Why the fresh US sanctions on Russia are unlikely to cause a meltdown

Late on Friday night, the US announced a fresh round of sanctions against Russia, effective from the 26th August. These restrictions represent the 2nd round of sanctions in line with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act). The announced sanctions include US opposition to the financial or technical assistance to Russia provided by international financial institutions, restrictions to exports of dual-use chemical and biological items and, most importantly: the prohibition of US financial institutions to participate in FX-denominated financing of the Russian government.

Shortly after the sanctions were announced, the US issued a clarification, stating that US financial institutions did not only include banks and brokers, but all US investors. Meanwhile, the definition of ‘Russian government’ includes the Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Russia and National Welfare Fund – effectively excluding state-owned entities. Finally, the US Treasury explicitly specified that the new sanctions do not apply to RUB-denominated debt (OFZ) and secondary market trading of Russian government Eurobonds.

While the sanctions apply to US investors only, in practice Russia could be unable or unwilling to issue Eurobonds at all in the near future. UK and European investors are likely to shy away from any new issuance due to compliance concerns (or demand a significant premium for investing), while the demand from Asian investors remains very limited (they bought only 2-4% in this year’s earlier Eurobond issuance). The initial market reaction to the fresh sanctions has been surprisingly mild, which is unusual for an emerging market country. However, the Russian case is unique for a number of reasons.

Firstly, over the past couple of years Russia has successfully managed to largely shield its economy from the financial market volatility. It’s been an interesting case of prudent domestic economic policies, offsetting the negative impact of external politics. To start with, Russia has some of the strongest credit metrics across all emerging markets: general government debt remains around 15% of GDP, both current account and fiscal balance have been in surplus and international reserves have reached USD 520bn (it’s possible that the all-time high of USD 570bn in mid-2008 will be reached by year-end). Such reserve levels cover 17 months of the country’s imports and its outstanding external debt (both public and private) in full. In other words, if required, Russia could repay all of its external debt tomorrow and still be left with approx. USD 70bn of funds. Needless to say, this is very impressive by any market standards.

In this environment, the oil price is arguably the only variable that could rock the Russian economic boat. The country’s progress towards economic diversification has been very limited, with hydrocarbons still accounting for about 55% of goods’ exports and 25% of general government revenues. However, at current oil price levels Russia’s macroeconomic strengths are pretty comfortable: the federal budget is balanced at USD 40/bbl and according to the current fiscal rule, any extra revenues from higher prices are accumulated in the National Welfare Fund (which is likely to reach USD 120bn by year-end). The fiscal rule has also significantly weakened the link between the RUB exchange rate and oil prices, allowing the central bank to confidently steer inflation close to its 4% target.

Secondly, the advance warning of sanctions makes a significant difference to the financial markets’ response. The 2nd round of sanctions in line with CBW and separate sanctions for new sovereign debt (including OFZ) have been discussed since autumn 2018. Investors who are not comfortable with taking Russian risk have therefore had plenty of time to sell their exposures – hence the very limited market reaction upon the current announcement. The ‘leavers’ have clearly been in the minority: Russian Eurobonds (JP Morgan EMBI) have still delivered a healthy total return of 12.7% year-to-date, while OFZ yields have compressed by 140 bp. According to a survey by Morgan Stanley in May, in the event of new sovereign debt sanctions, 46% of bond investors would have kept their Russian exposure unchanged, while another 20% would have added. In fact, the government issued a total of USD 6.3bn on the Eurobond market this year (twice exceeding the original plan), and up to 80-90% were bought by foreigners. This amount alone covers upcoming external maturities until September 2023. One should also keep in mind that of the approx. USD 42bn of Eurobonds outstanding, foreigners currently own only about 50%. With new OFZ issuance being explicitly excluded from the sanctions, the Russian government will be comfortable continuing these auctions, which have been very popular among foreign investors. Indeed, despite the sanctions threat lingering over OFZ since the autumn of 2018, its foreign ownership increased by USD 12bn year-to-date, reaching 30% (vs. an all-time high of 34% in March 2018).

In conclusion, the practical inability to issue Eurobonds in the near future matters little for the Russian economy and financial markets. Paradoxically, from a certain perspective, the long-awaited fresh US sanctions announcement may even be viewed as a positive, due to the nature of US internal politics. Since autumn 2018, there has been a lot of pressure on President Trump (mostly from the Democrats) to approve a separate legislation which would sanction all new Russian sovereign debt, including OFZ. The unexpected inclusion of new Eurobond issuance in the CBW sanction package clearly reduces the incentive from Congress to push for additional sanctions (which would include new OFZ issuance) and therefore provides a certain relief for financial markets, which had been pricing-in a significant risk of a more severe package.

The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

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