Much has been said about the de-dollarisation of trade, but the US dollar is still the preferred currency for most companies, delegates at the GTR Russia & CIS Trade and Export Finance Conference heard this week.

De-dollarisation stories makes headlines almost every week: most recently Iran and Russia publicly announced their intention to trade almost exclusively in local currency, perhaps in an effort to become more immune to US financial sanctions.

But there seems to be a gap between policy and reality, and one of its most visible examples is currency swap agreements. While largely publicised, the US$25bn-worth, three-year rouble-renminbi (Rmb) swap agreement signed in October 2014 between the Russian and Chinese central banks does not seem to have been used so far.

Speaking at the conference, Anton Zur, head of ECA finance at Sberbank, explained: “There is huge potential in raising Rmb funds from Chinese banks, but to make use of that money we need underlying client transactions and we need to make it understandable and digestible for the client. It would be interesting for me to hear whether there’s been any practical implementation of the currency swap.”

For banks and corporates alike, ‘alternative’ currencies are gaining traction, but none is as efficient as the US dollar, and to a smaller extent, the euro.

“We wanted to consider rouble-denominated financing but honestly until recently it would not show long-term benefits. Of course we take a look at the rouble or other exotic currencies (Hong Kong dollars, Rmb, etc) but for now they can’t work as well as the currencies we’ve been using so far. We sold some oil in HK dollars last year but it didn’t make much of an impact,” said Tatneft head of international legal Peter Gloushkov.

According to panellists, the exponential growth of the Rmb is not as significant as it seems because the currency started from a very small base.

“We get asked why we’re not using Rmb for trade settlements. In principle it has increased but because we’re starting from such a small base, the statistic is almost insignificant. If a Russian borrower is not able to get any other currency they will then accept it. It will be a commercial and political decision,” said Dmitry Minaev, managing director, international trade finance at Alfa Bank.

And despite the trade sanctions imposed by the US and Europe on Russia, it seems like corporates in the country still have no problem raising US dollar financing.

“We’re a dollar-based company, but all the dividends are paid in roubles and expenses too. We issue rouble bonds but we mainly operate in dollars, so for us it’s definitely not a thing of the past. We are still being offered five-year loans,” pointed out Norilsk Nickel head of corporate finance Artem Pozdnyakov.

“Previously we had no problem raising money in dollars and I don’t think we’ll have problems with that now either. Foreign lenders wanted to offer their services and considering the amount of investment, it’s clear that the rate of foreign exchange made the projects profitable,” added Gloushkov.

And at Russneft, head of corporate finance Arseniy Ulchenkov explained that the use of the Rmb might be one of the options but “so far no one has been able to sell serious commodities in any other currency than the dollar”.

Moving away from the US dollar and towards multiple local currencies in trade makes sense in terms of making financing more sustainable, but speakers at the conference reckoned it would take a long time before the dollar is overtaken.

“The reality is the US dollar gained more share [of world trade] at the end of last year, representing about 80% of all trade finance settlements. The Chinese Rmb had over 200% growth last year as a trade settlement currency, supplanting both the Australian and Canadian dollars. There’s a long-term process underway where the Rmb is gaining traction, but to what extent will that threaten the dollar in a 20-30 year window? We’re sceptical,” said Thaddeus Stitzman Wolff, regional director, Eastern Europe, American Trade & Finance Company (Atrafin).