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samedi 16 octobre 2010

Mark Mobius : a postcard from Russia

The Russian economy and stock market, like other emerging markets, have had a remarkable recovery since the low points in late 2008 and early 2009. By the end of August 2010, Russian equities had more than doubled from the recent low in January 2009. While the Russian economy contracted by 8% in 2009, this year, it is expected to rise by 5% with a big growth in exports.

Oil and gas now account for almost 70% of exports so the higher oil and gas prices really help. Both, inflation and unemployment are down and despite the forest fires and poor wheat crop this year, the country is in fairly good shape.
President Medvedev has been promoting change in Russia. In 2008, speaking at the Krasnoyarsk investment forum, he said that Russia had four key priorities for the next four years until the presidential elections in 2012. He mentioned the four “I”s: institutions, infrastructure, innovations and investments. The fact that this assessment was being made by the Russian leadership augured well for future reforms.

Moscow is one of my favourite cities because of the wonderful array of historic buildings, palaces, gardens and museums. During each visit, I try to see a different site. This time I was in luck because a performance was to take place at the Ostankino Palace, the former summer residence and private opera theatre of the Sheremetev family.
Today, the estate is the home of the Russian State Museum of Ceramics. The museum probably has the most precious collection of western porcelain in Eastern Europe. Its collection includes items such as the Sèvres porcelain given by Napoleon to Czar Alexander I in 1807. The rooms have been beautifully restored and preserved with original furniture, artwork and, in addition to the porcelain, a remarkable collection of exquisite marble statues from Italy. Throughout the rooms, were 17th century Flemish tapestries depicting parks and gardens, faux marble walls and columns, paintings by French artists.
As we finished touring the Palace and extensive gardens, it was time for the opera. We entered a large long hall, which we were told was the only remaining “palace” theatre in Russia dating from the 18th century. When the music started, we realised that the place had extraordinary acoustics with no loud speakers necessary because of the wooden structure. We were treated to an excerpt from a comic opera beautifully sung by students of a Moscow music academy. We were transported back in time and imagined ourselves as guests of Count Sheremetev.

After our visit, it was back to reality and meetings with Russian companies. We decided to start with a company whose products were probably the kind served by Count Sheremetev; vodka. The company is one of the foremost producers of vodka in Russia with its premium brand vodka selling for US$100 per bottle. One headwind the company faces is the Russian government’s efforts to decrease vodka consumption in the country by imposing high taxes on vodka. Since there are many illegal producers accounting for as much as 35% of total production, the executives feel that a crackdown on illegal producers would help legitimate producers such as themselves even though overall consumption is decreasing.
The company is one of the largest vodka producers in Russia with 9% market share. It has focused its promotional efforts on three brands and invested heavily on marketing and promotion with a sales force of 1,500 people. They want to move up-market and increase sales of their premium brand vodka with not only domestic sales but also exports. Their initial sales in the US were 50,000 bottles of the premium brand vodka. So now, the luxury products of Russia are finding their way to the world.

During our time in Russia, we also visited a vertically integrated steel and mining company. The company produces 17 million tons of steel a year in three integrated steel plants in the Urals region and Siberia. Like other Russian companies, this corporation has also branched out and acquired companies in Italy, the Czech Republic, and even in the US. The company has the advantage of having its own iron ore and coalmines that can supply its steel plants, as well as a commercial seaport in the Far East of Russia from which to ship its steel to Asian markets. Rising steel prices and larger incoming orders, both domestically and internationally, were signals to the company that the global economy was improving.

While visiting an Information Technology (IT) company, we learned about progress in Russian IT services and how the firm has been a beneficiary of the government’s IT upgrade budget. The firm is involved in software development, IT services, and computer hardware serving over 1,000 organisations including government institutions (Ministry of Finance, Federal Customs Service, Federal Tax Service, and so forth) as well as large public companies.

In recent years, the Russian electric energy system has undergone a dramatic transformation from a staid Soviet-style organisation to a more dynamic collection of privatised companies. We visited one of the resultant companies. The firm controls a collection of regional electric distribution companies in the Urals, Volga regions, Caucasus and other parts of the country. We were impressed by the manager’s plans but we knew that, given the extensive capital expenditure needs of the company, the dividends would not be high since the government wants electricity price hikes to be limited even though the regulatory objective is a cost plus regime.

Our next visit was to a food processing company, which focused on the production of sausages, pastes, canned meat and prepared meat products as well as poultry and pig breeding. Meat consumption is growing slightly in Russia in favour of poultry and pork as opposed to beef. However, the real story is market share growth. The market is very fragmented and the company only has an 8% market share in poultry production and about 5% in pig breeding. The company will have opportunities to grow organically and inorganically.
Of course, we should bear in mind that people still breed their own pigs and poultry in rural areas. The meat-processing business has low margins. Pork has the highest margin, which is as high as 40%. There are tax subsidies for agricultural producers in Russia until 2012. However, these may be extended. The valuations also look attractive; however, the biggest risk is the high capital expenditure. The company is in massive expansionary mode because credit is very cheap and the management believes they can gain significant market share.

Overall, it was a very fulfilling trip to Russia where we continued to learn about the investment opportunities in that market.

Dr. Mark Mobius is executive chairman, Templeton Emerging Markets Group.

(Mark Mobius - Citywire - 12/10/10)

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