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US warns banks against buying Russian bonds

The United States has warned American banks against buying Russian government bonds over the possibility of violating sanctions on Moscow.

The move has sent US bankers scrambling to determine whether the opportunity for new business with Russia is worth the political downside of bucking Washington’s warning.

The rules do not explicitly prohibit banks from pursuing the business, but US State Department officials hold the view that helping finance Russia would run counter to American foreign policy, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Russia plans to issue at least $3 billion of foreign bonds – its first international issue since the US and its allies imposed sanctions against it in 2014 over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the east Ukraine conflict.

Russia invited European and Chinese banks to bid on the deal as well as several from Wall Street, including Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley, according to the report.

Officials at the State Department and Treasury Department issued the caution in response to questions from some of the banks about whether they were permitted to arrange a bond sale for Russia.

US government officials say helping Russia finance its debt would run counter to the objectives of the sanctions.

“It is essential that private companies – in the US, EU and around the world – understand that Russia will remain a high-risk market so long as its actions to destabilize Ukraine continue,” the State Department said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal.

The State Department also warned of “reputational” risks of returning “to business as usual with Russia.”

American banks had made inroads into the Russian market, setting up offices there and pitching for deals.

Since 2002, US banks have collectively captured roughly a quarter of annual Russian investment-banking revenue on average.

In 2007, US banks did nearly $630 million of more than $2 billion in investment-banking business in Russia, but that amount dropped to $26 million last year after the sanctions took effect.

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