What a difference a millennium makes.
Back in the 1990s, when I began what's become my more than decade-long relationship with Russia as a student in the provinces, one theme constantly recurred in Russia's internal, national debate. It concerned the ongoing, perceived trend of foreign firms "taking over" the country -- Western oil majors pressing for production-sharing concessions, Western defense firms acquiring stakes in Russia's military-industrial complex, and Western consumer goods makers taking over Russia's retail markets wholesale.
Needless to say, the fiercely nationalistic Russians (they had been a superpower just last week, remember) weren't entirely pleased with these developments. But with foreign exchange reserves that amounted to less than some Fools' bank accounts, and an economy still fumbling its way out of the post-Soviet shambles, there was precious little they could do about it.
I repeat: What a difference a millennium makes.
Ever since the turn of the millennium, Russia has been on an oil-fueled upsurge. Indeed, the oil industry marked one of the first instances of Russia playing "turnabout." Russian oil major Lukoil bought first 1,300 gas stations in the U.S. in 2004, then 800 more just a few weeks later.
Almost simultaneous with Lukoil's entrance to the U.S. market, we saw steel firm Severstal first beat out U.S. Steel
At the time, it seemed to me like we were seeing a veritable blizzard of Russian M&A activity on this side of the pond. My mistake; in hindsight, that was more like a flurry. To see what a true blizzard of Russian acquisitions looks like, you need only turn to today's paper, where not one but two Russian acquisitions are discussed -- and not months or weeks apart, but hours.
Brother, can you spare a nickel?
First on our roster of Russian companies playing a game of Hungry-Hungry Hippos, it's none other than our old friend, Norilsk Nickel. Still flush with cash, even after laying out $217 million for its Plug stake, Potanin's at it again. This time, he's paying $408 million to acquire the nickel assets of Ohio's OM Group
In exchange for this privilege, Norilsk was willing to gift OM with a sizeable chunk of the world's cobalt supply. As part of the deal, Norilsk will commit to send essentially all of its cobalt and cobalt hydroxide production straight to OM for processing and resale. (In response to this news, by the way, BHP Billiton
Our next newsmaker is someone we haven't encountered before -- but now, you can expect to see a whole lot more of it. After all, Evraz Group is Russia's largest steelmaker, and it's coming to America. At the same time as Norilsk was announcing its partial purchase of OM Group, Evraz declared its intention to buy the whole kit and caboodle at steel-products manufacturer Oregon Steel
Incidentally, a Fool has to wonder whether the market's rumor mill perhaps got its wires crossed on this one. The big news last week was that Severstal was looking to make a bid for U.S. Steel. Since no such acquisition has been announced -- but Evraz's bid for Oregon has been -- I'm thinking that someone may have gotten the buyers' (and targets') names mixed up. Then again, we just might see both deals get done. After all, we know that Severstal was frustrated by its inability to play white knight and save Arcelor from Mittal
Whether that happens on not, though, one thing is certain: The Russians are coming, and circling back again, and then coming back for more. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Russia jumped from 12th place in 2000 to third place in 2005 among countries making the largest crossborder "foreign direct investments" abroad.
"What a difference a millennium makes?" Heck, sometimes it only takes five years.
Read how the trend of Russia transitioning from investee to investor began:
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