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Russia weighs capital controls as rouble hits new low: Report

Russian 1000 rouble currency banknotes
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Russian 1000 rouble currency banknotes

Russia's central bank is considering introducing temporary capital controls if the flow of money out of the country intensifies, Bloomberg reported Tuesday, citing two officials with direct knowledge of the discussions.

The Economy Ministry said last week it expects this year's outflows to rise to $100 billion, Bloomberg reported.

The report comes as Russia's rouble fell to a new all-time low of more than 39 to the U.S. dollar Friday as the greenback strengthened against global currencies amid strong economic data while Russia's government said its economy had shown no growth in August.

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The fresh fall came as there is no sign of a quick end to Western sanctions over Russia's involvement in Ukraine that have left companies virtually cut off from global capital markets, forcing them to raise funds locally to cover debt repayments, which were higher in September.

The rouble has weakened 18% in the past year as the price of oilRussia's main source of foreign currencyhas slid, while Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought sanctions and spooked investors.

On Friday afternoon, one dollar was buying 39.06 roubles, 57 kopecks more than on Thursday.

Russia's rouble had held more or less steady in recent days against the U.S. dollar, despite the greenback's strengthening against other global currencies, as companies bought roubles to pay their local quarterly taxes. As the tax season ended, demand for roubles declined, whereas demand for foreign currency remained strong due to debt redemptions.

"The issue remains--uplifted debt redemptions in September, so with lower payments in October and November we think the rouble may see some correction," said Dmitry Polevoy, chief economist for Russia at ING Bank.

Officials also expected the rouble to strengthen.

"I think the rouble is oversold," said Russian Economy Minister Alexander Ulyukayev. "We expect it to strengthen somewhat."

However, he said investors would likely start to "doubt Russia's investment climate" further after prosecutors Friday said they were seeking to renationalize a controlling stake in oil company Bashneft, owned by conglomerate AFK Sistema. The main shareholder of Sistema, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, is under house arrest and under investigation on money-laundering charges.

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Russia's economy shows little sign of picking up. The economy ministry said the country's gross domestic product didn't grow in August year-over-year and declined by 0.4% from July. However, as the total cost of import declines amid a slowing economy and a recently introduced ban on food imports, Russia's trade surplus grew 17% in August to $16.6 billion, which could support the rouble somewhat.

Despite the rouble's slide in recent months, the central bank has been avoiding interventions other than to smooth volatility and says it is sticking to its aim of moving to a fully free-traded rouble next year.

A weaker rouble puts further pressure on Russia's already-high inflation and on its indebted companies.

While analysts mostly expect the central bank to stick to its plans, a falling exchange rate could increase pressure for it to actively defend the rouble with its reserves.

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"My clients aren't worried yet, but they are starting to ask whether an introduction of capital controls is possible," a Western banker in Moscow said Friday.

"The central bank is likely to start providing rouble support in 2015 and we see a risk that the central bank could abandon its inflation targeting framework if pressures on the rouble intensify substantially next year," analysts at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch said.

Reuters contributed to this report.