Exploding CIGAR?

Not that long ago, the product pushers on Wall Street were enamored with the so-called “BRIC” energy-producing and consuming countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. More recently, Europe had its debt-troubled quartet of “PIGS,” consisting of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Snappy acronyms such as these make it that much easier for investment bankers to sell the index funds and other products named for them, but eventually interest wanes and it becomes time to find a new acronym to sell.

Given recent events, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone come out with a “CIGAR” fund pretty soon that invests in the troubled economies of China, Iran, Greece, Argentina and Russia. Of course, these five countries also have something else in common: they haven’t always enjoyed the friendliest of relations with the United States, making it difficult, if not impossible, for most American to make direct investments in companies domiciled in those countries.

Admittedly, investing directly in Chinese-owned businesses is a bit of crap shoot. The country has deservedly earned the reputation as being soft on enforcement, resulting in periodic bouts of investor ennui. However, the underlying economics of its future growth curve are too tempting to ignore. As one billion Chinese enter the ranks of the middle class over the next 10 years, the financial implications for many of its industries will trump concerns over regulatory risk for many investors. In this case that is probably best accomplished via a managed mutual fund, as familiarity with the local political and economic landscape is critical to identifying the best companies to own (and which to avoid).

You say it isn’t possible to invest directly in Iranian companies? Actually, the Tehran Stock Exchange opened in 1967 when only six companies were listed for trading. Today, over 400 companies are listed on the exchange, with 88 brokerage firms executing orders. As relations thaw between Iran and the United States as a result of the current nuclear proliferation treaty being negotiated between the two countries, it may only be a matter of time until American citizens are able to invest directly in Iranian companies. That may seem unthinkable at the moment, but shortly after the Second World War it was equally unthinkable to many Americans that one day soon we would be pumping millions of dollars into the Japanese stock market.

With the Athens Stock Exchange index (ASE) having lost more than 80% of its value over the past five years, it is likely that some of its industries are ripe for a rebound. It may take a year or two for large banks to feel comfortable lending to Greek businesses again, but once that happens we could see a strong rebound in its stock market. While its economy now represents only 1/300 of the world’s GDP, on a regional level Greece will forever be strategically located along major trade routes that will continue to feed its tourism and shipping industries.

The Argentina Stock Market index (MERVAL) has performed quite well over the past three years, increasing in value almost six-fold since 2012. Beginning in October of 2014 it experienced a quick and violent decline of 35%, but rallied just as quickly to its previous heights. As many of its largest South American neighbors – such as Brazil and Venezuela – fall out of favor with Western investors due to political instability, Argentina has become the stock market of choice for most U.S. institutional investors.

Finally, the Russia Stock Market index (MICEX) has been stuck in a trading range for the past five years, still below its peak value in 2008 prior to the onset of “the great recession.” Similar to China, Russia’s regulatory system is viewed with a jaundiced eye by most westerners, and deservedly so. Quite frankly, it may not matter how much longer Putin remains in power, as it is likely that whoever follows him will be equally corrupt. But Russia has vast natural resources, and is the world’s ninth most populous country with over 100 million consumers. The price of oil won’t remain this low forever, and eventually the Russian economy, along with its currency, will strengthen.

To be clear, investing directly in companies domiciled in any of these countries is risky business. In addition to the moral hazard of assuming an unquantifiable amount of regulatory, economic, and exchange rate risk, there is the constant threat of deteriorating relations between our government and theirs. Assets could be frozen, currencies may be devalued, and trade sanctions might be enacted that could delay resumption of commerce between us and them.

But we all know that money has a funny way of changing people’s perspective on things. And the simple fact of the matter is right now the U.S. has an awful lot of overvalued currency, while most of these countries do not.

My somewhat jaded view of the world is that enough politicians and bankers in our country and theirs will figure out a way to make it easier for Americans to invest directly in these sometime outlaw nations, perhaps bringing with it the unintended consequence of lessening the chances of war between us.

I’ll smoke a CIGAR to that.