Ukraine central bank chief Gontareva hints at resignation

Ukraine central bank chief Gontareva hints at resignation
Valeriya Gontareva, a close business associate of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has led the NBU since June 2014.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv March 3, 2017

Valeriya Gontareva, the governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), has said she may resign after the next memorandum under the country’s $17.5bn support programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been signed and sealed, clearing the way for further disbursements of cash to Kyiv.

“Everything is all right on the part of the NBU. I'm ready to sign it [the memorandum] today,” Gontareva said at a press briefing in the capital on March 2. Asked if it would be the last with her signature on it, Gontareva told journalists: "That could be the case."

“But I once again emphasise that officially, the NBU will announce this [the resignation] in advance,” Gontareva added. “We have not made such an announcement. The NBU board is working on a very tight schedule.”

The signing of the memorandum will enable Ukraine to receive the fourth tranche of the IMF loan. The previous funding of $1bn was supplied by the multinational lender in September 2016, after almost a year of delays caused mainly by the chaotic reformatting of the country’s ruling coalition following a change of government.

Gontareva, a close business associate of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has led the NBU since June 2014. She is the second head of the central bank since the victory of the Euromaidan protests and the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

The governor and her team have transformed the entire banking sector of Ukraine after years of massive frauds and corruption. The NBU has withdrawn the licences of more than 80 lenders, many of them due to their involvement in money laundering or for having a non-transparent ownership structure.

“Massive lending to related parties. Opaque ownership structures with the real owners hiding behind a mass of nominal directors. Window-dressing of financial reports. Fake correspondent accounts at foreign banks. Politically motivated lending by state-owned banks ... Money laundering as a bank’s business model. It was a common way of doing financial business in Ukraine before 2014,” Gontareva wrote in her column published by The Banker in October 2016.

In addition, the NBU and the Ukrainian Finance Ministry, previously led by US-born pro-market minister Natalie Jaresko, have established fruitful cooperation with the country’s Western donors.

According to media reports, Gontareva wants to retire of her own will, but Poroshenko is reluctant to release her from duty because there is no obvious new candidate for the post. Among possible candidates, insiders and market experts name Ukraine’s former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former NBU governor Volodymyr Stelmakh, who headed the NBU through much of the last decade under former presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.

“Cannot believe ex-governors are being mentioned in dispatches as possible replacements for Gontareva. They had their chance to reform,” Timothy Ash, a senior sovereign strategist in emerging markets with Bluebay Asset Management, a unit of the Royal Bank of Canada, tweeted on February 27.

Poroshenko could indeed be interested in the possible appointment of Yatsenyuk. Such a move would provide an opportunity to have an IMF-friendly person in this post and also to prevent Yatsenyuk’s public rating from improving: since much of the Ukrainian population blames the NBU for the meltdown of the hryvnia and the continuing crisis in the banking sector, this would effectively keep the lid on any political ambitions of the former premier.

However, Yatsenyuk has already said that he has no aspirations to head the NBU. According to him, the regulator’s head must be a completely apolitical figure and a professional economist and banker.

Meanwhile, further cooperation with the IMF could become a problematic issue if Gontareva departs. “If Gontareva is going, international financial institutions need to get involved to ensure techno replacement, and avoid political bun-fight to keep integrity of the NBU,” Ash tweeted.

However, Serhiy Fursa, a bond expert at Kyiv-based brokerage Dragon Capital, underlines that these two objectives - to secure approval for a new NBU chief in Ukraine’s parliament and to ensure the support of the IMF – are “two exactly opposite goals”. “The people who could be backed by the Rada [the Ukrainian parliament] would trigger an allergic reaction in the IMF, ” Fursa wrote in a column published by the Novoe Vremia magazine. 

Additionally, Ukraine is likely to face significant challenges in securing subsequent loan tranches from the IMF, due to serious opposition to key reforms that are part of the package of the multinational lender's demands.

It will be almost impossible for a new NBU governor to secure the Rada’s support for comprehensive reforms in land governance and the pension system, all of which are preconditions for the continuance of the IMF support programme. It will be also a tall order to extend the investigative powers of the newly-created main anti-graft agency, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), another of the fund’s requirements.

Moreover, Gontareva’s resignation would look like a political concession made by Poroshenko to his rivals due to the fact that for several months, Gontareva has been embroiled in a bitter conflict over the regulator's policies with some populist politicians, including the Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party leader Yulia Tymoshenko and Ukrainian independent lawmaker and oligarch Serhiy Taruta.