On Friday the Central Bank of Russia surprised pretty much everyone by cutting its policy interest rate from 17 percent to 15 percent. Bloomberg lays responsibility at Putin’s feet, and no doubt he had to approve. But the evidence the article cites is not dispositive by any means. Yes, Central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina had sworn up and down a little more than a week ago that the bank would not cut rates: if she’d said anything differently, she would have set off a speculative attack on the ruble, so she had to say that even if a policy change was being considered.
The fact is that CBR faces a terrible trade-off. Keeping the interest rate high damages severely the banking system, and is a drag on the real economy. Lowering the interest rate undermines the ruble (which indeed fell sharply on the news) and stokes inflation, which is already high and accelerating, and which has a disproportionate adverse impact on low and middle income individuals. Significantly, the RBC’s pubic statements have shifted from mentioning only inflation as a policy target, to a Russian version of Humphrey-Hawkins balancing of inflation and growth.
No doubt there is substantial political support for this that extends far beyond Putin. In particular, domestic banks are central bankers’ most important constituency and responsibility. Indeed, central banks are at risk of capture by domestic banks, and a banking crisis is frequently a greater fear than a sharp depreciation in the currency (though those things are of course related). Major Russian bankers, notably Sberbank’s German Gref have been lamenting the damage that high interest rates are doing to banks. Further, a mid-tier Russian bank (SB) began to limit deposit withdrawals, and the entire sector is suffering funding difficulties. Given all this, the CBR decided to rubble the ruble rather than the banking system. This is a piece with the government’s plans to recapitalize the banking system.
In sum, given the choice between supporting the ruble and the banking system, it chose to support the banking system. That appears to be the more imminent danger, and one that is of primary concern to the CBR. No doubt Putin agrees, but it’s unlikely he had to force an unwilling Central Bank into that decision. If another sharp selloff in the ruble occurs, the bank may reverse course, but for now, it has chosen the banking system (and Russian corporate borrowers) over the ruble and inflation.