceback and the strength of Russia's oil exports have temporarily cushioned its economy from sanctions, the effect is likely to be short-term, experts say. 

Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James, noted that Russian oil is selling for $35 per barrel less than Brent crude, the international benchmark, reflecting the discount buyers demand for doing business with the nation.

"Nobody today would buy Russian oil at $120 a barrel. And in fact there are plenty of energy buyers who will not buy Russian oil at any price today, whether because of sanctions or because of reputational risk," he said. "The Russian economy is losing approximately $200 million dollars a day — or $70 billion on an annual basis — as a direct result of the war."

What's more, European nations have vowed to cut their imports of Russian gas by two-thirds this year — a potentially crippling blow given Russia's dependence on energy exports.

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One sign the Russian economy remains under severe pressure is that inflation in Russia is more than double the rate in the U.S. That's creating pressure for Russians to move their money out of the country, said Frankel of the Harvard Kennedy School.

"The temptation to get assets out of Russia, for Russian citizens to find a way around the controls ... will grow, especially with the inflation rate now as high as it has shot up," he said.

Likewise, Russia's default on more than $100 million in interest payments to foreign bondholders over the weekend is another sign of its growing international isolation. Russia had the funds to make the scheduled payments, but the U.S. Treasury Department has blocked the country's ability to service its debt through American banks.

"Russia's not short of money — it has billions in oil and energy revenues — but it was the sanctions on Russia which prevented it from transmitting the payment," Karin Strohecker, emerging markets correspondent at Thompson Reuters, told CBS News.

Another concern for Russia is that the cutoff of imports could lead to industrial shortages, while a drop in foreign investment is expected to drag down the country's economic growth for years, the Institute of International Finance predicted. The IIF expects Russia's economy to shrink 15% this year, wiping out more than a decade of economic development.

"Export controls, the 'brain drain' of talent out of the country; a European shift away from Russian energy dependence and an exceptionally unfriendly business climate will all weigh on Russia's growth in the years to come," Ribakova said.


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