Much is written about the vast strides Russia has made in matters agricultural. The many different Cheese types that were previously imported are now largely produced in Russia. The gains are across the edible board, from poultry, fish and pork through to fruits, vegetable and grains. Grains specifically have shown strong and steady growth due to increased investment as well as using the latest management and production technologies.
For example, wheat harvests in Russia are now not only satisfying Russia’s national demand, but also form a significant and steadily increasing part of the country’s global exports. In Soviet times, world traders and specs eagerly awaited the announcement of the wheat harvest or its forecast potential. To those punters on the world’s futures exchanges it usually signaled how much the USSR will BUY over the coming year to meet its internal needs, as they didn’t ever SELL. That has radically changed, much like the country, its direction, politics, beliefs, abilities and its people.
One small but glaring opportunity gap in this growth curve has only recently come to active investor attention, and is finding real support from the financial institutions in Russia. This gap is in the range of products and ingredients derived through the deeper processing of raw materials, in this case grains. These little known, not off-the-shelf products are an essential part of the processing and manufacture of almost all foods and beverages, and a number of pharmaceutical products, even textiles.
These ingredients are exclusively obtained through deep processing and treatment of wheat and other grains. They include dry wheat gluten, modified starches, glucose-fructose syrup, molasses, and feed mixtures (as a by-product of the technological process).
These products are widely used for not only food production, but also pulp/paper manufacturing, in low-alcohol and beverage industries, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, animal husbandry and in several other industrial sectors. The demand for these products both domestically and in the global markets is strong and continually growing.
In general, only 10-12% of such ingredients are produced in Russia while 88-90% must still be imported. The irony of the situation is that one of the major raw materials used to produce these products is wheat, which has been steadily growing to large surpluses these past several years. Today several multinational firms involved in agricultural processing like Cargill, Archer Daniels, L. Dreyfus and several Asian groups have already started either through M&A or through investing in their own processing to begin filling this void inside Russia.
Russian agricultural companies have been quite active too, as deep processing of grain results in products with far higher economic benefit than simply selling raw material or milled flour/starch. Establishing such deep processing projects also addresses the challenge of partial or even complete import substitution. These valuable and increasingly demanded ingredients can easily use even extremely low grades of wheat as perfectly suitable raw materials, which without deep processing are close to valueless.
One example is a start-up in the Kursk region, which is part of the famously fertile “black earth” area of Russia. The company, a 100% Russian start-up called OOO “InnPromBioTec” is a group of young and experienced professionals in the food processing industry. Their expertise has ranged from implementing and successfully commercializing production of food ranging from low-fat mayonnaise to fermented “kvass” (a traditional Russian grain based beverage), as well as oil from various grains. Today they are in the process of establishing a technologically cutting-edge deep wheat processing facility in the middle of this grain rich region.
With sanctions in place, while they officially do not impinge of food production or foodstuffs, they do and have affected the attitudes of traditional investors in the USA and the EU, not to mention the non-Russian banks. There is a palpable fear among the potential and logical investment partners in both the EU and US not to bend, therefore dismissing profit, rather than risk forging ahead and perhaps facing politically unstable censure from their own countries.
This Kursk based company therefore shifted its focus to the Far East, specifically China, Japan, Thailand, Korea and possibly India. This, while the most cost effective points of export realization and ready markets demanding such deep processed products are next door in Europe, who also import, albeit to a lesser degree, to meet their production requirements.
From an economic perspective, projects such as InnPromBioTec’s are attractive, especially in today’s markets. The capital required for such technologically intensive production is about 150 million Euro equivalent to process 250,000 tons per annum. Russian banks are willing and prepared to lend fully 80% of the needed capital as project financing, and the government affords a number of easements and incentives to make such projects as riskless and transparent as possible as they are considered a national priority, and are therefore quite secure and problem free.
Projects like this are not immediately operational, they must be planned as well as built from scratch, and this has been the bane of long term investing in Russia. Local investors want huge returns on their money and they want it almost immediately, therefore Greenfield projects have tended to suffer neglect.
Projects like deep wheat processing have a very long productive lifecycle, measured sustainably for decades with their products in perpetual and growing demand. Typically, the discounted payback period is from 6 – 7.5 years, with an internal rate of return of approximately 40%, profit margin realistically near 50%.
It looks like Russia’s steady economic evolution away from simply exporting raw materials, but opportunities to deepen the dimensions of production will be financed by visionary, practical and pragmatic Asia. The products of which inescapably will be demanded and consumed by Europe one-way or another, if only because of the secure price of proximity.
At a deeper level, this one project example is indicative of many similar projects coming into being throughout the length and breadth of Russia. The vast soybean farms in the southern parts of the Russian Far East have historically simply sold and shipped the harvests unprocessed across the border into Asia. Today, projects are starting up to add value to these crops by processing some of the myriad products obtained from soybeans both for internal consumption as well as for ready export markets literally next door.
The list goes on, with one of the longest coastlines on the planet (23,000+ Miles), the opportunities for fish, mollusk and crustacean farming is vast. The relatively low cost of energy in Russia and no shortage of fresh water also allows for controlled environment farming regardless of climate, be it hydroponics, greenhouses or commercial scale urban agriculture year round. All of these opportunities afford similar value added dimensions through processing and producing market ready finished goods.
On reviewing Russia’s economic path it is worth noting that it has managed to rebalance its exports from 70 percent energy in 2013 to 59 percent in 2017, according to the World Bank. As of this writing, the budget is again in surplus, and government debt stands at a notable 33% of GDP, the lowest among all of the G20 nations. Inflation is now running at a record low of 2.4% year-over-year, well below the CBR’s target of 4% and food inflation despite sanctions is close to 0%. Simply to contrast, and yes, sizes and volumes do make a difference, so just to cherry-pick: The S&P 500 Index is up just a tad over 13% for the past year, while at the same time the MOEX Russia Index has shown 21+% growth with an attractive 6.46% dividend yield, compared to 1.94% for U.S. stocks.
A major economic shift is occurring as secondary, tertiary production, manufacturing and the support and services infrastructure businesses establish and develop inside Russia. Some projections indicate that in these new business areas Russia will show a sustainable 5-6% year on year growth from 2018 – 2020, and perhaps greater. Incredibly, it is woefully under-reported even by the international financial press.
These secondary and tertiary industries have been historically left to the outside world to import into Russia. Be it in agriculture, textiles, machinery or oil patch technologies, Russia is now steadily filling these internal niches, and the opportunities for investors today have vastly expanded into many previously ignored dimensions. It only requires the business will and clarity of “blinders-free” vision to investigate, get involved and step up to the table.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.