Driving through the rain towards brighter economic future of Ukraine

About a month ago, during a Washington round-table on Ukraine hosted by the US-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC), someone asked me what do my colleagues and I expect from the new President of Ukraine and his administration? My answer, which was picked up by the Voice  of America and other publications, was essentially – I have no idea. But since we have been and continue to be bullish on the Ukraine for almost twenty five years, our strategy is to move forward despite the political climates, as we always hope for sunny investment weather, but carry a sturdy umbrella in case it starts to rain.  IMG-1cae7e700ec217303b52f13cd14e1c96-V

Well, it is raining now.  Raining hard and much sooner than expected.

The events of this passed week have created a vicious firestorm with  “Ukraine” being mentioned practically non-stop.  In this post I will not address the politics of the situation, as this has been done by practically every major media outlet in the world ad nauseam. My focus will be on business opportunities and financing tools available to those wishing to invest into the Ukrainian economy, as despite this week’s “torrential downpour” nothing has fundamentally changed to make Ukraine a less attractive place to invest.

First, some basic assumptions under which we have been operating in Ukraine for almost quarter of the century:

  • Massive institutionalized corruption exists in Ukraine and it will probably take two-three generations for it to be rooted out;
  • Ukraine is a very risky place to do business;
  • Many people who accumulated capital in the ’90’s played by the “fast and loose rules” and cut multiple corners;
  • As business in the country evolves, most astute business people understand that by playing by the transparent and well-defined rules set out by the western markets they can unlock the value of their holdings, obtain access to low-cost financing and protect their assets for the generational asset transfer;
  • Ukraine has fantastic potential for economic growth in multiple sectors;
  • Terrific opportunities exist for US, Canadian and European companies to supply goods and services to Ukraine and to bring world-class Ukrainian goods into the Western markets;
  • Ukraine has a superb pool of smart and educated labor force;
  • Country is of a strategic geopolitical importance and will always be a subject of political pressure and outside influence;

Given the above, it is important to take a long view and not be terribly concerned with current politics, because by definition Presidents, Ministers, Ambassadors and Senators change every few years. Once such long-term philosophy is accepted, then it is necessary to construct one’s proverbial umbrella. Namely, risk mitigation, corruption resistant mechanisms must be incorporated into one’s approach to doing business in the country.  What this means in practice is the following:

  • Targeting for investment and financing primarily those sectors where corruption is either low or  non-existent. From our standpoint exports of Ukrainian natural foodstuffs, renewable energy, electro-transport production, IT, nuclear waste containment are some of those.
  • Utilizing US Government financing tools, such as those offered by OPIC and US-EXIM  Having these tools part of a business transaction not only provides low-cost, long-term financing, which improves economics of practically any project, but having government-backed financing in a deal, also improves quality of due diligence and acts as fantastic corruption deterrent and protection for investors.
  • Obtaining political risk, trade credit, or breach of contract insurance for every significant deal or trade transaction. US  Government and certain well-rated global  insurance companies offer protection to investors from such perils as expropriation, creeping expropriation, currency  inconvertibility, non-payment for goods supplied, or services rendered and for breach of contract.  Such insurance is not terribly expensive, but  de rigueur for anyone looking to invest into the Ukraine, or into any  foreign market, for that matter.
  • Creation of a so-called Grey2White® program to allow investment where original capital, or business formation had murky roots, but can be fully re-mediated with application of strict compliance procedures, financial restructuring and accounting oversight.20160523_094104
  • Finally, despite of the current rainy weather, we are moving hard to add one more extremely effective tool, which has been missing in Ukraine’s economic development. Creating a safe umbrella for individual American-Ukrainian, Canadian-Ukrainian and members of Ukrainian diasporas in other countries to invest into the future of Ukraine.

What this means is a focused investment platform listed on a stock exchange and subject to a recognized US, or Canadian authority such as Securities Exchange Commission (USA), or Canadian Securities Administration (CSA). Such platform would will further be secured by protection of the political risk insurance and will, for the first time since Ukraine’s independence, allow individual investors with as little as $500! to invest,  to participate in Ukraine’s economic development, while having the umbrella of protection of the western laws, rules and regulations.  We call this platform “Develop UA”™ and expect to formally roll it out to the world in the middle of October, 2019 regardless of whether it is raining, or sunshine in Kyiv and Washington, DC.

relevant links

http://www.usubc.org/site/recent-news/doing-business-in-ukraine-now–usubc-roundtable-in-washington

https://ukrainian.voanews.com/a/amerykanksy-biznes-ukrayina/5051657.html

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Grey2White Workshop Hosted by the USUBC, Puts an Exclamation Point on the International Trade Mission

 

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On Wednesday, September 12th, US-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC), in cooperation with the law firm of Brown Rudnick, Broad Street Capital Group and Ankura Consulting, held its second Grey2White ™ workshop in Kyiv. Over 45 guests attended, including the Former First Lady of Ukraine, Kateryna Yushchenko.

IMG-1cae7e700ec217303b52f13cd14e1c96-VThe Grey2White workshop resulted in consensus among the participants on the need of Grey2White program in Ukraine and in other post-Soviet countries. The lively and spirited discussion continued after the official part of the program was concluded.

The workshop’s presenters featured financiers, former prosecutors with the US Department of Justice and enforcement attorney with the US Securities Exchange Commission.

Grey2White workshop served as the exclamation point on the highly successful International Trade Mission through Ukraine and 20160523_094104Uzbekistan, in which the speakers of the Forum participated, along with representatives of eight companies from four countries.

During the Mission, its participants conducted a number of high-level government, NGO and private sector meetings to identify and engage projects in the areas of healthcare, ICT, energy savings, agriculture and aerospace. Over $1.32 billion of project mandates are expected to be awarded to the Mission Participants in the next 60-90 days. Companies wishing to participate in the projects, which have started the development during the Trade Mission, will have an opportunity to learn more during the upcoming International Opportunities conference in November, hosted by the Broad Street Capital Group.


Read more of this post

Grey2White Initiative – the journey continues (parts I and II)

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(Part I of the article reprinted from the June 2017 issue)

Hypothesis:

Given Ukraine’s current economic and geopolitical situation, one of the most beneficial  steps the US government, business and NGO community can take, is to encourage significant external and internal direct investment into the country’s economy.

Although the US Government has had some success in attracting and supporting American direct investment into Ukraine, those investment amounts are far from sufficient. US investors new to the Ukrainian market are wary of the country’s reputation for corruption, difficulty in doing business, threats from Russia and lack of financing options.

A second and much more viable economic development option, would be to support and enable direct investment by the successful Ukrainian business people who have amassed sufficient capital and are much more comfortable and adept in investing in their home market.

One problem with pursuing that option are high Western standards, which often preclude US government development agencies and public US investors from working with this potential class of investors.  This is due to the fact that for the last twenty-five years, practically all business people in Ukraine had to operate under a certain set of conditions widely considered “grey” and in many cases “black” in the West.

Some of these “grey” conditions are lack of financial transparency, inadequate corporate governance, use of yellow press, use of cash, as well as offshore accounts to conduct operations, bribery and use of adverse political influence.

In their attempts to succeed, some folks in Ukraine went beyond previously acceptable business norms and crossed the proverbial line even further by engaging in criminal “black” behavior – graft, extortion, corruption, tender rigging and illicit drug trade.

To date, these grey conditions have presented significant challenges for the IFIs, development agencies and regulated financial US investors. Yet, it is vital to recognize the necessity to find an acceptable solution that allows Ukraine’s economy to reap significant benefits from the anticipated increase in direct investment and low-cost, long-term financing.

It is also very important to understand that the proposed Grey2White (G2W)™ initiative aims to broaden and scale up very important development and capacity building work already undertaken over the last quarter century by IFIs, such as IFC and EBRD, USAID; development agencies such as OPIC and USTDA and financial investment communities. Those initial efforts, although quite effective, focused on a relatively small sample of Ukrainian companies and were undertaken during a different stage of the country’s development.

Initiative

The G2W™ initiative will only work with those companies and individuals, who will be able to create meaningful economic impact in Ukraine, after undergoing the conversion process.  G2W™ will not in any way target those convicted of the “black” behavior, as their reputation gap is un-bridgeable within the scope of the project.

Thus the question becomes, is it possible for US stakeholders to create an environment and a broad platform from which so-called “grey” Ukrainian businessmen seeking to utilize US financing, equipment, services and franchises, as part of their major investment programs, become “bankable” under Western standards? If the answer is “Yes.”This type of conversion will provide hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in direct economic benefit and enhanced geopolitical security to Ukraine and to the US.

If the answer is “No,” these businessmen will either be forced to forgo the planned capital investments, or seek alliances with other grey, or black global actors in countries like Russia, China, Brazil, Iran, etc.

It is the fundamental belief by the creators of the proposed initiative that given a concerted effort by the US and Ukrainian stakeholders to develop and implement realistic procedures to increase corporate transparency, introduce financial standards, address any existing reputation issues head-on and provide reputable outside management and board oversight, it is possible within short to medium time-frames to bring these so called “grey” businessmen and their respective projects up to elevated western standards, mitigate investment and reputation risks and affect substantial economic growth in Ukraine.

Thus we hereby propose the following:

Select three-four financially viable projects sponsored  the “grey” Ukrainian actors and use them as a pilot to develop, refine and implement an effective conversion strategy to bring that project up to acceptable Western standards.

From the government side, we propose to involve the US Commercial Service, USTR, US Embassy, Ukrainian Embassy, Cabinet of Ministers of UA, members of the US Congress focused on UA issues, OPIC, regional Governors and local administrations in Ukraine, IFC, USTDA and the US EXIM Bank (when that Agency resumes its activities in Ukraine).

Among the NGO stakeholders we would like to see US-Ukraine Business Council (USBC), AMCHAM, Transparency International, Freedom House, Atlantic Council and US Ukraine Foundation. Additionally, reputable international law firms, audit firms, press, appropriate private individuals, corporate off-takers, financial market regulators, as well as relevant providers of US goods and services should be involved.

The framework of the proposed initiative shall be as follows:

  • Initial Sponsor/Project assessment and preliminary due diligence
  • Project selection and stakeholder awareness and involvement
  • Project G2W™ Team building (attys., directors, advisers, auditors, suppliers, investors etc.)
  • Full due diligence and implementation plan for the Western financial, FCPA and governance standards
  • Investor cultivation and underwriting of the financing package
  • Project development and implementation
  • Monitoring and compliance

To kick off the proposed initiative, we propose an intensive education and awareness-building campaign designed to simultaneously involve all the stakeholders.

After the initial buy-in into the initiative is secured, work will begin on developing the pilot projects.

During the pilot project phase, the G2W pilot project team will be seeking to achieve specific and tangible goals:

  • Fully assess the existing reputation risks, possible political influence issues, suitability for OPIC/IFC financing and Political Risk Insurance for the US project participants
  • Prepare a legal due diligence report by a world-class law firm
  • Recruit highly reputable and competent outside board members to the Project’s Board
  • Design a comprehensive PR/IR strategy to inform stakeholders of the project and its ongoing developments
  • Design and implement transparent financial audit, reporting and management accountability standards
  • Develop ways to tangibly measure economic effect of the pilot project
  • Continue to promote the initiative and seek to move it from the pilot project phase to full-blown implementation.

(to be continued)

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Part II  (April 2, 2018)

In the nine months since the above article was first published, a number of events took place, which not only validated the concept behind the Grey2White™ initiation, but also expanded its scope and attracted top notch global professionals to the program.

Although initial premise of the program to convert grey actors in Ukraine to white bankable actors, whose economic contribution will greatly outweigh any possible transgressions they may have committed up to this point remains intact, the program has been expanded to include other emerging market countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The program also grew to allow so-called grey companies to unlock their value through financial and legal transformation in order and become more bankable in the Western capital and financial markets. Part of this transformation involves tools, which on one hand provide increased political protection to the current management and to foreign investors, and on the other hand allow western companies to lock up predictable valuations and to observe the transformation process first hand.

A first rate international “scrub team” has been assembled as a multidisciplinary team consisting of former US Government prosecutors, forensic accountants, legal and financial experts and last but not least, former high-level grey operator with deep expertise in shadowy government and business dealings in Ukraine and several other  post-Soviet countries.

A pilot company and its owner have been selected, as the first of four pilots companies to undergo Grey2White™ transformation in order to make them bankable by US Development Agencies for a $150 million project slated to create over 200 new jobs and to generate significant economic impact in Southern Ukraine.

In the next 60 days. key members of the G2W™ Team are expected to travel to Latvia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine to conduct additional screening and selection of the pilot companies and individuals.

In the subsequent parts of this article, we will examine the different case studies and watch the pilot candidates undergo the first steps of the Grey2White™ transformation.

(to be continued…)

 

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