After decades of cash under mattresses, Russians head to the bank

July 30, 2007 - 0:0

MOSCOW (AFP) -- In a country where banking services were once limited to loans from friends and a wad of cash under the mattress, Russia's banks are steadily making a comeback.

Less than a decade after the financial crash of 1998, Russia is enjoying fiscal health and economic growth and these are changing the habits of the growing middle class, together with the banking sector. ""Increased income levels and social mobility are encouraging the emerging middle class to … rush to upgrade living standards,"" U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch said in a recent report. Rapid growth in real wages -- 17.5 percent in the first quarter of this year -- is driving ""buoyant demand for almost everything, ranging from new autos, mobile phones and furniture to clothes, travel and entertainment."" And the banking sector is surging along with this consumer boom. In the first four months of this year, banks' assets increased by 13 percent and loans by 12 percent, the financial house Deutsche UFG said in a recent report. But serious obstacles remain to changing the Russian habit of cash-only living