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.

Russia’s Trade War Shows Europe to be The Better Economy

Putin-SmirkSince I first wrote about the Ukraine much has happened. Russia has been unmasked as a bizarre cartoon villain seemingly hellbent on destabilizing the Ukrainian government, assisting “rebels” and being indirectly responsible for the murder of a plane full of people. All of which came to a head last week when it appeared that Russia might have just started a war with the Ukraine (still somewhat indeterminate).

Russia’s moves with the Ukraine may have more to do with challenging the West, and some of the other recent militaristic actions show that may be its real intent. Russia announced in July that it would be reopening both an arctic naval base and a listening post in Cuba built back in the 1960s. Combined with many heavy handed tactics at home including essentially banning homosexuality, Putin is making a brazen attempt to assert its regional dominance and stem the growth of Europe’s influence in the most aggressive way it can. To some extent this seems to be working with his own population, but it isn’t making him popular globally.

Europe’s response to Russia has been to hurt it with economic sanctions, which since the Ukrainian situation first began have been escalating in severity. Two weeks ago Russia responded in kind. How? By banning food imports from sanctioning nations.

If you don’t know much about the Russian or European economies this may seem like potent response from one of the BRIC countries and major global economies. But Europe is a big economy, and agricultural exports don’t make up a significant part of GDP, with the same being true for the United States. And while sanctions targeted at farms can be politically dangerous (farmers are typically a well organized and vocal lobby) the most interesting thing about these sanctions is what it tells us about the Russian and European economies respectively.

First, Russia imports a great deal of food, mostly from Denmark, Germany, the United States and Canada. So sanctions imposed by Russia are really going to hurt the Russians as food prices begin to rise and new food suppliers (expected to be from Latin America) have to ship food farther. But more interesting is the sanctions Russia chose not to impose. Europe is heavily dependant on oil & gas for its energy needs. So why not really make Europe feel the pinch and create an energy crisis? Because Russia needs oil revenue.

16% of Russia’s GDP is made up from the oil and gas sector. Beyond that oil and gas make up more than half of Russia’s tax revenues and 70% of it’s exports. In other words Russia can’t stop selling its oil without creating an economic crisis at home every bit as severe as in Europe. Banning imports of food and raising the cost of living may not be the ideal outcome from sanctions you impose, but it is mild in comparison to creating a full on catastrophe.

By comparison Europe starts to look very good, and it’s a reason that investors shouldn’t be quick to write off Europe and all its recent economic troubles. It’s a large and dynamic economy, filled with multi-national companies that do business the world over. It is backed by stable democracies and a relatively prosperous citizenry. By comparison Russia is a very narrow economy, dependent on one sector for its economic strength run by a (in all but name) dictator with an incredibly poor populace. A few years ago it was quite trendy in the business news to write off Europe as a top heavy financial mess, and while I wouldn’t want to dismiss Europe’s problems (some of which are quite serious) it’s important to have some perspective about how economies can rebound and which ones have the flexibility to recover.

Crimean Crisis Reminds Everybody Why Investing is a Long Game

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Kiev Square, before and during the protests.

You might have been forgiven if you hadn’t been paying close attention to the Ukrainian Revolution two months ago when it was a long and violent standoff between the Ukrainian government and its people. Kiev square looked like a war zone and reports, while increasingly dire, were not necessarily front page news. But since the toppling of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych it has been impossible to not pay attention to the exploding diplomatic mess of the Crimea.

As of this morning it appears that Vladimir Putin is going to annex the Crimea, much to Ukraine’s dismay, Europe’s frustrations and America’s exhaustion. The crisis is also far from over. The Ukrainian government (now mostly pro-western Europe) is saying that that will not allow such a loss of territory, EU and US sanctions are targeting Russian oligarchs. France is promising to cancel an order of military ships to Russia if Britain punishes Russian billionaire’s living in London. Russia seems relatively unfazed by any of this and seems to know that regardless of what legal reasons may exist that could start a war, few seem interested in shedding blood for the Ukraine.

All of this is obviously upsetting markets. Over the last month the global markets, and especially European markets have taken significant hits over concerns that some kind of conflict is about to breakout.

Bloomberg's Global Index looks at European, Middle Eastern and African Markets
Bloomberg’s Global Index looks at European, Middle Eastern and African Markets
This is the UK stock market (FTSE) over the last month. Performance has clearly suffered as the Crimean situation has worsened.
This is the UK stock market (FTSE) over the last month. Performance has clearly suffered as the Crimean situation has worsened.

This creates the kind of immediate volatility that is both temporary and is difficult to counter. It’s a reminder that investing is different from day trading. There are people who are willing to try and make profits from the day to day fluctuations of this (most recent) crisis. They will be jumping in and out of the markets, trying to grab the slight differences over each day and profiting from nervous investors. But being an investor means riding out this volatility with the knowledge that while it is uncomfortable, it is ultimately temporary and that real growth comes from long term success, not day to day jitters.

That being said, it would be nice if we didn’t accidentally end the world!

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