Russia’s Entire Stock Market is Worth Less Than Apple Computers

Let's just call this what it is. Awkward.
Let’s just call this what it is. Awkward.

A few days ago a bizarre inversion took place. A single company was suddenly worth more than the entire investable market size of a major economy. While I like Apple a lot and applaud the incredible profitability of the company, this is more a story about how badly the Russian economy is doing.

Back when Russia was first inciting dissent inside the Ukraine following the ouster of the quasi-dictator running the country, it had banked on the idea that it’s continued escalation inside the borders of a sovereign nation would go unchallenged as few countries would wish to risk a military skirmish over a single, marginal country in Europe.

Vladimir Putin miscalculated however when he didn’t realize how precarious the Russian economy was. Sanctions were implemented and what followed was a largely hollow trade war that did more to identify Russia’s weakness than strength. But the most recent blow to Russia has been the change in the price of oil.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 12.31.04 PMNow that the price of oil is under $80, Russia is suffering severely. Like many oil rich nations, oil exports substitute for taxes. This frees autocratic rulers to both pursue generous social programs while not having to answer to citizen complaints about high taxes. It’s how countries like Saudi Arabia  and Iran get by with little democratic input and a relatively passive population with little to no public disobedience about democratic rights (mostly).

This relationship though means that there are actually two prices for oil. First the breakeven price for extracting oil from the ground, and second break breakeven social price of oil. Those prices are different in every country. In Alberta for instance, tar sand oil is usually quoted at $70 a barrel for breakeven. But to cover the costs of running the government the price is much higher. For Russia the slide in price from $109 a barrel to $80 has meant wiping out it’s current account surplus.

Combined with the falling rouble (now 30% lower than the beginning of the year) and the growth of corporate debt sector, Russia is now in a very precarious situation. I’m of the opinion that energy, and energy companies have been oversold and a rise in price would not be unexpected. But whether the price of energy will bounce back up to its earlier highs from this year seems remote.

This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It's hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can't ask him.
This is a stock photo of a guy thinking. Could he be thinking about where to invest his money? He could be. It’s hard to tell because he was actually paid to stand there and look like this and we can’t ask him.

Over the last few months I’ve been moving away from the Emerging Markets, and while the reasons are not specifically for those listed above, Russia’s problems are a good example of the choices investors face as other markets continue to improve their health. If you had a dollar today that could be invested in the either the United States or Russia, who would you choose? The adventurous might say Russia, believing they could outlast the risk. But with more Canadians approaching retirement the more sensible option is in markets like the US, where corporate health is improved, debt levels are lower and markets are not subject to the same kind of political, economic and social instability that plagues many emerging economies.

 

Russia Invades Ukraine, Needs Potatoes

This Russian paratrooper crossed the Ukrainian border “by accident”

Last week it looked as though Russia was escalating its engagement in Ukraine, sending supplies directly into Ukrainian territory and potentially starting a full blown war. But things have remained opaque since then, with increasing reports that Russian troops were crossing the border and Russia steadfastly denying it. But after days of reports from the Ukraine that Russia had started a low level invasion to assist with Pro-Russian forces, CNN reports this morning that Russia is now using tanks and armoured personal carriers and is fighting on two fronts within the Ukraine.

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Whether this proves to be a false start, or if Russia is going to become more open in its military involvement it’s hard to say. What is clear is that this war in Ukraine is far from over.

Meanwhile this week also saw some evidence about the rising cost of food in Russia as a result of the retaliatory trade restrictions directed at nations like the United States, Canada and most of Europe. Reported in Slate and Vox.com, this graph of rising food costs is actually quite surprising. Potato prices have risen by 73%!

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I’m reluctant to say too much about this situation and what it means from an investor standpoint, lest people think I am taking the suffering of people in a war zone too lightly.  I will say that as emerging market countries become richer and begin to flex their national muscles, jostling over everything from important natural resources, long disputed borders, and sometimes even national approval, its likely that international events could increasingly be outside of our control. Since much of our manufacturing is now outside of our borders, and often even energy supplies come from nations openly hostile to us, we find ourselves in an economic trap of our own making. How can you act with a free hand against a nation that holds so many of your own economic interests?

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From “The Economist” July 27th, 2013 “When Giants Slow Down”

I sincerely doubt that our sanctions against Russia or high potato prices will bring Putin to his knees, (although his people may get fed up with higher food costs) but in the past it was much clearer how to deal with this kind of brinkmanship. Today we live a world where many of our economic interests are heavily tangled with nations who do not share our same strategic goals. It is said that nations do not have friends, only interests, and as Emerging Markets look increasingly attractive to foreign investors we may have to remind ourselves that Emerging Markets are not simply opportunities for growth, but nations with their own set of interests and goals separate from our own.