A secret audit of the Russian Central Bank's dealings with an obscure offshore investment company has concluded that Russia misreported its foreign currency reserves to the International Monetary Fund by $1 billion in 1996, well-informed sources said today.
The audit, carried out by the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, was ordered in part to satisfy IMF demands during the fund's recent negotiations with Russia on whether it would resume lending to the debt-laden nation.
The issue of Russia's trustworthiness regarding its financial condition is important to the IMF because it provided the Central Bank with billions of dollars in hard-currency reserves in recent years as part of a program designed to bolster economic reform here. Evidence that the IMF money was misplaced or mishandled could further complicate Russian efforts to attract new lending.
Analysts said the IMF is unlikely to deny loans to Russia because it is more interested in changing Russia's ways than in penalizing it. But the audit may demonstrate a clear breach of Russian promises to the fund and could fuel criticism of IMF support in Congress and elsewhere.
While the results of the audit have been presented to the IMF and the Central Bank, Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko has vigorously resisted making the document public, according to the sources. Gerashchenko has also kept secret previous audits on the same subject.
An IMF delegation met with Russian officials in Moscow this week on whether to lend a fresh $4.5 billion to Russia, enough for Moscow to repay what it owes the IMF this year on previous loans. A decision is expected within weeks.
The specific case in which Russia misled the IMF involved a $1 billion internal loan that the Central Bank had made to the Russian government in mid-1996, sources said. In return for the loan, the Central Bank was given a promissory note; the note was then quietly dispatched to an offshore firm, apparently without the IMF's knowledge. This skewed the reports that Russia is required to make to the IMF about the size of its hard-currency reserves.
It was reported earlier that the Central Bank in recent years funneled billions of dollars in hard-currency reserves through a little-known offshore firm, Financial Management Co., known as Fimaco, which is based in Jersey, Channel Islands. Documents made available to The Washington Post showed that some of the money was then pumped back into Russia's high-flying government bond market in 1996, in the months before President Boris Yeltsin's reelection.
It is not unusual for a Central Bank to park reserves abroad in safe currencies of other countries, but it was highly unusual for the Russian Central Bank to entrust these reserves to Fimaco, a firm that had an initial capitalization of $1,000. Earlier this year, the transfer was disclosed in a letter to parliament by Russia's embattled federal prosecutor. Documents made public since then show that, starting in 1993, the country's foreign currency reserves were channeled through a clandestine network -- sometimes by a Central Bank official using code words -- that included Fimaco and affiliated banks in Paris and Moscow.
Nicholai Gonchar, a Russian legislator, has raised questions about what happened to the profits from the surreptitious transactions. Others wonder who received the commissions and fees for handling billions of dollars in Russian reserves and why such an unorthodox and potentially risky channel was employed.
Under Article 7 of the IMF's Articles of Agreement -- which Russia pledged to follow when it became a member in 1992 -- the "minimum necessary" information it should provide the fund is its "official holdings at home and abroad" of gold and foreign exchange. Members are supposed to provide the IMF information "in as detailed and accurate manner as is practicable and, so far as possible, to avoid mere estimates."
In addition to the Fimaco audit, sources said a separate investigation is also underway into a $4.8 billion IMF loan made to Russia last summer, just before the government devalued the ruble and defaulted on its domestic debt on Aug. 17, triggering a crisis that shook world markets. The thrust of this investigation is not known, but some U.S. and Russian officials have questioned why the infusion of funds failed to avert the crisis, and what happened to the money.
Asked today about the findings of the Fimaco audit, the Central Bank asked that written questions be faxed but then failed to respond. PricewaterhouseCoopers had no comment.
In Washington, an IMF spokeswoman said: "We have seen the draft report, not the final report. We would like to see the report published, and we expect that they will [do so] in due course." U.S. officials are also pressing for publication.
A controversy over the audit could be a problem for Gerashchenko, who was appointed to his second term as Russia's central banker after last August's ruble crash. Gerashchenko, who was head of the Central Bank in 1993 when the first offshore dealings with Fimaco began, has repeatedly asserted that there were no "financial infringements" in the bank's dealings with Fimaco and that the money was returned to Russia. Gerashchenko is considered close to the Communist Party, which dominates the lower house of parliament, and Kremlin officials have signaled recently that they are considering replacing him.
The Fimaco audit, according to the sources, reveals that Russia's reports to the IMF on its hard currency reserves in mid-1996 were distorted by the dealings with Fimaco. One source with first-hand information said the $1 billion discrepancy "was not an accounting error." The source said that overall the audit found no criminal activity but that "there are some transactions there that one should question whether a Central Bank should be doing."
Russia had about $12 billion in hard-currency reserves, excluding gold, in mid-1996 -- holdings the IMF watches closely as a sign of how a country is managing its economy. But what Russia failed to tell the IMF was that $1 billion of that amount was not actually part of the reserves, but a promissory note issued by the Russian Finance Ministry for the loan from the Central Bank, the sources said. The Central Bank apparently hid the fact that it had sent the note to Fimaco, and it is not clear what became of the note. IMF officials have said previously that while they were aware the Central Bank had some overseas financial dealings, they did not know specifically about Fimaco.
According to the sources, the Finance Ministry needed large loan from the Central Bank in the weeks between the first round of the 1996 Russian presidential election, June 16, and the second round, in early July. The ministry had overspent to fulfill Yeltsin's election promises and help get him elected, but state revenues had fallen off. Without a loan, the Russian government might have been thrust into an embarrassing budget crisis right before the election. Within limits, the Russian government is allowed to borrow from the Central Bank.
In the months before the election, the Central Bank had been sending money offshore to Fimaco, which then reinvested it in short-term Russian government bonds known as GKOs -- which at the time were paying up to 200 percent interest. The Fimaco investments were secret and were carried out through a Moscow-based commercial bank, Eurofinance, which specialized in the GKO market. According to documents earlier disclosed by The Post, $855 million was transferred to Fimaco from the Central Bank for investing in these bonds between Feb. 29 and May 28, 1996.