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Iran Stock Fever Reaches London as Firms Rush to Build Funds

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A final deal that removes international sanctions against Iran may still be months away, but foreign investors aren’t waiting to pile into the market.

London-based money managers including Charlemagne Capital Ltd. and First Frontier Capital Ltd. are putting together sanctions-compliant funds to allow investors to buy Iranian equities ahead of the buzz that they expect a final agreement would generate.

While there’s the possibility, of course, that the preliminary pact Iran carved out with global powers doesn’t lead to a full-fledged deal, the money managers are in essence saying they’d rather run the risk of arriving too early than miss a rally in Tehran’s $110 billion equity market. Relief from economic sanctions may triple growth by removing barriers to the nation’s oil exports and ending the isolation of its banks from the global financial system, according to Dominic Bokor-Ingram, a portfolio adviser at Charlemagne.

“We want to make sure our portfolio is exposed to companies that take advantage of that economic growth,” Bokor-Ingram said by phone on Monday. “We hope to have a product in the next few weeks.”

Initial signs of a rally have already begun to emerge.

The benchmark index of Tehran-listed stocks has gained 3.6 percent this month as negotiators agreed to seek a final deal by June 30. The rebound comes after a 17 percent slump in the 12 months through March as the talks stalled repeatedly, undermining confidence that President Hassan Rouhani could end decade-long sanctions. Even amid the standoff, the gauge jumped 300 percent in dollar terms in the five years through 2013.

Increasing Interest

Charlemagne projects that Iran’s economy could grow between 6 and 8 percent without the burden of sanctions, compared with estimates of between 1 and 3 percent in 2014. The company is betting that faster growth will augment businesses serving domestic demand. Gross domestic product per capita may rise to $7,011 in 2016 from $5,407 last year, Renaissance Capital said in a research note e-mailed on April 2.

Templeton Emerging Markets Group Chairman Mark Mobius said in an interview on Bloomberg TV this month the “thriving” stock market in Tehran offers many opportunities, including consumer stocks. Total SA, Europe’s biggest refiner, said it’s willing to resume operations in Iran if diplomacy succeeds.

Obstacles remain on the path toward ending sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program. U.S. and Iranian officials have bickered over the framework for further discussions, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signaled the possibility of extending the June deadline. Skeptics among U.S. lawmakers insist that Congress must review any final plan.

Moving Parts

Any excitement about Iran is “premature,” Hans-Henrik Skov, who manages $135 million in frontier markets at Coeli Asset Management, wrote in an e-mail from Copenhagen on Tuesday.

“There are so many moving parts,” Skov said. “So many different interests from the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia are involved that I honestly do not believe any money managers really have a clue what is going on. Forecasting stuff like this is impossible in my world.”

While First Frontier and Charlemagne declined to detail their fund strategy to comply with sanctions, they said they are tying up with local companies to reduce risks.

First Frontier is partnering with Agah Group in Tehran to set up a fund with a basket of 23 stocks. The London brokerage is waiting for regulatory approvals to start the fund, which will exceed $10 million.

“We’ve worked quite hard and for quite some time to figure out how to make it completely compliant,” Nicholas Banszky, chairman of First Frontier, said by phone on April 9. “We had to exclude stocks that are essentially sanctioned.”

Making Bets

The fund may invest in companies such as Iran Khodro Industrial Group, Mellat Bank and National Iranian Copper Industries, according to Alexei Yazikov, head of research at First Frontier in London.

Charlemagne is betting on banks, telecommunications companies and cement makers. The company, with $2.3 billion under management in emerging markets, is working with Tehran-based Turquoise Partners to co-manage a $70 million fund.

“Everything we do, whether it’s before or after sanctions are lifted, will be sanctions-compliant,” Charlemagne’s Bokor-Ingram said. “We want to be ready as soon as sanctions are lifted and not start the process then.”

For investors who are still on the sidelines, low valuations of Iranian stocks may be tempting. The main index in Tehran trades at about 5.5 times earnings, according to Agah’s statement on its website. That compares with a multiple of 11.2 for the MSCI Frontier Markets Index, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

“We are keeping a close watch,” Rami Sidani, the head of frontier markets at Schroders Investment Management Ltd. said by e-mail from Dubai on April 9. “It’s definitely a market that could be very interesting for us. However, we need full clarity on the sanctions to move forward.”