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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Investors Stay in the High-Risk Game

Last week, Nadezhda Smirnova saw her personal savings disappear as the MMM investment pyramid collapsed. This week, she is lining up outside the brokerage offices of Tele-market Systems to get in the game again.


"In March I invested $1,500 in MMM, and now I don't have anything," said Smirnova, 35, who earned the money selling souvenirs at Izmailovo market. "Now I've borrowed from my brother to buy Tele-market shares to sell immediately at a profit."


Just a few minutes with Smirnova and others outside Tele-market's rundown single-story stock outlet is enough to prove that, among those dreaming of riches, hope springs eternal. For the many already burned by MMM, the lesson is not that one should avoid the game, but just that one should leave before the pyramid collapses.


Most of the at least 100 people who waited all day to buy shares conceded that they were motivated more by their hearts than by their minds. Few knew, for example, exactly what Tele-market did, but were hopeful that the fledgling company -- which started selling shares only a month ago -- would make them small fortunes.


"I used to work in a defense industry enterprise, but they don't pay us anymore," said Zhenya Ivanov, 52. "I know I could lose all my money, but people need to get money somewhere."


The president of Tele-market Invest, which hopes to sell 20 million shares, said that he could virtually guarantee a steady rise in the company stock because it offers a unique product -- shopping by computer modem.


"To lose money as a monopolist you'd have to be an idiot," Sergei Semyonov said in an interview. "You can be almost 100 percent sure of success." His company's brochure also reflects the self-confident attitude, boasting that "each day brings a profit to the owners of the stock. The price of the stock will constantly rise."


So far, since opening up shop on July 1, Tele-market has kept its word. The company's share price -- decided by the management, not the market -- has risen sharply every day, up from 1,940 rubles to 5,445 on Monday.


The rise in share value is an especially notable feat when one considers that Tele-market has not even set up the nationwide modem network it promises will bring steady profits in the future.


"Our experience on the Moscow market has allowed us to determine what profit we will have over time," Semyonov said. "We could have set a high price for our shares at once, but we decided to raise only the money we need at each stage of the project's implementation. Thus we are gradually and evenly raising the share price."


For outside observers, that approach has a lot in common with the machinations of MMM, which set up the best-known pyramid scheme in post-Soviet Russia.


Tele-market "was thought up as a pyramid," said Sasha Magnev, 39, a stock speculator whose knowledgeable manner attracted a crowd of middle-aged women outside Tele-market. "Most of our stocks are to some extent pyramid games."


Nonetheless, Magnev, who wore a black T-shirt and blue track pants, said he was dabbling in Telemarket shares to resell promptly.


In the West, Magnev would likely wear a three-piece suit, trade by computer and be called an arbitrageur. In Moscow, he races around the various stock trading points to take advantage of price differences to his own gain.


"I have some information, some energy, and I hedge my risks," he explained, adding that he has built up a portfolio worth about $50,000 over the past few years. "I've worked in a factory before, and I've had enough of that."


Unusual trading rules favor energetic insiders such as Magnev, since Tele-market sells only a limited number of shares daily from its windowless brick office. The limited supply has driven up the stock's price on local stock markets to more than double its official value. That means that at least for now, if you get in the door, it's not hard to make a profit, a logic that keeps the crowds coming.