UBS Counts on Russia Revival Even Without Trump-Putin Thaw

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  • Swiss group says it’s getting better at dealing with sanctions
  • U.S. election, rising oil prices are boosting Russian assets

UBS Group AG, which has investment-banking and wealth-management units in Russia, says it’s getting more comfortable doing deals in the sanctioned state and will be even more positive on the country if there’s a rapprochement between presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

“When sanctions were first introduced, we were a little more restrictive, but now we have more experience in how sanctions work so we can be a bit more open,” Hendrik Geldenhuys, head of central and eastern Europe at UBS Wealth Management, said in an interview in Moscow. “If the new U.S. administration moves to normalize or improve relations with Russia, that’s something we’d obviously welcome. But it’s still early days.”

Trump’s election victory sparked gains in everything from Russian stocks to the ruble amid speculation the new government would improve relations with its Moscow counterpart. This, along with a 20 percent rally in oil following OPEC’s agreement to restrict supply in November, fueled a revival in Russian bond and equity deals.

UBS was involved in a lot of them, including United Co. Rusal’s dollar bond offering last month, oil producer Rosneft PJSC’s sale of a stake in an Italian refinery and state-owned gas giant Gazprom PJSC’s Swiss franc bond issue in November.

UBS maintained its presence in Russia as a recession and a slowdown in deal activity over the past two years prompted competitors from Credit Suisse Group AG to Deutsche Bank AG to cut back operations. The group hasn’t factored an easing of Russian sanctions into its business plan for 2017, but sees a pullback in the restrictions as a potential “cherry on top” of higher oil prices and a recovering economy.

The Swiss firm has been expanding its local wealth-management team led by Ilya Solarev and, according to Geldenhuys, more rich Russian clients are seeking advice about their assets in Moscow. The challenge right now, he says, is getting these customers to exit their cash holdings and diversify their investments.

“Clients can always choose to invest in Russian asset classes through us, but our competence is in global markets,” Geldenhuys said. “Clients are getting out of cash but there’s still a long way to go.”

UBS Wealth Management has a rule against having Russian clients who are state officials because the Russian law prevents government officials from holding assets abroad, Geldenhuys said.

“It’s a reputational risk policy decision we made,” he said.

The UBS trading business in Moscow is an equity and foreign currency-focused sales desk and brokerage, and there’s "no plans" at the moment to expand its fixed-income trading because those transactions can be done via other UBS offices, according to Geldenhuys.