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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Annals of Neo-Soviet Humiliation III: Losing in the Stock Market

The Moscow Times reports:

Russian stock markets bowed out of January with one of their worst months of trading in years, the benchmark RTS suffering its biggest losses since 2000. Few would have it believed it in those days of cautious optimism of early January, as investors rolled back from vacation. But global fears over a U.S. recession sent international markets tumbling -- with Russia no exception -- and few are willing to bet on when the markets will turn.

Stocks tumbled by 17 percent on both the MICEX and RTS indexes in January, with the former losing more than 20 percent since its December high.

In Russia, trading was volatile during the week, and a rate cut by the U.S. Federal Reserve had quite the opposite effect of what might have been expected, sending Russian stocks down Thursday by 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent on the RTS and MICEX, respectively, in what UralSib termed an "irrational frenzy" of selling. The markets started to pick up Friday, spurred by interest in coal miner Raspadskaya, which rose 11.8 percent. Gazprom and UES jumped by 4.6 percent and 5.15 percent, respectively. The RTS finished the day up 3.3 percent, and the MICEX up 4.2 percent. "The market has come off enough that people have started to come back into the market," said Douglas Rohlfs, who works in international equity sales at Metropol. "Most of the gainers have been the blue chips. A lot of these names were heavily sold off."

If anything was an incentive to buy, it's how far some of these stocks fell in January. On the RTS, Rosneft has plunged 27.4 percent, while Unified Energy System has fallen 23 percent. Gazprom fell 15.1 percent on MICEX. But worse may be to come, after Friday's U.S. job figures for January were down 17,000. "There are probably a few more bouncy days," said James Fenkner, managing partner at Red Star Asset Management. "For big money to come back, volatility has to come down, and there has to be clarity on the depth of the U.S. recession."

Investors noted that some of the Russian mutual funds would be showing big losses, given their tendency to buy after the market goes up and sell after it goes down. In Europe, French insurer AXA became the latest in a line of companies to place a temporary ban on withdrawals from its property funds, after investors rushed to take money out amid concerns of a property crash. "Within Russia, there was this view than long could never go wrong," Fenkner said. "And so people were leveraged and had options ... that they had to cover, and that pushed the market further."

Weekly data suggested that Russia was still in favor, with a miniscule inflow of $1.5 million, while China and Brazil suffered substantial outflows, according to EPFR Global. Few wished to predict the bottom of the market, stressing the view that the Russian markets have succumbed to global stimuli, rather than anything of its own making. "It's not a market anyone should try to train," said Robin Geffen, managing director of London-based Neptune Investment Management, who has $450 million under management in the firm's Russia-focused fund. "Russia has very interesting growth characteristics -- an emerging middle class, a good resource base and a clear political outlook. That's attractive to sensible investors."

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