All of a sudden, Russian stocks and companies with exposure to the region are in danger of conflict-induced weaknesses.
As soon as one war ends, it seems, the possibility of another one springs up. Just as the U.S. military left the Afghanistan theater of operations, tensions have come to a boiling point between Russia and Ukraine.
During the Putin era in Russia, that country has sought to reassert itself on a regional level. After Russia’s humbling end to the Soviet era, the country has now pushed out its borders with territorial expansions into neighboring regions such as the 2008 invasion of the nation of Georgia.
Russia also engaged in a military campaign in 2014 in Ukraine. Following protests in Ukraine, Russian soldiers entered the Crimea and parts of the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine.
This event caused a dramatic sell-off in Russian stocks and other securities exposed to Eastern Europe. We appear to be at a similar crossroads now.
Russia is threatening to engage in military action involving Ukraine once again, which could cause dramatic repercussions in financial markets. Here are seven stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to avoid for now:
- Veon (NASDAQ:VEON)
- Mobile TeleSystems (NYSE:MBT)
- EPAM Systems (NYSE:EPAM)
- Playtika (NASDAQ:PLTK)
- QIWI (NASDAQ:QIWI)
- Ozon Holdings (NASDAQ:OZON)
- VanEck Russia Small-Cap ETF (NYSEARCA:RSXJ)
Russian Stocks: Veon Ltd. (VEON)
Veon is a European-based telecommunications company. It is focused on a variety of emerging markets.
Russia is by far the most important. It accounts for around half of the company’s revenues. Ukraine is also one of Veon’s important secondary markets, along with the likes of Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
VEON stock has been a less-than-stellar performer in recent years. Shares fell from $4 in 2017 to less than $2 recently. And VEON stock is ticking lower once again in recent weeks as investors price in potential earnings declines if and when the current geopolitical mess intensifies.
Historically, Veon has seen a significant drag on earnings due to adverse foreign exchange movements. It seems quite likely that further Russia/Ukraine tensions could cause those currencies to lose steam against the Euro and Dollar, leading to further turbulence for companies such as Veon.
Mobile TeleSystems (MBT)
Mobile TeleSystems is the largest of the four major telecom providers in Russia. As with Veon above, MBT faces similar risks in terms of exposure to falling currency and economic activity depending on how geopolitical events develop.
MBT stock appears to be dirt cheap based on traditional valuation metrics. Value investors often purchase MBT for its dividend and attractive income and cash flow metrics.
It’s totally understandable why people would want to own MBT stock if and when geopolitical tensions blow over.
For now, however, there is a lot of risk. In addition to the obvious concerns, consider that the company has also built out a rapidly-growing consumer credit operation.
This could get hurt if people can’t repay their loans and/or Russia faces additional foreign sanctions.
Russia’s demographic concerns could also grow worse if military actions cause emigration. Telecom, after all, relies on customer growth to drive much of its results and Russia already has a falling population. Current tensions could accelerate that trend.
Russian Stocks: EPAM Systems (EPAM)
EPAM Systems is a leading software engineering company. It provides a vast array of services to end customers, working as a sort of digital consulting, product design, and engineering firm.
When a multinational company needs information technology (IT) services, EPAM is one of the most capable providers to make that happen.
EPAM’s other key innovation has been outsourcing. The company is based out of the United States. However, its CEO Arkadiy Dobkin is from Belarus, and he correctly figured out there was a massive labor arbitrage opportunity available.
Dobkin has hired thousands of engineers from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia to furnish the IT services for EPAM’s customers.
This gives the firm a massive labor advantage compared to rivals hiring higher-cost employees in the U.S. or Western Europe. However, it exposes EPAM to unique risks, such as political instability in those countries where it has thousands of its key employees.
EPAM stock sold off significantly in 2014 during that period of Russian/Ukrainian conflict. It faces similar risk if conditions materially worsen this time around, as well.
Playtika is an Israeli tech firm focused on the gaming industry. The company was founded in 2010, and sold to Caesar’s Interactive Entertainment in 2011.
Later, Caesar’s resold it to Chinese investors. Those, in turn, gave it an initial public offering (IPO) in the U.S. in January of 2021.
Like many gaming stocks, Playtika at first enjoyed upbeat investor sentiment. However, that excitement soon faded. Short sellers have raised concerns around the company’s debt-laden balance sheet, its aggressive monetization model, and its series of games which appear to show declining user engagement.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a Russian conflict angle here too. Specifically, Playtika has not one but three offices in Ukraine, specifically located in the cities of Kyiv, Vinnytsia and Dnipro.
Needless to say, a prolonged period of geopolitical tension would likely harm Playtika’s ability to recruit and retain skilled employees.
Russian Stocks: QIWI (QIWI)
QIWI is a leading payment and FinTech firm in Russia and Eastern Europe. The company has a vast array of operations.
These include but are hardly limited to digital payments, mobile wallets, remittances, cryptocurrency, and prepaid credit cards. It also has a banking license and provides some traditional services along those lines.
QIWI has faced a complicated couple of years. It has run into regulatory issues in Russia and has seen several potential growth avenues become closed off. As a result, QIWI has struggled to expand, and instead ended up with a lot of cash on its balance sheet. Thus, QIWI has offered shareholders a high dividend yield while it moves to evolve its business model.
On the surface, QIWI shares may seem cheap here. However, the business already faced numerous challenges. And now, with the Ukraine situation, things could go bad to worse.
Foreign governments have threatened to cut Russia off from the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) banking system. If this threat becomes reality, Russian financial firms such as QIWI that rely on international banking connections could see their business prospects collapse.
Ozon Holdings (OZON)
Ozon is an e-commerce platform that is focused on the Russian market. Given the cultural differences in that part of the world, sites like Ozon have been able to carve out a niche there and not get swamped by rivals such as Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN).
However, Ozon finds itself in a bit of a tight spot now. The company has been running absolutely massive operating losses.
Over the past 12 months, Ozon lost $600 million on revenues of just $2.1 billion. That’s a pretty terrible operating margin.
Now, Ozon faces many of the same sorts of issues as other e-commerce plays. Momentum is slowing after the pandemic e-commerce boom.
Inflation is causing issues, and logistic problems could be even worse for Ozon if American firms stop doing business with Russia. Additionally, given Ozon’s large operating losses, it may need more access to capital, but that could come under pressure depending on how Russia handles its foreign affairs.
Russian Stocks: VanEck Russia Small-Cap ETF (RSJX)
Naturally, if a country is going to struggle, it makes sense to avoid its ETFs. The well-known large-cap Russia ETF would likely fare poorly during an extended geopolitical crisis.
However, it’s worth calling out the VanEck Russia Small-Cap ETF in particular. Small-cap companies tend to have much higher exposure to their local and regional economies. Given their less extensive international footprints, they link their outlooks to local economic conditions, for better or worse.
In this case, that’s likely to be worse. If tensions get hotter in Eastern Europe, small Russian firms are likely to get caught up in the crossfire.
RSJX has much higher exposure to sensitive sectors such as industrial and consumer cyclical stocks. This could make the Russian-small cap ETF much more vulnerable to a local downturn than larger Russian ETFs which hold more international mining and oil and gas companies.
On the date of publication, Ian Bezek did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.
Ian Bezek has written more than 1,000 articles for InvestorPlace.com and Seeking Alpha. He also worked as a Junior Analyst for Kerrisdale Capital, a sizable New York City-based hedge fund. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.