Russia should see only a limited impact from the withdrawal of U.S. monetary stimulus, its finance minister said, as investors concerned about capital outflows and a weakening economy headed for the exits.
Joining the debate after Finance Minister Anton Siluanov called for a weaker rouble, new central bank chief Elvira Nabiullina warned that a fall in the currency could limit scope to ease monetary policy without destabilizing the economy.
Russian assets tracked most markets lower on Thursday on explicit signals from Chairman Ben Bernanke that the Federal Reserve may later this year start winding down a bond-buying program that has helped power gains in emerging markets.
Moscow's top bourses were trading 2-3 percent lower, while the rouble hit fresh 2013 lows before briefly rebounding on hawkish comments from Nabiullina, who warned that a weaker rouble would be inflationary.
"In our view, there will be no adverse consequences from Bernanke's decision, if it is implemented," Siluanov told reporters on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
Siluanov's call earlier this week for a weaker rouble, which he said could make Russian exporters more competitive and boost budget revenues, ignited a heated debate about Russia's foreign exchange policy.
Responding to his comments on Thursday, Nabiullina warned that a weaker rouble would bring more risks than benefits, and would only give a modest lift to exporters.
A former aide hand-picked for the job by President Vladimir Putin, Nabiullina has signalled a dovish shift after she next week replaces Sergei Ignatyev, who has focused on targeting lower inflation in his 11 years as chairman.
"We can, certainly, try to ease the central bank's monetary policy, to give longer and cheaper instruments for refinancing," Nabiullina told the Forum.
"We need to look at what to do ... but look very carefully, so the money that comes from the central bank does not fuel inflation and capital flight."
The central bank estimates that annual inflation will be around 7 percent this month, above its 5-6 percent target, and that capital flight accelerated in May.
The Russian economy grew by 1.8 percent in the first five months of the year, Economy Minister Andrei Belousov said, far below the 5 percent goal eyed by Putin before his election to a third term as president last year.
"The business activity is fading," he added, noting that growth slowed to 1 percent in May from 2.6 percent in April.
Belousov, who is expected to replace Nabiullina as Putin's top economic aide, insisted that she had it in her power to revive Russia's economy.
"I believe that today the key to economic growth lies in Elvira Sakhipzadovna's hands," he told her on a panel discussion, addressing Nabiullina formally.
Andrei Kostin, chief executive of Russia's second-largest bank VTB, also urged easier monetary policy to soften the blow of the Fed's so-called "taper" of monetary stimulus.
"Our monetary policy is tight, and we are hoping for a softening after the change of leadership at the central bank," Kostin told reporters in St Petersburg.
BORROWING NOT THREATENED
Despite Russia's weak economic performance and the global turmoil after the Fed's news, Siluanov said his ministry should have no difficulty meeting this year's domestic borrowing needs.
A recent sell-off in emerging markets has forced Russia to cancel some treasury bond auctions and postpone a Eurobond sale.
"We will not borrow expensively (on the domestic market), we also do not want to raise the yield on bonds. Let's look at the market," Siluanov said. "We are not worried, we do not see any difficulties for both domestic and external borrowing."
The yield on Russia's 10-year benchmark treasury bond rose 15 basis points on Thursday to 7.67 percent, as foreign investors stepped back from emerging markets.
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