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World Money Analyst Update on Russia

February 20, 2014

In last week's special Thursday edition of Outside the Box, World Money Analyst Managing Editor Kevin Brekke interviewed WMA contributor Ankur Shah on emerging markets, but they didn't touch on one very important emerging market: Russia. So this week I have brought Kevin back to sound out the views of Alexei Medved, WMA's Russia and CIS contributing editor.

And right off the top, Alexei tells us two significant and surprising things about the Russian market:

One should look at investing in Russia from at least two time perspectives: long term, meaning 10-plus years, and a medium time horizon of 1-3 years.

Long term, Russia is still the best-performing major stock market in the world for the period 2000–2013, when measured in US dollars against the major market indexes. It is well ahead of not only all developed markets, but also the markets in China, Brazil, and several other emerging markets that were and are much more a centre of attention by Western media and investors. This long-term outperformance was achieved despite the fact that 2013 was not a good year for Russian equities, with the RTS Index down 5% in 2013.

Medium term, the Russian market remains the most undervalued. The average P/E is about 4.5, significantly below other emerging markets and way below the multiple on shares in the developed markets.

Needless to say, there are challenges with investing in Russia, too; and Alexei and Kevin cover them thoroughly. If you have wondered about Russia – or for that matter the markets of emerging and developed countries anywhere else in the world – you really should tune in to World Money Analyst.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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World Money Analyst Update on Russia

World Money Analyst: I am very pleased to speak with Alexei Medved. Alexei is the Russia and CIS contributing editor at World Money Analyst, and I caught him at his office in London. Thank you for joining us today.

Alexei Medved: My pleasure, thank you for inviting me.

WMA: As you and I have discussed before, Russia remains a little-understood market for many Western investors. Can you talk a little about the investment backdrop for Russia?

Alexei: One should look at investing in Russia from at least two time perspectives: long term, meaning 10-plus years, and a medium time horizon of 1-3 years.

Long term, Russia is still the best-performing major stock market in the world for the period 2000–2013, when measured in US dollars against the major market indexes. It is well ahead of not only all developed markets, but also the markets in China, Brazil, and several other emerging markets that were and are much more a centre of attention by Western media and investors. This long-term outperformance was achieved despite the fact that 2013 was not a good year for Russian equities, with the RTS Index down 5% in 2013.

Medium term, the Russian market remains the most undervalued. The average P/E is about 4.5, significantly below other emerging markets and way below the multiple on shares in the developed markets.

WMA: How has the Russian market held up so far this year, with emerging markets under pressure?

Alexei: Since the start of this year, the Russian market has underperformed other markets, down 8% in US dollar terms. This, to a large extent, could be explained by a noticeable decline of the ruble against the US dollar (-5.5%).

As you know, so far this year many emerging markets and emerging market currencies have been punished significantly, as Western institutional investors became worried about macroeconomic pressures in some of the emerging economies, like Turkey and Argentina. These countries have problems that are real and serious: too much external debt, a trade deficit, a budget deficit, declining foreign currency reserves, etc. So, it is understandable why foreign investors withdrew a lot of money from these markets recently.

What is hard to understand is why they also withdrew significant amounts of money from the Russian market. In my view, it is primarily because most investors continue to view emerging markets as a single class of investments. So, when they withdraw money they do it across the board, in all emerging markets. This is generally not the best approach. In contrast, investors do not approach developed markets as a single class, but differentiate between the countries.

WMA: Using your examples of Turkey and Argentina, how does Russia compare in terms of the macro picture?

Alexei: The macroeconomic position of Russia is vastly different from that of Argentina or Turkey. For starters, Russia has a positive trade balance and a balanced budget, unlike these and many other emerging and developed countries. Russia also has a very low debt load, with the ratio of external government debt-to-GDP around 10%, much lower then the roughly 95% in the US and even higher in some European countries. Further, the unemployment rate in Russia is around 5.5%, meaning the country is essentially running at full employment.

The unrefined "sell everything that's emerging" approach apparently in play by Western institutional investors has led to the Russian market being unjustifiably punished. The good news is that the punishment has created even better investment opportunities for investors who can avoid “heard mentality.” There are solid, profitable Russian companies that are trading today at very low valuations.

WMA: One of your areas of expertise is the use of short-dated, US-dollar-denominated Eurobonds to capture higher yield and manage risk. Can you explain this strategy a little for our readers?

Alexei: Of course. I think Russia and the CIS also present a good opportunity for fixed income investors. Given my serious worries about a possibility of rising inflation and yields in developed markets, we recommend investing only in relatively short-term bonds (under 4 years). Our [Alexei's independent business] weighted portfolio maturity is now under 2 years. One can either invest in Russian sovereign debt or the safest corporate bonds and receive somewhat higher yields than in comparable developed-economy bonds. Investing in bonds that do not have an investment grade rating from one of the major rating agencies is another option.

Based on our local knowledge, we particularly like some high-yield bonds where we have a decent understanding of the company and believe that the bonds will be repaid, despite fairly low ratings from the credit agencies. This way, we invest in bonds that offer 10%-12% yields.

WMA: Switching to issues of politics and governance, many observers are concerned about issues of corruption in Russia, making it difficult for an investor to navigate the market. Has the current government embraced reforms on this?

Alexei: Obviously, one has to be very careful when considering investing in Russian equities or bonds. For investors that lack knowledge about the country, I do not recommend they attempt a do-it-yourself approach to selecting Russian shares. A better approach is to either invest through an index fund or to seek share selection advice from people who specialize in the Russian market on a day-to-day basis. This is in spite of the fact that over the last decade, Russia to some extent became much more investable.

Back to your question, corporate governance has generally improved, although perhaps not as much as some investors would like. The government is taking steps in this direction, yet a lot remains to be done. As Russia recently became a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and its market is opening up to external competition, Russian companies will have to become more efficient to compete, and thus more profitable for investors.

Many investors have yet to wake up to the reality that Russia is a serious global player that's here to stay. This opens up even more opportunities for investors.

WMA: The January issue of World Money Analyst highlighted the importance of taking a longer view on markets and investments, something that you and I agree on. You've made some great recommendations at WMA, and recently advised to take profits on two stocks that were held for a year or longer. Can you briefly go over these trades?

Alexei: Yes, as I said earlier, one has to look at these opportunities on a medium- to long-term investment timeline and not attempt to trade these markets, as one’s investments can get unjustifiably punished, as is happening now. We have been active in the Russian market for over 20 years and certainly maintain such an approach when we look at investments to recommend to our clients. Once the investment is made, we monitor it on a constant basis, as one cannot just “salt it away.” Once the shares reach our target price, we sell them and move on to the next opportunity.

In the January 2014 issue of WMA, I recommended taking profits on two positions. The first was the shares of Russian airline Aeroflot, recommended in the January 2013 issue. By January 2014, its shares had moved up nicely on the back of stellar company operating results. We advised to sell the shares and realized an 84% gain, including the dividend, in 12 months.

The second was the shares of AFK Sistema, a large-cap (US$18 billion) company that restructured itself from a conglomerate into essentially a private equity fund. I recommended its GDRs in the July 2012 issue. By January 2014 the shares had moved up significantly, and I advised to sell in that month's issue of WMA. We pocketed a total return of 63% in 18 months.

These returns are particularly remarkable against a negative 5.6% return of the

Russian RTS Index in 2013. While we still like both of these shares, their significant appreciation had reached our price targets, so it was time to cash in some chips. And seeing that these shares are now trading lower, we got out at the right time and preserved the investors’ profits.

WMA: We can't talk about Russia and not mention the ruble. Investing in certain currencies – like the Canadian dollar and Norwegian krone – has been in vogue for several years on the premise that these are "resource currencies" supported by the natural resource wealth of the issuing country. With Russia's vast mineral and commodity wealth, should we consider the ruble a commodity currency?

Alexei: Given that Russia is a large producer of oil, gas, and some other commodities, to some extent the ruble should be seen as a commodity currency, perhaps even a petrocurrency. So, if one believes that the oil price is likely to decline significantly and stay low for years to come, one should not buy Russia. However, if one believes that the oil price trend is flat to up in the medium and long term, Russia will do well macroeconomically. 

WMA: Next to the emerging markets, another big issue is developments in Ukraine. You have covered Ukraine for World Money Analyst subscribers. The country seems to be caught in a conflict about alliances: to enter into a closer economic alignment with Moscow, or shift to stronger ties with the EU. What are your thoughts on this and the investment implications for Ukraine?

Alexei: It is very sad that the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated as far as it has. Some lives have been lost. Ukraine is torn between the current government that is leaning towards the Customs Union with Russia, and a large proportion of the population, perhaps a majority, which would support a closer cooperation with the EU.

Ukrainians are also fed up with perceived government corruption and diminishing civil liberties in the country. In December, Russia provided a US$15 billion rescue package to Ukraine and immediately disbursed US$3 billion. It remains to be seen which way the current situation will be resolved.

However, there are some corporate bonds in Ukraine that should be relatively immune to this political turmoil. One of the companies we like in Ukraine is MHP, the largest chicken meat producer in Europe. The company is fairly insulated against possible further depreciation of the local currency, as it sells 37% of its products abroad. After the recent sell-off in Ukrainian bonds, one can buy the Eurobond of MHP priced in US$ with a maturity in April 2015 and a yield-to-maturity of 10.6%. Such a high yield on short-dated paper is very hard to find elsewhere.

WMA: Any final thoughts for investors about the opportunities in Russia?

Alexei: The latest sell-off of Russian shares represents an opportunity to buy quality companies at discount prices. Today, we can see compelling value in world-class companies with assets not just in Russia but globally (including the USA), good corporate governance, and nice dividends. In short, I agree with Warren Buffet: “Buy when others are fearful.”

WMA: Alexei, thank you for sharing your valuable insights into the dynamic Russian market.

Alexei: You are welcome. My pleasure.

Learn more about World Money Analyst here.

Discuss This


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Don Braswell

Feb. 21, 2014, 9:26 a.m.

I don’t think the analyst gave a complete picture of Ukraine. Samuel Huntington in his work “Clash of Civilizations” called Ukraine a “Cleft Country”  It’s population is evenly split between those who lean towards Russia and those who lean more towards the West.  They are split by region (East Ukraine lean strongly towards the East and West towards the West respectively) and split by religion - Orthodox vs. West. 

They won’t split the country because Russia would never cede the western leaning Crimea or Black Sea access (Something about warm water ports and a previous war?).  Ukraine makes our Democrat vs. Republican split seem very mild indeed, and won’t be solved by demographics (same low birth rate) or geography anytime soon.  It’s a shame.  Ukrainians are some of the nicest people in the world (both sides), they just have a very tough time living with one another. (And with their overbearing big brother Russia).  So Russia may be a good place to invest and Ukraine not-quite-as-much…

Henry Schedewie

Feb. 21, 2014, 12:11 a.m.

Since about 2011, the Russian stock index fund (RSX) has gone nowhere but down by about 40 percent.  Turkey, as reflected in the iShares MSCI Turkey fund (TUR), has outperformed RSX, although it too has recently dropped into the negative by about 20% as a result of the Turkish Lira devaluation, EEM concerns in general and political upheaval in Turkey in particular. 
Even if commodities were on the verge of recovery, and some of them might be indeed, Russia may not be the best proxy play because of its constant antagonism to the West as well as internal problems of corruption, weak legal frame work/protection, and human rights violations.  Once Russia starts implementing democratic reforms, the investment climate there can be expected to improve significantly.  However, now is not the time to invest in Russia.

peter brown 30484

Feb. 20, 2014, 10:58 p.m.

Bank of America
QE and the Emerging Markets carry trade
The QE channel has worked through Emerging Markets and China is a key vehicle. By lowering the US government bond yields to a bare minimum, and zero –ish at the short end, a search for yield globally ensued. Emerging market banks and corporates have gone on an international leverage binge, yet another carry trade, the third in 20 years. The first one was driven by European banks, financing East Asian capex – that ended in 1997. The second one was global banks and equity-FDI supporting mainly capex in the BRICs. That ended in 2008. This time, it is increasingly non-equity: commercial banks and more importantly, the bond market – often undercounted in the BoP and external debt statistics that conventional analysis looks at.

Chart 9 shows the rise of EM external loans and bond issuance (both by residence and nationality). Since, end-3Q2008 to end-3Q2013, external borrowing from banks and bonds has risen USD1.9tn. Bank loans have risen by USD855bn and bond issuance in foreign currencies by nationality is up USD1,042bn. In the prior five-year period (i.e. end-3Q2003 – end-3Q2008), forex bond issuance rose only USD432bn. Clearly, the importance of external bond issuance is rising. See Table 5 for details.

In China, since, end-3Q2008 to end-3Q2013, outstanding external borrowing from banks and bonds has gone from USD207bn to USD849n – a net rise of USD655bn. Outstanding bank loans are up from USD161bn to USD609bn – a net rise of USD464bn. Bond issuance in foreign currencies by nationality is up from USD46bn to USD240bn – a net rise of USD191bn. In the prior five-year period (ie, end-3Q2003 – end-3Q2008), forex bond issuance rose only USD28bn in China. Clearly, the importance of external bond issuance is rising in China.

There is more to this story.
As mentioned earlier, for externally-issued bonds, USD1,042bn has been raised by the nationality of the EM borrower since end-3Q 2008, but USD724bn by residence of the borrower – a gap of USD318bn, or 44%. This undercount is USD165bn in China, USD100bn in Brazil, USD62bn in Russia, and USD37bn in India. The carry trade this time around was helped substantially by access to the bond market, especially from overseas affiliates of EM banks and corporations.

There are a lot of moving parts in the balance of payments that finally affect the change in international reserves at any EM central bank – eg, the current account, portfolio equity investment and direct equity investment, and debt flows – both from the bond market and lending from banks. We focus on the link between these debt flows and the international reserves in China. As Table 5 below shows, China’s external debt – from bond issuance and forex borrowing from banks – rose USD655bn during 3Q08-3013.

We posit that this large rise was in part driven by the carry trade offered up by QE – China banks and corporates issued substantial forex-denominated bonds, and borrowed straight loans from international banks. We recognize the caveat that correlation does not imply causation. The USD655bn rise in China debt issuance is highly correlated to the Fed’s balance sheet since late-2008. As Chart 11 shows, the rise in China debt issuance of USD 655bn has (along with FDI and the C/A surplus), boosted international reserves by USD1,773bn since late-2008. Also, as Chart 11 shows, the USD1,773bn rise in China international reserves mirrors the rise of USD2,585bn in the EM monetary base. Lastly, the rise of China’s monetary base of USD2,585bn correlates well with the USD10.9tr rise in China’s broad money expansion.


As the Fed tapers, and the size of its balance sheet stabilizes/contracts, we should expect this sequence to reverse. Confidence is a fragile membrane. Not only does the Fed’s balance sheet matter as a source of funds, but we believe so does the attractiveness of the recipient of the carry trade – and the trust in its collateral. As Gary Gorton puts it…
The output of banks is money, in the form of short-term debt which is used to store value or used as a transaction medium. Such money is backed by a portfolio of bank loans in the case of demand deposits, or by collateral in the form of a specific bond in the case of repo. The backing is designed to make the bank debt as close to riskless as possible — in fact, so close to riskless than nobody wants to really do any due diligence on the money, just transact with it. But the private sector cannot produce riskless debt and so it can happen that the backing collateral is questioned. This typically happens at the peak of the business cycle. If its value is questioned, it loses its “moneyness” so no one wants it, and cash is preferred. But as we know, if everyone wants their cash at the same moment, their demands cannot be satisfied. In this sense, the financial system is insolvent. (interview with the FT)
What makes sense for an individual carry trade - borrow low, invest at higher rates - falls prey to the fallacy of composition, when too many engage in the same carry trade. And eventually question the underlying collateral, now huge, and potentially suspect. China is a case in point. If our colleagues David Cui and Bin Gao are right, the trust sector in China could create rollover risks that reverse a gluttonous carry trade within China, but partly financed overseas. In China’s case, this trade was between low global interest rates, low Chinese deposit rates, expectations of perpetual RMB appreciation on the one hand, and higher investment returns promised by Trusts on the other. A part of the debt funds raised overseas, we suspect were put to work in this Trust carry trade. The HK-based banks are big participants in intermediating the China carry trade - as Chart 12 shows, their net lending to China went from 18% of HK GDP in 2007 to 148% in late-2013.

There are always fancy names given to carry trades – financial liberalization of capital accounts, the Bangkok International Banking Facility, currency internationalization, etc. We remain skeptics of these buzzwords.


The potential consequences of Trust defaults and a China carry trade unwind

1. If the EM carry trade diminishes as a consequence of a changed Fed policy and/or less attractive risk-adjusted returns in EMs as collateral quality is questioned, the sources of China’s forex reserve accumulation will need to change. Perhaps to bigger current account surpluses, more equity FDI and portfolio investment through privatization and more open equity markets. If that does not happen, expanding the Chinese monetary base might require PBOC to increase net lending to the financial system and/or monetize fiscal deficits (this last part has not worked so well in EMs).

2. Potential asset deflation is a risk, as the carry trades diminish/unwind. Property prices are at risk – the collateral value for China’s financial systems. This is not a dire projection – it simply seeks to isolate the US QE as a key driver of China’s monetary policy and asset inflation, and highlights the magnitudes involved, and the transmission mechanism. Investors should not imbue stock-price movements and property price inflation in China with too much local flavor – this is mainly a US QE-driven story, in our view.

3. Currently, China’s real effective exchange rate is one of the strongest in the world. Concerns about China’s Trust sector, and its underlying collateral value, sees some of this carry trade unwound, the RMB could be under pressure.

4. Given HK’s role in the China carry trade, HK property prices and its banking system should be watched carefully for signs of stress.

5. UK, US, and Japan banking systems have been active lenders to China since QE. They should be on watch if the Trust rollover risk materializes and creates a growth shock in China. See Chart 15.


6. Safe haven bids for DM government bonds, overseas property and precious metals might emerge from China.

Could the party go on? Yes, if for some reason a significant deterioration in the US labor market, or a deflationary shock from China, or any other surprise that could lead to a cessation of the US tapering could prolong this carry trade. This is not the house base case. We believe it is better to start preparing for a post-QE world. As one of our smartest clients told us: “the main theme in the past five years was QE. If that is coming to an end, investments and themes that worked in the past five years must therefore be questioned.” We agree.