Ruble falls 27% in virtual collapse


MOSCOW -- Russia's fragile economic stability took a severe blow yesterday as the value of the ruble went into virtual collapse.

The ruble fell 27 percent against the dollar in yesterday's trading, and by last night anxious government leaders were blaming greedy speculators and hinting at dark conspiracies to explain the devastating news.

But others said there was no mystery at all: The ruble fell to 3,926 against the dollar, they said, because of the government's inability to control its own spending.

The ruble's dizzying fall threatens to send prices skyward and at the same time scare off potential investors at a time when Russia needs new capital to get its economy moving again.

It was good news for exporters, but shockingly bad news for almost everyone else. People flocked to exchange offices yesterday to buy dollars, but they found rates of 4,900 -- and even more -- posted by firms that are uncertain what today will bring. Others plunged their ruble savings into consumer goods -- appliances, shoes, gasoline, tea -- although many stores closed for the afternoon for "inventory," as they tried to refigure prices.

"The most important thing is not to yield to panic," said Sergei Dubinin, the acting finance minister. "The U.S. dollar has been overestimated. The exchange rate of the dollar will surely go down."

Last night Mr. Dubinin announced that the Central Bank would raise its annual discount rate from 140 percent to 170 percent.

"The government and the Central Bank will do their best to make the ruble exchange rate correspond to the Russian economic reality," Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said, as quoted by Russian television last night. "I am sure we will soon find the way out of the situation."

But Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister, said last night that the collapse all too accurately reflects the true state of the Russian economy.

He called it "an alarm," a warning that the government's economic reforms are "incoherent and inert."

"It's very dangerous for Russia to have this false sense of stability," he said. "Nothing is guaranteed in Russia. Not the economy and not democracy.

"Well, we are now in the situation where the bomb has exploded, and we can't predict where the shards will go."

Ivan Rybkin, speaker of the Duma, said last night that the lower house of the parliament might take up the question of confidence in Mr. Chernomyrdin's government as a result of the crisis.

Throughout the summer, the value of the ruble stayed fairly constant, thanks largely to active intervention by the Central Bank. But at the same time, the government was stepping up the issuance of new credits to keep industry and agriculture afloat, and by last week inflationary pressure began to overflow the bank's efforts to stabilize the ruble.

In the first week of October, inflation rose to a weekly rate of 2.3 percent. Then new credits were announced to enable Russia's distant northern settlements to keep their supply lines open through the winter, and the ruble began its plunge.

On Monday, as the Central Bank stood by, it passed 3,000 rubles to the dollar. Yesterday, it nearly reached 4,000 and probably would have surpassed that except that the bank stepped back in and bought $80 million worth of rubles.

"Somebody's making money on this," said Andrei Chichagoz, the accounting manager for the Russian affiliate of the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co.

The immediate winners are exporters, like Dmitri Chernushev's metals trading firm, which sunk most of its cash into a nickel order that will be sold in London and will now bring in 1 million rubles a ton more than expected.

The agricultural complex, which was struggling to compete with imported grain, also comes out ahead in the short run.

And the government itself can expect a rise in tax revenues as inflation drives prices higher.

Mr. Gaidar, for one, was unimpressed by these gains. "That's like saying, if you are decapitated, 'Well, that's good, now I don't have to buy a hat,' " he said.

Foreign firms doing business here will take a cash-flow loss as the change in currency values works its way through the system, Mr. Chichagoz said. But in general, he said, these companies calculate in terms of dollars and should have little trouble adjusting.

The more serious question, he said, is what the fall of the ruble says about the country's long-term economic stability.

Even Mr. Chernushev, the nickel exporter, said yesterday: "I would rather have a smaller profit if I could have stability to go with it."

Some here, including Viktor Gerashchenko, chairman of the Central Bank, thought that a weakening of the ruble was overdue but that it was then pushed further by speculators.

"It is an open challenge to the authorities," said Alexander Livshits of President Boris N. Yeltsin's Council of Advisors. He blamed the collapse on the "insane unlimited egoism of speculators," according to Interfax.

Alexander Shokhin, the economics minister, said he believed that "political interests" had intentionally sought the currency crisis as a means of undermining confidence in the government. He did not identify those interests but suggested that they could be found among the country's main commercial banks.

"It looks as if there were some political reasons behind this," said Mikhail Smirnov, deputy head of strategic development for Inkombank in Moscow. "What has happened resembles a very dangerous game that will affect our economy only negatively from all points of view."

Yet others pointed out that in today's Russia there is still little to do with rubles besides buying dollars. Banks are too risky, stock funds like the Russian MMM company, whose bubble burst last July, are even riskier, and inflation makes it pointless to put rubles in the mattress.

"It has turned out to be impossible to preserve money in our country today in any other way than to convert it into hard currency," Ramazan Abdulatipov, deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, told Interfax. "The most profitable operation now is to buy dollars and put them in a suitcase."

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