Russia: The Cheapest Market In The World (But You Have To Get Past Some Pretty Dicey Stuff To Buy It)

Oct. 18, 2019 9:39 PM ETRSX, SBRCY, RUSL, GZPFY, ERUS, RUSS, RSXJ, FLRU147 Comments
Jim Sloan profile picture
Jim Sloan
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Summary

  • In my recent article on emerging markets value funds, I included a couple of paragraphs on Russia and mentioned that I might write a short article about it.
  • Russia is the cheapest of the cheap, a deep value market dominated by the unpopular energy sector and other large state-controlled enterprises.
  • Hanging over the Russian markets are worries about rule of law, currency and inflation risks, sanctions, corporate governance, and Putin's autocratic leadership.
  • The important thing is to compare statistics making individual companies cheap with risks that are known but don't lend themselves to precise calculation.
  • Gazprom and Sberbank as individual stocks would be my preferred way of owning Russia, and I am considering buying a small position in equal dollar amounts.

It's dirt cheap. It's pretty much uncorrelated to anything else. But it has unique risks. At one point in the not too distant past it almost blew up the international financial system.

I'm talking about Russia, of course.

Russia came in for a couple of paragraphs in my recent article about how cheap emerging market value is, and I mentioned that I might do a short article on it. It turns out that nothing about Russia is small. I remember standing in a Moscow office while doing a research project for a book and looking at a map of Russia which filled the entire wall. That's what eleven time zones looks like, I remember thinking. You know it's huge, but the image still blows your mind.

(In case you wondered, Russia now has only 9 time zones. In 2010 it collapsed two with tiny areas into the adjacent ones. They had been in the separate zones because of being so far north that lateral distances shrink.)

Russia is a part of most portfolios which in one way or another focus on international or emerging markets value. The largest Russian stocks also appear in many international dividend-factor portfolios. Excepting Greece, which doesn't properly have a long term PE ratio because it has negative net earnings, Russia is the world's cheapest market as measured by Shiller CAPE.

More surprisingly, using Morningstar's 5-year measure of earnings growth, Russia is one of the fastest growing. How can that be? The simple answer is in the title of a counterculture novel that was popular when I was in college: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. That was the gist of my recent article on emerging markets value, which jumps out at you from this famous GMO 7-year bar chart. Being flat on your back makes future improvement easier.

(The flip side, also depicted grimly on the chart, would be the metaphor for the rest of the world's markets, domestic and international, equities and bonds: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me.)

So there it is. Almost everything in the world is expensive enough that future return prospects seem likely to be poor. Nothing is cheap except emerging markets. Emerging markets value is even cheaper. Then there's Russia.

There are two primary reasons Russian stocks are cheap. The first is that the Russian market checks off virtually every box on the list of special risks in emerging markets investing: currency risk, excessive concentration in a few companies and industries, high present inflation and the risk of higher inflation in the future, poor corporate governance, little protection of property rights, autocratic rule, a political culture of lawlessness, economic sanctions, and the risk that its large companies may be used for purposes of government policy rather than shareholder returns. Have I left anything out? Oh yes, there's also Vladimir Putin.

The second primary reason Russian stocks are cheap is that its market is heavily weighted to energy. This is a risky situation for both the local economy and foreign investors. Most countries afflicted by the "resource curse" are trying furiously to stimulate industries which diversify away from energy and other raw materials - think of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Few have yet succeeded in this diversification. The first important fact about energy - the one that led me to exit the U.S. energy market permanently about a month into the collapse from $100 per barrel in 2014 - is that each additional unit of carbon energy comes with a higher marginal cost for discovery and extraction.

If you are dependent on the fact that you have a lot of energy reserves the most important fact you have to face is that you will eventually run out of them. Most estimates have Russia running out of reserves in about 20 years at the current rate of use. That's the positive scenario. The negative scenario is that the world gets religion about carbon energy and enacts prohibitive taxes or otherwise passes legislation to hasten the quick replacement of carbon energy by windmills, solar panels, and other new sources. That's of course the positive scenario for the rest of us.

So what's the argument for stocks in a country with all of these problems? The answer is in the headline: it's dirt cheap. It's priced as if the Russian energy industry and the Russian economy are going out of business and Russia itself is just going to wither away. It's highly unlikely that any of these things will happen any time soon.

About that growth rate, however: don't get too excited. The 5-year growth rate given by many sources, including charts derived from Morningstar, is a bit misleading. The history of the Russian economy since the break-up of the Soviet Union is a series of boomlets, then collapses which erase everything followed by slow grinding recoveries. Key collapses took place in 1998 (the debt default which threatened to break the global financial system), 2009, and 2014.

The last of these collapses had mainly to do with oil prices, energy being a factor of outsized importance in the Russian economy because it provides over half of government revenues and 70% of exports. Russia is now in a slow grinding recover from 2014. The most recent absolute bottom in the market, quite visible in the charts of the two major Russian ETFs, was in 2016. The trick to the high rate of earnings growth over the past five years was primarily the low base from which the recovery started.

One hopeful aspect discernible in this table is that there is some evidence that the volatile swings in the Russian economy seem to be growing milder. Swings in economic statistics were extreme in the early 1990s after the breakup of the USSR, but from around the year 2000, when Putin came to power, economic swings slowly began to be less extreme. You can see this bumpy but persistent reduction of volatility in data on growth, inflation, unemployment, and debt in the table below.

Year GDP(in Bil. US$ PPP) GDP growth (Real) Inflation rate(in Percent) Unemployed(in Percent) Gov debt(in % of GDP)
1992 1,703.0 n/a n/a 5,2 % n/a
1993 Decrease1,591.9 n/a Negative increase874.6 % Negative increase5.9 % n/a
1994 Decrease1,419.3 Decrease−12.7 % Negative increase307.6 % Negative increase8.1 % n/a
1995 Decrease1,389.5 Decrease−4.1 % Negative increase197.5 % Negative increase9.4 % n/a
1996 Decrease1,363.8 Decrease−3.6 % Negative increase47.7 % Negative increase9.7 % n/a
1997 Increase1,406.3 Increase1.4 % Negative increase14.8 % Negative increase11.8 % n/a
1998 Decrease1,345.6 Decrease−5.3 % Negative increase27.7 % Negative increase13.3 % n/a
1999 Increase1,452.9 Increase6.4 % Negative increase85.7 % Positive decrease13.0 % 92.1 %
2000 Increase1,635.3 Increase10.0 % Negative increase20.8 % Positive decrease10.6 % Positive decrease55.7 %
2001 Increase1,757.7 Increase5.1 % Negative increase21.5 % Positive decrease9.0 % Positive decrease44.3 %
2002 Increase1,869.3 Increase4.7 % Negative increase15.8 % Positive decrease8.0 % Positive decrease37.5 %
2003 Increase2,046.7 Increase7.3 % Negative increase13.7 % Negative increase8.2 % Positive decrease28.3 %
2004 Increase2,253.9 Increase7.2 % Negative increase10.9 % Positive decrease7.7 % Positive decrease20.8 %
2005 Increase2,474.8 Increase6.4 % Negative increase12.7 % Positive decrease7.2 % Positive decrease14.8 %
2006 Increase2,758.8 Increase8.2 % Negative increase9.7 % Positive decrease7.1 % Positive decrease14.8 %
2007 Increase3,073.9 Increase8.5 % Negative increase9.0 % Positive decrease6.0 % Positive decrease8.0 %
2008 Increase3,298.7 Increase5.2 % Negative increase14.1 % Negative increase6.2 % Positive decrease7.4 %
2009 Decrease3,063.8 Decrease−7.8 % Negative increase11.7 % Negative increase8.2 % Negative increase9.9 %
2010 Increase3,240.9 Increase4.5 % Negative increase6.9 % Positive decrease7.4 % Negative increase10.6 %
2011 Increase3,475.4 Increase5.0 % Negative increase8.4 % Positive decrease6.5 % Negative increase10.8 %
2012 Increase3,670.4 Increase3.7 % Negative increase5.1 % Positive decrease5.5 % Negative increase11.5 %
2013 Increase3,796.8 Increase1.8 % Negative increase6.8 % Steady5.5 % Negative increase12.7 %
2014 Increase3,892.0 Increase0.7 % Negative increase7.8 % Positive decrease5.2 % Negative increase15.6 %
2015 Decrease3,835.8 Decrease−2.5 % Negative increase15.5 % Negative increase5.6 % Negative increase15.9 %
2016 Increase3,877.0 Decrease−0.2 % Negative increase7.1 % Positive decrease5.5 % Positive decrease15.7 %
2017 Increase4,007.8 Increase1.5 % Increase3.7 % Positive decrease5.2 % Negative increase17.4 %

Improvements in the Russian economy have continued to be lumpy and volatile. Sanctions haven't helped, but the trend for most statistics is broadly positive with decreasing volatility. The hope for investors is that the Boris Yeltsin years (1991 -1999) were an aberration driven by the necessity to start from scratch after disassembly of the command economy. As Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, whatever his faults, has had better results than his predecessor in calming down volatility in the economy. If you wanted to apply a single word to his domestic achievements over almost two decades, that word would be stabilization.

The Putin Factor

Putin is an inescapable factor when it comes to investing in Russia. If not the creator of every particular economic policy he is certainly the progenitor of the large strokes which have brought about some improvement for the Russian population as well as quite a few events affecting foreign investors. It's helpful to start your analysis from the premise that from the Russian perspective Putin is more or less a rational player. He could not have survived for so long otherwise.

I have occasionally appalled friends by saying that if I sat in Putin's chair and shared his personal background and country of origin, I would probably have done more or less what he has done. To be honest I'm not sure I could have acted with his total lack of scruples, but that's maybe not a criticism when it comes to political leadership. Putin is a man who does what he has to in order to pursue his country's interests with vigor and success. Interest in what people think outside of Russia is a luxury that he indulges in only when he has taken care of business - Russia's business.

Putin is indisputably ruthless, but Putin is not Hitler. He is not even Stalin. He is an autocrat in a country which for a thousand years has almost always been ruled by ruthless autocrats answerable only to small cliques if to anybody at all. With his background as a KGB counterintelligence officer, no one should have expected anything else. His actions are aligned with historical Russian policies and have pursued longstanding Russian interests.

Consider his policy in eastern Ukraine. It is important to remember that in the Crimean War (1853-1856) Russia fought the combined forces of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to recapture that same territory. They took a licking in the process which had huge impact on internal Russian politics. They managed to get that territory back in the years of the Soviet empire, but lost it again when the USSR broke into pieces. The view from Moscow is that eastern Ukraine is a vital national interest as it provides an essential Black Sea port. The right and wrong of it as we Westerners see it is very unlike the view from where Putin sits.

In Western eyes Putin sometimes looks like a thug, but that does not mean that his policies are mindless thuggery. Ordinary moral scruples and the rule of law, at least as we understand them, are not highly valued in the Russian system of government. Unless something dramatic occurs before the end of his rule he is likely to be seen by history as a modernizing and moderating force in a long transition. It's important to remember this when attempting to anticipate action that Putin might undertake in the economic world.

So in practical terms what does this mean to an investor? It is usually good advice in investing to cast a cold eye and pay little attention to politics. In emerging market investing, however, a little thought about government policies and their risks is a good idea. This is especially true of Russia. If there is an action which will serve his own or Russia's interests, Putin will certainly take that action.

Occasionally those actions may even redound to the investor's advantage. This January the Russian Ministry of Finance "suggested" that large state-controlled companies including Gazprom (OTCQX:GZPFY), increase their dividends to 50% of earnings. In response Gazprom recently increased its dividend by 60%, and will likely increase it again soon to reach the target. There are several possible reasons for this mandated dividend policy, including an effort to reign in management and a boost to state revenues, but it is also a boost to the dividend return of private owners of Gazprom shares.

Of course the Ministry could decide tomorrow to create A shares and B shares, with the state holding the A shares, of course. This would parallel its price structure for gas in which domestic buyers receive a price 30% of the price charged to its EU customers. The general trend, however, appears to be a movement toward treating capital in the way that it is treated in successful capitalist countries and using it to require discipline and efficiency of managements. You just can't quite be sure what might happen in a pinch because the ordinary legal restraints don't necessarily have the final say.

The bottom line: Putin will respond rationally but without being constrained by law or scruple to matters he perceives as vital to Russian interests. If you think this way, you are as well prepared as you can be to pick up early hints of what is coming down the pike.

Ways To Buy The Russian Market

The vehicles for buying Russia include three country funds and several individual large cap companies which in combination are representative of the Russian market. The following table provides a comparison of the three, iShares MSCI Russia Capped ETF (ERUS), VanEck Vectors Russia ETF (RSX), and VanEck Russia Small Cap ETF (RSXJ):

Equity characteristics
iShares MSCI Russia Capped ETF VanEck Vectors Russia ETF VanEck Vectors Russia Small-Cap ETF
Number of stocks 26 As of 09/30/2019 27 As of 09/30/2019 24 As of 09/30/2019
Median market cap $30.7 billion As of 09/30/2019 $20.8 billion As of 09/30/2019 $1.3 billion As of 09/30/2019
Price/earnings ratio 5.5x As of 09/30/2019 6.4x As of 09/30/2019 6.0x As of 09/30/2019
Price/book ratio 0.9x As of 09/30/2019 1.1x As of 09/30/2019 0.9x As of 09/30/2019
Earnings growth rate 25.5% As of 09/30/2019 23.6% As of 09/30/2019 30.7% As of 09/30/2019
Turnover rate 32.0% 20.0% 49.0%

The numbers say it all. First of all the total number of stocks in the Russian market is small, and there are fewer small caps than large caps. Russia is essentially a large cap market and a large cap economy. The total market sells at or just below book value (at a time when the S&P 500 is selling at more than 3 times book). In terms of average price earnings ratio the U.S. large cap market is about four times as expensive as the Russian market. The price earnings ratio of the Russian market as a whole is below 6 which suggests high risk, low expected growth, fear of unreliable numbers, and a few other problems - but, hey, it doesn't get much cheaper. The U.S. market hasn't sold for any significant period at such a low valuation at any time when such statistics were kept, including the Great Depression.

The earnings growth rate would be stellar if we didn't know that it owed a great a deal to a low base. The turnover rate of the three funds is pretty high for a market with so few choices. Really, though, how can a small cap fund with 24 total stocks have 40% turnover?

Does the extremely cheap price of the Russian market justify the problems and uncertainties that come with it? I'm not able to answer that question with complete confidence but I can say with certainty that I am not interested in buying the small cap fund. The market is too small, and the holdings are neither diversified nor representative of the Russian economy. Besides, I have taken several trips on Aeroflot (OTCPK:AERZY), the airline that is the number one small cap, one being on a plane which seemed about the size of a small aircraft carrier, and another in which the door to the pilot's cabin kept banging freely and the rivets in the wings didn't seem fully seated. Those were the 1990s when a major Aeroflot crash resulted from a pilot bouncing his kid on his lap. It's probably all better now.

Two Candidates Culled From The Large Cap List

The table below digs down into the actual holdings of the three funds. Note that when you have looked at the 10 largest holdings of the two major large cap funds you will have seen over two thirds of the Russian market by market cap and almost half the actual companies.

Ten largest holdings as if 9/30/2019
iShares MSCI Russia Capped ETF VanEck Vectors Russia ETF VanEck Vectors Russia Small-Cap ETF
1 Gazprom PJSC Sberbank of Russia PJSC ADR Aeroflot Russian Airlines PJSC
2 PJSC Lukoil Gazprom PJSC ADR Credit Bank of Moscow PJSC
3 Sberbank of Russia PJSC PJSC Lukoil ADR Sistema PJSFC GDR
4 Mining and Metallurgical Company NORILSK NICKEL PJSC NOVATEK PJSC GDR LSR Group PJSC GDR
5 NOVATEK PJSC GDR Tatneft PJSC ADR M.video PJSC
6 Tatneft PJSC Mining and Metallurgical Company NORILSK NICKEL PJSC ADR Hyve Group PLC
7 Sberbank of Russia PJSC ADR Rosneft Oil Co GDR Rosseti PJSC
8 X5 Retail Group NV GDR Surgutneftegas PJSC ADR Unipro PJSC
9 Magnit PJSC GDR Magnit PJSC GDR Globaltrans Investment PLC GDR
10 Mobile TeleSystems PJSC ADR Yandex NV Shs Class-A- Highland Gold Mining Ltd
% of total net assets 67.92%

59.78%

56.17%

That's it. That's pretty much what you get when you buy a diversified Russian portfolio. What did you expect anyway, that the 10 top stocks in the Russia funds would look like an expanded version of the FANG stocks? Well, they don't.

The top ten companies amount to as much as two thirds of the Russian investment universe. The top three tower over the rest. The list really has an old fashioned emerging markets look to it: several large energy companies, a huge bank, a telecom company, a mining company, a retail company, and a couple of others.

Russia is a country where the majority of capital as represented by publicly traded companies still is in large cap, "old economy" stocks, as we would say here in the U.S., with large government involvement and ownership. Old economy is okay in Russia, of course, because they have some catching up to do and that leaves room for growth. Their capabilities in IT, especially as computer hackers, seems to have jumped into the present day pretty well. Russian science and especially engineering have been first rate since the time of the Cold War, especially as related to the military and intelligence applications. It is not generally represented in public companies.

The truth is that none of this really bothers me. Russia is what it is. Its giant companies are two energy companies and a bank. The market is cheap, and the largest firms are cheaper than the market. There is no real diversification, and that's OK with me too. If anything, the list of 10 companies presents more of an effort at diversification than necessary. If you want to buy Russia, why not just buy what Russia is - giant companies that are cheap beyond belief, involved in energy and banking, and state controlled.

If you think this way, you can own the essential Russia by owning just two stocks - Gazprom and Sberbank (OTCPK:SBRCY), and that would be my approach. Gazprom is the poster child for a state controlled energy company, to include that matter of selling its product locally at 30% of the international price. This kind of thing is not unusual in a state-controlled energy industry. Iran, to name one example, virtually gives away gasoline as what amounts to a middle class perk. So be it. Gazprom sells at 3.01 time earnings with a yield of 7.25% as I write this (an important disclaimer).

Founded in 1841 Sberbank functions as a national bank of the kind that existed in the United States in the early 19th Century, long before the invention of the Federal Reserve. This means that it functions more or less as a normal bank with reserves and loans, albeit having certain systemic responsibilities and enjoying a few unique privileges. Aton Value succinctly described the unique advantages of Sberbank as follows in this recent article on SA:

It is a near-monopoly in Russia because it serves most of the government-related transactions (and the government has 70% share in the country's economy). If you won a contract, you must have Sberbank account. If you get subsidies, you will get them to your Sberbank account. If you are an insurer, you must hold a large chunk of reserves in Sberbank deposits. If you are a utility, you are served by Sberbank...70% of population use Sberbank products. And there is zero commission when you send money between Sberbank cards. So the network effects are in place.

As this suggests to those familiar with American economic history, Sberbank does not differ much from the first two American national banks, Hamilton's First Bank of the United States (1791-1811) and the Second Bank of the United States (1816-1836), both of which lost their national bank status by failure to achieve renewal of their charters. After losing the famous bank war between bank president Nicholas Biddle and U.S. President Andrew Jackson, the Second Bank of the U.S. ultimately failed as a private bank in 1841, coincidentally the same year that Sberbank was created.

The important thing to understand is that Sberbank, like the two original U.S. national banks, combines private for-profit banking with public responsibilities. The American history of for-profit central banking ended when the Federal Reserve Bank was created as a result of the Panic of 1907. The Fed serves purely as a central bank regulating money supply and interest and dealing with financial crises. Profits, if any, are returned to the U.S. Treasury.

The comparison to the Hamiltonian model is meaningful, however, demonstrating that a bank with significant government ownership can be profitable and at the same time serve well as an instrument of government policy. Among some emerging markets investors there is a strong prejudice against companies in which the government owns a stake, so much so that Wisdom Tree for one actually has both a general emerging market fund (XSOE) and an India country fund (ISOE) with the term "ex-State-Owned-Enterprises" in the title.

I get the concern, but it seems misplaced in the case of Sberbank. The stability and high profitability of Sberbank in fact derive in large part from its advantages as a partially state-owned enterprise, and serve as a guarantee of its future. The example of what happened after Jackson vetoed recharter of the Second Bank of the United States is an example of the risk which would likely restrain any efforts to reduce the role of Sberbank. When the Second Bank of the United States lost its charter, an explosion of easy money led to rampant land speculation in the late 1830s which in turn led to the crash and Depression known as "the Hungry 40s."

When it comes to buying Russia by focusing on Gazprom and Sberbank, I should give a shout out to Dividend Athlete who implicitly made more or less the same suggestion in this article which I read as one of several spurs to further thought and research. Sberbank is subject to fewer risks. Gazprom is riskier but twice as cheap. If I decide to buy Russia, I will buy the two of them together.

What High Flying Growth And Deep Value Share

Rapid growth and deep value define the opposite extremes of the equity investment spectrum, but they have one thing in common. Numbers in both cases can mislead and encourage students to overanalyze and attempt to quantify the future in a way that simply can't be done. To do so is like the math mistake of extending numbers to decimal places which imply a precision which does not exist.

Consider three high flying growth companies which I have never been able to bring myself to buy - Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX), and Uber (UBER). The central questions include these: how long will their top line growth persist? how soon will they achieve profitability? what will their future competition be like? and in the case of Amazon and Uber, what will their relationship to government be?

Anyone attempting to answer these questions in other than a speculative way is more likely to mislead than bring clarity. I haven't tried. The major factors in the future returns of these three stocks, with their high multiples of pretty much every measure, have seemed beyond calculation at each of the several times I took a look at them. Their investment outcomes seem too dependent on large events which cannot be assessed by the tools I am comfortable with. Up to this point I have clearly been wrong on Amazon, right on Uber, and wrong on Netflix but with clouds gathering on the horizon concerning its profitability and increasing serious and well-established competition.

The same thing is pretty much true with deep value, especially in distant markets with powerful extraneous factors which may come into play. Those factors, including government actions, have the ability to overwhelm detailed analysis, so I take that as a given. External factors such as inflation, currency collapse, economic collapse, or loss of favor with the government can only be considered in the broadest terms. The positive thing is that price, margins and profitability, dividend, and recent growth are all known.

By those known numbers, the Russian market as a whole is very cheap and Gazprom and Sberbank in combination are very, very cheap. If you buy equal dollar amounts of both, your average price earnings ratio on your total Russian portfolio is 4.4 and your overall dividend yield is 7.6%, with pressure from the Ministry of Finance to increase it further. An action like classifying the government shares as special shares with a higher dividend would strike all other investors as punitive and unfair. The odds of their doing this seem slight, because it would go counter to the desire to open markets to foreign capital, but you can never rule out waking up one day to see something astonishing like that in the news feed.

As a value investor, when you get right down to it I would prefer to at least have satisfactory numbers I can believe in before making a guess on future events.

Where I Come Down On A Russian Investment

When I started to write this piece it was an exploration, and I had no thought of buying a couple of Russian stocks. What I learned piqued my interest. At the same time I come to Russian with caution. I spent time there in the early 1990s doing research for a biography of Jerzy Kosinski, and one of the things I learned was that when trying to understand Russia, those little layered Russian dolls understate the problem.

I am a value investor. I wouldn't shrink from a deep value investment, even knowing full well that for an investment to be priced as deep value it must have significant visible problems and uncertainties. Russia seems priced at more than enough discount for its problems. One important question I answered is whether I am okay to own Russia as part of a diversified emerging market value fund. The answer to that is a clear yes.

Do I feel that I know enough to assess the risks of Gazprom and Sberbank as stand-alone individual stocks? Given that I think the risks lie mainly with the chance of large extraneous events which are well known and well discounted in the price, I think the answer to that may also be yes. I'm going to wait a week or two, but may buy a small position in the two companies as part of an overall emerging market value allocation.

This article was written by

Jim Sloan profile picture
17.9K Followers
I am a retired professor, a retired investment adviser, and currently a private investor and full-time tennis pro. I bought my first stock in a custodial account in 1958. I am a student of history, particularly military and economic/market history. The intellectual passions of my retirement years have been markets, mathematics, and quantum theory. Recently I have found myself reading book after book on the thoughts and feelings of animals, and I believe they are subtly influencing some of my views. I have a cat I like a lot. I like to travel. I served in Vietnam.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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