Investors Spooked By Halts In Trading

Since early September, Russia's MICEX exchange has experienced multiple one-day percentage drops in the double digits and lost almost 60 percent of its value. What MICEX chief financial officer Alexei Rybnikov said that is really scaring investors, however, is the erratic halts to trading.

"Trade has been halted 29 times between the start of crisis and Nov. 14," Rybnikov said at Russia's annual National Investment Forum on Tuesday. "Trade was halted for the 30th time this Monday."

Rybnikov also used a graph to illustrate a substantial increase in the trading of Russian equities on the London Stock Exchange in recent weeks.

"If you look at London, London has experienced a bit of growth in the quantity of shares," he said.

"The reason people chose London, I think, is clear to everyone," he added, frowning. "And, of course, this is seriously disturbing for us."

Since it's historical peak last December, the ruble-denominated MICEX has lost 74 percent of its value — more than any other emerging market exchange. But it is the frequent halts that have both peeved traders and showcased the problems in infrastructure that have plagued the index all along.

Rybnikov outlined the host of problems with a graphic aptly titled, "A New View on Old Deterrents," listing issues ranging from the disappearance of liquidity to the poor development of national clearing centers and the lack of domestic investors.

The combination has essentially left the Russian financial sector in shambles, Rybnikov said.

"In short, everything has fallen: shares, bonds, volumes. Everything has suffered from the financial crisis," he said.

While Rybnikov and other forum participants talked about Moscow's goal to become a global financial center, they somberly acknowledged that the country's infrastructure would present a problem in reaching that goal.

The crisis is illuminating structural weaknesses that had been overshadowed by Russia's economic growth, Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib, said Wednesday.

"We've had a massive growth of the building without paying enough attention to the foundations underground," he said. "It's now become extremely obvious during the crisis that many of the basic pieces of infrastructure are missing or have been inadequately built. And that's not just obvious to Russia — it's obvious to global investors."

Since the beginning of August, an estimated $50 billion of foreign capital has left the country. While margin calls have pushed investors out of emerging markets, it is the trading halts that leave traders especially uneasy.

"What [the halting] does is it just threatens to make people trade on other exchanges," said one trader at a Moscow brokerage, who asked not to be named. "When you close the market and it's not clear how long it's going to be closed, it really does result in people getting stuck in unfair positions."

"It threatens to alienate people who might prefer to buy shares in London anyway," he said.

"The halting of the indexes makes trading much more complicated, unfortunately," said Yevgeny Kogan, general director of Antanta Pioglobal. "Western investors try to invest money and sometimes sell shares at any price, which is really terrible for the market. It's a really bad situation."

While the crisis is unlikely to urge a unification of the MICEX and the country's other index, the dollar-denominated RTS, it could speed along the other changes essential to bringing the financial sector up to speed. A list of reforms Rybnikov provided included a consolidation of infrastructure, pension reform and the development of investment by the country's middle class.

There appears to be little immediate likelihood that the crisis could reduce the number of securities exchanges to one. UralSib's Weafer said the consolidation was still a possibility given the reforms necessary for the financial sector, but an unlikely one.

The fact that the two markets deal in different currency denominations and trading operations also suggests that both will survive.

"All bets are off," said Sunshine Hawk, head of investment banking at Metropol Bank, "but I don't see one [of the exchanges] killing the other in the near future."

The market's best hope of muddling through the crisis may be in attracting new domestic investors, but it remains to be seen how many people have the funds, or interest, to invest.

"I think the members of the middle class will enter the market, but not that seriously," Kogan said. "People understand that the current situation isn't a simple one and, furthermore, they don't have serious money. I don't think the first thing the middle class is going to think of is investing in the market. They're going to be thinking about how they'll feed their children."