Russian businessmen and businesswomen at an entrepreneurs expo
In his recent Davos World Economic Forum keynote speech, [in January 2009] Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated that excesses, irresponsibility and greed with governments asleep at the wheel formed a perfect storm to wreak havoc on global economies. The result has been an unprecedented fall in global demand, production, employment and wealth.
Putin welcomed dialogue from all to find solutions to the crisis and to chart the way forward. While it may seem that there are more important short-term crisis-management issues to deal with when Rome is burning, it still makes sense to think of the long-term future growth in Russia.
While the reputations of institutional fund managers worldwide have been tarnished due to the global financial meltdown, institutional investors -- particularly those who can invest in small to medium sized businesses -- remain crucial to long term economic growth
A pressing need in Russia is the creation of a set of institutions that invest medium term money into small and medium-size enterprises, or SMEs. Accomplishing this objective requires changes in Russian legislation in multiple areas, including permitting Russian pension funds, insurance companies and like-minded institutional investors to invest in this economic sector.
Like many other developing countries, there is no institutional source of medium- and long-term capital for Russian SMEs. Large companies borrowed from international creditors to fund projects that take three to five years to bring to market. But SMEs lacked this access, and they financed their needs with multiple short-term loans from Russian banks, renewing them at maturity, about every 12 or 18 months.
While expensive, because it duplicated transaction costs for SMEs at each refinancing, it basically worked when the credit markets functioned. Russian banks make short-term loans because they themselves lack sufficient and reliable sources of long-term money.
When credit dries up as it has now, SMEs can't refinance their loans and are forced to curtail production, cut back on purchases, shrink employment and cut salaries. These exacerbate economic difficulties for all.
While private equity is available in Russia, SMEs require between $500,000 and $5 million. This amount was too small for risk-seeking investors in 2007 and 2008, who were looking to invest from $30 million to $100 million per transaction. Since the beginning of 2009, the financing gap has grown larger as Russian banks curtail lending and private-equity investors invest to stabilize current investments.
In 1958, a U.S. government agency called the Small Business Administration launched the Small Business Investment Corporation program to solve the financing gap in the United States. SBICs are licensed and regulated by the SBA but privately managed by private sector managers. The minimum equity to establish an SBIC was $5 million raised from private investors.
What made the SBIC program innovative is that additional capital, leverage -- three times private capital -- is provided to SBICs from the sale of SBA-guaranteed bonds. This guarantee feature opened a new source of capital for SMEs, traditional buyers of bonds like pension funds and insurance companies that seek safety first and yield second. In 2007, for example, SBA bonds had a coupon of 5.8 percent, approximately 106 basis points over risk-free, 10-year U.S. Treasuries.
Since its conception in 1958, SBICs invested more than $50 billion into more than 100,000 SMEs with more than $25 billion invested in SMEs less than three years old.
Well-known brands that received SBIC funding in their early growth include America Online, Amgen, Apple, Callaway Golf, Costco, Federal Express, Intel, Outback Steakhouse, Palm Computing and Staples, to name just a few.
It was through the SBIC program that U.S. SMEs accessed affordable long-term capital and institutional investors diversified into a new and higher- performing asset class -- clearly a win-win situation for all participants.
What's needed now is for the Russian government to establish the legislative framework for an SBIC industry to emerge in the country.
A first step is the creation of a bond guarantee program for the SME sector. With debentures guaranteed against default of principal and interest, bonds are priced at ''market rates,'' which are less than the rates on nonguaranteed bonds because they are risk-free. This enables SBICs to raise funds at low cost, and unlike institutional investors that seek extraordinary returns from venture capital and private equity, SBICs have more modest return expectations, partially because they receive a continuous stream of cash that compound returns to meet semiannual interest payments.
A guarantee program is useful to build the financial market in Russia. SBICs finance either emerging or established SMEs that are not quite good enough for a conventional bank loan due to their short length of operating history, nature of cash flow or mix of hard and intellectual assets. A guarantee program can tip the balance in favor of loan approval.
Guarantees also make it possible to extend repayment terms -- for example, from 18 months to 48 months. SBICs are more risk-tolerant than banks, and because their funding sources demand less return than venture capital investors they are not as aggressive in seeking high payoff ventures.
There are other benefits to applying an SBIC program to Russia. In the United States, for example, SBIC led to more specialization and product development in the financial sector as some SBICs invested only debt, while those with a greater tolerance for risk emphasized equity and equity-linked structures.
The investment skills of SBIC staff sharpened as they had to better differentiate SMEs with the potential to create the maximum venture-capital rates of return versus lifestyle companies more suited to debt only.
This enhanced learning led to prudent risk-taking in the financial sector and ultimately provided the foundation for the venture capital industry to emerge in the United States.
Development of a greater number and variety of financial products was achieved as financiers better learned how the balance sheet of SMEs could support different layers of capital with different terms, conditions and maturities with little increase in risk.
Financial product development included various forms of subdebt, second-lien debt and preferred shares with or without conversion as examples, and the development of new products for certain industries -- for example, factoring for the retail trade.
The best and most effective way out of a crisis is through experimentation and adaption. It is extremely important to search for new innovations. Governments need to think about how to best direct investment to address not only today's problems, but also those which are right around the corner that are not yet being used as driving forces in the market.
This is not an easy task, but stepping up to the plate during tough times is what leadership is all about.
Venture Capitalist Tom Nastas, founder of Innovative Ventures Inc., is also member of the Board of Directors for Sotsgorbank and the Independent Directors Association of Moscow. He is also Professor of Marketing, American Business & Economics College in Moscow. This article originally appeared in The Moscow Times on February 19, 2009 and is republished with the author's permission.