City Eye: The West's idea of a crisis cuts no ice in the East

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The Independent Online

Marie Antoinette would have felt comfortable in today's markets; investor sentiment over the past few weeks has been a constant expression of girlish horror that the cake has run out. That is pretty much how all the brouhaha over the quality of mortgage books looks – at least from Moscow, whence this column is filed.

Russia is one a of a number of emerging economies where the financial community – a bracing mix of Western venture capitalists and financial warriors ranging from Uzbek ex-street traders to White Russian aristocrats – is surprised at the turmoil and disquiet.

The foot-stamping tantrums in London and New York are seen as something of a luxury over here. Imagine the bemusement of the Russians as they climb heroically out of the mess in which the West left them after the collapse of communism. While they are trying to ensure that basic standards of living are maintained in the remoter parts of this vast country, what do we in the West do with our poor? We either force-feed them mortgages they can't afford when interest rates tick up, or leave them to freeze to death on park benches.

I have an investment – just an individual savings account – in Jupiter's Emerging European Opportunities fund, which has a large stake in Russia; my money is up over 125 per cent over four and half years. I do not mention this to show how smart I am – it is just that I have a certain admiration for the managers of the fund, who have found good opportunities in an economy that is still subject to considerable political risk.

The role of Vladimir Putin, who has brought stability to Russia over the two terms of his presidency, is vital to the investment prospects for the country. We in the West are concerned about credit crunches but there will be a real crunch in Moscow if the country becomes unstable after Mr Putin's departure as president in 2008.

Another concern is how things are going in Thailand. I also have an interest here as a small investor, with stakes in Asian mutual funds run by Fidelity and Investec. They've done quite well, but I bought them ages ago.

My concerns revolve around the first Thai general election since the September 2006 military coup ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now the owner of Manchester City football club. The economy has stabilised since the beginning of the year and the stock exchange is up 25 per cent, partly on the back of huge foreign investment.

But underlying the election is the story that can't be told because of draconian press censorship laws restricting coverage of the royal family. The issue of succession is now a fiercely (but privately) debated subject in Bangkok, with business and media leaders fearing that the King's closest aide, General Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council (an Asian version of Cardinal Richelieu, by some accounts), will influence events.

The country has had an unbelievable number of military coups since 1932 – 18, by my reckoning. Anything can happen in Thailand and it is a worry, not least because British investors in the economy include Boots and Tesco, which have invested £400m and £950m respectively over the past 10 years.

The UK has also become a more important market for Thailand, with exports almost breaking the £2bn barrier in 2006. Two-way trade exceeds £2.5bn for the first time.

Sorry to bother you with worthy stats; I'll take my anorak off next week. But the point should be clear: these are real concerns. Worrying about the credit-crunch stuff is a luxury.

martin@martinfdbaker.com

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