Sanction fears deter Russian brokerages from adopting Sberbank’s clients – sources

(Reuters) – Fears of being targeted by Western sanctions are deterring Russian brokerages from helping Sberbank by hosting its clients’ accounts with foreign stocks holdings, three financial market sources told Reuters.

The United States imposed full blocking sanctions on Russia’s largest lender Sberbank and the country’s top private bank Alfa Bank last week, exerting pressure on Russia for what Moscow calls “a special military operation” in Ukraine.

The U.S. Treasury has put deadline for termination of transactions with Sberbank and Alfa Bank at April 12 and May 5, respectively. The banks said the penalties would not have a significant impact on their operations.

Russia has experienced a boom in private investments on the stock market since the onset of COVID-19. Last year, the number of citizens with brokerage accounts neared 17 million, as people looked for ways to make money amid a record number of domestic share floatings and low deposit rates.

Sberbank, VTB and Alfa Bank, Russia’s biggest banks, were also top brokerage houses before the latest sanctions, which left their clients holding foreign stocks with the need to park their funds with smaller domestic players.

Sberbank, which had to decide on transferring accounts with foreign stocks by the end of Tuesday, told its clients to contact the bank about the issue.

“We have taken action so you can manage your assets without restraints,” Sberbank said on its website, without elaborating to where the accounts were transferred.

Many Russian brokerage firms not targeted by Western sanctions said they were not taking trading accounts with foreign stocks from Sberbank, leaving its clients and the market unclear about their fate.

“The market situation is unique. No one is willing to take sanction risks as the aftermath is unclear… (The transfer of Sberbank clients) could be seen as help to the sanctioned bank in solving its business issues,” said a financial market source who asked not to be named.

Sberbank did not disclose the name of the depository or brokerage that it was negotiating with and did not reply to a request from Reuters for comment.

“No one wants to see a massive inflow (of clients), primarily due to sanctions,” another person from a Moscow-based brokerage told Reuters.

Fears of sanctions intensified as Alfa Bank took a hit from severe sanctions after it obtained clients from Russia’s second-largest lender VTB, which was among the first banks hit by Western sanctions this year.

A third source at a Russian brokerage said companies were reluctant to deal with sanctioned banks “after the Alfa case.”

“Banks are trying to transfer their clients to empty brokerage firms with a licence but with no infrastructure,” the source said.

Some media reports suggested Sberbank at some point was considering transferring clients to Aton and BCS brokerages. The two firms quickly issued statements saying they were not involved in the deal.

Finam brokerage, Tinkoff Bank, Rosselkhozbank, Freedom Finance said Alfa Bank and Sberbank had not asked them to take their brokerage accounts.

Otkritie Bank, hit by wider Western sanctions, and Gazprombank, under UK sanctions, did not reply to Reuters request for comment.

Alfa Bank told Reuters it was looking for a brokerage that would obtain its clients’ accounts so they can continue trading freely, but a decision on what firm can do that has not been made yet.

(Reporting by Reuters; editing by David Evans)

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