UPDATE 2-Russian c.bank cuts long-term rates, sees risks to growth

Tue Apr 2, 2013 8:29am EDT

* Central bank leaves main policy rates on hold

* Cuts rates on long-term liquidity operations by 25 bps

* Sees increased risks of the economy slowing

By Jason Bush

MOSCOW, April 2 (Reuters) - Russia's central bank lowered its interest rates on long-term operations on Tuesday and warned of "increased risks" to economic growth, making cuts in its key policy rates more likely in the near future.

The bank's moves suggest it is softening its previously hawkish position. But they also underscore the dilemma the central bank faces, when Russia is caught between the twin evils of excessive inflation and a sharp slowdown in economic growth.

"Policymakers are in a bind," commented Liza Ermolenko, an emerging markets economist at London consultancy Capital Economics.

"On the one hand, the slump in economic growth has intensified over the past few months ... On the other hand, inflation remains well above (the central bank's) target range."

The central bank reaffirmed its long-standing concerns about high inflation by keeping its main policy rates on hold, resisting mounting pressure to cut them from officials and businessmen.

It held its one-day auction repo rate at 5.5 percent, the fixed one-day repo rate at 6.5 percent, the overnight deposit rate at 4.5 percent and the overnight refinancing rate at 8.25 percent.

However, rates for repo, lombard auction and refinancing operations for three months and longer were cut by 25 basis points.

These cuts are seen as largely symbolic, as the central bank mostly provides liquidity to the banking sector through one-day and one-week repo auctions, at the unchanged 5.5 percent rate. But they are designed to improve the transmission of monetary policy.

Analysts interpreted the move as a strong signal that the central bank is likely to cut its main policy rates in the near future.

"This is a very dovish decision and a signal that the central bank will soften its position, which increases the risk of further interest rate cuts," said Vladimir Osakovsky, chief Russian economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The rouble fell following the decision, reflecting expectations of lower interest rates that would reduce demand for rouble-denominated deposits and bonds.

At 1155 GMT, the rouble was down 0.24 percent on the day at 31.16 against the dollar and down 0.18 percent at 35.13 against a euro-dollar basket.

ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN

The central bank is coming under pressure to cut its rates in order to counter an intensifying economic slowdown.

In another sign that the central bank's position is softening, it said recent macroeconomic data pointed to "increased risks of (the) economy slowing down" - a phrase not seen in its previous statements.

The central bank also said that "economic confidence indicators are gradually deteriorating", a change from previous language which said these indicators "remain positive overall".

In February, annual growth in Russia's gross domestic product was just 0.1 percent, with other macroeconomic data also pointing to a sharp slowdown.

The shift in the central bank's rhetoric coincides with growing concerns about the slowdown among senior officials about the outlook for economic growth.

Speaking at a meeting of government officials on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: "This, of course, isn't a plus. We need to understand what to do so that our economy will develop according to the scenario that we have defined."

Russia's Deputy Economy Minister recently said that the ministry will cut its official growth forecast this year from 3.6 percent, with growth below 3 percent likely on current trends.

Despite the mounting concerns over growth, the central bank also remains worried that inflation, which was 7.2 percent as of March 25, remains above target - which would lead expectations of higher inflation to become entrenched.

But the overall balance of the central bank's rhetoric is becoming clearly more dovish, analysts said, with some predicting that it may cut its main policy rates at its next meeting in May.

"Considering the (rate) decision and the statement as whole, one can suppose that the central bank is more dovishly inclined, and a reduction of key rates is possible as early as the next meeting," said HSBC's chief Russia economist Alexander Morozov.