Could Russia back its currency with gold?

Russia's government could still be pushed into using its gold reserves to bolster the falling ruble, currency experts have forecast.

Rumors last week that Russia was on the verge of selling its gold reserves were quashed with the news on Friday that it has continued to add to its holdings. However, John Butler, chief investment officer at Atom Capital, and Alasdair MacLeod, the head of research at online bullion exchange GoldMoney Foundation, believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin could bring the country onto some sort of "gold standard" to try to shore up its economy.

"It was (and still is) in Russia's power to adopt a gold standard," MacLeod told CNBC via email.

"There is no doubt that Russia and China, plus the other Eurasian states in their sphere of influence are all accumulating gold and the indications are they see it as central to replacing the U.S. dollar for cross border trade."

Whether Russia would actually decide to do it was another matter, said MacLeod, and expected the country's central bank to the lack the courage to act. However, he said that if Putin is "provoked sufficiently" he may judge it to be in Russia's best interests and could overpower any reluctant officials at the bank.

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"It is already in Russia's interest to cast itself off from inflating western currencies and to base their economy on sound money, aka gold," he said.

Gold
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Countries that are indebted and provide substantial welfare for its citizens would be most threatened by any return to gold convertibility, according to MacLeod, who said Russia could therefore be building a "weapon of mass financial destruction."

The Nixon administration has been credited with originally breaking the link between gold and the dollar in the early 1970s amid surging inflation, rising costs from the Vietnam War, and an oil crisis.

Before that, fixed amounts of gold were directly convertible to the U.S. dollar and vice versa. That meant money supply theoretically was limited by the amount of gold backing it, and exchange rates were based on the difference in price for an ounce of gold between the dollar and a foreign currency.

Russia has been aggressively buying the commodity in recent years and has formed closer currency ties with neighboring China in the process. Russia's gold holdings rose to 38.2 million ounces as of December 1, according to a statement by the central bank on Friday. This was a rise from a figure of 37.6 million from the month before, and allayed fears that it had sold the precious metal for dollars so it could further rebalance the ruble. The Russian currency had a torrid week, plunging by more than 11 percent last Tuesday — its steepest intraday fall since 1998.

Jim Rickards, the senior managing director at Tangent Capital and who has written extensively on the subject, told CNBC via email that Russia will move to a gold-backed currency but believes that such a move could be a long way off.

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Putin's speech seemed 'relatively calm'
Putin's speech seemed 'relatively calm'

"Russia will continue to acquire gold, but will need hard currency reserves also to bridge the gap between today's position and any future intentions," he said.

One major drawback for Russia is that the ruble is already heavily linked to the price of oil and a gold-backed currency would link it to a second commodity, according to Phoenix Kalen, the director of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.

Thus, this would hinder usage of the "freely" floating currency as a shock-absorbing mechanism for its economy, she said.

I think it's highly unlikely that Russia would move toward a gold-backed currency," she told CNBC via email.

"At this point in time, it may make more sense for Russia to accumulate gold reserves, as it would help the country to diversify away from U.S. assets, stay ahead of the U.S. monetary policy tightening cycle which may adversely impact U.S. Treasury holdings, and benefit from the inflation protection provided by gold assets."