Global Trader: No Loss From Russian Stocks

Last week we talked about how rising outrage against Russia would make Middle Eastern stocks look good by comparison, especially when it comes to those based in Israel.

This week, I’d like to take a slightly closer look at the opportunities for U.S. investors that get lost when sanctions go up around Russia and Moscow stocks plunge.

There aren’t any.

If you’ve been around the market a few years, you might remember the “BRIC,” the emerging markets strategy that focused on Brazil, Russia, India and China. It was a great theory, but it hasn’t really applied for a long time.

Part of the problem was that Russian stocks became increasingly challenging to trade on Wall Street. You had to go to Moscow to get exposure to their companies . . . and after 2014, fewer and fewer institutional investors were willing to put up with the headache.

As of now, only three Russian companies are traded on any major U.S. exchange. One is local telecom Mobile Telesystems (MBT). The others are steel maker Mechel (MTL) and staffing agency the HeadHunter Group (HHR).

All three charts look gruesome. It isn’t so much the economic impact of sanctions . . . although that’s going to be considerable . . . as the simple fact that U.S. investors don’t want to get caught holding these companies without a clear exit in view.

There’s good reason to be afraid that liquidity in all of these names will dry up. That means that when you want to sell, you won’t be able to find a buyer at any price.

And in a world where oligarchs can be ruthless when it comes to squeezing hapless minority shareholders, the rules can change for the worse with the wind. You have few rights as an investor in Russia right now.

I hope that will change in the future. But until it does, anyone who buys into any of these companies does so out of an excess of trust in management and local regulators.

A lot of Russian companies once traded on Wall Street have since dropped to the gray market reaches of pink sheets and other over-the-counter exchanges. It’s a nebulous world now that might not be to a lot of retail investors’ taste.

They’re great companies with the power to change the global economy some day. But why put yourself through the anxiety of holding on for that day . . . when U.S. stocks can be exhausting enough?

And this leaves the BRIC in a bad place. I love Brazil for its dynamism and demographics (and its resources, both human and natural), but while India is equally dynamic, its economy remains relatively closed to formal overseas investment.

China is a problem as the ongoing crackdown on Alibaba (BABA) reveals. I wouldn’t want to be a minority shareholder in any companies subject to Beijing’s dictates right now.

So forget the BRIC. Look to Mexico, Poland, South Africa, Israel . . . and stay in Brazil, but leave the RIC alone until we get global clarity.

Russia in particular is off limits. Don’t buy the dip on ETFs like RSX. It gets worse before it gets better, and it can stay bad in any emerging market for a shockingly long period of time.

Remember the 1998 ruble crash? That’s what this feels like . . . as a best case scenario.