Russians are buying American—while they can

The deterioration of Russia's economy might mean good news for Ford and other American companies—at least for the time being.

Russia's currency, the ruble, has shed 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in the last year as Western sanctions have slammed the Russian economy, and plunging oil prices have bitten into the country's revenues. That, in turn, is encouraging Russians to buy big-ticket items now for fear that prices will rise even more than they already have as the ruble continues its decline.

Data on Russian sales of high-ticket items are difficult to obtain, but October and November retail sales in Russia rose year over year and surpassed forecasts, even as consumer sentiment has remained negative, according to information from Russia's Federal State Statistics Service.

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And anecdotal evidence indicates that everything from Apple iPhones to refrigerators and Ford automobiles are currently selling like blintzes in Russia. Two managers at a Ford Dealership in Moscow, Sergei and Artur, who asked that their last names be withheld, told CNBC that they began to see a spike in sales at the beginning of November.

A billboard promotes the Ford Kuga outside a Ford dealership in Moscow, April 3, 2014.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A billboard promotes the Ford Kuga outside a Ford dealership in Moscow, April 3, 2014.

"As the dollar grows against the ruble, it makes economic sense for people to buy the cars now before prices rise sharply," Sergei said.

The Ford dealership he manages is part of Major Auto, which has 52 dealerships in Moscow, three of which specifically sell Ford cars and trucks. There is also a Major Auto Ford dealership in St. Petersburg.

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Artur said sales had more than doubled in November from the month before in his specific dealership. The prices for the vehicles range from about 600,000 rubles ($11,233, at Thursday's exchange rates) to about 2.3 million rubles ($43,062).

Spokeswoman Elizaveta Novikova of Ford Sollers, the automaker's joint venture in Russia, confirmed that the ruble spike is driving short-term volume, but she also pointed to the popularity of a new SUV line for a 30 percent increase in Ford's share since May.

Artur and Sergei said other cars like BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes were also selling well. "People understand it's about to get much more expensive so they need to put their money somewhere and cars is one place," Artur said.

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Timothy Ash, head of Emerging Market Research at Standard Bank, told CNBC that such sales are a sign of the "guy on the street" getting worried. "It provides a short term boon to domestic demand, but eventually is a portend of recession and weak growth to come," Ash said.

And it's not just cars. Russians are buying up other big ticket items like iPhones and other Western brand names like Gucci bags before prices catch up with the current dollars vs. ruble currency rate.

Tim Seymour, CIO of Triogem Asset Management, said he's not surprised by the rise in consumer demand for such products in Moscow.

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Seymour, who owns shares of Yandex and Lukoil, noted that Russians are not fazed with what is happening to their currency, because they are accustomed to the volatility of the ruble and have become good at making tactical responses to its movements.

What's different now, Seymour said, is that the sinking of the ruble happened a lot faster than most people expected.

"If you think there's inflation coming, you buy now," Seymour said, adding that retailers did not have time to adjust to the ruble's recent moves because they came so fast, but merchants are coming around.