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Are you in the market for a good, cheap stock? How about a good, cheap stock market? According to Dutch megabanker ING, Russia right now is "probably the cheapest market among global emerging nations." And ING isn't the only one that thinks so.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that out of 59 countries with functioning stock markets surveyed, Russia ranks No. 1 for cheapness. Focusing on the MICEX (Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange) index of Russian stocks, Bloomberg calls the index's 6.8 times forward earnings valuation the cheapest it's found the world over. Globally, your average stock sells for something like 12 times next year's earnings. Your average Russian stock costs barely half that.
So is Russia the investing opportunity you've been waiting for?
Price ... and value
Like stocks, stock markets get cheap in one of two ways. Either investors shun them, driving the price down, or they demonstrate such strong earnings growth that it shrinks their P/E ratios regardless of what the share prices do. In Russia's case -- happily -- it's the latter. According to Bloomberg, the MICEX has advanced 13% over the past 12 months. Yet as fast as Russia's "P" (price) is moving, its "E" (earnings) has risen even faster. Result: The stocks are going up, but their P/E has gotten 31% cheaper.
You can see a similar dynamic at work on Russia's better known RTS index. Here we've seen stocks rise 16% over the past 12 months, and 10% this year alone. Yet thanks to surging earnings at the companies on the RTS, the P/E ratio of the index as a whole is down 23% from where it ended fiscal 2009 -- just 9.7 times trailing earnings. But why?
Black gold, Russian tea
Personally, I blame the Great Recession and investor fears that it will crimp demand for energy. With global growth in a continuing funk, we're no longer consuming as much oil and gas as we used to. That has an outsized effect in Russia, which owes an inordinate amount of its market cap to oil and gas plays and devotes much of the rest of its attention to other natural resources stocks.
True, not all Russian companies swim in black gold. The country's home to two top-flight, NYSE-listed telecom outfits by the names of VimpelCom (NYSE: VIP ) and Mobile TeleSystems (NYSE: MBT ) . It's got a major metals producer in the form of Norilsk Nickel, the biggest producer of nickel and palladium in the world, and, for at least the time being, the controlling shareholder of America's own Stillwater Mining (NYSE: SWC ) . Russian steel giant Mechel boasts a bigger market cap than America's own U.S. Steel (NYSE: X ) and AK Steel combined. And Russia's VSMPO-AVISMA is a bona fide aerospace star, by virtue of its role in supplying the titanium that Boeing (NYSE: BA ) needs to build its latest generation of airplanes.
But still -- Gazprom and Rosneft, Lukoil and Transneft -- fully 20% of the issues listed on the RTS call the oil patch home. They depend on strong demand and strong pricing for oil and gas to fuel their profits and encourage investor optimism in their stocks. Problem is, it's not easy to keep demand up in a weak economic environment. And it's difficult to get investors thinking happy thoughts about anything tied to natural gas prices these days; not with Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) and its peers constantly talking up the prospects of U.S. shale gas production. Ask investors in the U.S. Natural Gas (NYSE: UNG ) ETF what that's done for profits lately.
There was a time when investors worried about the excessive influence Russia's oil and gas wealth gave it in Europe. No more. Today, the worries are more about how Russia is to remain solvent if the U.S. starts shipping liquefied natural gas to Europe in bulk, or if China decides to tap the estimated trillion cubic meters of shale natural gas trapped beneath its own soil.
Don't fear the Russian bear (market)
And yet -- call me a crazy optimist, if you like -- I don't think the situation's nearly as bad as all that. To me, it seems more likely that the cure to low prices will be … low prices. You see, the less something costs, the more of it you can buy. This cheapness spurs demand, which begins to pinch available supplies. This in turn drives prices up to the point where the given "something" begins to seem expensive, driving demand back down again. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
In short, even if we weren't devaluing the dollar like there's no tomorrow (and we are), and even if the current recession wasn't bound to end (and they always have), it seems to me the price of oil and gas in dollars is bound to rise eventually -- and with it, the value of the Russian stock market.
In which case, buying a big basket of Russian stocks like the MICEX or RTS indices today, when the Ps are low and the Es are high and bound to go higher, just might be the best bet you ever made.