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Russian Stocks: Potential Windfall or Disaster

Russian stocks are currently trading cheaper than half of their book net asset value...

Published: May 23, 2014 (Issue # 1812)



  • Gazprom claimed to have become the worlds most profitable company after releasing its 2013 IFRS financial statements.
    Photo: Sergei Porter / Fotoimedia

Foreign participants of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum should give the Russian stock market a closer look. According to analysts, Russian companies are now massively undervalued, presenting a huge opportunity to investors brave enough to grab it.

Russian stocks are currently trading cheaper than half of their book net asset value, levels not seen even in troubled Egypt, said Martin Graham, chairman of London-based Oracle Capital Group and former head of the London Stock Exchanges AIM international market.

There seem to be more reasons than ever to avoid Russian stocks Russias confrontation with the West over Ukraine risks spilling over into damaging sector-wide economic sanctions; Russian growth has stalled to near zero; and the old bugbears of corruption, arbitrary courts and poor corporate governance have gone nowhere. But given the incredibly low price of Russian stocks, logic may in fact err on the side on investing.

Take state-controlled gas firm Gazprom, Russias biggest company. Releasing its IFRS financial statements for 2013 last month, Gazprom said it had surpassed Chinas Petrochina and the U.S. ExxonMobil and Apple to become the most profitable company in the world by EBITDA, earning a little over 2 trillion rubles ($58 billion) last year.

But despite this, Gazprom stock is trading at a price-earnings ratio of less than three. On May 21, the company had a market capitalization of $99.6 billion.

Russian companies are chronically undervalued, according to Graham: In terms of earnings Russian stocks are traded up to four times cheaper than other emerging markets, while providing the shareholders with four percent dividend yield, among the highest globally, he said.

The government has been trying to reverse the negative perceptions giving investors cold feet for years, with the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg being one of the prime examples of the effort. But while the spat over Ukraine has stoked anxiety, the overall trend was set long time ago.

Geopolitical risk perceptions driven by the Ukraine crisis have contributed to low valuations. But even before the Ukraine crisis, Russian equities declined because of slowing economic growth and corporate governance risks, in particular in state-controlled companies, said Dmitry Alimov, founder and managing partner of Frontier Ventures, a venture fund investing in Internet companies.

One of the effects of this unwillingness to buy Russian shares is to make the government more reluctant to privatize its assets. For instance, Russian flagship airline Aeroflot has repeatedly delayed its privatization, citing low valuation and market volatility. In December, Aeroflots CEO Vitaly Savelyev told Bloomberg that the companys shares are about 40 percent undervalued.

Even Russias Internet and technology sectors, whose companies have traded better than other firms, currently trade at substantial discounts to pre-crisis levels, according to Alimov. Shares in Yandex, Russias leading internet search engine, plunged in early March, when the State Duma gave President Vladimir Putin permission to use military force in Ukraine. They then plummeted again in late April, when Putin hinted that Yandex had been subject to unfriendly influence by foreign powers, though the company has recovered some of the looses since.

The relentless downward trend cannot continue for ever. At some point, valuations will fall far enough to make investors reassess the market.

Russia was abnormally cheap even before the Ukrainian events, we see it as a sign of an oversold market. If Russian stocks discount to emerging market peers squeezes at least by half, this could lead to over 50 percent growth from current levels, said Ghaham.

The key unknown in this picture, however, is the timing, he added.





 


ALL ABOUT TOWN

Sunday, Oct. 26


Zenit St. Petersburg returns home for the first time in nearly a month as they host Mordovia Saransk in a Russian Premier League game. Currently at the top of the league thanks to their undefeated start to the season, the northern club hopes to extend the gap between them and second-place CSKA Moscow and win the title for the first time in three years. Tickets are available at the stadium box office or on the clubs website.



Monday, Oct. 27


Today marks the end of the art exhibit Neophobia at the Erarta Museum. Artists Alexey Semichov and Andrei Kuzmin took a neo-modernist approach to represent the array of fears that are ever-present throughout our lives. Tickets are 200 rubles ($4.90).



Tuesday, Oct. 28


The Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel plays host to SPIBAs Marketing and Communications Committees round table discussion on Government Relations Practices in Russia this morning. The discussion starts at 9:30 a.m. and participation must be confirmed by Oct. 24.



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