Russia’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen by nearly 1/3 since October 2013; they’ve fallen 20% just since September 2014. Whereas the country still has over $300 billion in reserves, about $150 billion of this may be illiquid; it also has close to $700 billion in external debt.
Whom would Russia turn to for dollars in a crisis?
The IMF is the most obvious place. The IMF approved lending to Russia of about $35 billion (SDR 24.8 billion) in the 1990s. With the sort of “exceptional” access that the Fund has granted to Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Ukraine, Russia could potentially borrow up to $200 billion today, as shown in the figure above. But when it comes to Russia, the United States and Europe are not in a generous mood at the moment. Moscow would almost surely want to look elsewhere.
What about its new BRICS friends? Putin had said in 2014 that the new BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) “creates the foundation for an effective protection of our national economies from a crisis in financial markets."
Russia could potentially borrow up to $18 billion through the CRA. But here’s the rub: it can only do so by being on an IMF program. Without one, Russia could borrow a mere $5.4 billion – chicken-feed in a crisis. In fact, borrowing such a pitiful sum might only precipitate a crisis by hinting that one was coming.
What about China? Here, things get interesting. Under a central-bank swap line agreed in October, Russia could borrow up to RMB 150 billion – the equivalent of $24 billion at current exchange rates. China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng has reportedly said the swap line could be expanded.
What would Russia do with RMB, though? Why, sell them for dollars, of course – as Argentina is apparently prepared to do with the funds received through its swap line from China. China might be happy for Russia to sell the renminbi it receives for dollars, as doing so would put downward pressure on the RMB without implicating Beijing in “currency manipulation.”
“Russia plays an indispensable role as a strategic partner of China in the international community,” according to a December 22 editorial in China’s Global Times. “China must hold a positive attitude to help Russia out of this crisis.” In short, China may well have both economic and geopolitical reasons for offering Russia a helping hand.
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