Could the rouble replace the dollar?

Could the rouble replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency? It may seem far-fetched, but the Kremlin is aiming high, and the bullish energy market bodes well for the Russian currency.

Don't laugh. The Russian currency, which was near-destroyed when the country defaulted on $40bn of domestic debt in 1998, is making a serious comeback.

Over the weekend, all currency controls on the rouble were lifted. Foreign investors can now open rouble bank accounts, buy rouble bonds, and take roubles in and out of the country without limits.

So just how likely is it that the rouble will join the ranks of the dollar, euro and yen?

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Just as the dollar is looking distinctly wobbly, the revitalised Russian rouble is taking to the world stage as a fully-convertible, freely-traded international currency.

Russia may once have defaulted on its debts, but soaring oil prices have left 1998 a distant memory. The country is the second-largest oil and gas exporter in the world. At $70 a barrel of crude, Russia now has plenty of money in the bank - $250bn in foreign reserves and a further $70bn in a stabilisation fund', says the FT.

On Friday, the country "signed a deal to pay off the entire Soviet-era debt of about £12.5bn to the Paris Club of sovereign lenders", said the Guardian. Originally the last payment was scheduled to be made in August 2020.

"Senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have even called for the rouble to become a reserve currency," says the FT.

Even the Russians are keen to buy into the rouble. Up until recently, many have preferred to be paid in dollars, but now that the Russian coinage is strengthening against the dollar, it seems that many are hoping to make the shift back to the mother currency.

The BBC website quotes Russian citizen Anya Atramanova, who "works for an internet company" where everyone is paid in dollars as saying: "I want to have my salary in roubles now, because the dollar became cheaper."

President Putin also hopes to start charging foreign buyers of oil and gas in roubles rather than dollars. This would further increase demand for roubles, as buyers would need to buy the Russian currency to purchase its oil. This would of course, also mean a drop in demand for dollars - the need to buy most commodities in dollars is another of the mechanisms currently propping up the US currency, despite its hefty debts.

"We need a stock exchange where oil and gas can be traded in roubles. Our goods are being traded on world markets so why not here in Russia?" said President Putin in his State of the Nation address recently.

It's nice to be popular. But all that demand could cause problems for the economy. A strong currency might be good for national pride. But if the rouble strengthens too far it'll make life difficult for Russian manufacturers not the most competitive bunch in the first place - by raising the cost of exports.

And of course, opening up your monetary system to the rigours of the open market is a double-edged sword.

"The central bank will have more difficulty controlling the rouble once the limits are removed. It will have to let the rouble appreciate," said Andrei Vykhristiouk at UBS.

He wasn't wrong. The rouble was trading at 26.9 against the dollar this morning, compared to 27.1 on Friday evening. And with the country occupying such an important position in the international energy markets, it's hard to see demand falling for as long as oil and gas prices are at or above current levels.

Moscow-based economist Yaroslav Lissovolik went so far as to tell the BBC: "I think it increasingly makes sense for the central banks of the world to start thinking about re-allocating part of their reserves from currencies such as the dollar into the rouble."

At MoneyWeek, we're long term bulls on commodities, particularly oil. But when people start to talk about the rouble as a reserve currency, it makes us feel distinctly nervous. We are by no means fans of the dollar, which is looking more and more like the rouble circa 1998.

But why put your faith in a currency that only eight years ago nearly went to the wall? Especially when the rouble's strength is almost entirely dependent on Russia's continued dominance in the energy markets.

This may sound like a given, but it's easy to forget that the country's energy sector is state-controlled. And we all know from bitter experience how inefficient state-owned enterprises tend to be.

If you're bullish on oil, better to play that by buying into one of the oil majors (or if you feel particularly adventurous, you could always invest in the commodity itself).

And if you want an investment that will prosper as the dollar falls, there's a much better, more reliable currency to be investing in gold.

Despite falling back from $730 an ounce in May, gold has now rallied to head back above $600 an ounce. We believe it's got a lot further to go.

If you would like to know more about investing in gold, you should go to the investing in gold page on our website, by clicking here: Investing in gold. You can learn all about how to invest and why gold is such a good buy for uncertain times.

Turning to the wider markets...

The FTSE 100 ended higher, up 41 points at 5,865 on Friday. British Gas owner Centrica was among the main risers on renewed hopes of a bid from Russian peer Gazprom. For a full market report, see: London market close.

Over in continental Europe, the Paris Cac 40 gained 85 points to 4,965, while the German Dax jumped 101 to close at 5,683.

Across the Atlantic, US stocks headed lower, as a survey of manufacturers suggested that growth is slowing, but prices are also rising. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 40 to 11,150, while the S&P 500 closed 2 points lower at 1,270. The tech-heavy Nasdaq slipped 2 to 2,172.

In Asia, stocks advanced. The Nikkei 225 gained 66 points to 15,571 as the Bank of Japan's Tankan survey of business sentiment showed that manufacturers are upbeat, and are planning to increase investment at the fastest pace in nearly 16 years.

This morning, oil was a little lower in New York, easing to trade at around $73.85 a barrel. But Brent crude was higher, trading at around $73.75.

Meanwhile, spot gold was higher, hitting a near-four-week high of $619.25 an ounce before easing to trade at around $616.40 an ounce. Silver was also higher, rising to a three-week high of $11.20 an ounce.

And in the UK this morning, oil giant BP has reported that oil and gas output fell 2.5% on last year due to damage to its Gulf of Mexico-based Thunder Horse platform, which was supposed to start pumping last year.

And our two recommended articles for today...

Have central banks sown the seeds of the next bust?

- In aiming for low consumer price inflation, central banks have allowed a series of bubbles to inflate in assets from stocks to property. Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach warns that the bankers' apparent victory in 'conquering' inflation could have opened up the door to a far more insidious enemy. Some central bankers are now starting to realise this - the Bank of International Settlements has recently spoken of taking asset prices more into account when setting monetary policy. But is it too little, too late? Click here to see what Mr Roach thinks: Have central banks sown the seeds of the next bust?

Why commodities are still a buy

- The world economy has experienced an unusually long period of calm. This looks set to end - and judging by past experience, that means there are unusually volatile times ahead, says Dan Denning in the Daily Reckoning. So how should investors prepare for a turbulent future? Find out why Dan believes resources remain the most important holding for any smart investor's portfolio in the years ahead, by clicking here: Why commodities are still a buy

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.