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Big money disagrees over Russian investment opportunity

An employee works in the offices of the OAO Moscow Exchange.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An employee works in the offices of the OAO Moscow Exchange.

The turmoil between Russia and Ukraine has created a rare opportunity to buy low-cost assets, according to some large investors. For others, securities are cheap for very good reasons and they say Russia should be avoided.

"When I went to look for all these cheap stocks and said, 'Here we go, this is the cheapest market in the world, I know I can find some really nice alpha,' I found it much more difficult," said Jamieson Odell, deputy global portfolio manager at emerging and frontier market hedge fund firm Caravel Management.

Odell, speaking Monday night at the NYSSA Russian and Central & Eastern European Capital Markets Conference, said there were some excellent Russian retail, food and Internet companies, such as Magnit, but their stock valuations were high and therefore expensive relative to the potential reward. And cheap stocks, he said, usually have "really big" corporate governance issues or "terrible" balance sheets.

"The cheap things really are cheap for a reason," Odell said.

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Michelle Kelner, founding partner of emerging markets-focused hedge fund firm Sandglass Capital Management, was another investor avoiding Russia.

"There are certain equities that are very, very cheap. But for what we do, there's not a catalyst," Kelner said.

"We like to see catalysts which will allow assets to re-price and we just don't see that," she explained. "At this particular moment there's not a lot of alpha stock picking … it's very, very hard."

Kelner said her hedge fund was also not interested in Russia corporate and sovereign bonds given the relatively small reward for the risk of holding the debt.

Kyrill Firshein, head of Russian and regional equity sales in the Americas for Deutsche Bank, was more optimistic, especially if the Ukraine conflict subsides.

"If you think this crisis is not going to be a protracted crisis and it's not going to last five years and if you think the chances are that the stability factor is sooner rather than later, that's the opportunity," Firshein said.

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Assuming peace, Firshein's personal view is that Russian stocks could be a major opportunity, both in the short and long term.

"It really will depend on your investment horizon. If you're in it for the next six months, this could be a great money-making opportunity on the way up and on the way down," he said.

"If you're a long-term investor in public equities, if you're a value investor … this is an opportunity of a lifetime for investing in Russia that we haven't seen, both because it already was depressed for many years and now because of this protracted crisis."

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One major firm still active in Russia is longtime private equity investor Siguler Guff. Through its more than $1 billion Russia Partners unit, the firm has made fresh investments in the country as recently as April and is looking for other bets. Current holdings include the stock of Russian bank Sberbank and software and engineering service provider EPAM Systems, and private companies KupiVIP, an e-commerce site, and Parallels, a software business.

Despite those investments, Siguler Guff founding partner Drew Guff sounded concern about the new politicization of Russian leadership. He said past Russian crises were less severe for the international investment community because of the government's previous focus on economic growth.

"That's not the topic anymore. The topic is now politics, the topic is now Russia's enemies," Guff said. "(This may) very well work out just fine economically, and may be just another drop down in the saw-tooth up, but in my opinion … this one feels really different."

By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne