Russian banks earned profits of $3.4bn in January, the most ever for the first month of the year, but the banking sector is still limping from the shock of extreme sanctions imposed last year.
The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) has just resumed publishing banking results this week after a year’s hiatus and reported that banks had managed to end last year flat despite a nightmarish summer, and were back in profit over the first two months of this year.
Russia came close to a financial crisis in the first months after the invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of extreme sanctions that immediately followed. For the banking sector one of the most painful were the SWIFT sanctions that were imposed only days later that sent a shock through the financial system.
The CBR results show that the banking sector immediately began to lose money, peaking with a loss of RUB900bn ($11.7bn) in April alone. (chart) Altogether banks lost RUB1.7 trillion ($22.1bn) between the months of February and June before the situation stabilised again. At the worst point, a quarter of Russia’s banks were loss-making.
The last time Russia’s banks earned so little was in 2015 following the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the sanctions-era as well as a concurrent sharp drop in oil prices. Then the banking sector earned only RUB114bn of net profit for the full year. That compares with the average annual profit from 2012 to 2021 of at least RUB1 trillion.
CBR Governor Elvia Nabiullina has been given the credit of acting quickly to stave off disaster and rapidly imposed strict capital controls and drastically limited withdrawals from banks to prevent bank runs. She also put in a 1,000bp rate hike only days after the war started that stopped a meltdown of the ruble. By May confidence was returning and the sector began to recover, and by July banks went back into the black.
On a cumulative basis, it took all year for banks to make back the money they had lost in the first six months of the war, but the sector ended December with a small cumulative profit for the whole year of RUB203bn ($2.6bn)(chart).
As the new year began the sector seems to be getting back to normal. Russian banks earned RUB258bn ($3.4bn) in January – their best result for the first month of the year on record – but February saw a slowdown, with banks earning only RUB35bn, about a fifth of the result for the same month in 2020 and 2021.
The combined net profit of Russian banks increased by 14% on the month to RUB293bn ($3.8bn) in February but was down about 20% from normal pre-war levels.
"In February, the sector’s net profit amounted to RUB293bn with a year-on-year return on capital of over 29%, which is a 14% rise on the month," the regulator said in its first banking update for a year.
Part of the fall in profits in February was due to the increase from positive currency revaluation on the back of the weakening, which amounted to RUB140bn.
Having suffered such a big shock, non-performing loans (NPLs) would have been expected to have soared, but the level of non-performing debt remains modest.
In January the share of problem loans remained virtually unchanged compared to December 2022 with 6.5% of corporate loans impaired and unchanged, whereas 5.2% of retail loans were bad after a small uptick of 0.1% month on month.
NPLs in the most risky unsecured lending niche increased slightly in January, up to 8.9% from 8.7% a month earlier, but in the important mortgage loan segment NPLs are only 0.7% of the total portfolio.
Banks have been provisioning for the bed debt, so it doesn’t pose a danger to the system. At the beginning of February, problem corporate loans were 113% covered by reserves and 128% of retail problem loans were also covered.
Both deposits and loans are growing steadily and at about the same pace, so banks are able to fund their own credit book growth out of their own resources.
Russian banks’ retail deposits grew by 2% m/m in February, while corporate deposits climbed by 1.1% in February, the central bank said. The corporate loan portfolio of Russian banks expanded by 1.5% on the month, and the retail loan portfolio rose by 1%, the regulator said.
And the liquidity of the banking sector remains good. Russian banks’ liquidity assets in totalled around RUB18.9 trillion ($244.6bn) in February, the Central Bank reported on March 22.
"This is an adequate level sufficient for covering 26% of clients’ funds in and 58% of individuals’ funds. Another RUB8.6 trillion of liquidity, sufficient for covering 12% of clients’ funds, may be raised by banks with the Bank of Russia on the security of non-marketable assets. Consequently available sources of liquidity cover up to 37% of clients in rubles," the CBR’s report said.
Russians also have foreign exchange accounts, but there too the liquidity cushion of $60bn those banks hold in reserves is also sufficient to meet demand, the CBR said.
“The banks’ liquidity cushion in foreign currency of $60bn is also at an adequate level, with around 49% of clients’ funds and 29% of currency liabilities covered,” the regulator added.
Outlook for 2023
The CBR expects the banking system to go back to more or less normal operations this year. The combined net profit of Russia's banking sector in 2023 is expected to exceed RUB1 trillion ($13.3bn), according to Nabiullina in a preliminary assessment on March 2.
That result would still be half of the RUB2 trillion the banking sector earned in 2021, the last normal year of operations.
Nabiullina also predicted that Russians' deposits with banks will rise by slightly more than 7% in 2023, while corporate deposits with banks will grow by about 15%. However, corporate lending growth will slow down to 10% in 2023 from 14% in 2022 and 12% in 2021.
The government has been playing its part to support the sector by subsidising mortgages, which has the added bonus of boosting the construction sector, one of Russia’s three biggest economic drivers. Nabiullina has voiced concern that the mortgage programme could lead to a credit and real estate bubble, but it remains modest.
Nevertheless, Nabiullina also predicted that mortgage crediting will expand by about 15% in 2023, and consumer lending by 10%. However, she cautioned that the quality of mortgages is deteriorating, and the regulator may take additional measures to curb risky mortgage loans.
Nabiullina has also raised a red flag as she says that some banks are attempting to make a quick buck to compensate for the low profits of 2022 by taking bigger risks. If this behaviour creates systemic risks, the regulator may toughen its regulations and monetary policy, she warned.
In 2022, some regulations and limits were relaxed to ease the pressure on the system, but that created the potential for credit expansion by about RUB15 trillion in the next five years. Cancellation of macro markups on retail and foreign currency corporate loans also freed about RUB1 trillion for banks to use.
Now things have calmed down again the CBR is slowly starting to return the norms to normal, but, dubbed “the most conservative central banker in the world,” Nabiullina still plans to prolong restrictions on the flows of capital and foreign currency, including limits on the withdrawal of foreign currency cash, on trans-border transfers, and on the withdrawal of money by foreigners from non-friendly countries.