Funds slammed by Russia

Vladimir Putin Wags Finger

The rapid fall of the ruble and stocks on the Moscow Exchange means even more pain for investment managers who have been trying to play Russia, virtually all unsuccessfully.

Mutual funds, designed to bet on price gains in securities, have predictably suffered the most. The Voya Russia Fund, for example, is off more than 43 percent in 2014 as of Monday on bad bets such as energy company Lukoil (down 25 percent), retailer Magnit (down 52 percent), and miner Norilsk Nickel (down 27 percent), according to public holdings as of Sept. 30. The fund has the highest mutual fund exposure to Russia at 76.7 percent, according to data compiled by Morningstar.

Another to suffer is the T. Rowe Price Emerging Europe Fund, which has a second-highest 51 percent of assets in Russia. The fund is down 37.2 percent this year on losing bets such as energy company Gazprom (down 33 percent) and local banking giant Sberbank (down 52 percent).

Spokesmen for Voya and T. Rowe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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It's easy to see why they lost money: The U.S. dollar denominated Russia RTS stock index is down 56 percent in 2014. The ruble is also down more than 109 percent this year versus the U.S. dollar.

What's good for retail investors is that only eight mutual funds have more than 10 percent of their assets in Russian stocks or bonds, according to Morningstar. The number is only two when you take out funds that manage less than $500 million. In short, most emerging market investors are avoiding Russia.

Hedge funds also have minimal exposure to Russia.

Even though they can bet against stocks, bonds, currencies and other assets, most private fund managers have avoided Russian exposure even if money could have been made shorting securities.

Hedge fund clients of Credit Suisse, for example, had less than 0.5 percent of their portfolios exposed to Russia as of Tuesday.

"The big selloff in Russia isn't having much of an effect on hedge funds because they have very little at play there," said Eric Siegel, head of hedge fund research and management at Citi Private Bank. "The ruble isn't a widely traded currency, and most of the emerging markets equity managers we know have pulled back from Russian exposure over the year."

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The small band of hedge funds that focus on Russia have among the worst returns of the year across the industry.

The Firebird New Russia Fund is down 26 percent this year through Nov. 30; the Kaltchuga Fund is off 32.6 through Dec. 5, according to a hedge fund performance report by HSBC Alternative Investment Group; and the Russian Prosperity Fund, which avoids shorting stocks, is down an estimated 50 percent through Dec. 16, an official at the fund said.

Reached late Tuesday by phone, Mattias Westman, founding partner at Prosperity Capital Management, which runs the flagship Russian Prosperity Fund, was stalwart. Having invested in Russia for 20 years, including during the 1998 currency crisis, he said he believes that once the near-term tumult passes, the economy will strengthen broadly. Over the years, "Those who have strong nerves have benefited quite a lot," he said.

Representatives for the Kaltchuga Fund didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the performance.

Harvey Sawikin, Firebird's co-founder, did appear on CNBC Tuesday to discuss Russia investing in general, noting signs of panic selling.

"There are some signs of bottom formation but there are so many other factors at work here, like the oil price, the geopolitical situation," Sawikin said in a live interview from New York. "We need to see what Putin is going to say on Thursday when he gives a speech. Maybe he'll say positive things. That would give the market a boost."

Hedge funds aren't jumping in to short Russian stocks, either.

Russian equity ETFs have seen increased volumes in last two days on the heels of the country's dramatic interest rate increase, according to Credit Suisse's Mark Connors, who tracks hedge fund positioning.

But, Connors said, sellers appear to be investors exiting existing positions, not new short sellers getting in.

"The focus among funds we speak with rests on managing for the possibility of larger scale volatility beyond that seen today in Russia and other oil-exporting sovereigns," Connors added.

-CNBC's Kate Kelly contributed to this report.

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