Frontier investors prepare to enter Iran

By:
Chris Wright
Published on:

Well-functioning stock market; structural surprises still likely.

Well, that didn’t take long. One day after the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 world powers was announced, a new investment fund was launched focusing on Iran

Alisher Ali-160x186
  Iran represents the biggest long-term investment opportunity in the global frontier universe

Alisher Ali,
Silk Road

"This fund debut follows the landmark nuclear agreement reached by Iran and world powers yesterday in Vienna," said the fund’s backer, Mandalay Capital Management, "in anticipation of the agreement being honoured by all parties, lifting of crippling sanctions, the end of Iran’s decades-long isolation and its eventual reintegration into the world economy."

Those stirring words make a great deal of sense for any long-term fund manager. But the announcement represents a useful case study of the many complications involved in Iran’s return to the fold. None of this is going to be simple.

Let’s start with the dateline: 'July 15 2015. Sliema, Malta/Tehran, Iran.’ 

Sliema? Not London, or Luxembourg, or some other funds management centre? Mandalay’s fund management team is based in Malta, though it is domiciled in the Cayman islands. Mandalay also turns out to be part of Alisher Ali’s broader Silk Road Capital group, best known for its work in similarly frontier-spirited locations such as Mongolia, Burma and Mozambique. It is likely that many first movers will be from outside the mainstream financial centres – another is coming out of Cyprus, we understand. 

There are UK-based businesses looking closely at Iran – Charlemagne Capital, which runs a joint venture with Tehran’s Turquoise Partners, is the most well-known – but we are still some distance from the world’s biggest fund managers being ready (or legally able) to pile in to Tehran. Mandalay’s fund will use an investment team in Malta supported by a research team on the ground in Tehran.

Exposure

Next, the fund will primarily invest in the Tehran Stock Exchange, but, while banking restrictions are still in place, will gain exposure in two other ways: through structuring offshore participation notes and through buying equities in Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq (since they’re Iran’s three largest neighbours) as well as other neighbouring countries in the Gulf, Caspian and Central Asia. In other words, at the start, it won’t directly own any Iranian shares.

This is an inevitability until the nuclear deal passes the US Congress, is ratified and various other restrictions are removed. "What’s going to happen is what happened in Saudi for years," says Ali Akbar Ahsan at Magellan Capital, an Iran specialist. "All you have is promissory notes: a fund manager in London holds £10 million on account for a fund manager in Iran who invests his own money in the stock exchange." Saudi is now in the process of stepping away from a promissory note model to direct holdings by foreigners, but the process has taken years. 

We expect $1 billion of inflows to equities 
within a year of sanctions ending

Charles Robertson, Renaissance Capital

Alisher Ali at Silk Road compares the situation to the early days of foreign investment in India through the P-note model, but notes a difference. "With India and Saudi, that was necessary because of regulatory restrictions. With Iran, the restrictions are not regulatory but sanctions, so we will be able to invest directly when Swift is turned on," a process he thinks could be six months away.

Some mooted products talk about sanction screening: avoiding companies which are connected to arms or nuclear power, or those linked to the Revolutionary Guard, or those who remain on the sanctions list. But that’s not straightforward either. 

The Iranian state, the army and the Revolutionary Guard are enormously influential institutions on a commercial as much as a social level: they have their own investment companies, and some of Iran’s largest companies and investment vehicles have current or former generals in the background of their ownership structures. 

"Commercial entities of the military force known as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp are major actors [in the economy], with interests in a number of sectors such as construction, telecommunications and finance," says Bank of America Merrill Lynch in a benchmark July 15 report. 'The Iran Nexus’ is a 117-page study representative of how seriously bulge-bracket banks are taking research on the country’s opening. 

On the cusp

Still, this bit is unarguable. "Iran represents the biggest long-term investment opportunity in the global frontier universe by virtue of being the world’s largest untapped frontier market at the cusp of opening up," says Ali. 

Further reading
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Iran's pivotal moment

Unlike most frontier markets, Iran already has a well-functioning stock exchange: its market cap is over $100 billion and it trades $100 million a day. Today, it trades at 5.7 times forward earnings and offers a double-digit dividend yield. "We expect the Tehran Stock Exchange to become one of the world’s best-performing equity markets in 2016 and beyond."

If Mandalay has been quick to pull the trigger, plenty of others are primed. At Charlemagne Capital, director Varda Lotan tells Euromoney its planned Iran fund is "a work in progress, as we are ensuring the fund will be compliant with all relevant EU sanctions."

Once it’s clear that it’s not only legal but sustainable to go in, a lot of money is likely to enter the country. 

"We expect $1 billion of inflows to equities within a year of sanctions ending," says Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital. "With roughly $100 million daily turnover and no Iranian restrictions on foreign investment, we think portfolio flows could be significant as early as 2015. 

"Others will buy into companies such as MTN or various Turkish stocks that have operational exposure."