The theory of financial markets calls for robust capital markets where banks are lacking and dysfunctional. Equity financing and corporate debt outstrip bank lending as sources of corporate finance even in the West.
But Russia's stock market - the worst performer among emerging markets in 1998, the best one in 2001 - is often cornered and manipulated, prey to insider trading and worse. It is less liquid that the Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange, though the market capitalization of RTS, Russia's main marketplace, is up 430% since 1998 (80% last year alone). Bonds climbed 500% in the same period and a flourishing corporate bonds markets has erupted on the scene. Many regard this surge as a speculative bubble inflated by the high level of oil prices.
Others (mostly Western brokerage houses) swear that the market is undervalued, having fallen by more than 90% in 1998. Russia is different - they say - it is better managed, sports budget and trade surpluses, is less indebted (and re-pays its debts on time, for a change), and the economy is expanding. The same pundits talked the RTS up 180% in 1997 only to see it shrivel in an egregious case of Asian contagion. The connection between Russia's macro and micro is less than straightforward.
Whatever the truth, investors are clearly more discriminating. Both the New York Times and The Economist cite the example of Yukos Oil (up 190%) versus Lukoil (up a mere 30%). The former is investor friendly and publishes internationally audited accounts. The latter has no investor relations to speak of and is disclosure-averse. Still, both firms - as do a few pioneering others - seek to access Western capital markets.
The intrepid investor can partake by purchasing mutual funds dedicated, wholly or partially, to Russia - or by trading ADR's of Russian firms on NYSE (10-20 times the US dollar volume of the RTS). ADR's of smaller firms are traded OTC and, according to the New York Times, one can short sell Russian securities through offshore vehicles. The latter are also used to speculate in the shares of defunct Russian firms ("shells") traded in the West.