With the New Russian President Vowing to Steer a Steady Ship, U.S. Investors Can Look to Profit

By Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor

New Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wants better links with Europe. Judging by the performance of outgoing President Vladimir Putin, Europe should beware: The so-called "links" he's seeking may resemble those used to chain together prisoners in the Gulag.

On the other hand - though it's admittedly unpleasant to say so - there's a point at which the effects of high oil prices are so great that in the short run they far outweigh one's distaste for the thuggish Russian regime. And at $123 a barrel, we may be at that point.

Politically, Russia has pretty much reverted to the pre-1991 Soviet system.

Today, just like then, there's only one real party: The United Russia party, which controls 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma (essentially the lower house of parliament) and whose leader is one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. There is considerable censorship of the media, and dissident reporters and editors have a habit of disappearing - not that there are many left now. There is huge emphasis on military power, and on throwing Russia's weight around in foreign policy.

What's New About the "New" Russia

However, there are a couple of significant economic differences between today's Russia and the pre-1991 Soviet Union. One key difference is economic: While the state still controls most of the property today, it doesn't control all of it, as it did before 1991. Even so, foreign investment in strategic sectors of the Russian economy was effectively banned by a decree of May 5. For this purpose "strategic" covers not only the military sector and energy, but also more than half of Russia's output.

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So, if the afore-mentioned difference is one of substance, this next one is all about style. Prior to 1991, Politburo members were relatively impoverished and notorious for their baggy Soviet suits and lack of fashion sense; these days, the top brass - and especially Putin - are snappy dressers with a nice Italian wardrobe, and bank accounts to match.

Putin's even viewed as a sex symbol: In a recent No. 1 single in Russia, a female pop star cooed that she needed a new boyfriend and that "Takogo kak Putin" (he must be like Putin), and not a useless wimp like her last beau!

If you analyze the economic impact of Putin's regime since 2000, you'll find the result has been huge economic growth - an annual average of nearly 10% since that time with growth of 8.1% in 2007. Now a certain percentage of that was due to the proverbial "dead-cat bounce" as the economy recovered from the debilitated state it had reached by 1998-99. An additional portion reflected the benefit of a Ronald Reaganesque tax reform passed in 2001, which produced a "flat tax" income-tax system with a rate of 13%.

That caused many conservative U.S. commentators to favor the Putin regime in its early years, despite the signs of human rights abuses. However, since the arrest and imprisonment of oil company tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the looting of his company Yukos, it has become obvious that the nominal rate of income tax doesn't matter much when the state can - and does - seize anything it wants.

Since at least 2004, Russia's economic growth has been driven almost entirely by high oil prices. At first, oil production increased along with prices, producing real economic progress. Since Putin's partial seizure of Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDS.A, RDS.B) concessions in 2006 and BP PLC (BP) earlier this year, it has become obvious that the Russian state will control all economic activity in the energy sector. As a result, output has now stopped increasing and in this year's first quarter it actually declined slightly.

I wouldn't want to be a wealthy entrepreneur in today's Russia, no matter how many bodyguards I surrounded myself with. At the same time, however, there's also no question that some of the benefits of economic growth have gone to the Russian people - something that was rarely, if ever, true under the old Soviet system.

Consumer spending rose 12% in 2006 and matched GDP growth of 8% in 2007. With a current account surplus of $74 billion in 2007, foreign exchange reserves of $470 billion and ever-escalating oil prices, Russia's ruble has been strong, making imports super cheap. Given the lack of high quality goods in Russian stores before 1991, and the impoverishment of the country in the 1990s, this consumer boom is not surprising. But it does mean that there are finally investment opportunities in Russia outside the energy sector, in places where the Russian government's heavy hand is less evident.

As long as global oil prices remain high, or continue increasing as they have in the past five years, Russian energy companies will make record profits and Russian consumers will enjoy a bonanza, producing profits in consumer sectors also. Once energy prices turn around, Russia is in trouble. However, there is no sign of that yet, and at least in the short term, there's money to be made from the continued advance in energy prices.

Politically, it's unclear how much of a difference Medvedev will make, since, after all, Putin will now serve as prime minister (one news report described Medvedev as the "puppet president" of Putin's).

To be sure, as the former CEO of Gazprom OAO (OTC: OGZPY), Medvedev has at least a basic knowledge of how business works. And it's likely that he'll continue to follow Russia's current "mixed economy" policy, meaning that "strategic" sectors will remain government playthings, while non-strategic sectors such as consumer goods are pretty much left to operate freely - and unharmed. Russia even intends to use its version of a "sovereign wealth fund" to go on a bit of a global buying spree, although it remains to be seen just how aggressive it will be.

Presumably, if Putin had wanted to restore full Soviet Communism he would have chosen someone else; that at least is a consolation.

Cashing in on Russian Capitalism

Does this leave any real plays for U.S. investors? It does, but you must keep in mind that this is a highly speculative market, and that you should be ready to sell if U.S. interest rates are increased. The reason: An upward increase in U.S. interest rates could cause a reversal in energy and commodity prices, which would have a major impact on the Russian economic advance. Here are a few Russian profit plays to consider:

  • OAO Gazprom (OTC: OGZPY): This is one of the obvious Russian plays, the state-owned natural gas monopoly with ambitions to control Western Europe's gas supplies. Since its ambitions don't yet extend to the U.S. market, it is quoted only on the Pink Sheets. It has a Price/Earnings ratio of 12, based on trailing earnings, but gas prices and Gazprom's dominance are both rising.
  • Lukoil (OTC: LUKOY): The other obvious Russian heavyweight, Lukoil is the largest state-controlled oil company; again, the firm doesn't care if you buy the stock, meaning it also is only available through the Pink Sheets. This one has a trailing P/E ratio of only 8, and that was based on 2007 earnings when oil prices for the year averaged $80. A good speculative play on a further run-up in oil prices.

Moving outside the oil sector, there are two mobile telephone companies you might look at:

  • Vimpel-Communications (VIP): This company has 55 million subscribers and mobile operations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Armenia. Right now, it trades at 22 times trailing earnings, but only 13 times forward earnings. It does pay a dividend, but the yield is only 0.9%. I slightly prefer its collection of non-Russian operations to those of MBT (the Russian operator we'll get to in a moment) - you especially want Kazakhstan, which is oil-rich.
  • Mobile TeleSystems OJSC (MBT): This mobile operator has 73 million subscribers and operations in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It is cheaper than Vimpelcom, trading at only 14 times trailing earnings and 12 times forward earnings, and it has a dividend yield of 2.5%.
  • Finally, for a flyer on Russia's consumer-oriented agribusiness, albeit an expensive one, you might look at Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods OJSC (WBD), which manufactures and sells branded dairy, juice, water and baby-foods products in the Russian market. The shares trade at a pricey 37 times trailing earnings, and the forward P/E of 21 isn't much of an improvement. The dividend yield is tiny at 0.1%. However, earnings are racing forward as the Russian consumer market opens up to quality branded goods.

Don't put your retirement savings in the Russian market - Vladimir Putin might get tempted! However, for a modest oil-related flutter, Russia is well worth a look.

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