Perceptions of Risk Hurt Bond Market

While tensions with the West appeared to be cooling after the European Union decided not to impose sanctions against Moscow on Monday, Russian companies hoping to attract international lenders are still reeling from the perceived political risk.

Russian firms have already received $10 billion worth of acquisition loans this year, and if political pressures do prompt international investors to shy away from Russian commercial bonds, such firms will either have to pay higher rates or resort to entering an international loan market that is already overextended.

"We have a situation in the global markets that is not great with the credit crunch, plus you have this demand from Russian borrowers," said Eugene Belin, managing director of fixed income at Citibank Russia. "When you see these two things come together, it's not a good coincidence of events."

Russia's risk perception has escalated since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Georgia in August and concerns involving TNK-BP and Mechel. Last month, prices on Russian government bonds saw their biggest drop since the 1998 financial crisis, with some losing as much as 12 percentage points, Kommersant reported.

"Russia-specific risks are somewhat being revived it seems," said Olga Naidenova, an analyst at Alfa Bank.

Credit spreads for Russian companies, including Gazprom, have widened within Augusta lone. Credit spreads on five-year credit-default swaps written against Gazprom went up 0.38 percentage points in the past month to 2.57 percentage points. At this same point last year, this figure was only 1.18 percentage points. If credit spreads on Gazprom and other Russian giants continue to widen, companies may be forced to turn to the international loan market, which has already been overextended among Russian companies this year.

Russian firms acquired a total of $61 billion in syndicated loans for all of 2007, and $47 billion so far this year.

But Naidenova said this year's loan market was difficult for most companies, regardless of the political risk.

"International lending-market conditions are much more tight," she said. "No matter what happens in Russia, attracting foreign funding at the moment is a very complicated task."

Despite the global credit crunch, loans for Russian companies, including Severstal and LUKoil, are already in place for September. Analysts and investment bankers say similar deals are set to follow, and on Monday, Reuters reported that VimpelCom would soon begin receiving $1 billion in syndicated loans over the course of three years.

Political risk has affected other aspects of the Russian market, such as equity risk premium rates.

UBS estimated the implied equity risk premium at 10 percent in a note last month, while others have put the figure lower. Renaissance Capital placed it closer to 4.5 percent or 5 percent.

"A lot of analysts are scratching their heads to try to figure out why the prices are where they are," said James Fenkner, managing partner at Red Star Asset Management.