"It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
That's how Winston Churchill characterized Russia 60 years ago. Little about its mystique has changed. For Churchill, the mystery could only be understood through the prism of national interests. Perhaps that would explain some of the Russian government's more recent moves on the economic front -- and their impact in keeping prices of Russian stocks extremely low, compared to companies in other emerging-market countries.
Foreign buyers beware
Russia's adoption of capitalism hasn't come without a dose of xenophobia. The government is clearly hostile toward the notion of foreign investors holding significant stakes in Russian companies or major projects. In one well-publicized example, ExxonMobil
The smart way
I could keep going, but all the cases are eerily similar -- majority stakes are not popular with Russian politicians. There is, however, far less concern about minority stakes. ConocoPhillips
Lukoil is different than most Russian companies, because its share capital is composed primarily of minority shareholders. You have probably heard of the Russian "oligarchs" who control most leading Russian companies. But while company president Vagit Aleperov and vice president Leonid Fedun collectively control 30% of the company, their lack of a controlling stake makes Lukoil unique among major Russian businesses.
Through its ownership of ConocoPhillips stock, even Berkshire Hathaway
Unlike Lukoil, Gazprom is majority-owned by the Russian government. Back in January, I highlighted Gazprom as the safest stock to own in Eastern Europe. That was half-hearted praise of the stock, though. As I mentioned in that January column, Eastern Europe is in a very precarious situation.
As a major commodity-driven economy, Russia is different from most of its eastern neighbors. Any recovery in the natural resource markets bodes well for the Russian stock market, and even the Russian ruble, but trouble in the region will still likely affect Russia's prospects.
The rest of Eastern Europe remains a giant powder keg, with a fuse close to running out. Although most news of the global recession has focused on the developing world, Eastern Europe also went through a speculative building boom, similar in some ways to what we saw in the U.S. As that boom unwinds, bank failures and currency devaluations could easily occur. The result could mirror what happened in Southeast Asia during the 1997 currency crisis there.
Eastern Europe's problems don't bode well for Russia, even though the country's treasury coffers are in somewhat better shape. Still, the main issue remains the hostility toward foreign capital. The country is suffering from the myopic nature of the Russian leadership.
Russia did not want foreign capital when oil was on its way to $145 a barrel. Now, though, when Russia needs foreign capital, it'll be a lot more difficult to get it.
That problem also extends to Russian banks. As much as 10% of the loan portfolio of OAO Sberbank, the largest bank in the country, could go bad, according to Merrill Lynch's Moscow-based economist. A third of its foreign reserves have been drained by the flight of capital out of the country, even though they remain high by Eastern European standards, at around $385 billion as of the end of March.
As an Eastern European myself, it gives me no pleasure to say that Russia remains a country with a lot of potential unlikely to be completely realized, because of the nature of its political environment. Russian authoritarian politics should have remained in the 20th century. Regrettably, they did not.
Unless the Russian government learns that lesson, the country's stocks will always be cheap.
More on Russia:
Fool contributor Ivan Martchev does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and has a disclosure policy.