MOSCOW (Reuters) - Wealthy Russians facing the prospect of targeted U.S. sanctions next year have floated the idea of a special treasury bond to facilitate favourable terms for bringing their cash home, three sources familiar with the scheme said.
The bond, denominated in foreign exchange, would be offered at a higher yield than bank rates and be more liquid than Eurobonds, the sources said. Crucially, unlike with bank accounts, holders would be able to remain anonymous.
“There is information that a number of people want to bring their foreign cash assets back here,” said an executive from a major Russian state company, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
“The idea they came up with is that you open some sort of account, with that you buy special bonds which the finance ministry will issue.”
There was no indication that the Russian government was seriously considering such a move, and the finance ministry declined to comment. Two sources close to the ministry said they did not look favourably on the idea.
A senior executive in a Russian state bank said it would accelerate a move that has already started.
The banker said wealthy people in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle were putting modest amounts of foreign currency into Russian bank deposits.
“But the interest rates on foreign currency deposits are low, whereas investing in finance ministry forex instruments can secure them good returns,” he said. “They can make money on that.”
A source in the Russian financial markets said he had also heard from wealth managers about new cashflows from abroad.
“They are moving their money to Russia,” he said.
Special forex bonds have been issued in the past and even have a nickname, “Vebovki”, after state development bank VEB which issued them, according to a person with close ties to the Kremlin and to leading oligarchs.
“Now the sanctions could be an additional argument,” for issuing such an instrument, he said.
He added they would provide an alternative vehicle for the state to raise debt in case expanded U.S. sanctions bar foreign investors from buying Russian sovereign debt.
Putin has been trying to persuade wealthy Russians to bring their money back to Russia, pointing out that many ordinary Russians view the business community as “unpatriotic” because of their assets offshore.
A 2014 “de-offshorisation” law had limited success and for some tycoons even had a deleterious effect by encouraging them to become non-residents.
But that was before the U.S. Congress passed sanctions this year over Russia’s annexation of Crimea that include a list of individuals with close links to Putin expected to be submitted at the end of January.
The list will not automatically lead to people on it being hit by personal sanctions, which could include freezing foreign assets and bans on travel or access to foreign bank accounts, but many Russian businesspeople have said they believe it will.
That has many wealthy Russians in a bind over whether to leave their assets abroad and possibly get caught up in the sanctions net, or bring the assets home to be exposed to other risks, including being prosecuted for tax evasion or getting caught up in an economic crash.
Reuters was not able to establish which individuals were involved in the lobbying effort, what approaches they had made, or who in the government they were talking to.
“The idea is out there, but for now there is no decision,” the state bank executive said.
The Russian authorities have shown little sympathy for the foreign asset problems of wealthy businesspeople in the past.
“It’s nonsense,” one of the two sources close to the finance ministry said of the idea of issuing special bonds.
There is no reliable data on how much money Russians have abroad. According to a rough estimate by Gabriel Zucman, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, Russians had about $200 billion worth of financial assets in offshore tax havens as of 2014, equivalent to 10 percent of Russia’s GDP that year.
Several of the wealthiest have told Reuters they keep their assets abroad because of the volatility of the economy, the secrecy afforded by offshore havens and uncertainty about Russia’s future political stability.
The options at home have all sorts of pitfalls.
Although interest rates for rouble deposits in Russian banks are relatively high, at around 7-8 percent, wealthy Russians are wary of the risk of a rouble crash and prefer to keep deposits in foreign currency where rates are much lower, usually ranging between just above zero to 2 percent.
Yields on Eurobonds are higher - a benchmark Eurobond issued this year for 30 years is trading at 5 percent yield - but the market lacks liquidity, as new bond issues are rare, and holders of existing bonds do not tend to sell.
In addition, the compliance departments of Russian banks are required to ask lots of questions if a wealthy individual deposits a large amount with them, especially if that person is under U.S. sanctions.
Russian banks may also pass information about big depositors to the Russian tax authorities, which some businessman have said they don’t want because they want to protect commercially sensitive information and safeguard their privacy.
Additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya and Yelena Orekhova; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall