Stock Market Is a Treasure Hunt

One of Firebird Fund manager Ian Hague's worst nightmares was coming true: His fund had just received a healthy influx of capital to buy stock in Russia, but there was no stock for Hague's fund to buy.

Hague is not the only investor suffering from this bad dream. Getting a piece of a Russian company has become a tricky business that has stifled investment in the country's booming stock market.

Without a central exchange to purchase stock, large investors are forced to make do with behind-the-scenes bartering at brokerage houses, usually paying a huge mark-up and often not getting the stock they want. Small investors are kept out of the market altogether.

"It is strictly a one-way market right now," Hague said. "There's nothing but buyers out there and the best stocks are so hot that there's little chance of finding them. Forget about anything with the word neft in it, " he said, using the Russian word for "oil."

Besides not finding shares in neft, investors reported having trouble unearthing shares in telecommunication and timber product companies. Demand for these stocks is so strong that brokers are forced to search through other brokerage houses, making private deals to locate large blocks of these hot shares.

"In Russia, we're working with what can be called an internal market," said Andrei Ippolitov, a financial manager at Olma brokerage house. "The only way for a broker to get a stock is to know that another broker has the stock and the two make a behind the scenes deal."

The process is cumbersome. Brokers can often take more than two weeks to locate a block of shares in a company, Ippolitov said.

When shares are found, they often are not at the price an investor offered. Inflation and demand can drive up the price way beyond that which was originally agreed upon. Defaults, where a broker cannot deliver a stock, are common, investors said.

When the broker does default, investors lose a golden opportunity to purchase shares. Ultimately, this can hurt a fund's profits and fiscal health.

"Buy and sell prices are illusions," said one Western investor who asked not to be identified. "If a stock is hot, a broker knows it and usually charges a premium."

Besides the problem with finding stocks, investors and brokers said that the lack of a central exchange makes it impossible to employ many mechanisms common to Western markets.

For example, selling short -- where an investors borrows shares from a brokerage to sell at market, betting that the share prices will go down and the investor will be able to replace the stocks at a lower price -- is impossible.

For smaller investors, the problems are even greater. Without the hefty capital of a Western fund behind them, most small investors are unable to get shares in good companies.

"Most brokers won't even talk to you if you've got less than $500,000 to invest," said one American banker. "There are some funds out there that are just starting to get into retail investing, offering shares to smaller investors. But in general there is no room for the $1,000 investor."

Many of the market's problems will be solved when a central exchange is put into place, observers said. Western companies such as Deloitte & Touche and KPMG Peat Marwick are helping Russia establish an exchange and a loose association of brokers and dealers has been set up.

But neither Deloitte & Touche nor KPMG Peat Marwick would comment on when the exchange will be in place. Brokers and investors said they felt one was still months away.

Until the central exchange is up and running, investors are forced to find creative solutions for finding stock.

Investors suggested hounding brokers, buying small blocks at many different brokerages and holding out until August, when the cash auction is expected to bring large blocks of stock to market.

Investors best methods for getting stocks, however, are closely guarded secrets.

"I won't tell you my best strategy," said Christina Campbell, a money manger for a large American company.

"I don't want anyone else using the same idea."

Despite the problems, the Russian market is still a strong place to put money, investors said.

Indeed, many said that the market's lack of liquidity was an encouraging sign that new issues and rights offerings would take place after the cash auctions in August.

"I certainly feel better about there being a scarcity of shares than there being too many," Hague said. "As for finding stock right now, my best suggestion is prayer."