'Currency War' end-game could be good for Russia
Investors are lining up to short the Russian ruble as the sell-off in emerging markets pushes the currency to historic lows. But several analysts see an upside to the rout, seeing it as "easy money" for the government's coffers.
The dollar has appreciated over 7 percent against the ruble since the start of the year. At 1.00 p.m. London time Thursday, the ruble stood at $35.18 – close to levels not matched since the height of the global financial crisis in 2009, when the dollar peaked at $36.34 against the ruble.
The currencies of Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and India have all been hit in this latest sell-off due to Chinese growth fears and the flow of cash back to the U.S. with the Federal Reserve "tapering" its bond purchases.
These policy changes have exposed large current account deficits in emerging market economies, showing the need to increase the value of its exports relative to the value of imports. It has also brought to the fore a reliance on China. With the world's second largest economy rebalancing, there are concerns that its demand for raw materials could fall, hitting those that export to the country.
(Read More: Why an emergingmarkets panic may be justified)
Kit Juckes, global head of foreign exchange strategy at Societe Generale said that Russia is a prime candidate for these fears and expects its currency will see more weakness.
"I think it remains vulnerable, for sure," he told CNBC via email.
Simon Derrick, chief currency strategist at BNY Mellon said that Russia is prepared to give its currency greater latitude. He added that it will continue to be closely tied to the price of oil. With oil prices expected to show weakness in the longer term, Derrick expects the ruble to follow it lower.
The central banks of Turkey, South Africa and India have hiked their interest rates in the last few days, in the hope it'll improve the attractiveness of their currencies. But central bankers are losing out to the currency speculators who have pushed their currencies lower again.
Russia, meanwhile has taken a more relaxed approach. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said the country's central bank shouldn't follow the example of other emerging markets by raising key rates, according to Dow Jones who cited Russian non-governmental news agency Interfax.
Instead, the central bank has shifted its currency peg with the dollar-euro currency basket. The floating corridor now extends from 33.95 to 40.95 against the basket, compared to 33.70-40.70 previously. The Bank of Russia said on Thursday that it would launch unlimited foreign exchange interventions to protect the ruble if it strayed out of those trading bands, according to Reuters.
(Read More: Has the Fed left emerging markets out in the cold?)
The central bank still has plans to allow the currency to float freely in the future with Ksenia Yudayeva, the bank's first deputy chairwoman, telling the Wall Street Journal on January 17 that Russian banks could cope with a devaluation of up to 30 percent.
These key policy shifts are seen as the end game to the "currency wars" that has gripped the globe in the last few years, according to Derrick. The restrictive currency policies from China and Russia are being rescinded, along with the easy money that has flowed out of the U.S. from the Federal Reserve, he said.
"Everyone was aware that the currency markets would start to revert to more normal levels once the two great factors in the past decade's currency wars began to recede. This is exactly what's happening now," he said.
There are fears of inflation in Russia too, with Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev warning that, with a weaker ruble, imports would become more expensive, according to Prime Business news agency, who called the drop an "historic low".
But there are upsides to the recent rout in emerging markets. In a research note on Wednesday, Societe Generale stated that aluminum company United Company Rusal was being helped by the sensitivity of the ruble – making its exports cheaper and therefore more attractive.
"Rusal is perhaps the ultimate rouble devaluation play," analysts at the French lender said in a research note. For every 1 percent drop in the ruble against the dollar, they see it erasing $50 million from its operating cash costs.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects the plunge in the ruble to boost growth, corporate profits and investment demand as well as benefits for the government with half of total revenues it receives denominated in strong dollar-based taxes on the oil and gas sector.
"Each 1 ruble move of the annual average exchange rate would be worth some 200 billion rubles in additional revenues, or about 1 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) for each 10 percent move," the investment bank said in a research note on Wednesday.
"All revenue increases will bring about corresponding reductions of the budget deficit outlook. Overall, we estimate that with unchanged oil prices, the Russian budget needs the ruble to drop by about 2 rubles in order to balance the budget this year."
—By CNBC.com's Matt Clinch. Follow him on Twitter @mattclinch81