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Wall Street Briefed by Biden Team on Possible Russia Sanctions

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What You Need to Know

  • Leaders of Citi, BofA, JPMorgan, Goldman and other banks were informed about moves to target Moscow’s ability to convert currency.
  • While energy penalties and cutting off access to the Swift system, which manages 42 million orders a day for payments, are on the table, Swift is considered the nuclear option and the most divisive.
  • American banks have a relatively small exposure to Russia; Citigroup last year announced plans to exit its retail-banking operations in Russia and focus instead on catering to institutional clients.

The Biden administration held discussions with the country’s largest banks on possible sanctions against Russia as part of its efforts to ensure such actions won’t disrupt the global financial system.

Members of the National Security Council and other senior administration officials this week spoke with executives from banks including Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as they assess how to proceed, according to people familiar with the matter.

Tensions have soared after Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border. While officials in Moscow have repeatedly said they have no intention of invading the country, Western allies are discussing a variety of measures should activity escalate.

‘The Nuclear Option’

The U.S. and European Union are honing in on a package that would include targeting Moscow’s ability to convert currency. While energy penalties and cutting off access to the Swift system, which manages 42 million orders a day for payments, are on the table, Swift is considered the nuclear option and the most divisive.

One person familiar with the discussions said it’s coming up only occasionally in talks between the administration and the banks, as the lenders ask whether such a measure is likely.

“Implications for global trade and the financial markets must be a major consideration for policy makers,” Tomasz Noetzel and Jonathan Tyce, analysts at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in a research report. “Russia is one of the largest exporters of oil and gas, and relies on the system to settle dollar-denominated bills.”

One person familiar with the matter said Biden administration officials have told the banks they’re concerned about possible spillover effects similar to what happened in 2018, when sanctions against Russia disrupted the global supply chain for aluminum and sent prices for the metal soaring 30%.

Those measures hit United Co. Rusal especially hard, limiting its access to the $140 billion global aluminum industry.

Officials from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control — which administers and enforces economic sanctions — have also been involved in the discussions with lenders, the people said, asking not to be named talking about internal deliberations of the administration.

“We have been very clear that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States is looking at a range of options — with allies and partners — to deliver severe costs to the Russian economy,” a Treasury spokesperson said in a written statement. “Assessing potential spillovers and exploring ways to reduce those spillovers is good governance and standard practice.”

Representatives of the banks declined to comment.

Limited Exposure

American banks have a relatively small exposure to Russia. Of the three largest U.S. banks, just one — Citigroup — breaks out its exposure to the nation.

New York-based Citigroup has had an on-again, off-again presence in Russia since it first entered the country in 1917 on the eve of its revolution.

The lender’s latest stint began in the 1990s, and the business now caters to 3,000 corporate clients and 500,000 retail customers. The firm had about $5.5 billion worth of loans, investment securities and other assets tied to Russia, just 0.3% of its total, at the end of the third quarter.

Citigroup last year announced plans to exit its retail-banking operations in Russia and focus instead on catering to institutional clients.

The company is also the only U.S. bank currently operating in Ukraine, where it’s had a presence for more than two decades. The firm has begun stepping up security protocols in its Kiev offices as part of normal contingency planning, according to separate people familiar with the matter.

Impacts from U.S. sanctions on Russia could ripple beyond banks. Mastercard Inc. Chief Executive Officer Michael Miebach said his company is keeping a close eye on developments in the region, noting the network has managed through such issues in the past.

“Russia is a substantial and strategically important market for us,” Miebach said. “We’ll have to see how that plays out.”

(Image: Bloomberg)

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