Global Investing

Russian equity sales: disappointing

Investment banks have been dismayed this year by the slump in first-time share listings across emerging markets, the area they had hoped would yield the most growth (and fees). But as we pointed out in this story, emerging IPO volumes fell 40 percent this year. And equity bankers have seen lucrative IPO fees dry up – they almost halved this year from 2011  and are a third of 2007 levels.

One market that has possibly disappointed investors most is Russia.  Its plan a few years ago to privatise large swathes of state-run companies via share sales had bankers salivating — estimates for the proceeds ranged from $30-$50 billion. The pipeline is still alluring, with all manner of companies up for privatisation, including shipping company Sovcomflot and the Russian Railways monopoly.  The Kremlin did raise $5 billion this year by selling a 7.6 percent stake in Sberbank, the banking giant, but not much else has come to pass.  In fact, 2012 saw the state tighten its grip on the energy sector, as government-controlled Rosneft bought oil producer TNK off BP, forking out $12.3 billion and some equity.

Sberbank analyst Chris Weafer estimates Russian companies raised $2.5 billion this year via IPOs, including a $1.8 billion offering from mobile operator Megafon- that’s almost half last year’s levels. Actually, the picture is not that dismal. Weafer points out that total equity issuance to the market, including strategic stake sales by shareholders, came to  $12.8 billion (the total was bumped up by the $5 billion Sberbank deal) and that is up from last year’s total of $9.9 billion.

Clearly, the opportunity to issue new equity depends on prevailing market conditions and the level of investor optimism. It also depends on the willingness of existing controlling shareholders to sell equity at a valuation that is attractive to investors.

The Megafon deal for instance priced at the lower end of estimates. For 2013, Weafer predicts some $15 billion in Russian equity issuance.

Discovering the pleasure of dividends in Russia

American financier J.D. Rockefeller said watching dividends rolling in was the only thing that gave him pleasure. But it is a pleasure which until now has largely bypassed shareholders in most big Russian companies. That might be about to change.

Russian firms,  especially the big commodity producers, are generally seen as poor dividend payers. So dividend yields, the ratio of dividends to the share price,  have been unattractive.

On a trailing 5-year period, the average dividend yield in Russia was 1.8 percent compared to 2.5 percent for emerging markets, notes Soren Beck-Petersen, investment director for emerging markets at HSBC Global Asset Management. That absence of positive cash flow from companies is one reason why Russia has always traded so cheap relative to other emerging markets, he says.

Can Eastern Europe “sweat” it?

Interesting to see that Poland wants to squeeze out more income from its state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector in the face of slowing economic growth and financing pressures.

Warsaw wants to double next year’s dividends from stakes in firms ranging from copper mines to utility providers to banks.

Fellow euro zone aspirant Lithuania has also embarked on reforms aimed at increasing dividends sixfold from what UBS has dubbed “the forgotten side of the government balance sheet”. It wants to emulate countries such as Sweden and Singapore where such companies are managed at arm’s length from the state and run along strict corporate standards to consistently grow profits.