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By Martin Hutchinson
Director of Global Investing Research
Readers may well have missed the news that Ukraine is currently putting together a new coalition government led by reformist Julia Tymoshenko.
“So what?” you may ask. “I can’t know everything. And besides, how do you ever expect me to make a buck out of Ukrainian politics, a murky affair at best?”
Well, let me tell you a secret to emerging markets investing: The really big returns are made by spotting new markets as they begin to emerge, and then surfing the long wave of their emergence. The story of the independent countries that split from the Soviet Union is mostly a sad one, but there are a few gems beginning to emerge. There isn’t much to plunge into yet, particularly as a U.S. investor, but they’re well worth keeping an eye on.
Beginning first with all those confusing ones called “-stan” – I have to look up whether there are four or five of them. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are backward dictatorships with few redeeming features, only modest amounts of resources and close ties to Vladimir Putin’s mob in Russia. Kyrgyzstan is an emerging semi-democracy, with an almost functioning free market. Alas, it has only 5 million people, a puny Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $10 billion, a modest growth rate, and no oil.
Kazakhstan’s the one with the oil. Unfortunately, it also has one-party government, high corruption and close ties to Putin. Nevertheless, with 15 million people, a much chunkier GDP of $53 billion and a growth rate of 10.6% in 2006 there’s money being made there. It has oil pipelines to the Black Sea and to China, so it’s not dependent on Russia to get its principal export to market. An international consortium led by Italy’s Eni SpA is currently drilling at the Kashagan oilfield, a huge project expected to have cost $130 billion by the time it comes on-stream in 2010. Since the Kazakh oil company Kazmunaigaz is state owned, Eni, itself (E), which has a price-earnings ratio of only 10 (well, NOBODY trusts the Italian government, which owns 39% of Eni), is worth looking at – what’s more, you get to share Eni’s new investment in Libya, another fun place with lots of oil!
The Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are well known; all three are now members of the European Union (EU), and have enjoyed rapid growth. They’re small, though, and there’s not much for U.S. investors to buy there. Estonia is the most exciting, with a growth rate of around 8%; Latvia, with a similar growth rate, also has a huge balance of payments deficit, which is rather worrying. Lithuania is growing somewhat less fast, and is the least glossy of the three.
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Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war with each other only a decade ago, which doesn’t fully rule them out, but is still a factor to be considered. Armenia has a population of 3 million, a GDP of $6 billion, and a 13% growth rate; Azerbaijan has a population of 8 million, a GDP of $14 billion, and had an astounding growth rate of 34% in 2006 – that’s what opening a new oilfield will do for you. Unfortunately, neither country has any companies with American Depository Receipts (ADRs), nor does there seem any obvious way to play them – BP PLC (BP) is the most important oil company in Azerbaijan, but it’s a small part of its business.
Then there are the two non-Baltic, ex-Soviet republics that are showing signs of becoming real democracies: Georgia and the Ukraine (though Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are fairly close).
Georgia is small – 4.6 million people and a $5.3 billion GDP – but it has a splendid pro-free-enterprise government under Mikheil Saakashvili and a growth rate of 9.3% per annum that is dependent on real effort, not just oil prices. The other good news about Georgia is that it is the least corrupt country in the former Soviet Union (except for the Baltic states). Alas, that’s a bit like saying someone’s the least evil mobster in the Bambino crime syndicate, but at #79 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Georgia is only just below India and China. The Bank of Georgia is probably the best way to play the country; regrettably that is listed in London (BGEO) but not in the US.
The Ukraine is much larger: It’s got 46 million people, an $82 billion GDP, and had a decent growth rate of 7% in 2006. For those who haven’t been following, Ukraine’s shaky democracy has recently been the scene of a huge tug of war between the pro-Russian east and the pro-Western, pro-democracy west. The Orange Revolution of December 2004 was supposed to mark the victory of pro-free market forces, but President Viktor Yushchenko proved feeble, and his first democratic government, with Julia Tymoshenko as prime minister, experienced its demise.
Since then, there has been an uneasy coalition between Yushchenko, as president, and the Putin-supported Viktor Yanukovich as prime minister. However, in last month’s election Tymoshenko – once again allied to the remnants of Yushchenko’s support – won a small-but-decisive majority and now seems poised for form a government.
Julia Tymoshenko made an oil-and-gas fortune in the 1990s, and is a very tough cookie. Imagine a cross between Madonna and Hillary Clinton and you have her style. (Amusingly for onlookers, there was a very old-time-Chicago series of delays in counting the election results, as first Donbass, controlled by Yanukovych, and then downtown Kyiv, controlled by Tymoshenko, had unexpected delays in announcing their results – in each case, a landslide for the local favorite with suspiciously high turnout!).
Putin hates her, which is a worry since Russia, through Gazprom, has the ability to turn off Ukraine’s heating every January. Fortunately, in doing so, they turn off half the EU’s heating as well, so there may be limits on how rough Putin wants to play.
However, Tymoshenko understands how a free economy works, and is determined to clean up the corruption in Ukrainian business, so prospects for Ukraine’s emergence currently look good. Don’t forget, the country has a 99.4% literacy rate and 15% rate of college graduations, yet a per capita GDP of only $7,800 – even at purchasing power parity – so there’s a hell of a lot of room for growth.
Like the other ex-Soviet states, Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of ADRs. It makes sense for a country with EU ambitions to list its shares in London first, but the hugely expensive requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act must also be a factor. Even when ADRs are available, they don’t trade – the big electric power company Centrenergo (CTEUY.PK), for example, last traded 3 months ago. What’s more, there aren’t any mutual funds with more than a small share of their investments in Ukraine.
That’s bound to change, however, as the country opens up. We at Money Morning will keep an eye on the Ukraine, and will report back to you if and when their rapid growth inevitably brings investment opportunities. When that happens, the Ukraine will probably be well-worth buying.
Even in the apparent basket cases of the non-Russian former Soviet Union, there are growth opportunities and investments worth buying. The wise emerging-market investor must cast a wide net.