Ben Aris in Moscow -
Megastar investor and notorious Russia bear Jim Rogers appears to have had a change of heart and taken a job as an advisor to the agricultural fund run by Russian state-owned banking giant VTB Capital.
"Russia and the [Commonwealth of Independent States] region have all the ingredients needed to become the world's agriculture powerhouse. It seems that everything may now be coming together under VTB Capital to make this happen, so I am keen to participate," Rogers, who is also chairman of Rogers Holdings and Beeland Interests, said in a statement, issued by the bank on Tuesday, September 19.
Best known for co-founding the Quantum Fund with George Soros in the 1970s that "broke" the Bank of England, forcing the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, Rogers recently had an epiphany and said in an interview with CNBC in August: "I do not invest in Russia now, but for the first time in my life I have started considering it."
Since it was founded in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, VTB Capital has quickly grown to become Russia's leading investment bank, dominating the equity, fixed income, and mergers and acquisition business in terms of volumes of deals, according to Dealogic.
The bank is also moving into private equity, which had been an ad-hoc business at the bank. The Russian government has targeted agriculture as a strategic sector and is pouring billions of dollars into its development. Rogers joins the agricultural division that is managed by VTB's private equity department, where he "will provide regular advice and insights into global commodity markets and investment trends," VTB said.
"VTB Capital sees high potential in Russian agricultural market and plans to attract from $500mn to $1bn of the investments into the sector based on its phased development strategy. Russia and the broader CIS region is developing into a global agriculture superpower with its proximity to China, Middle East and North Africa resulting in it taking a leading role in the export of key agricultural commodities such as wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil," the bank said.
The move is quite a turnabout for Rogers, who is known for his bearish stance on Russia. He once famously told an audience at Harvard Business School that the country was a kleptoracy and that he would never invest there. His speech was so outspoken that one of the MBA students, a young Russian investment banker called Dmitry Alimov, stood up after the presentation to take issue with several of Rogers' more controversial statements.
The exchange led to an emailed duel on the pros and cons of investing in Russia that epitomises the emotionally charged debate still dogging Russia's investment image today. Alimov cc'd his fellow students on Roger's replies, which were quickly forwarded to trading desks and investment bankers around the world before finally ending up as an article in the New Yorker.
"Dear Mr. Rogers: I am the 'lad' who disputed your factual claims with regard to Russia today. First of all, I would like to thank you for speaking to us at the Harvard Business School. I think I speak for my fellow HBS students when I say that we enjoyed your original views and interesting stories today. However, I must address the unfortunate reality that your facts about Russia are plain wrong," wrote Alimov politely opening the exchange.
Rogers' reply began: "Thank you for coming and for writing. I rarely suffer fools gladly and even more rarely bother with chauvinistic know nothings, but since you sent this ludicrous canard... ", before launching into a point-by-point dismissal of Alimov's arguments.
The the audience steadily grew as the exchange continued for several days. However, Alimov maintained the upper hand, countering each rebuttal with sourced facts and figures, often citing both the US government's own statistics as well as those of the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
After receiving his MBA, Alimov returned to Russia where he has enjoyed a successful career as a media entrepreneur. At the start of this year, he launched Frontier Ventures, a fund aimed at Russia's burgeoning e-commerce business that has already raised $50m. "We are looking to invest into five or ten projects and looking for ideas based on an established business model," Alimov told bne in an interview earlier this year.
Rogers' apparent change of heart is part of wider reappraisal by investors about Russia. The sentiment pendulum has clearly been swinging back towards Russia over the last month or so and the secondary share offering by state-owned retail banking behemoth Sberbank was successfully closed on September 19, raising $5.4bn for the government. Perhaps Rogers may be just making another very good call.
"Jim Rogers is a global icon and thought leader in commodity investment trends and understands the importance of this region in the global commodity supply dynamic. Jim sees the investment opportunity in regional agriculture resulting from its low-cost, highly fertile cropping land, potential productivity gains, abundant water supply and close proximity to the high demand regions of MENA and China via established shipping routes," said Tim Demchenko, global head of private equity and special situations at VTB Capital.
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