Russia stocks seen hitting record highs but sanctions to weigh

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s stock market could hit record highs later this year, recovering levels seen before the latest round of U.S. sanctions, a Reuters poll found.

The rouble-denominated MOEX stock index .IMOEX will rise to an all-time high of 2,445 points by the end of the year, a 6.4 increase from Tuesday's close, according to the consensus forecast of six market analysts.

Its dollar-denominated peer RTS index .IRTS is predicted to climb to 1,299 points by end-2018, 12.5 percent higher than Tuesday, according to the median of 10 analysts.

Room for gains on Russian markets, however, is limited by the lingering standoff with the West that intensified after the United States slapped new sanctions on Russia in an attempt to punish it for “malign activities” around the globe.

“The geopolitical risk remains the most acute one,” said Vladimir Miklashevsky, an analyst at Danske Bank in Helsinki.

Moscow has added to uncertainty over geopolitical tensions, promising to retaliate and possibly make it a crime to comply with U.S. sanctions in Russia.

German Gref, the head of Russia’s biggest bank Sberbank, warned this month the proposed law that could result in people being jailed for helping enforce U.S. sanctions would backfire on the Russian economy if implemented.

If complying with sanctions becomes a crime, foreign investors and companies may scale down investment in Russia and possibly leave to avoid criminal proceedings, said Victor Veselov from Globex Bank.

The prospect of lower oil prices may also weigh on Russian stocks amid expectations Saudi Arabia and Russia would pump more crude to ease a potential shortfall in supply.

“The stock market may decline in the second half of the year as pressure will come from a drop in oil prices as well as rising concerns of new economic sanctions,” said analysts from Alfa Bank, who gave the most pessimistic forecasts among those who took part in the Reuters poll.

Forecasts for the RTS reading at the end of 2018 varied between 1,050 and 1,488 points, while MOEX year-end forecasts stood between 2,050 and 2,550 points.

From the macroeconomic point of view, Russian markets are somewhat shielded from external risks, given the free-floating rouble, the Finance Ministry’s drive to increasing state reserves as well as expectations it can post a budget surplus this year.

“The Russian market is one of the most protected ones thanks to steady state finances,” analysts at BCS brokerage said.

(To read other stories from the Reuters global stock markets poll click on)

Writing by Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Alison Williams