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13 Feb 2023

John O'Donnell,
Simon Jessop, Reuters

Russia: Law on loan repayment holidays for soldiers fighting in Ukraine adds growing pressure for remaining European banks to leave

Analysis: Loans to Russian soldiers fuel calls for European banks to quit, 13 February 2023

A Russian scheme to grant loan payment holidays to troops fighting in Ukraine, and for banks to write off the entire debt if they are killed or maimed, has added to growing pressure for the remaining overseas lenders in Russia to leave.

Almost a year since Moscow launched what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine, a handful of European banks, including Austria's Raiffeisen Bank International (RBIV.VI) and Italy's UniCredit (CRDI.MI), are still making money in Russia...

Raiffeisen and UniCredit are both deeply embedded in the Russian financial system and are the only foreign banks on the central bank's list of 13 "systemically important credit institutions", underscoring their importance to Russia's economy, which is grappling with sweeping Western sanctions.

Their role in supporting the Russian economy at a critical time for President Vladimir Putin has prompted some investors to go public with their misgivings.

"Companies should be very careful," said Kiran Aziz, of Norwegian pension fund KLP, cautioning of a major risk that the banks could be used to "in other ways finance the war". KLP funds hold shares in both Raiffeisen and UniCredit.

At the time the payment holiday law was going through parliament in September, Vyacheslav Volodin, the influential speaker of the lower house, made clear its importance to Russia. "Soldiers and officers ensure the security of our country and we must be sure that they will be taken care of," he said...

Banks restructured a total of 167,600 loans for military personnel or their family members, worth more than 800 million euros, between Sept. 21 and the end of last year, Russian central bank data shows.

Raiffeisen said that only 0.2% of its Russian loans are affected by the "government-imposed loan moratorium", a sum it described as "negligible". The bank has a total of almost 9 billion euros of loans in Russia, where it has been for more than 25 years, including to companies. It made a net profit of roughly 3.8 billion euros last year, thanks in large part to a 2 billion euro plus profit from its Russia business.

UniCredit, which entered the Russian market almost 20 years ago. when it acquired an Austrian bank, said that the rule was "mandatory under the federal law … for all banks", declining to say how many of its loans had been forgiven. The Italian bank added that its business in Russia was focused on companies rather than individuals. Of UniCredit's more than 20 billion euro total revenue last year, Russia accounted for more than 1 billion euros.

...UniCredit's shares are now significantly higher than before Russia moved its troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, while Raiffeisen's, with a more limited free float, have not recovered...

Part of the following timelines

Ukraine: Global outrage over Russian invasion leads to sanctions, demands for businesses to divest

Ukraine invasion: Banks & financial institutions seek to cut ties with Russia