Elvira Nabiullina has earned an unusual degree of freedom to buttress an economy buffeted by sanctions
After Russia’s central-bank chief, Elvira Nabiullina, moved to shut down a large lender last year for allegedly falsifying accounts, the nation’s top prosecutor’s office issued an order to leave the bank alone.
She closed it anyway.
In her five years in office, Ms. Nabiullina has closed hundreds of weak banks, stymied the exodus of Russian wealth abroad and transformed monetary policy to bring inflation to record lows. That has earned her an unusual amount of freedom to make tough decisions, even if that means treading on powerful interests.
.. As President Vladimir Putin bids to return Russia to great-power status, challenging the U.S. and Europe from Syria to Ukraine, it’s her job to shore up the economy against volatile oil markets and sanctions. Russia’s ability to continue its quest rests in large part on whether Ms. Nabiullina can keep the financial system stable.
Ms. Nabiullina has earned public praise from
- Mr. Putin, who rarely commends subordinates, as well as from abroad. Last year at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin told her that “under your leadership, the central bank has done a great deal to stabilize the economic situation.” Managers at big investment funds, from
- Pacific Investment Management Co. to Pictet Asset Management, call Ms. Nabiullina one of the world’s most skilled central bankers.
- Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, lauded her in May for setting “standards of quality for macroeconomic policy.”
.. In 2006, the central-bank official responsible for revamping the system, Andrey Kozlov, was shot dead in his car. Russian financier Alexey Frankel, whose banking license Mr. Kozlov had revoked earlier that year, was later convicted of organizing the killing.
.. She has earned a reputation for bookishness, personal honesty and fixation on detail
.. Industry veterans said that before Ms. Nabiullina took over, banking licenses were mostly used as mechanisms to funnel money abroad and process insider deals... When she took over the institution, banks and companies were moving $5 billion out of the country every month, and inflation topped 7%.She shut down 70 banks in her first year.
.. Ms. Nabiullina stopped a longstanding policy of spending billions of dollars from the country’s reserves to try to prop up the ruble. In December 2014, with the ruble continuing to fall, the central bank nearly doubled its key lending rate to 17% at an emergency late-night meeting... The rate increase restored calm to markets but strangled the country’s consumer-fueled growth. The country’s emerging middle class, which had become used to foreign vacations and European cars, is still feeling the effects of the ruble’s collapse... Since she took office, she has halved the number of Russian banks, shutting down about 440 lenders. She has reduced capital outflows by about 50% to $2.5 billion a month... Many of the banks she closed had been considered untouchable, analysts said. Some, such as Promsviazbank, counted lawmakers and state-company executives among its shareholders and held money for national oil companies and the Orthodox Church... Others, like Bank Sovetskiy, had served political objectives, providing banking services in Crimea, the Ukrainian region the Kremlin annexed in 2014.
.. When the central bank took over Yugra last June following repeated warnings, it said it found a $600 million deficit in its balance sheet masked with bad loans. Just hours before the bankrupt bank’s license was due to expire, the prosecutor’s office ordered a halt to the closure, calling the bank “a financially stable credit organization.” Ms. Nabiullina rejected the order... “It was a test of will, and she won,” said banking analyst Mr. Lukashuk... In January, inflation hit a record low for the post-Soviet period of 2.2%, a result of Ms. Nabiullina’s decision to keep interest rates high after the Crimea sanctions. Some tycoons have urged a faster reduction... Still, she has struggled to regulate Russia’s lesser, underperforming state-owned banks, whose executives often treat them as fiefs, analysts said. These banks are kept afloat by constant injections of state funds, which the executives have funneled into unrelated assets ranging from supermarkets to railroad cars... Almost a trillion rubles of public capital, about $16 billion at today’s rate, went to just three state-owned banks—
- Gazprombank and
in the first four years of Ms. Nabiullina’s central-bank term, according to Fitch Ratings. All are still saddled with bad debts or illiquid assets.
.. Her modest economic forecasts have consistently lagged behind Mr. Putin’s goals, which she said can only be achieved through deep, unpopular changes to the system.
Even if the price of oil rose to $100, from around $65 today, she said, “it’s very unlikely that our economy can grow above 1.5% to 2%” a year.