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Commercial Banks

By the end of 1995, Russia had nearly 3,000 commercial banks. However, most of these banks were small and had little capitalization. A large portion of them are financially linked to companies and act exclusively as conduits of subsidized credits to these enterprises. The financial health of such institutions is highly questionable, and experts forecast that many of them will merge into larger, more viable institutions or go bankrupt as the RCB continues to tighten its requirements and as the role of cheap credits diminishes.

The commercial banking system has a core of large, viable banks that have attained financial credibility and that experts expect to remain in operation under any foreseeable economic conditions. The former state-controlled specialized banks of the Soviet system form the foundation of the current commercial banking system, including the six largest commercial banks in Russia. In 1991 three of the banks--the Agroprombank (subsequently renamed Rossel'bank), the Promstroybank, and the Zhilsotsbank (reorganized into Mosbusinessbank)--were reorganized into joint-stock companies and became independent commercial operations, forming the foundation of the commercial banking system.

The Soviet-era Savings Bank (Sberbank) was reorganized as the Sberbank of Russia, with the RCB holding controlling shares. In 1996 the Sberbank held between 60 and 70 percent of Russians' total household savings; that figure decreased from 90 percent in 1991 as other commercial banks began to provide competition. The Foreign Trade Bank (Rosvneshtorgbank) also remains state-controlled, and it continues to handle most foreign transactions, although by the mid-1990s it received competition from newer, privately owned banks. The Moscow International Bank handles business between the large Russian banks and Western banks. Sberbank and Rossel'bank have systems of nationwide branches.

The types and quality of services that the Russian banking system offers to the public are still rudimentary according to the standards of Western industrialized countries. They are unable to offer diverse and efficient customer services because the Soviet Union had no retail banking tradition and because Russia lacks the sophisticated infrastructure, especially high-speed telecommunications and trained staffs, on which modern Western financial institutions depend.

Most of the commercial banks offer their customers savings deposit accounts, and the more established banks provide foreign-exchange services, investment services, and corporate services. Bank checks are still rarely used in Russia because check clearance is a long process. Some banks offer debit cards that allow customers to have payments for goods and services deducted directly from their bank balances. Some banks also offer credit cards to customers with impeccable credit ratings. The continued predominance of cash transactions has slowed the rate of Russia's commerce.

Although foreign banks have played a larger role in the Russian economy in the mid-1990s, that role has met substantial resistance from nationalist factions. In early 1996, the State Duma passed a statute prohibiting the RCB from licensing foreign banks that did not have operations in Russia before November 1993. However, opponents of such a policy have pointed out that efforts to protect the fledgling domestic banking sector from foreign competition also deny access to Western financial techniques that eventually would improve the competitiveness of Russian banks.

Other Financial Institutions

A Russian securities market has evolved with the rest of the economy. When the first Russian stock market was established in 1991, few private companies existed to offer shares, so trading activity was quite low. The securities market got a large boost from the Russian government's privatization campaign. Shares in privatized firms were issued, and then a secondary market emerged for the privatization vouchers that the government issued to each citizen (see Privatization, this ch.). As the first phase of the privatization program ended and companies' capital requirements rose, an efficient securities market became increasingly important.

Russian laws and regulations of the stock market and other elements of the securities market have not kept pace with the growth in the industry, fostering irregularities in the market. Among the most infamous was the operation of the MMM investment company, which developed into a pyramid scheme guaranteeing investors very high returns on their investments. A number of Russian small investors, whose savings had been eroded severely by inflation, were attracted to the scheme and eventually lost large sums of money. The head of MMM, Sergey Mavrodi, was arrested and jailed on tax fraud, but the MMM case underlined the lack of Western-style commercial laws in the Russian legal system. The Russian securities market also lacks a modern communications infrastructure, so registration and reporting of financial transactions are very slow.

In 1993 the Government added a new element to the securities market by issuing treasury bonds to help finance its budget deficits. In addition, Russian citizens are able to buy and sell rubles for foreign currency at selected banks. The exchange rate is established through weekly auctions on the Moscow International Currency Exchange (MICEX).

Insurance remains a small part of the Russian financial market. In 1996 approximately 200 insurance companies were operating in Russia, including the privatized versions of former Soviet state insurance companies. According to experts, Russia's relatively new financial institutions are likely to face a long period of adjustment as weaker banks close or merge with stronger banks, and a regulatory framework must be developed to ensure public confidence in the banking system and enable banks to offer reliable support in the development of private enterprise--a role that has expanded rapidly in the first five post-Soviet years. Other aspects of the financial system, such as securities markets, also lack the degree of standardized regulation required for large-scale domestic participation. However, as the private sector's role in the national economy grows and as Russia develops needed regulations and infrastructure, the securities markets and other nonbank financial institutions are expected to follow the banks as important elements of the economy.

Data as of July 1996

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