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Yellen: Not legal for U.S. to seize Russian official assets

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen looks on during a U.S. House Committee on Financial Services hearing on the Annual Report of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. May 12, 2022. Graeme Jennings/

By David Lawder

BONN, Germany (Reuters) -The United States does not have legal authority to seize Russian central bank assets frozen due to its invasion of Ukraine, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Wednesday, but talks with U.S. partners over ways to make Russia foot the bill for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction are starting.

Yellen also said it is likely that the special license granted to allow Russia to make payments to its U.S. bondholders would not be extended when it expires next week, leaving Russian officials a fast-narrowing window to avoid its first external debt default since the 1917 Russian revolution.

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine is the central agenda item at this week’s gathering of Group of Seven finance ministers, and Yellen is calling for increased financial support for the war-torn country, which the World Bank estimates is suffering $4 billion in weekly physical damage.

“I think it’s very natural that given the enormous destruction in Ukraine, and huge rebuilding costs that they will face, that we will look to Russia to help pay at least a portion of the price that will be involved,” Yellen told reporters here ahead of this week’s meetings.

Some European officials have advocated that the EU, the United States and other allies seize some $300 billion in Russian central bank foreign currency assets frozen by sanctions. The assets are held abroad, but remain under Russian ownership.

“While we’re beginning to look at this, it would not be legal now in the United States for the government to seize those” assets, Yellen said. “It’s not something that is legally permissible in the United States.”

U.S. Treasury officials have also expressed concerns about setting precedents and eroding other countries’ confidence in holding their central bank assets in the United States.

At the G7 meeting in the Bonn suburb of Koenigswinter, Yellen intends to focus on Ukraine’s more immediate budget needs, estimated at $5 billion a month. On Tuesday she pressed U.S. allies to step up their financial support, while a German government official said the ministers would pledge $15 billion of new budget aid.

RUSSIAN DEFAULT RISKS

Russia has some $40 billion of international bonds and has so far managed to keep current on its obligations and avoid default thanks to a temporary license from the Treasury granting an exception allowing banks to accept dollar-denominated payments from Russia’s finance ministry despite crippling sanctions on Russia.

The license expires on May 25, with the next major payment due that day.

On Wednesday Yellen said Treasury is unlikely to extend the exemption. This could result in a technical default if Russia then resorts to trying to pay in roubles rather than dollars as required under the bonds’ covenants.

“There’s not been a final decision on that, but I think it’s unlikely that it would continue,” Yellen said, adding that a technical default would not alter the current situation regarding Russia’s access to capital.

“If Russia is unable to find a way to make these payments, and they technically default on their debt, I don’t think that really represents a significant change in Russia’s situation. They’re already cut off from global capital markets.”

ECONOMY THREATS

Yellen outlined a number of threats to the global economy ahead of the G7 meeting, including spillovers from the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, which have spiked energy and food prices, and a slowdown in China’s economy due to strict COVID-19 lockdowns. But she said she did not think a “synchronized” U.S., Chinese and European recession was likely.

Yellen said China’s zero-tolerance COVID policies appear to be impeding production of goods, compounding supply chain difficulties that have boosted prices and are contributing to its slowdown in growth.

“As one of the largest economies in the globe, China’s economic performance really has spillover impacts on growth all around the world,” Yellen said, adding that the Treasury was closely monitoring Beijing’s policy responses.

She confirmed that she is advocating within the Biden administration for dropping some U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods that “aren’t very strategic” to limit pain on U.S. consumers and businesses.

She said the G7 finance leaders will discuss further sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine and talk “about how best to design them to shield the global economy from the adverse effects while imposing maximum harm on Russia.”

Forex

Lira Weakens as Corporates Keep Buying Dollars Despite New Rule

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© Bloomberg. An electronic board displays exchange rates information at a currency exchange bureau in Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday, June 24, 2022. Tourism arrivals in May surged 308% year-on-year, boosting hopes that a rebound in the sector can support the weakening Lira. Photographer: Erhan Demirtas/Bloomberg

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The Turkish currency retreated on Tuesday as companies continued to buy dollars for a second day after a new rule imposed restrictions on extending lira loans to foreign-exchange-rich corporates.

The lira fell as much as 0.5% to 16.6376 per dollar after rising more than 2% on Monday. Corporates purchased dollars even as state lenders moved to defend the local currency, according to three traders who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak publicly. 

State lenders sold more than $1 billion in two days to support the currency, they said. One trader said the net impact was limited as some firms’ dollar sales were offset by others.

The country’s banking regulator restricted commercial lira loans to corporate borrowers if they held more than 15 million liras ($902,000) in foreign currencies and if such an amount exceeded 10% of total assets or annual sales. The move is one of the most forceful attempts to date to support the lira.

Instead of raising interest rates to contain soaring inflation and the voracious local appetite for dollars, regulators have put in place a series of other curbs to support the currency since 2018. The central bank has held its key policy rate at 14% over the past six months while consumer prices rose at the fastest pace since 1998. Turkey’s interest rates are now the world’s most negative when inflation is factored in. 

The regulator’s chief, Mehmet Ali Akben, said the measure will “ensure loans are properly used” and will “positively contribute to bringing inflation under control,” state-run Anadolu Agency reported. 

The Borsa Istanbul 100 Index, Turkey’s equity benchmark, climbed 0.6% as of 1 p.m. in Istanbul. The cost of insuring the nation’s bonds against default for five years rose 13 basis points to 784.

State banks don’t comment on their interventions in the foreign-exchange market. A former central-bank governor said in 2020 that government-owned lenders carry out transactions in line with regulatory limits and may continue to be active in the currency market.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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Dollar Up Despite Concerns Over Economic Recession

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© Reuters

By Zhang Mengying

Investing.com – The dollar was up on Tuesday morning in Asia despite worries about economic recession. Investors await a speech from the European Central Bank (ECB) President Christine Lagarde.

The U.S. Dollar Index that tracks the greenback against a basket of other currencies inched up 0.02% to 103.96 by 11:21 PM ET (3:21 AM GMT).

The USD/JPY pair edged down 0.13% to 135.26.

The AUD/USD pair inched down 0.04% to 0.6920, and the NZD/USD pair edged down 0.12% to 0.6292.

The USD/CNY pair inched up 0.09% to 6.6978, while GBP/USD pair inched up 0.07% to 1.2272.

Governor of the People’s Bank of China Yi Gang said the central bank will keep its policy supportive for China’s economy.

Investors are keeping an eye on signs of weakness in recent economic data, which would possibly moderate interest rate hikes. But they are also concerned that it could be a sign of the onset of a difficult period of stagflation.

“Stay long the dollar until some of the uncertainty has reduced,” Societe Generale) strategist Kit Juckes told Reuters.

“The dollar will fall likely only when the global economy is on a more sustainable growth path … markets are forward-looking, but all we can see ahead today is danger.”

Across the Atlantic, German inflation figures are due on Wednesday, and French data is due on Thursday.

“This set of inflation data will have a significant influence on the ECB‘s monetary policy forward guidance, especially on the trajectory … of its interest rate hike cycle that is expected to kick start in July,” CMC analyst Kelvin Wong told Reuters.

The ECB President Christine Lagarde, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, and Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester are due to speak at the ECB forum in Sintra, Portugal this Wednesday.

The Group of Seven (G7) leaders are about to discuss the means to tackle rising energy prices. They are examining a new package of actions aimed at increasing pressure on Russia over its war in Ukraine.

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The ‘Big Package’: How Russia was driven to default

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives for the European Union leaders summit, as EU’s leaders attempt to agree on Russian oil sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium May 30, 2022. REUTERS

By Marc Jones

LONDON (Reuters) – Russia’s first major international debt default in over a century, which Washington said became a fact on Monday, follows months of co-ordinated Western sanctions that left Moscow with cash but no access to the international financial network.

Below is a summary of the key moments that have led up to this point.

THE “BIG PACKAGE”

At around 11.30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Feb. 25, the day after Russian troops entered Ukraine, European Union’s experts in Brussels said a set of sanctions they had worked on for days, or the “Big Package” as they called it, was ready.

Just before midnight, the European Commission announced https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2022/02/25/russia-s-military-aggression-against-ukraine-eu-imposes-sanctions-against-president-putin-and-foreign-minister-lavrov-and-adopts-wide-ranging-individual-and-economic-sanctions the measures.

While emergency Group of Seven and EU meetings earlier made clear a response was coming, the package named Vladimir Putin and his top diplomat Sergei Lavrov personally, and, as it later became clear, froze some $300 billion of the Russian central bank’s reserves.

“That was really the moment when we said, okay, well we’ve done it,” one European source told Reuters. “That was, I think, a very pivotal moment for a lot of people around a table.”

Graphic: EU’s Von der Leyen lays out Russia sanctions- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/dwvkrmloapm/Pasted%20image%201656346091349.png

SWIFT ACTION

Days later, on March 2, the EU struck again by banning seven Russian banks from SWIFT, an international financial messaging system crucial for cross-border transactions.

Booting Russian lenders from SWIFT had long been considered a ‘nuclear option,’ but the invasion put it on the table and when the EU decided to activate it, those at SWIFT headquarters just outside Brussels were ready.

The only question was how long they had to implement the move, “five days or five minutes?” another source said. In the end is was 10-12 days.

FIRST CUTS, BUT NOT THE DEEPEST

Credit rating agency, S&P Global (NYSE:SPGI), already stripped Moscow of its coveted investment grade rating on Feb. 26 and Russian bonds were slumping, but a heavier blow followed on March 15, when the EU told top credit agencies to stop rating Russian dept or risk losing their licenses to operate in the bloc.

“We were caught flat-footed, certainly we were not given any advanced warning,” one senior rating agency analyst said. “Basically the question was, does this mean we can’t rate Russia any more?” It turned out the answer was yes.

Graphic: Driven to default Driven to default- https://graphics.reuters.com/UKRAINE-CRISIS/RUSSIA-BONDS/mopanryzgva/chart.png

DEFAULT DEADLINE ONE

With so many hurdles being erected, expectations built that Russia would default on its first post-sanctions’ bond payments either on March 16, or a month later at the end of a 30-day “grace period.”

However, a special “waiver” in the U.S. sanctions granted by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control allowed payments to go through.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

On April 8, a week before the EU ban on Russian ratings was due to come into force, S&P declared Russia in “selective default” after Moscow said it planned to make upcoming bond payments in roubles rather than dollars, their issue currency.

On May 3 though, shortly before the payment was due, the Kremlin U-turned and paid in dollars.

SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM

Days later, Russia had stumbled, though.

On May 11, sharp-eyed creditors spotted that Moscow had failed to add $1.9 million of extra interest that had built up on bonds that only got paid in their grace periods rather than on time. They contacted the clearing house Euroclear and then bond market equivalent of an insurance payment arbiter – the Credit Derivative Determinations Committee https://www.cdsdeterminationscommittees.org/cds/the-russian-federation which ruled that a “credit event” had happened.

The sum was too small to trigger default clauses in all of Russia’s international bonds, but it did mean some investors expected to receive default insurance payments.

But when the U.S. Treasury clarified on its website that buying Russian bonds on the open, or ‘secondary’ market, was banned, that credit default swap (CDS) insurance process had to be halted as it was no longer clear what to do with the bonds involved.

“It is a bit like if your house burns down and the insurance company turns around and claims it was the wrong kind of fire,” said Joe Delvaux, emerging markets distressed debt portfolio manager at Europe’s largest fund manager Amundi. “The reality is that these sanctions are a shock to the system.”

INTENDED CONSEQUENCES

The step that made Russia’s default unavoidable though was Washington’s May 24 decision to let the waiver that had allowed U.S. bondholders to receive Russia’s payments, expire.

A week later, the EU also sanctioned Russia’s domestic paying agent, its National Settlement Depository (NSD), which it had been using to make the payments.

Moscow has blamed the West for forcing an “artificial default”., with its finance minister Anton Siluanov calling the situation a “farce.”

However, veteran global policymakers involved in the process say they sanctions are unprecedented but fully justified.

“They were very significant actions that responded to the magnitude of the actions that Russia undertook,” Agustin Carstens, the head of the world’s central bank umbrella body, the Bank for International Settlements, said.

Graphic: Biden stresses power of U.S. sanctions- https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/zjvqkloyovx/Pasted%20image%201656321187075.png

(This story refiles to fixe typo in 1st paragraph).

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