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Russia: the most divided market on earth

Russia: the most divided market on earth

The investment community is divided by Russia perhaps more than any market on earth.

There are true believers, who have fundamentally concluded the nation is emerging as a consumer society with every advantage of natural resources.

They see the valuations as absurdly cheap. They also offer a polemic for interpreting Russia’s place on the world stage which - whilst totally different to the conventional Western narrative - can prove surprisingly persuasive.

Yet these individuals are a minority. For most Russia remains a nation racked with corruption, with an equity market bound to the oil price and a leadership capable of extraordinarily unpredictable behaviour.

The situation in the Ukraine has only put this into starker contrast.

Those fund managers who are required to hold Russia - such as the Jupiter Emerging European Opportunities fund - have taken holdings to low levels, allocating more than half of the fund to those European countries least exposed to Russia – such as Turkey.

Other firms with Russian exposure have simply opted to keep their heads down. Russian equity fund managers face the uneasy challenge that if they defend their market it can be interpreted as a defence of Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine.

The challenge though is that Russian equity managers have also waited a long time to attract assets from Western investors and it is painful to watch the current rally take place without being able to talk about it.

The rally after all is unlikely to continue indefinitely. As John Higgins, the chief markets economist at Capital Economics says: ‘Over the past month, the stock market has performed better in Russia than in any other country including the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, as tensions in Ukraine have eased.

‘But the near 15% rally has not wiped out all of this year’s losses and we suspect that further upside will be limited.’

It is hard to interpret this rally as anything other than a rebound from the Ukraine situation, after all Russian growth has been slowing for some time.

Yet when you have held out as an investor in Russia for the long-term any rally would be worth talking about.

In the short-term it remains a significant problem for Russia that it cannot seem to win the approval of Western investors – and for Russian business leaders a frustration that Putin is so willing to sacrifice short to medium-term commercial advantage to make his point.

Yet this is a country which as an investor you cannot fully turn your back on.

After all in the midst of the negative news flow around the Ukraine, and the stockmarket volatility that accompanied it, we see a deal being struck by Gazprom and China National Petroleum.

The significance of this sort of deal is lost in the daily newsflow. And yet it is surely crucially important that this country has the capacity to grow its vital strategic ties with China in the midst of the international crisis.

The conclusion perhaps is that Russia may rally somewhat yet if the Ukraine situation calms down, Western fund managers will probably not want to tell their own investors to capture it and will therefore remain isolated in the investment community as fans of the Great Bear. Meanwhile, Russia will carry on building strategically vital partnerships with China.

One day that will produce great riches for somebody, yet it is unlikely to be European investors.

For us it is simply too messy, too contradictory. The short-term noise will be loud enough to drown out the vast structural changes Russia is rendering upon the world economic map.

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