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Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Russian banking sector unnerved by Guta's closure

OUTFLOW The bank is no small player in the Russian economy, and rumors are spreading over why and how it suspended operations

AP , MOSCOW

Clients arriving at one of Russia's larger banks found notes taped to the doors saying its operations were suspended.

The grim notification at Guta Bank on Tuesday could indicate that a liquidity crisis that has troubled the country's smaller banks is spreading to the sector's major players.

"In connection with the outflow of more than 10 billion rubles [US$344 million] in June and a significant increase in payments in July, Guta Bank is not able to make checking account payments and payments from savings accounts,'' said one notice that was posted on the door of a downtown branch.

The outflow was due to both consumers and corporate clients withdrawing money, a banking analyst said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Guta's St. Petersburg branch shut down its teller machines and suspended client services indefinitely, the news agency Interfax quoted a source at the bank as saying.

The banking sector's troubles began in May when Russia's Central Bank revoked the license of medium-sized Sodbiznesbank because it was laundering money, including payments made in connection with a mafia-style assassination. Sodbiznesbank has denied the charges.

It was the first time the Central Bank pulled a license before a bank had actually defaulted on a loan, and it spurred fears that a purge of the banking sector was on the cards.

Soon after, Credittrust, a bank allegedly connected to Sodbiznesbank's owners, shut down operations. Bank-to-bank lending rates soared, and many banks closed credit lines to one another.

The ITAR-Tass agency cited an unidentified source as saying that the liquidity dry-up at Guta Bank, which ranks in the top 20 in Russia, may have been provoked by rivals closing loans to the company and presenting bills for payment on a massive scale.

After Sodbiznesbank's license was pulled, rumors of a Central Bank blacklist circulated and the banks themselves were quick to distribute their own versions of the alleged list.

Central Bank officials rushed to calm the situation with promises of a cash injection, while President Vladimir Putin warned Central Bank chief Sergei Ignatyev that mass purges were not advisable.

"I beg you to act precisely," he told Ignatyev last month.

While some banking experts had said that the fears were little more than a storm in a teacup and would be unlikely to spread, Guta's actions on Tuesday seem to suggest otherwise.

Guta's bankruptcy "would create a factor of risk for the whole of the Russian banking sector," bank analyst Mikhail Matovnikov said.

Guta Bank was established in 1991 and has a sprawling network of some 140 branches and offices throughout Russia.

"It is our opinion that the bank is solvent but not liquid," said Richard Hainsworth of the Rusrating agency.

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