Central Europe Stock Exchange Looking to Buy: CEO

The CEE Stock Exchange Group, consisting of the Vienna, Budapest, Ljubljana and Prague stock markets, is interested in buying more stock exchanges in Central and Eastern Europe, Michael Buhl, CEO of the CEE Stock Exchange Group, told CNBC.com in an interview.

The main acquisition targets are the stock exchanges of Bucharest in Romania and Sofia in Bulgaria, but the group is also eyeing the Balkan and the former Yugoslav markets, Buhl said.

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"We are in good talks with (Bucharest) on an informal basis from time to time," he said, but added that for the time being there were no concrete discussions with the exchange, which is owned by Romanian brokers and banks and where there is still a five percent restriction on voting rights.

In neighboring Bulgaria, the government still owns a 50 percent stake in the stock exchange but it plans to privatize it.

"Once the procedure is launched, we would definitely be interested," Buhl said. "Generally we are interested in all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe."

The region was hard hit by the crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, when foreign direct investment came to a screeching halt and portfolio investors fled. Valuations at the time were around 16 times Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) but this is no longer realistic, according to Buhl.

"Definitely, we cannot think of valuations anymore (at the level they were) pre-crisis," he said, adding that currently they are around eight to 10 times EBIT.

Russia Tightens Grip

Another big exchange in the region that could rival the CEE Stock Exchange Group is the Warsaw Stock Exchange, but their strategy is to attract companies based in other countries – such as Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia – to list on the exchange rather than buy stock markets in the region.

Buhl said his group's strategy was better because listings on a foreign exchange did not always bring enough liquidity once the initial enthusiasm for the company faded. Warsaw has attracted some small and medium sized companies, mainly from the former Soviet space, to list there recently.

"I still think our group is more attractive, we have higher liquidity and bigger companies," Buhl said.

In the former Soviet Union countries, Russia has intensified its interest over the past few years and it "takes a stronger grip on the capital markets of their former satellite countries," he said, adding that it is difficult to acquire exchanges in the area as "nothing happens without the consent of Russia."

American and British investors have been returning to Central and Eastern European markets after the crisis, making up 54 percent of investors there, Buhl said.

Investment from UK and US investors is in general back but because the area is "not seen so much as emerging anymore" and due to the boom in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, "we'll never be back to pre-crisis levels," he added.

"We cannot compete with 10 percent (economic growth) in China, 7 percent in India and 5-6 percent in Brazil," Buhl said.