Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

‘We have no plan’: Muscovites rue ruble’s sharp slide

Falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine have hit the Russian economy, with consumers seeking solutions

MOSCOW, Russia — Newlyweds Yekaterina Zorkina and her husband Nikolai Zorkin will have to wait a bit longer before they’re able to finally settle in a home outside Moscow and start a family — if that dream ever comes true.

The Zorkins, both in their 20s, started placing money in a ruble savings account in early 2013 in the hopes of purchasing an apartment on the outskirts of the capital. Originally from Saransk, some 400 miles east of the capital, they cannot register as Moscow residents while they’re renting. Buying an apartment would enable them to send their kids to state schools and register with a local doctor.

Over the past two years, they have saved some 800,000 rubles (about $13,000) and were preparing to put a deposit on a property, then move in by spring. When the ruble started falling and the central bank began to raise interest rates, they decided to take a loan out before the end of the year.

However, because of bureaucratic delays, they did not manage to submit the application on time. Now they are watching their life savings evaporate as the ruble tumbles. A shock 6.5 percent interest rate hike announced by Russia’s central bank last week is unlikely to help the Zorkins. Even the new rate of 17 percent is incapable of safeguarding their savings, with the ruble declining faster than at any other time since 1998, when an economic crisis resulted in Russia’s defaulting on its debts.

“When I visit the bank, they tell me they have suspended mortgage loans until 2015,” Zorkina says. “A few days ago, we thought about buying foreign currency, but the difference between the purchase and sale price is too high, and we can’t withdraw money from the ATMs. So our savings are left sitting in our account, in rubles.”

‘A few days ago, we thought about buying foreign currency, but the difference between the purchase and sale price is too high, and we can’t withdraw money from the ATMs.’

Yekaterina Zorkina

Moscow resident

Memories of 1998 are still fresh for the city’s older residents, now powerless as they watch a frighteningly familiar crisis unfold. The Russian currency has depreciated 55 percent against the dollar since the start of the year, driven by the dual forces of rapidly falling oil prices and Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its involvement in Ukraine. On Dec. 16, the ruble fell 20 percent, its heaviest one-day drop since the chaos of 16 years ago.

As trust in Russian financial institutions erodes, the first real signs of panic are emerging in Moscow. People across the capital are embarking on last-minute shopping sprees, racing to buy up luxury items such as electronics and cars to beat further price increases.

Employees at a central Moscow branch of Know How, a phone accessories chain, said they experienced a marked increase in foot traffic over the past two days. They disagreed on whether this was due to the upcoming holiday period or to fears of inflation, adding that the panic buying calmed somewhat by Wednesday as the currency gained back some of its value toward the evening.

“We react to changes in the ruble’s value almost immediately,” said one employee, who did not want her name publicized, adding that she changed the price tag on one product six times the day before.

Banks across the capital have experienced even greater commotion, with branches of state lender Sberbank packed with customers demanding foreign currency and withdrawing their savings while they can. Several of the larger branches were still selling dollars and euros, but employees at smaller banks were directing those inquiring about foreign currency to larger branches in the city center.

At one major Sberbank branch, on Moscow’s Novy Arbat, employees attempted to calm impatient customers, promising they would eventually serve all those waiting to sell rubles. Sums above $10,000 had to be ordered in advance, but most of those in line said they were exchanging only small amounts as a precautionary measure.

The atmosphere suggests a level of public concern not seen since the ruble began its steep decline around mid-September and a sharp contrast to the relative apathy exhibited by the capital’s residents when the currency shed 8 percent of its value against the dollar on Dec. 1. Despite signs of widespread unrest, some professed a very different view of the situation.

Lyubov Seergeva, 63, decided to empty her dollar-denominated pension fund at Sberbank and go on a spending spree while prices remain affordable. “I’m frightened of keeping my savings in dollars. I don’t trust dollars. I believe in the ruble,” she said, adding that new kitchen appliances would retain value better than currency.

Asked whether she was worried her move to the ruble would prove a mistake, she dismissed popular fears of another major crisis. “My monthly pension is 50,000 rubles. It’s not going to become $50 is it? Our government isn’t going to let that happen. We’ve lived through tougher moments, like 1998, and we won’t see a repeat of them, I’m sure,” she said.

The government in which Seergeva is investing her faith appears at odds over how to confront the worsening state of affairs. The global benchmark price for oil, a commodity on which Russia’s economic stability is heavily dependent, dropped below $60 a barrel on Dec. 16, reaching its lowest level since 2009.

Amid reports that the U.S. is preparing to slap further sanctions on Moscow over Russia’s involvement in the conflict in neighboring Ukraine, fears are growing among investors that the Kremlin is preparing to impose capital controls as it runs out of options to stop the ruble’s collapse.

“The situation is critical. Even in our worst nightmare we couldn’t imagine one year ago that something like this is possible,” said Sergey Shvetsov, the deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank, Russian business daily RBС reported.

In the meantime, the Zorkins are at a loss about how to prevent their hard-earned savings from being wiped out. Like many Muscovites, they are forced to just wait and watch and hope.

“We don't know what we’ll do. We have no plan, to be honest. I pray there will be no default. It would be disastrous to lose all this money,” Zorkina said.

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