Foreign investment key to Baltic success

  • 1998-12-03
  • Steven C. Johnson
RIGA - When asked about his interest in the Baltic market, one Western businessman simply smiled, then derisively compared the combined incomes of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians with the incomes of workers in the Empire State Building. By his meter, the Balts came in second.

But include the three Baltic republics in what businessmen and investors are calling the emerging "Baltic Rim" market - it stretches from Eastern Germany through Poland and up to St. Petersburg - and one has an attractive destination for foreign investment.

At a conference in Stockholm last month, business men trumpeted the development of this regional market and said foreign investment is the key to its success. And at the heart of that market are the three Baltic states.

According to Joakim Helenius, chairman of the Tallinn-based Hansa Investment, the largest investment bank in the Baltics, the three countries' economies are small when examined on the world scale. The average turnover in the 100 largest companies ranges from $24 million in Estonia to $35 million in Latvia, he said.

"It's miniscule. There is no way they can compete on the global market," Helenius said.

But increased foreign investment in the region is changing that. Investors from the Nordic countries, the United States and Germany have been particularly active in the region.

In two years, Helenius predicts up to 80 percent of the Baltic countries' largest companies will have foreign partners or will be completely foreign-owned. And over 80 percent of the investors will be Scandinavian, primarily Swedish or Finnish. It's a trend locals should welcome, Helenius said.

"The Nordic takeover allows faster growth, it eases eventual adaptation to EU standards, and it lowers reliance on the Eastern markets," he said. "While Russia is a large part of the future for the Baltics, the recent crisis has shown that over-reliance on that market is to be avoided."

Patrick A. Mulloy, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said America invested $18 million in the Baltic Sea region last year, primarily in Lithuania and Poland.

"As the countries in this region reduce trade flow obstacles and make themselves attractive to foreign investors, the result will be economic prosperity and more peace for the future," Mulloy said.

Banking has been particularly conducive to foreign investment. In Estonia, Swedbank took a 58 percent controlling stake in Hansapank. More recently, the Swedish-based Skaninaviska Enskilda Banken, which lost out to Swedbank in the Hansapank stakes, invested in banks in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and positioned itself to become one of the biggest players in the Baltic banking market.

Torvald Bohlin, senior executive vice president with the Swedish telecommunications giant, Telia, said the practial know-how foreign investors bring will help the Baltics in the long run.

"We made a long-term committment to this region and we are here to stay," Bohlin said. "That means, we will train local management, build local know-how and build shareholder value, not only of Telia, but also of our local partners."

Of course, investors have much to gain from the equation as well. William M. Dewey, principal of the consulting company AT Kearney, pointed out that SEB was in a perfect position just prior to buying up shares in Estonia's Uhispank, one of the three Baltic banks it targeted.

"Uhispank is the second largest in the Baltics and it merged right in the midst of the Russian crisis," Dewey explained. "Uhispank did all the right things - reduced exposure to volatile securities, improved asset quality.

"But since Uhispank and Hansapank account for 80 percent of Estonia's bank assets, the government was not going to let it fail or let Hansapank become a monopoly. It had no choice but to select a strategic investor, and the only question was, should it seek a Nordic or a German bank."

Helenius also pointed out that Nordic companies that head south to the Baltics can use Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as springboards to further Eastern expansion and, at the same time, expand their markets and pre-empt competitors.