February 11th, 2011

Top Ten Reasons to Rethink Investments in Russia

Reason One: Chances are you and your clients will lose money.

Russia is “one of the world’s riskiest locations for business to invest in,” according to a survey of 196 nations by U.K risk-assessment company Maplecroft. Russia is the 10th-riskiest country for investors, sliding from 15th last year to place between Pakistan and the Central African Republic, concluded Maplecroft’s annual Political Risk Atlas released in December 2010.  Brazil, India and China, which along with Russia make up the so-called BRIC group of leading emerging-market economies, are ranked 94th, 26th and 62nd, respectively. Russia’s “poor performance is compounded by its ‘extreme risk’ ratings for its business environment, corporate governance and the endemic nature of corruption, which is prevalent throughout all tiers of government,” Maplecroft said.

Reason Two: Russia is the world’s most corrupt major economy.

Little surprise that Russia is also the world’s most corrupt major economy, according to Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index issued in October, sliding to the 154th spot of 178 countries and placing it alongside Tajikistan and Kenya.

Reason Three: Even President Medvedev says conditions are “very bad.”

Following the conviction of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky on a second round of trumped up charges in December 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev noted that only 14 companies went public on his country’s market in 2010. “This is nothing to be proud of,” Medvedev told business leaders. “Part of the problem is, of course, is our investment climate, which is bad. Very bad.”

Reason Four: It’s not worth the hassle and you could wind up in jail or worse

The conviction of former Yukos Chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s on a second round of trumped up charges in December 2010 may have “unintended repercussions” for business in Russia, state-controlled VTB Capital said Dec. 31.The “most disturbing detail” was the court’s rationale for the verdict, VTB said. Charges based on Yukos’s use of internal transfer pricing, which redistributes cash flows among units of a holding company, creates a precedent that leaves other businesses open “to attack.” Meanwhile, lawyers in the U.S. are racking up massive billable hours representing corporation and their board members fearing prosecution under tougher Foreign Corrupt Practice Act enforcement. Moreover, CEOs are feeling pressure from board members and shareholder groups to avoid the financial and legal nightmare associated with getting entangled in corruption scandals in Russia and elsewhere. And anyone thinking about investing in Russia ought to remember what happened to corporate counsel Sergey Magnitsky when he tried to defend investor rights in Russia – he died under brutal conditions in a Moscow jail.

Reason Five: Small investors lose, too

Only the the bravest, or most foolhardy, of small investors would consider wading into the Russian swamp, Brian Milner wrote in the Globe and Mail, citing Peter Zeihan of Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Tex. “Russian law, when it comes to portfolio investments, is at best inconsistent,” Zeihan said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see a rebound of activity to the levels we saw in 2006-07. Too many people have been burned.” Russia, Zeihan said, “is not a global player economically in any way, with the exception of energy sales to Europe. That’s all they’ve got. I don’t mean to say it’s small, but it’s certainly narrow. And the Europeans, to be perfectly blunt, are pretty sick of the Russians. So any time there’s a decrease in demand in Europe, the first importer that gets cut is Russia.” The country, he says, is “in a long, slow twilight. They’re going to have a couple of great years while the Europeans are in a mess. And they have relative strength because the Americans are distracted in the Middle East. But they realize that they’re on borrowed time.”

Reason Six: The Russian equity market’s bad reputation is priced in

There is little doubt that Russia has a poor image and this is probably why its stock market is one of the most lowly-rated of the emerging economies, with an average price-to-earnings ratio of about seven or eight times, the Moscow Times reported.

Reason Seven: Putin’s vendettas hurt the economy and scare away investors

Arkady Dvorkovich, the Duke University-educated aid to Medvedev, said that “a significant part of the international community will have serious questions” about the Khodorkovsky case and that “the assessment of the risks of working in Russia will increase.” Moreover, Roland Nash, co-founder of Verno Capital and a 16-year veteran of doing business in Moscow, told journalist Chrystia Freeland that the Khodorkovsky case had exacted a real, quantifiable economic cost. “The Russian equity market would be worth several hundred billion dollars more if it weren’t for the critical Western perception of Russia, and the Khodorkovsky case is the principal example of that perception,” Nash said. “Within Russia, everyone who matters understands exactly what the Kremlin is trying to say: that there is no one above the rule of the Kremlin.”

Reason Eight: The smart money is going out, the dumb money is going in.

The unreasonably harsh punishment of unbreakable Khodorkovsky and Lebedev shows that this system has grown so thoroughly corrupt that by trying to prove its power it actually destroys its credibility

analyst Pavel K. Baev argues. This disappointment translates into re-evaluation of business and investment prospects in the country of self-serving bureaucracy – and into capital flight that increased sharply in the last months of 2010. In 2010, total captial outflows from Russia amounted to $38 billion. President Medvedev quite possibly doesn’t understand that the Khodorkovsky case is not a minor setback for the markets, as it was five years ago, but the irrefutable verdict for his ‘modernization’ agenda.

Reason Nine: Russia is a sucker’s bet

According to Peter Cohan, president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm:

Russia is under the illusion that it can use PR spin to dissipate investors’ concerns about its past abuses of capital providers and convince new suckers to invest there. The fate of Khodorkovsky is one particularly unpleasant example. Three cases of Russia’s hostility to outside investors:
  • How Russia used its legal system to kick out BP executives, including Bob Dudley (now BP CEO), from an energy joint venture
  • How Russia offered the founder of Hermitage Capital, an investment firm that had placed capital in Russia, the option of his life or his money
  • How Sawyer Research, a small Cleveland, Ohio, company, lost its $8 million investment in a Russian quartz plant to “creeping expropriation”
The simple reality is that investors may get seduced into a country by high growth rates, but if that growth should slow, the country’s bones will poke through.

Reason 10: Russia will remain backward as long as Putin thwarts modernization

Putin has used the second Khodorkovsky show trial to make clear that he is unwilling to ease his informal authoritarian style, even as Russia seeks a path toward modernization, according to James Beadle, an independent investment consultant and a founding partner of the financial blog Market Melange wrote in an op-ed:

Economic development is the innocent victim in this domestic power play. Russia’s business leaders may understand the message, but international investors don’t. They observe a disturbing dichotomy between words and actions. Putin has demonstrated that his arbitrary word is the law and that Russia’s legal system remains feudal. But once again, Russia’s popularity as a target for investment of all forms will be hindered by insecure political structures. Foreign direct investment will be the biggest victim. Learning from Yukos, as well as Shell, BP and many others, companies will be hesitant to invest in long-term fixed assets as long as the government’s word is the only guarantee that their rights and property will be respected.

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