Russia’s next step: Capital controls?

As the scale of funds being pulled out of Russia became clearer this week, market speculation has increased that the government may have to impose some form of capital control to halt the flight of investment.

The outflows are likely to reach $65-70 billion, much higher than previous estimates, according to Andrei Klepach, the deputy economy minister. The Bank of Russia last week ruled out capital controls “at this time.”

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

(Read moreRussia set for $70 billion of capital outflows)

Controls on the free flow of capital are usually imposed by emerging economies at great risk of losing investment flows because of an economic crisis. They can mean everything from limiting how much money can be moved out of a country to higher taxes on investments outside the country.

In recent years, countries which have employed capital controls to deal with investment flight include India, Brazil and Thailand.

While it is possible Russia may employ similar tools if capital outflow continues to worsen, most economists and analysts are discounting it at the moment.

“They know that this will undermine the real economy ultimately,” Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank, told CNBC. “Russians are clever at devising schemes to get around this kind of thing,” he added.

(Read moreRussian sanctions: Who’s losing so far)

There are very good economic reasons not to impose capital controls. Most immediately, the flow of money out of the country is likely to accelerate if investors suspect something like this is in the offing.

And for Russia in the medium term, it needs foreign capital to keep the economy on track as it looks to move towards a current account deficit (where imports outweigh exports).

“With Russia’s current account surplus on course to swing into a deficit, it will need to attract foreign capital in order to sustain this deficit – and of course, it would not be able to do that if capital controls are in place,” Liza Ermolenko, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, told CNBC.

“The costs in the long-term would be substantial.”

(Read moreSanctions may spoil Russia’s Crimean party)

“It’s very unlikely and a real worst case scenario,” Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital, told CNBC.

“During the global financial crisis, they were losing about $150 billion quarterly. This time, it’s less than half that and it’s probably largely over.”

Ironically, the weakening pressure on the rouble, and the subsequent likely boost to exports, should help Russia stick to its current position, Robertson believes.

“They can afford to bail out Crimea thanks to the market weakening the rouble,” he argued.

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