Global Investing

Sanctions bite Russia but some investors are fishing

By Andrew Winterbottom

Russian stocks are up today, for the fifth day in a row and at the highest level in two weeks. What’s going on? As we wrote  here earlier in the week, foreign investors have been fleeing this market.  However it could be that some of them are starting to put aside concerns about the potential for further sanctions on Moscow and are scouring Russia’s stock markets for contrarian buying opportunities.

Russian stocks, chronically undervalued, are trading now at a discount of more than 60 percent to broader emerging markets, and to China which by all accounts is the standout beneficiary of the Russian woes. Just how cheap Russian shares are can be gauged from the fact they trade at a discount event to turbulent Pakistan. Here is a link that compares Russian equity valuations with other emerging and developed markets:  http://link.reuters.com/guv77v

While tensions between Russia and the West look to be only increasing, the risks of investing in Russia at present are obvious. But with greater risk comes greater potential reward, says Jonathan Bell, head of emerging market equities at Nomura Asset Management:

Even for the level of risk the market is extremely cheap… We’ve had price movements due to technical behaviour and short-term considerations that don’t necessarily reflect the underlying fundamentals.

Bell likes the IT and domestic brand name sectors – those not in danger of feeling the hit of further sanctions but that have fallen alongside companies that have been hit with Western sanctions, such as Sberbank and Gazprom.

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.