Russia shutters its markets again as deeper problems emerge

MOSCOW — Russia, until recently the darling of foreign stock funds, is facing deeper economic problems in the ongoing crisis than many other countries are because of rampant speculation by investors who bought shares with loans they can't repay.

The Russian government shut down the country's stock markets again on Wednesday in the latest effort to halt a financial collapse. Many blue chip stocks have lost 75 percent of their value in the upheaval, and the two main markets have dropped more than 65 percent overall.

During the recent boom years, many investors and institutions bought stocks with borrowed money, expecting the returns to be much greater than the interest on the loans, a process often referred to as leveraging, said Anton Tabakh, a senior analyst at Troika Dialog, a leading Russian investment bank.

When stock prices began falling steeply last month during the global credit crunch, many investors couldn't make the payments on their loans, and soon there was a situation in which "each sell-off creates another sell-off," he said.

Compounding the problem, Tabakh said, is that many banks and stock funds are heavily invested in the companies that are now plunging. Asked for an example of those investments, he said: "Almost everything."

Alexei Rybnikov, the head of a major Russian exchange, told Bloomberg news Wednesday that the situation in Moscow is "pretty much the same thing" as when heavily leveraged speculators fueled the 1929 stock market crash in the United States.

"It came very fast — brutally and unexpectedly," Tabakh said.

Tabakh, however, stressed that much of the turmoil in Russian finance, beyond the problems brought on by rampant speculation, is due to the global economic fallout. Rybnikov told Bloomberg that the stock for most leading Russian companies is undervalued, and "the market will certainly find its bottom at some point."

As Russian markets began dropping precipitously last month, the country's once-robust economy, built on the world's largest gas and second-largest oil exports, suddenly seems more fragile. A report released Wednesday by the International Monetary Fund predicted that the growth of the Russian economy would slow to 7 percent by the end of this year and to 5.5 percent next year from last year's scorching 8.1 percent.

Anatoly Milyukov, a vice president of the Association of Russian Banks, said that if foreign investors avoid Russia, it could be difficult for companies to raise capital for big projects. "We are concerned that without foreign investment, the economy will slow down," Milyukov said.

Little more than an hour after trading began Wednesday, the benchmark RTS had fallen about 11.3 percent and the MICEX, the second major market, had dropped more than 14 percent. Both markets have lost more than 65 percent of their value since May, shaken by not only global credit problems but also by falling oil prices and investor alarm after Russia's August invasion of Georgia.

Russian officials said the MICEX would be closed for regular transactions until Friday, but state newswires gave conflicting accounts about whether the RTS would be shuttered for the same period or opened only "upon instructions from the Russian financial markets' regulator."

The continued freefall has come despite planned government bailout packages — estimated to be between $180 billion and $200 billion so far — designed to shore up banks, hold the Ruble steady and save the stock markets.

Stocks for the country's largest oil and gas companies, Rosneft and Gazprom, fell more than 14 percent on Wednesday. The two were part of a group of Russian energy corporations that on Tuesday asked the government to help them finance investment projects.

State news media noted that Russian energy companies currently owe about $80 billion to foreign banks and "industry officials are concerned."

The banking association's Milyukov said he thinks that about 100 small and medium-sized banks among the country's 1,100 banks will collapse or merge in the coming months, but he said they were weaker institutions that would have failed eventually.

Russian banks and corporations have about $436 billion in foreign debt, according to the banking association, compared with Russia's international reserves of about $556 billion.

For now, Milyukov said, the heads of banks are working on one main goal: "To avoid panic."


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