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  Business

Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001. Page 1

Some Russian Companies Just Never Die

By Victoria Lavrentieva
Staff Writer


Vouchers, veksels, GKOs -- the financial nightmares of the 1990s continue to haunt Russians, who for the most part see the stock market as just the latest in a long line of national pyramid schemes.

Many Germans, on the contrary, have no such fears and will go to absurd lengths not to miss out on one of the world's fastest-growing equity markets -- such as buying into bankrupt Russian companies.

And not just obscure ones.

Shares in corporations that became synonymous with scandal in the late 1990s -- like Menatep, Inkombank and Chernogorneft -- continue to be actively traded on Austria's New Europe Exchange, or NEWEX, even though they are essentially worthless.

A subsidiary of the Frankfurt Bљrse, Vienna-based NEWEX was set up last year as a high-tech specialty exchange focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. During an average month, it handles trades worth some 300 million euros ($263 million) -- the vast majority of which, according to NEWEX officials, comes from stock-crazy Germany. According to official statistics, German households have about $400 billion in various stocks, which is about 17 percent of all equity holdings in the country.

Thirty-four Russian securities account for about 90 percent of NEWEX's business. In the first 10 months of the year, the 10 most liquid stocks -- LUKoil, Gazprom, Unified Energy Systems and seven other Russian blue chips -- did more than $2 billion in turnover.

Yet, some NEWEX customers are actively trading American Depository Receipts, or ADRs, of insolvent companies that have no assets or fundamental value behind them. ADRs are negotiable receipts of a non-U.S. company kept in the vaults of a U.S. bank, allowing Americans to trade them.

Nearly $3 million worth of Chernogorneft ADRs changed hands in October. The oil company was bankrupted several years ago and returned to Sidanko earlier this year after one of the most protracted and heated investor battles in Russian history.

In the same month, Inkombank and Menatep, two former banking giants that went belly-up after the 1998 crisis, accounted for nearly a quarter of a million dollars' worth of trades.

"It's a common thing for Germans to buy a stock they don't have any information about," said James Fenkner, chief strategist at investment bank Troika Dialog.

"What's even more surprising is that they just don't care," he said.

Chernogorneft, Menatep and Inkombank still exist legally, so their shares can be traded. But, as analysts point out, there are no real assets behind them, except liquidation value, which should go to creditors and shareholders.

"Chernogorneft does not exist as a separate company any longer, and its ADR price in Germany ($3.72) is much higher than the real liquidation value of the company, which is $1.50 per share," said Dmitry Avdeyev, oil analyst at United Financial Group.

"The only thing that explains the trading of its shares is a lack of knowledge among German investors," Avdeyev said.

In Germany, Chernogorneft ADRs have fallen 83.9 percent since March 2000, according to Bloomberg. In 1995 Chernogorneft became one of the first Russian companies to issue ADRs, which were once highly liquid.

On MICEX, where most Russian second-tier stocks are traded, not a single Chernogorneft share was sold this year. And on the Russian Trading System, Chernogorneft shares were last traded July 21 -- a $10, 000 buy at $3.75 a share. In May, June and July just 11 deals were made with an average volume of $10, 000.

And its been years since Inkombank or Menatep shares were bought and sold on the open market in Russia. "I doubt that those who own Inkombank or Menatep ADRs will get anything for them," said Mikhail Matovnikov, deputy head of Interfax Rating Agency.

Analysts are at a loss to explain the interest shown for bankrupt Russian companies on NEWEX.

"This is a typical pyramid scheme, where Russian stocks are used as building blocks, and once it collapses, German brokers blame Russia," Fenkner said. "This is not about Russia. The main problem in Germany is the lack of proper enforcement and supervision," he added.

"This is mainly stock manipulation, when a group of related parties starts selling stocks to each other, pushing the price up. Then they sell it to third investors, leaving them with a naked child," said Eric Kraus, chief strategist at NIKoil.

"You can't buy Russia with closed eyes, because it is suicidal," Kraus said. "But Germans still prefer to trust Internet-brokers and false investment bulletins, instead of doing their own due-diligence."

Some Moscow investment houses said they had gotten calls from German retail investors looking for information about Russian companies, but the investors didn't believe what they heard.

Aton oil analyst Steven Dashevsky said some time ago Aton received several calls from Germany about Chernogorneft and another shell company, Rosneftegazstroi, popular with German investors.

"When we told them the true situation with these companies they just did not believe us, saying that they were warned by local brokers not to trust anything they heard in Russia," Dashevsky said.

"We know that Russian brokers play short and cheat on us to get the prices down," was typical reply, according to Dashevsky.

"I hope that one day, when they are ripped off again, they will understand that their German brokers are to blame, not us," he said. "Russian brokers don't want to pay for other people's sins," he said.

"I think it is very important for all investors, including Germans, to understand what they are buying, especially now, when we see the Russian market coming back in favor again," he said.

Lars Hofer, head of corporate communications at NEWEX, said that while he doesn't believe that German investors are less cautious than anyone else, "There are of course investors among the Germans who are interested and involved in speculative investments with a rather high-risk attitude."

When asked to explain why NEWEX is still trading insolvent companies, Hofer said that the "home market for [Chernogorneft, Inkombank and Menatep] is Nasdaq."

"NEWEX is just a secondary market for these three, and as long as they are traded on Nasdaq they will be traded on NEWEX as well," he said.

But Nasdaq spokesman Michael Shokouchi said in a telephone interview from Chicago this week that Chernogorneft, Inkombank or Menatep have never been listed on Nasdaq.

"They can be only found on so-called pink sheets, which is just a quotation service for stocks trading over the counter," Shokouchi said.

This system generally includes any equity that is not listed or traded on Nasdaq or a national securities exchange. "There are no special requirements to get on this quotation system, and it has nothing to do with Nasdaq's regulated market," he said.

"Quotations on these stocks will be available at long as there exists at least one broker willing to make a bid," Shokouchi said. "But it is usually very difficult for an individual investor to find a broker to buy or sell these stocks."

Russia's stock market watchdog, the Federal Securities Commission, was also baffled as to why NEWEX is still trading ADRs of defunct Russian companies.

However, FSC spokesman Ilya Razbash said it wouldn't happen in the future.

"In the past, when these ADRs were issued, the FSC had no control over them abroad. But with the new rules that have been adopted and a new agreement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, we have all the necessary tools to avoid such incidents in the future," Razbash said.


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