Market turmoil has mixed impact on Eastern Europe

The ex-Soviet republics have bounced back and there's hope Russia's WTO accession will stir investments. But the closer you go to Europe, the worse it gets, says East Capital CIO.
Market turmoil has mixed impact on Eastern Europe

Economically, a number of the ex-Soviet republics have taken their pain, and bounced back, says Peter Elam Håkansson, chairman and chief investment officer of East Capital. Turkmenistan leads the way with 10% growth last year and anticipated 8% growth this year. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are all estimated to post 5-6% growth this year.

The further west you go, national growth slows as one gets nearer to Europe, with contagion still playing out. Poland and Slovakia, the closest to the action, are being hit hardest, with half a dozen banks up for sale in the former as Western bank stakeholders rush for the exits.

“Russian banks aren’t immune from the European debt crisis, but they are far better capitalised,” says Håkansson. “As well as growing three times faster than western European countries, Eastern Europe has three times less public debt. “

He also points out that the average Russian has €130 in mortgage debt, compared with €26,000 per head in the US (thanks to Russians having been given their apartments).

One of East Capital’s key investment businesses is in Russia. Håkansson is hopeful that the country’s accession into the World Trade Organisation in 2012 will stimulate the investment market. “I think many people are surprised Russia isn’t in the WTO already,” he says.

The Russian stock market is trading nearly 40% below its peak. The price-to-earnings ratio of about five times stands below its level in 1999 (when it had a six times P/E ratio – and that at a time when a ‘Russia crisis’ was playing out).

“It's telling, therefore, just how undervalued Russia still is," he notes, "even though the market has gone up nearly eight times since then.”

East Capital’s Russia Fund is down 18% this year, compared with a 9% fall in the stock market. “That’s because we like mid-caps, and those stocks suffer more during downturns,” Håkansson says. In 2009 and 2010 the fund was up 140% and 32%, beating the Russian index in both years.

More ominously, if Iran’s nuclear programme was destroyed by Israeli or US air attack, equity markets would be spooked, notes Håkansson, Such a strike would cause the oil price to go up, he adds.

It’s a volatile and risky area of the world, as East Capital itself found when, as an investor in Bank of Georgia, that country had a military conflict with Russia.

Today, Håkansson sees the region that has the most potential for warfare as the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which witnessed a war 20 years ago between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries still at loggerheads.

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