Falling ruble and oil price reignite rumours of devaluation of Kazakh currency

By bne IntelliNews October 16, 2014

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The stumbling ruble and oil price have reignited rumours about a "second wave" of devaluation for the tenge in Kazakhstan. Rumours about another devaluation have been circulating in the country's financial capital, Almaty, since the central bank was forced to cut the value of the Kazakh currency by 19% in February.

The Russian ruble has renewed historical lows three times in the past three days, touching record lows of RUB41 against the dollar and RUB52 against the euro on October 15. The value of the ruble has slumped by about 10% since the beginning of September and nearly 20% since the beginning of the year, sparked by Western sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and continued support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The ruble has also been hit by oil prices, which fell to $86 on October 14, down by nearly a quarter since June 2014, making it difficult for the Russian government to balance its books. The 2014 Russian budget is based on an annual average weighted oil price of $93 per barrel.

Olzhas Khudaybergenov, an adviser to the head of the Kazakh central bank, denied on his Facebook page on October 16 that rumours of the tenge's devaluation had been based on economic fundamentals but explained them as coming from a general "atmosphere of mistrust in government and scepticism" in Kazakhstan. The adviser argued that the rate of inflation in Russia is outpacing the rate of the ruble's devaluation, which means there will be "no cheapening of Russian goods and, as a result, an increase in imports" to Kazakhstan. Kazakh imports of Russian goods fell by 22.3% in the first eight months of 2014, and should this trend continue, "the National Bank may rule out the ruble as a factor and signal to the market that it doesn't oppose shifting [the exchange rate of] the ruble from a historically-established corridor of KZT4.5-5.5 to KZT3.5-4.5 to the ruble", Khudaybergenov wrote. "In other words, the next critical level is RUB52 to the dollar."

In early September, Kairat Kelimbetov, chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, the central bank, said that the tenge "will be fine at the ruble's rate of 40-42" to the dollar.

Khudaybergenov admitted that the continuing fall in global oil prices might take a toll on the value of the tenge but the government’s worst-case scenario for public finance was  an oil price of $80 per barrel. He suggested that the Kazakh economy would feel strained at an oil price of $60 per barrel, posting 0% growth. Even in this case the tenge would be devalued next year because higher oil prices earlier this year will compensate for the lower prices now, Khubaybergenov explained. "On the other hand, it's absolutely unfavourable for authorities to repeat devaluation this year because this situation raises a question about the stability of the entire financial system," he said. "Not only will this set a precedent but will also create a risk of social protests."

In response to a 10% devaluation of the Russian ruble in late 2013 and early 2014, the National Bank devalued the national currency from KZT155 to KZT185 to the dollar in February. Combined with opposition to Kazakhstan's deeper integration with Russia within the Customs Union in some quarters of Kazakh society, the February devaluation sparked public protests in Almaty.

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