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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Russia's Economic War on the West

The Financial Post of Canada reports on Vladimir Putin's continuing neo-Soviet efforts to undermine the economies of the West. When will we meet this threat with the appropriately aggressive response? Perhaps not until Putin soul-gazer George Bush is out of power, which would explain Putin's aggressive scrambling to take advantage now:

Frank Stronach's deal, approved yesterday by shareholders, to sell 42% of his voting control in Magna International Inc. to 39-year-old Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska will be either a home run or go down as one of the most naive business transactions ever. Keep in mind the plan was sparked by the introduction of the two men by Barrick Gold Corp.' s chairman, Peter Munk. His endorsement is why Barrick's chief executive, Greg Wilkins, joined Magna's board this month. "It's Frank's best deal ever," Peter said in a recent interview. "[Russian President Vladmir] Putin wants to build an auto industry in Russia and will use oil to sell cars. He will force the Indians and Japanese to buy Russian cars in return for oil." Well, good luck, Moscow.

That's a worrisome strategy and not the way markets outside of Russia work. It's also a geopolitical agenda that could be at odds with the best interests of Magna shareholders. But it will take years to find out and shareholders who don't like the way things are going can cash out, and employees are free to leave, too. When I first heard about it, I remembered a story that Frank told me about his first transaction when he was a young boy in Austria involving a horse and some Russians. "After the war the Russians invaded us. Thousands came with tanks and horses. I was only 12 and watched two Russians fix an abandoned car by the side of the road and get it started. When the car worked, they gave me their horse. I put it in a barn," he said. "The next day it was gone."

Now it's 2007, and not war-torn Europe, and Frank needed a succession plan and another market. This is a succession and marketing plan because Frank has decided to sell half of his control to a Russian with a potential upside rather than give it all to his children, Belinda and Andrew. It's a bold, risky move. It will require all the talent that Frank Stronach and his managers possess, and then some, to essentially pull off the transformation of Russia's auto industry. Mr. Deripaska, a relative of Boris Yeltsin's and buddy of the current Russian President, has never done a turnaround or even run a business for very long.

His skill set is the acquisition of assets in a country without the rule of law. On the other hand, Frank is no fool, nor is Peter Munk, who has no interest in this deal but does mining business with Deripaska. "Oleg's a friend and I've known him for years," Peter said. "He's a fabulous businessman. He's a scientist and very brilliant. He's part of Russia's younger generation and has credibility and contacts which you need in Russia. He has the backing of its government."

"Barrick is partners with him in gold mining and we're very comfortable with him. [Deripaska] has been checked 100 different ways. He wants to keep Magna and turn it into a global champion," he said. I think the deal represents a creeping foreign takeover by Russians of Canada's sixth-largest corporation. So if Deripaska succeeds, the company Frank Stronach founded will be a Russian global champion, not a Canadian one.

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