Monday, March 31, 2014

Russian Roulette

When your standard marching orders are to grow the company's emerging market business, what's to be done with sudden political crises like those we've seen in Russia? Since Vladimir Putin decided to help himself to part of Ukraine, the Russian economy has seen $70 billion in capital flight (slightly more than all of 2013), leading to stagnant growth and fears of inflation. Investors and business managers are less concerned with a few Black Sea ports than they are with precedents like annexing ethnic enclaves and shutting off oil spigots to Ukraine or Europe.

Seasoned emerging-market veterans will see the rising tension between Russia and the West for what it is - part of the cost of doing business in a market with inherent political risks. As the Russian oligarchy and its pugnacious leader engage in riskier behavior, executives in tech, pharma, and a number of other industries might decide to make their big moves elsewhere. However, it's worth noting that business growth in Russia (and other politically risky emerging markets) has been fairly robust for almost 20 years, and though the oil-and-gas gravy train may be slowing, most of the other engines are on track: the middle class is growing, demand for consumer products and services is soaring, and there's room for growth in many industries.

With the exception of a few industries, business leaders who worry about getting in bed with robber barons have a few mitigating factors to consider. Technology has a democratizing effect, education and healthcare help the masses, financial services spread the wealth, and agriculture puts food on the table. By focusing on trends, not on the crisis, companies can identify long-term opportunities that merit the complex navigation through political storms. There will be opportunities in Russia after Crimea, in India after the elections, in Brazil when the debt bubble bursts. When choosing the "wait and see" approach, don't stop asking the man on the street what he's going to do with all that hard-earned cash when the dust settles.

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