Russian companies are preparing to switch contracts to renminbi and other Asian currencies amid fears that western sanctions may freeze them out of the US dollar market, according to two top bankers.
"Over the last few weeks there has been a significant interest in the market from large Russian corporations to start using various products in renminbi and other Asian currencies and to set up accounts in Asian locations," Pavel Teplukhin, head of Deutsche Bank in Russia, told the Financial Times.
Andrei Kostin, chief executive of state bank VTB, said that expanding the use of non-dollar currencies was one of the bank's "main tasks".
"Given the extent of our bilateral trade with China, developing the use of settlements in roubles and yuan [renminbi] is a priority on the agenda, and so we are working on it now," he told Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a briefing. "Since May, we have been carrying out this work."
Sanctions are pushing Russian companies to reduce their dependence on western financial markets while U.S. and European banks have dramatically slowed their lending activity in Russia since the annexation of Crimea in March.
"There is nothing wrong with Russia trying to reduce its dependency on the dollar, actually it is an entirely reasonable thing to do," said the Russia head of another large European bank. He added that Russia's large exposure to the dollar subjects it to more market volatility in times of crisis. "There is no reason why you have to settle trade you do with Japan in dollars," he said.
The chief executive of a Russian manufacturer that derives 70 per cent of its revenues from export in U.S. dollars said his company had done the groundwork to move its contract settlements to different currencies in the event of further sanctions. "If something happens, we are ready to switch to other currencies, for example to the Chinese yuan or the Hong Kong dollar," he said.
Alexander Dyukov, chief executive of Gazprom's oil division, has said that the company has discussed with its customers the possibility of shifting contracts out of dollars, while Norilsk Nickel told the FT that it was discussing denominating long-term contracts with Chinese consumers in renminbi.
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"It looks like this is not just a blip, this is a trend," said Mr Teplukhin of Deutsche Bank. He added that Russian companies were able to hedge the risk of further U.S. sanctions by "changing the letter of their contracts to allow them to change currency if it is necessary".
Some politicians have suggested Moscow should respond to western sanctions by entirely "de-dollarising" its economy.
But while in recent discussions with big business about how to make the economy less vulnerable the government has advocated listing back home and settling more trade in currencies other than the dollar, it has rejected more extreme measures.
"As long as Russia is not subject to systemic sanctions, which could bring an artificial limit to our economy's access to dollars . . . then I don't think Russia will take any steps in order to bring about artificial de-dollarisation," said Andrei Belousov, economic adviser to Mr Putin.