Update: Russian rouble plunges after new sanctions over Ukraine conflict

An employee holds 5000 ruble banknotes inside a foreign currency exchange bureau in Russia.

The rouble has slumped by as much as 40% against the dollar, after Western nations announced new sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

The new record low for the Russian currency comes after some of the country’s banks were banned from using the Swift international payment system. On Sunday, Russia’s central bank appealed for calm amid fears that there could be a run on the country’s banks.

Growing tensions also helped push Brent crude oil above $100 (£75) a barrel. The move by the European Union, United States and their allies to cut off a number of Russian banks from Swift is the harshest measure imposed to date on Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.

The assets of Russia’s central bank will also be frozen, limiting the country’s ability to access its overseas reserves. The intention is to “further isolate Russia from the international financial system”, a joint statement said. Russia is heavily reliant on the Swift system for its key oil and gas exports.

“Unless the Russian central bank and Russia’s largest banks – which have already been cut off from correspondent banking – find an alternative means of reaching the global financial system Russia faces Iran and North Korea-style isolation from the global economy,” Ari Redbord from blockchain analytics firm TRM Labs said.

Mr Redbord was formerly at the US Treasury Department, where he was a senior advisor to the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Investors were also wary on Monday after Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s military to put its deterrence forces which include nuclear weapons on “special alert”. “Financial markets are guided by the unfolding of events in Ukraine,” said Katrina Ell, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in Sydney.

“Announcements regarding sanctions and military action will remain market movers this week,” she said. Last week, Moody’s said it was reviewing Russian bonds to possibly downgrade them to ‘”junk”, which would put Russia in a league of riskier countries that usually have to pay more to borrow. Rival credit ratings agency S&P has already lowered the country to junk status.

At the weekend, Russia’s central bank issued an appeal for calm amid fears that the new financial sanctions could spark a run on its banks. It said it “has the necessary resources and tools to maintain financial stability and ensure the operational continuity of the financial sector”. A run on Russian banks would see too many people trying to withdraw money. On Friday, Russia’s central bank was forced to increase the amount of money it supplies to ATMs after demand for cash reached the highest level since March 2020.

Alexandre Moutin, head of investments at SMBC Private Wealth, believes “a bank run is already ongoing and will most likely intensify in the coming days”. “The military conflict will last longer than Putin expected and the reaction of the West and the global community might be more harmful that he expected too,” he said. In the first day of trading since harsh new sanctions were imposed, the Russian rouble plunged to a new record low against the US dollar. The euro sank more than 1%, while the price of oil surged.

The measures introduced this weekend increase the financial and social costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russians are already waiting in long lines, worried that their bank cards may stop working or that limits will be placed on the amount of cash they can withdraw. And some of the European operations of Sberbank, the Russian state owned bank, are failing according to regulators.

The new ban on the Central Bank of Russia’s ability to use its roughly $630bn in foreign reserves undermines its ability to defend the rouble. Inflation is likely to go up because of the currency’s weakness. This leaves the central bank with a few options, including raising interest rates or limiting the amount of money that can be brought into or out of the country.

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