S&P cuts Russia credit rating to 'junk' as reports say state TV bans use of term 'economic crisis'

MOSCOW (AFP) - Standard and Poor's stripped Russia of its investment-grade rating on Monday, cutting it to "junk" status with a warning of weak growth.

"The downgrade reflects our view that Russia's monetary policy flexibility has become more limited and its economic growth prospects have weakened," the ratings agency said in a statement announcing the one-notch cut to a BB+ rating.

The plunge in oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow's role in the Ukraine war have pummelled the Russian economy in recent months, with the rouble collapsing in value.

Russia's finance minister on Monday criticised Standard & Poor's rating agency for its decision to cut the country's rating from investment-grade to "junk" status.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said the downgrade showed "excessive pessimism".

"It doesn't take into account a whole series of factors showing the strong side of the Russian economy." "We see no reason to dramatise the situation," he told Russian news agencies.

Standard and Poor's is the first major international ratings agency to move Russia down into the speculative or "junk" territory after last downgrading Russia in April.

Moody's earlier this month cut Moscow's rating one notch to Baa3, one level above junk, as did Fitch, which moved it to BBB-.

The Russian rouble slumped after to the downgrade, hitting 67.9 roubles to the US dollar after closing at around 64 to the US dollar Friday.

Standard and Poor's now forecasts that Russia's oil-dependent economy will contract by 2.6 per cent in 2015 due to the fall in crude prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

It projected that the Russian economy will expand by about 0.5 per cent annually in 2015-2018, below the 2.4 per cent it notched up over the previous four years.

The lower growth forecast "reflects a lack of external financing due to the introduction of economic sanctions and the sharp decline in oil prices," said the ratings agency.

"We also expect that declining domestic purchasing power as a result of exchange rate depreciation and rising inflation will likely hamper Russia's growth prospects," it added.

The rating agency also said" "We believe that Russia's financial system is weakening and therefore limiting the Central Bank of Russia's ability to transmit monetary policy."

Several Russian officials had foreseen the downgrade.

Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said last month that market fears of Russia's credit rating falling to junk levels have contributed to instability of the rouble.

In addition, a downgrade to junk rating would require "US$20 (billion) to US$30 billion" in early repayment of foreign loans as stipulated in loan agreements, he told Business FM radio station.

President Vladimir Putin on Monday chaired a late meeting on economic issues to discuss an anti-crisis plan prepared by the government.

The plan, which requires some US$21 billion of additional financing, will be approved by the prime minister on Tuesday, he said.

Mr Putin however has avoided the word "crisis" and the precise strategy remains unclear.

He said that "we need to think about optimising budget expenditures so that... financing is increased in some areas" while postponed in others.

Many analysts however have said that it does not appear as if there is a clear plan in place, and reports have said that state television even issued a ban on the expression "economic crisis".

"This is just the beginning of the fall for the Russian economy," analyst Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy head of the Central Bank, told the Echo of Moscow radio, adding that the anti-crisis plan on the table now will not work as long as oil prices - Russia's main export commodity - remain at their current lows.

The price of a barrel of oil has fallen from over US$100 last June to under US$50.

Standard and Poor's was not confident about the Russian government's ability to restore long-term growth.

"We do not currently expect that the government will be able to effectively tackle the long-standing structural obstacles to stronger economic growth over our 2015-2018 forecast horizon," it said.

Those problems include perceived corruption, the weak rule of law, the state's pervasive role in the economy, and the challenging business and investment climate, according to the ratings agency.

Standard and Poor's put the outlook on the BB+ rating as negative.