Western sanctions against Russia have already prompted banks around the world to halt business in the country. International money-transfer firms have followed suit. Companies including Remitly Global, Wise (formerly known as TransferWise) and Zepz, have all suspended service to Russia.
The retreat is unlikely to have a material effect on the companies’ revenue, for now. But for those who still operate in the country, business has been brisk. MoneyGram, which agreed to be taken private last month, said transfers to Russia were up more than 50 per cent compared to the 30-day average during the week of the invasion.
Nearly $ 10bn in remittances flowed into Russia in 2020, according to the World Bank, nearly double the amount ten years earlier. Getting money into Ukraine – where remittances account for about 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product – gets trickier as Russia’s attacks on Ukraine intensify. Although Wise still functions in Ukraine, it has capped transfers to GBP 2,500.
Those looking to move money in and out of Russia have found workarounds. Chinese payment networks Alipay and UnionPay offer one way to bypass western sanctions. Cryptocurrency offers another. Crypto exchanges such as Coinbase have thus far resisted calls to bar Russian users.
While remittance companies’ direct exposure to Russia is modest, there are ripple effects to consider. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan rely heavily on cash transfers sent home by migrant workers in Russia. Remittances accounted for 26 per cent of Tajikistan’s GDP and 31 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP in 2020. The collapse of the ruble and deteriorating economic conditions in Russia could disrupt these flows.
The bigger threat to the industry would be the effect of Russia’s invasion on the global economy. Spiralling inflation, the possibility of rising interest rates, could put the brakes on America’s economic recovery. The country is one of the world’s largest sources of remittances. A slowdown there would too mean bad news for those enterprises whose business model depends upon helping immigrants move money around.