A few years ago, Azerbaijan was one of the world’s undiscovered destinations, nestled between Russia and Iran on the edge of the ancient Caspian Sea. But, today, Baku -- the country’s capital -- is building media momentum as investors and tourists alike discover this former key link on the historic Silk Road.
I couldn’t help but see a recent report by Charles Payne on the FOX Business Network highlighting Baku’s growth and innovative new disc-shaped Full Moon hotel. This luxury resort symbolizes how fast petroleum-rich Azerbaijan is becoming a crossroads of global luxury: the amenities are expected to top five stars, the unique curving silhouette is often compared to the wildest experimentation Dubai has to offer, and the architects themselves come from Seoul
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While Baku is one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet, a showpiece development like this requires immense confidence and a domestic economy vibrant enough to attract a world-class clientele when the construction is done in 2016. Azerbaijan evidently has both.
As the pleasure seekers discover the balmy Caspian climate and executives from oil giants like BP (NYSE:BP) and Total (NYSE:TOT) follow a trade route older than Alexander the Great, I can confirm that the dynamism of modern Baku combines the best features drawn from across continents, centuries and empires. The architecture may be cutting-edge, but some of the details – like the fleet of Fairway hackney cabs winding through the city streets – are as classic as it gets
Purple taxis exemplify innovation
Ironically enough, Baku’s cabs are most familiar to tourists from their iconic role in the British public transport system some 2,500 miles away. Despite a nostalgic appearance in last year’s closing Olympic ceremonies, these taxis are now vanishing from their native London, which started testing an updated and much less traditionally styled cab from Nissan last summer. It could have been a sour end to a famous brand, but the world evidently had other plans.
These cars have always had a dedicated foreign fan base among livery fleet operators as well as the occasional Anglophile in Spain, South Africa, across the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf and even as far as the Pacific Rim. Chinese auto maker Geely Holding Group was already a partner in that international market and bought the U.K. operation outright in February of 2013 for a deeply discounted price of $16 million.
After reinvesting in production and sales, new cabs are now running fares from Beijing to Baku. As with many transported cabs, the taxis of Baku are no longer black -- they have been painted a luscious deep purple, fitting for a UNESCO World Heritage site with an imperial past -- but the classic styling is unmistakable.
Ilham Aliyev, the forward-thinking president of Azerbaijan, hand-picked the Fairway cabs in 2011 to replace the menagerie of unregulated and often unmarked taxis that wove for generations between the restaurants, caviar markets and rug dealers of Baku. The old fleet reminded tourists and locals alike of the old days of Soviet domination and grinding bureaucracy. Bringing 1,000 Fairway TX4 cabs to the city established its identity as a destination for modern travelers looking for a bit of exoticism and romance and a reliable way to actually get there.
At the time, the $24 million price tag – $24,000 per cab – was a necessary investment in the country’s image ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast from Baku and bringing at least 10,000 VIP tourists into the city for the first time. Since then, the rolling reminders of London have more than paid back the cost, and with the first European Games coming to the city in 2015, another 2,000 to 3,000 have been ordered.
With countries like Azerbaijan taking a more active role on the planetary stage, it only makes sense that they build on the systems that made cities like London centers of global commerce and tourism in the first place. That means world-class restaurants and entertainment venues on a cosmopolitan Western model. It means modern communications networks, sustainable energy-efficient infrastructure, luxury hotels and even golf.
Opening up to the world’s investors
It also means expanding the mechanisms of global capital. Although the Baku stock exchange has only been open for business since 2000, Azerbaijan already counts 256 joint stock companies on its books to support an annual gross domestic product edging above $70 billion and growing 5% to 6.7% a year in the near term.
Oil is the $9 billion king here as BP and Total race to tap deep Caspian fields, but as yet Western investors still need to come to Baku to get direct access to the Azeri market. None of the Azeri local companies trade in London, New York or any other foreign exchange. And while the corporate bond market is small by Western standards, debt issued in Baku is in such demand that every bit of this paper trades at a significant yield premium to its coupon rates.
Although you can get a sliver of exposure to those Baku bonds – most yielding 8.8% to 11.75% at present – via the Van Eck Emerging Markets High Yield Bond ETF (HYEM), anything more will require that trip to Azerbaijan or a bet on one of the cross-border corporations doing business here.
As far as U.S. investors are concerned, the easiest trade on Azerbaijan’s booming domestic economy is Turkey’s Turkcell (NYSE:TKC), which dominates the local cellular market – to the tune of $579 million in revenue here last year – and is growing its regional subscriber base at an annualized rate above 16%. Otherwise, the global consumer brands are all here to bask in the growth: McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), Hertz (NYSE:HTZ), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) , and even Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM) – featuring a KFC restaurant nestled deep in the heart of Baku and repudiated to be the biggest in the world (out of 18,000 franchises globally) and probably the most beautiful. As the companies of cosmopolitan Baku open up to global fund managers, it’s likely that investors will reap a few of the rewards for themselves.
Hilary Kramer is the editor-in-chief of the subscription newsletters: Game Changers, Breakout Stocks Under $10, High Octane Trader, Absolute Capital Return Portfolio and Inner Circle. Formerly, Hilary was the CIO of a $5 billion global private equity fund. She has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and began her Wall Street career as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Hilary is the author of The Little Book of Big Profits from Small Stocks (Wiley) and Ahead of the Curve: Nine Simple Ways to Create Wealth by Spotting Stock Trends (Free Press). To learn more about Hilary Kramer visit: http://GameChangerStocks.com.