July 26, 2012 on: business, Economical, Mining

When I was invited as a U.S. representative to the Asian Development Bank to speak at the 1991 opening of the Mongolian Stock Exchange, I expected a frontier adventure, as the country had just broken free from Russia to form a fledgling democracy.

The first challenge was vodka. Mongolians are the highest per capita imbibers of vodka in the world. I nearly drowned in the stuff as dozens of toasts and calls of “bottoms up” went on late into the evening of my arrival in the capital of Ulan Bator. The second day I was a bit wobbly but went with my hosts deep into the rugged steppe for a traditional barbecue capped by races to the top of mountains and a clifftop midnight wrestling match. I held my own but a slip would have led to my demise. Two decades later global investors, especially China and Russia, are eyeing its huge untapped natural resources. Mongolia, three times the size of France with a population of only 2.7 million, is a relatively poor country with a per capita income of about $3,000. But it is sitting on a treasure trove. The country’s top ten mines are estimated to be worth $2.75 trillion in coal, copper, gold, uranium and rare earths. This makes every Mongolian a millionaire—if they can get this stuff out of the ground and to global markets. Unfortunately, corruption is a rising issue, and inflation tops 20% as a gold rush mentality takes hold. Still, willing buyers are certainly there, with $5 billion pumped into the economy in 2011 fueling a stunning 17% increase in the country’s GDP. The Mongolian Stock Exchange is not for the fainthearted, but the brave have been rewarded with returns of 121% in 2010 and 58% in 2011, although the index made up of the largest 20 companies has cooled 10% so far in 2012. There are 332 companies listed on the exchange, with a total market value of $3.2 billion. There is political risk. Mongolia’s former president is facing corruption charges that he insists were engineered by the current president to keep him from participating in the recent parliamentary elections. If you’re gun-shy about investing directly in the Mongolian market but want a piece of the action, go with Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines (NYSE, IVN, 8), which has a 66% share of Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine, which is on the Mongolia-China border. Temasek, Singapore’s investment arm, recently put up $420 million for a 5.5% stake in Ivanhoe; Australia’s Rio Tintohas a controlling interest in it. Ivanhoe’s stock has lost 64% of its value in the past 12 months as copper and gold prices have pulled back.


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