Templeton's Mark Mobius: Russian stock market is bargain of the century

'Positive on EMs due to lower-for-longer environment'
'Positive on EMs due to lower-for-longer environment'
I'm bullish on China: Mobius
I'm bullish on China: Mobius

Russian shares took a double whammy from international sanctions and oil's crash, but the market now offers "the bargain of the century," Mark Mobius, Templeton Emerging Markets' executive chairman, told CNBC.

"Russia is very cheap," the storied emerging markets investor told CNBC's "Street Signs." "The problem is the sanctions. Many of us cannot invest because of the sanctions. Once sanctions are released, then the market is going to do very well."

The MSCI Russia index has rallied about 20 percent so far this year, but it's still down around 36 percent since the beginning of 2014.

Russia's economy has been on a rollercoaster ride since the government's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its role in the pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine resulted in the European Union and the U.S imposing sanctions. The next review of the sanctions is in July.

This economic isolation, coupled with the low price of oil, has weighed heavily on the country's currency - - and economy. The Tass news agency said Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 3.7 percent in 2015 after ekeing out growth of just 0.6 percent in 2014.

Mobius isn't alone in seeing value in Russia.

"If you look at the Russian economy, the worst is behind us," Karine Hirn, chief executive of East Capital, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Friday, noting consumers in the country had been resilient.

"Russians keep spending money. Less than before, but they still keep spending," she said, adding that East Capital had invested in consumer plays.

Hirn's also watching dividend yields.

"The Russian market has always been one of the markets among emerging markets paying the highest yield and now the government that needs money is speaking to state-owned enterprises to make them increase the payout ratio from 25 percent to 50 percent," she said.

After the market's recent gains, "it's not a screaming buy," she noted, but added that it was still very cheap compared with other emerging markets, which was drawing many brokers and investors back into the market.

People walk past an electronic board displaying share prices at the Indonesia Stock Exchange (IDX) in Jakarta.
SocGen: Avoid Asia, love Russia

Hirn's comments come just days after Credit Suisse began to shift its position on Russia, citing the market's valuation.

In a note Monday, the bank noted that Russia's stocks were trading at just 0.67 times price-to-book, a 53 percent discount to the MSCI Emerging Markets index and the country's cheapest since a September 1998 trough during the Asian Financial Crisis, which impacted emerging markets around the world.

Credit Suisse said it shuffled its emerging markets portfolio allocation to reduce its recommended 5 percent overweight on Mexico to 20 percent below benchmark so that it could use the funds to boost its Russia exposure to a 25 percent underweight stance from a 50 percent underweight.

Then in a note Wednesday, the bank said it had halved its overweight stance on South Korea's market to just 5 percent above benchmark so that it could deploy the funds to take its position on Russia to a benchmark weight.

Like Hirn, Credit Suisse cited expectations the Russia's economy has passed its nadir; the bank forecast that the country's "consumer recession" would end this year.

Is Moscow squeezing Moody's out of Russia?

"Russia, with margins and return on equity at the lowest levels since 1999 has far greater scope than most of the emerging equity universe for a cyclical recovery in profitability," Credit Suisse said in its Monday note.

But some commentators still have qualms about the market.

"Everything is still very much tied to oil, it's very much an oil story," Mitul Kotecha, head of Asia foreign-exchange and rates strategy at Barclays, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Friday.

As of 2013, natural resources, including oil, natural gas and other commodities, contributed about 18.8 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), according to World Bank data. Oil has tumbled from levels over $120 a barrel in 2012 to as low as around $29 a barrel this year.

"[Oil] prices have not been low enough for long enough to really squeeze production as much as it should have been squeezed to get a real rally," Kotecha said.

Barclays expects oil prices to average $37 a barrel this year, a forecast that could make Russia's currency appear set to recover, Kotecha said, but added that there was likely to be a lot of volatility along the way.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1