* Central bank says closed bank had $2.3 bln hole in accounts
* Clients reported to include ministers’ wives, Orthodox Church
* Coincides with financial strain as rouble hits record low (Adds details, context, analyst comment)
MOSCOW, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Russia’s central bank said on Thursday it had revoked the licence of Vneshprombank, a major mid-sized bank whose collapse is one of the a largest-ever in Russia.
The central bank said it had closed the bank, one of the top 40 by assets, after discovering it had a hole in its balance sheet estimated at 187.4 billion roubles ($2.3 billion).
The move underscores the growing strain on the country’s banking sector as an economic slump is exacerbated by plunging oil prices.
Vneshprombank's collapse is the latest in a series of costly bank failures or bail-outs that are imposing a mounting financial burden on the state as it seeks to shore up fragile banking sector stability. [Graphic: reut.rs/1ICfy2O ]
“The banking sector is slowly beginning to unravel,” said Maxim Osadchiy, head analyst at CFB Bank in Moscow. “For now, thank God, it is happening in quite a mild form because the fires are being extinguished with state money.”
“It’s not clear how the central bank will continue to be able to save the banking sector, except by printing money,” he added.
The removal of the bank’s licence comes as the Russian rouble is setting new record lows against the dollar as a plunge in oil prices causes turmoil on global financial markets and adds to concerns about Russia’s commodity-dependent economy.
Vneshprombank’s financial difficulties have been apparent for weeks, however. The central bank placed it under temporary administration on Dec. 18, citing concerns about its liquidity and asset quality and violation of minimum capital requirements.
Shortly afterwards the bank’s head, Larisa Markus, was arrested on suspicion of fraud. Her lawyer has said there was no evidence she had engaged in criminal activity.
According to Russian media reports, the bank’s clients included members of the country’s elite as well as the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian edition of Forbes magazine reported in December that clients included the wives of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In explaining its decision to close the bank, the central bank said the bank’s management had conducted various operations to strip assets out for a long period of time.
That raises questions about whether well-connected banks have been able to fend off scrutiny from regulators until their problems became too big to ignore.
According to rankings compiled by Interfax, Vneshprombank was the 34th largest bank by assets and 33rd largest by retail deposits, making it a relatively major player in a country with around 700 active banks.
It was not big enough to be of major systemic importance, given that Russia’s top 20 banks account for around three quarters of the sector’s assets.
Nevertheless, the bank’s 72.9 billion roubles in retail deposits, around two-thirds of which are insured by the state, mean the losses to the government will be significant.
Russia guarantees retail deposits up to 1.4 million roubles per depositor - a scheme that has so far prevented bank closures from spiralling into more general bank runs.
However, in the case of Vneshprombank the ratio of depositors with savings above the insurance threshold was 37 percent, signifying a relatively high proportion of wealthy clients.
$1 = 81.3650 roubles Reporting by Jason Bush, Katya Golubkova and Oksana Kobzeva; Editing by Alexander Winning and Toby Chopra
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