Ruble reverses declines amid free-float doubts

The ruble recovered ground from historic lows on Thursday amid mounting market speculation that the Central Bank may delay a planned 2015 free-float of the Russian currency because of its rapid decline.

The euro was down 0.5 percent to 48.76 rubles in afternoon trading on the Moscow Exchange -- retreating from a record it had set on Wednesday and breaking a decline it began in late December.

The dollar also traded down 0.1 percent at 35.12 rubles and was off the five-year high it established against the beleaguered Russian currency this week.

The dual-currency basket of dollars and euros that the Central Bank uses to set policy had broken the 41.15 low point it reached in February 2009 on Thursday morning before slipping back to 41.005 in the late afternoon.

Russia's Central Bank has reduced the amount of its direct interventions on the market as it proceeds with the planned introduction of a fully-convertible ruble exchange rate by the start of next year.

The ruble has shed more than six percent of its value against the dual currency basket since the start of the year.

But regulators are also taking steps to make the depreciation more gradual and less painful on consumers by intervening on the market to some extent.

Russia's gold and hard currency reserves were reported down $2.1 billion (1.5 billion euros) to $496.7 billion (365.2 billion euros) in the week ending January 24 due to Central Bank support of the ruble that preceded this week's more vigorous slide.

The reserve declines are likely to continue in what some are seeing as an echo of a 2008-2009 financial crisis during which the ruble shed about a third of its value even while the government spent more than $200 billion to support it.

The Central Bank reported spending more than $1.1 billion on the Moscow Exchange on Monday and analysts said they suspected an even larger sum was used up on Wednesday amid another dramatic decline.

The state-run ITAR-TASS news agency estimated that the Central Bank has bought $4.2 billion (3.1 billion euros) worth of the rubles on the Moscow market since Friday.

And the Central Bank itself said on Thursday that it was ready to spend an "unlimited" amount on the ruble should it slip outside its previously established trading band.

Free-float delay?

Both traders and officials said the free-float idea may have to be reviewed in light of the rapid turn of investor sentiment against emerging markets.

Did "moving to a free float led to a free fall?" Moscow's VTB Capital investment bank asked in a research note.

"The fall has become so steep that the ruble free-float planned for 2015 may be delayed," the Vedomosti business daily wrote.

Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev -- the former Central Bank deputy chief whom Vedomosti identified as the "author of the (free-float) idea" -- hinted late on Wednesday that he no longer believed the 2015 target was feasible.

"I would discuss the possibility of introducing certain limits on exchange rate freedoms," Interfax quoted Russia's economy chief as saying.

"I would discuss the time horizon -- perhaps it should be shifted," said Ulyukayev.

The Central Bank has thus far issued no comment on Ulyukayev's suggestion. But a growing chorus of commentators have taken to Russian media to support the delay of the ruble's full convertibility.

"Obviously, yes, it would be good to let the ruble float freely -- but definitely not for the country" at this stage, Moscow's Higher School of Economics professor Ivan Rodionov told Business FM radio.