Can Russia Escape Dollar Dependence?

Russia investment in BICS

Russian president Vladimir Putin is determined to wean his country off the dollar, or so he says.

In July, after insisting that the international monetary system depended too much “on the U.S. dollar, or, to be precise, on the monetary and financial policy of the U.S. authorities,” Putin signed off on a new BRICS development bank whose initial paid-in capital would be entirely in dollars – unlike the World Bank, where only 10% of paid-in capital was in dollars.  So the new BRICS bank actually creates a new source of demand for dollar assets.

Now, he wants to diversify Russia’s holdings in its two sovereign wealth funds (SWF), the Reserve Fund and National Wealth Fund, away from dollars – and euros as well.  Finance minister Anton Siluanov has announced that funds will soon be directed into financial assets issued by its fellow BRICS nations – Brazil, India, China, and South Africa.

There are some caveats, however.  Siluanov suggested that the shift would be mainly into “Eurobonds issued under English law,” which effectively means dollar- and euro-denominated bonds.  As the figure above shows, however, total international bond issuance by Brazil, India, China, and South Africa amounts to only $45 billion, or a mere 26% of the holdings of Russia’s SWFs.  Furthermore, Russia’s two funds are currently restricted to investments in securities rated AA- or better by Fitch, or Aa3 or better by Moody’s.  Only China’s international bonds meet these criteria, which would leave Russia with a potential pool of investable assets worth a mere $1.5 billion – less than 1% of Russia’s SWF assets.

Russia could, of course, relax the constraint that the bonds be issued internationally, in hard currency, and invest in local currency bonds.  Brazil, for example, which Siluanov singled out as an investment destination, has issued about $800 billion worth of local-currency bonds.  But the Brazilian Real has depreciated by 10% against the dollar in the past month alone, and “capital preservation” is a fundamental investment objective of Russia’s SWFs.  With Russian capital flight approaching dangerous levels (Fitch projects $120 billion for this year), and rumors flying that capital controls will be imposed to staunch the outflow, would Russia really be willing to bet its solvency on the Real in order to make a political point of little or no consequence for the dollar’s global reserve status?

Not a chance.

This piece appears courtesy of CFR.org.