Cyclopedia Of Economics 1st edition

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Russia, Oil Sector of
British Petroleum teamed up with the Alfa Group-Access-Renova (AAR) concern to equally form Russia's third largest energy company. The new titan will digest Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) International, Rusia Petroleum and Sidanco Oil, which produce, between them, c. 1.2 million barrels per day. The combined outfit will tap between 5-9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves as well as perhaps 100 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The mix includes lucrative exploration contracts in Sakhalin (an island in Russia's Far East) and in western Siberia as well as 2100 gas stations and five refineries in Russia and Ukraine. Slavneft shares owned by AAR are excluded as are Sibneft's warrants convertible to TNK stock. BP keeps out its interests in various local businesses and its sizable oil trading operations in the Russian Federation.

BP will pay $3 billion for its stake in cash and another $3.75 billion in shares over three years. The market valuation of BP's stock is at an ebb - but some analysts say that, in a world of rising global tensions and surging oil prices, the deal may yet turn out to be a masterstroke. BP's earnings jumped a whopping 49 percent in the fourth quarter, they point out.

But the far likelier scenario is less friendly.

BP was forced - by a series of humiliating revisions to past released figures - not to set a future production growth target, merely claiming to be in a "strong competitive position". Moreover, when the change in the value of its oil inventories is stripped, the company's profits last year are down by a quarter compared to 2001.

Its return on capital also plummeted from 19 percent in 2001 to 13 percent the year after. Dwindling margins in refining and retail - mainly in the USA - threaten the viability of these operations, though they have been improving as of late. Only hefty reserves and a higher dividend cushioned the - widely expected - decline in net earnings.

According to the Dow Jones Newswires, the energy behemoth embarked on an ambitious $2 billion share buyback plan. BP has withdrawn from the Russian market posthaste, having been scorched by shady dealings in Sidanco, a tenth of which it acquired in 1998. At the time, it claimed to have been defrauded by the very partners it has taken on board in the current collaboration.

But it now firmly believes that its Russian re-entry is auspicious: "The deal would be immediately accretive to cashflow, earnings per share and return on capital employed, and it expected to improve performance significantly over the next four years through synergies, cost reductions and output growth."

Alas, life - let alone Russia - are far more complicated.

In the proposed partnership, BP is paying c. $3 per barrel. It stands to gain c. 500,000 barrels per day from the joint venture. Only two fifths of this quantity can be exported as crude and another 15 percent as refined products. The rest must be sold domestically at artificially subdued prices.

Russia is already flooded with c. 170 million barrels of unsold oil, in no small measure due to an ongoing conflict between private producers and the country's state-owned pipeline monopoly, Transneft. LUKoil foresees an increase of yet another 130 million barrels by November, according to the New York Times.

With the indigenous market thus saturated, any post-war plunge in world prices could prove calamitous to BP.

As Venezuela's output recovers, the weather warms, the global recession deepens, and a regime-changed Iraq rejoins the world market, an oil glut is in the cards. Despite crude's currently bloated price, OPEC has been talking about production cuts to sustain a level of $18-20 per barrel.

Russia is unlikely to support such a policy.

Its dependence on oil has matured into a full-fledged addiction in the last three years. Russia's budget assumes an average price of $21.50 per barrel. Its production is also more rigid than Saudi Arabia's. It cannot turn extraction on and off at will. Output increased by 9 percent last year.

Additionally, Russia will gleefully leverage the fortuity of a crumbling and internecine OPEC into gaining the number one oil producer spot by increasing its market share. BP may find this policy reckless and shortsighted but still be forced to cooperate with it to the detriment of its long-term interests.

Analyst Frederick Leuffer of Bear Stearns reiterated his "outperform" recommendation for BP's shares before it embarked on the Russian joint venture. The analyst predicted "restructuring and capital expenditure reduction initiatives shortly ... the company (is expected) to redeploy proceeds and cash flow towards share buybacks and dividend increases." These seem less likely now. BP is also involved in other costly projects in Georgia, Ukraine and the countries of the Caspian Basin.

This pervasive exposure to the east is nothing short of a gamble.

BP's attempts to minimize the weight of its latest foray into Russia is disingenuous. Once concluded and cleared by competition authorities in the Russian Federation and the European Union, this single venture will account for one third of British Petroleum's reserves and one seventh of its production.

BP's traditional haunts in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska are mature and extraction may become prohibitively expensive at much reduced crude prices. But the company is endowed with massive - and oft-replenished - reserves. it is also geographically diversified. Its output is poised to grow by one fifth, to 4.3 million barrels per day, within 3-4 years.

So, why risk another round of bad governance, venal bureaucracy, oil transport monopoly, obstructive local partners, corrupt judiciary, capricious legislation, restive employees, organized crime and cunning competitors? In short: why risk Russia?

Virtually all other oil majors steered clear of Russia and chose to invest in countries like Kazakhstan, or Azerbaijan. BP's move is driven by an unorthodox assessment that the Caspian is over-rated and that black gold is to be found in the Far East. Russia's low cost of production and its enormous reserves make it as attractive as the Gulf once was.

And Russia is changing for the better. BP implausibly claims that the country is now a stable and promising investment destination. This may be going too far. But alternative crude transport infrastructure is being put in place - from pipelines to deep sea harbors. Corporate governance has improved. The oil sector is almost entirely private. Awareness of property rights has grown.

BP's shares went up a mere 4 percent following the announcement. This cautious welcome reflects the uncertainty surrounding the company's strategy. In ten years time, its managers would be either praised as visionary pioneers - or castigated as gullible dupes who were taken for a second ride by the very same partners. Time will tell.

LUKoil's American Depositary Receipts hardly wavered but its Moscow-traded shares tanked yesterday by 5 percent on news that British Petroleum is pulling out of the Russian energy behemoth. BP was saddled with its share of the Russian oil giant when it bought ARCO two years ago.

LUKoil's oil production topped 75 million tons last year, up 20 percent on 2001. More than one third of its production was exported via Transneft to foreign clients, the bulk of it by sea or through the Druzhba pipeline. LUKoil Overseas Holding presented revenues of $1.4 billion. It produces c. 11 million tons of oil annually. LUKoil and its subsidiaries also extract and sell natural gas.

LUKoil likes to tout its image as a veritable multinational. But its cross-border expansion strategy is encountering mounting difficulties.

Last April, together with London-based Rotch Energy, it bid c. $1 billion for the Polish state-owned Gdansk Refinery and its web of 300 gasoline stations. The network controls one sixth of the Polish market. The deal was presented as synergetic: the refinery was supposed to process LUKoil's produce and the latter's tankers would be patched at the Gdansk shipyards. LUKoil pledged to purchase $500 million of Polish agricultural goods annually and to expand the capacity of the antiquated refinery by at least two fifths.

Yet, according to Business Week, LUKoil's chances to clinch the deal are "dimming fast", due mainly to a tide of Russophobia. Rotch Energy abandoned the fast sinking ship and joined a competing bid. As European Union membership looms nearer, Russia is relegated by its erstwhile - and distrustful - satellites to niche markets such as Serbia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. Russia's second largest oil producer, Yukos' $150 million controlling stake in Lithuania's Mazheikiu Nafta refinery may be the only exception.

Even in these manageable, Russophile and traditional markets, LUKoil's performance is far from spectacular.

In December 2001, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, visited Greece, accompanied by LUKoil's chief, Vagit Alekperov. According to the Russian business weekly, Vedomosti, LUKoil expressed interest in purchasing the Greek state-owned oil company Hellenic Petroleum.

Hellenic owns refining assets in Greece, Montenegro and Cyprus. In 1999 it purchased the Okta Refinery in Macedonia but its reputedly murky dealings with the previous government of the tiny, landlocked country led to an on-going judicial and administrative review of the privatization deal.

According to RossBusiness Consulting, LUKoil teamed up with the Greek Latsis-Petrola Group in preparing a joint bid for 23 percent of Hellenic Petroleum at a valuation of c. $2 billion. But the LUKoil/Petrola consortium seems to be in disarray. According to the Greek daily, Kathimerini, it recently asked the Greek government to extend its deadline by one week "so that the consortium partners complete their own talks on sharing responsibilities".

Last month, LUKoil reluctantly disposed of its 10 percent of Azerbaijan's Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field. It sold it for $1.4 billion to Inpex, a Japanese firm. According to the Moscow Times, this may have had to do with Alekperov's unwelcome political aspirations in the host country.

Russian firms are poised to benefit from any development in Iraq. They already secured deals with the tottering regime of Saddam Hussein. The Americans are alleged to have promised Putin to honor some of these commitments in a post-Saddam Iraq in return for Russia's support for a US-led military campaign.

The exception is, yet again, LUKoil. A $3.7 billion exploration and development contract it concluded was recently cancelled unilaterally by the irate Iraqis.

Still, Russian emerging dominance in the global energy market is irresistible - as is its seemingly inexhaustible pile of cash. It has the world's seventh or sixth largest oil reserves. Its cost of production is lower than Indonesia's, or Mexico's, let alone Canada's. Its oil industry is in private hands and, with the exception of LUKoil, run efficiently and rather transparently. Low domestic prices push producers to export.

Gazprom, Russia's gas monopoly, partnered with the German gas supplier Wintershall to create Wingas, a west European gas retailing outfit. It also acquired 10 percent of the UK-Europe gas pipeline and, through its subsidiary, Sibur, some assets in Hungary.

Romania's drilling company Upetrom was bought by the Russian united Heavy Machinery. LUKoil purchased Getty Petroleum and its 1500 gas stations in the United States. Another Russian energy leviathan, Yukos, took over the activities in Britain of the Norwegian oil service firm, Kaverner.

The 3000-mile Transneft Druzhba pipeline, which connects Russia to Ukraine, Belarus and central Europe is slated to link to the Croatian Adria pipeline, by way of Yugoslavia. This will provide Russian oil with improved access to both central European and Balkan markets.

LUKoil is carried by this wave of sectoral restructuring.

Last year, LUKoil won a government tender in Cyprus to develop a network of gas stations. According to Prime-TASS, the company already controls one quarter of the Cypriot market. Alekperov announced that LUKoil intends to branch into oil storage and transportation in this would-be new member of the European Union. It also owns and operates 80 pump stations in Bulgaria and has invested half a billion dollars there.

According to Christopher Deliso of UPI, the $700 million, 175-miles long Bourgas-Alexandroupolis line between the Black and Aegean seas is a joint project of the Russian, Greek and Bulgarian governments. Its capacity is projected to be 40 million tons annually. Both LUKoil - which owns Bourgas' Neftochim refinery - and Yukos are involved.

LUKoil is positioned to enjoy Russia's dawning age of dominance as an oil and gas producer and supplier with a quarter of western markets. But to do so it would need to render itself less fuliginous and better managed. A hostile takeover, with the blessing of the Kremlin, may be in the cards. It cannot be a bad thing as far as LUKoil's shareholders are concerned.

Last week, Russia and Israel - erstwhile bitter Cold War enemies - have agreed to make use of Israel's neglected oil pipeline, known as the Tipline. The conduit, an Iranian-Israeli joint venture completed in 1968 is designed to carry close to a million barrels per day, circumventing the Suez canal.

It rarely does, though. The Shah was deposed in 1979, Egypt became a pivotal Western ally, the Israeli-developed Sinai oil fields were returned to Egypt in the early 1980's, and, in a glutted market, Israel resorted to importing 99 percent of the 280,000 barrels it consumes daily.

According to Stratfor, the Strategic Forecasting consultancy, "tankers bearing Russian crude from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk would unload at Israel's Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. After that, the oil would traverse the Tipline to Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, where it would be reloaded onto tankers for shipment to Asia. The Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co. estimates the pipeline will be ready for Russian crude in mid-2003."

Russia is emerging as a major oil supplier and a serious challenge to the hegemony of Saudi Arabia and OPEC. Even the USA increasingly taps the Russian market for crude and derivatives. With Arab countries - including the hitherto unwaveringly loyal Gulf states - progressively perceived as hostile by American scholars and decision makers, Russia arises as a potent alternative. The newfangled Russian-Israeli commercial alliance probably won applause from Washington hardliners, eager to relieve the Saudi stranglehold on energy supplies.

Quoted by the American Foreign Policy Council, Russia's Energy Minister, Igor Yusufov, addressing the Russian-US Energy Forum in Houston, Texas, last month said that "the high degree of economic and political stability that the Russian Federation has achieved makes it a reliable supplier of oil and gas".

He expressed his belief - shared by many analysts - that Russia will become a major exporter of oil to the USA "in the foreseeable future". According to the Dow Jones Newswires, private Russian oil firms, such as Lukoil, are heavily invested in US gas stations and refineries in anticipation of these inevitable developments. As if to underline these, the Financial Times reported, on October 3, a purchase of 300,000 barrels of oil from the Russian Tyumen Oil company.

The deal with Israel will allow Russia to peddle its oil in the Asian market, a major export target and a monopoly of the Gulf producers. Russia is in the throes of constructing several pipelines to Asia through its eastern territories and Pacific coastline - but completion dates are uncertain.

For its part, according to the Department of Energy, Israel extracts natural gas from offshore fields but has no commercial fossil fuel resources of its own. It imports oil from Mexico, Norway, and the United Kingdom and coal from as far away as Australia, Colombia, and South Africa. Israel buys natural gas and oil from Egypt. The bulk of the energy sector is moribund and state-owned, ostensibly for reasons of national security. The deal with Russia is a godsend.

Israel is perfectly located to offer an affordable alternative to expensive and often clogged oil shipping lanes through the Suez Canal or the Cape. A revival of the Trans-Arabian pipeline (Tapline) to Haifa can considerably under-price the politically wobbly Iraqi-Turkish and the costly Suez-Mediterranean (Sumed) alternatives.

With one of every five Israelis a Russian émigré and confronted with the common enemy of Islamic militancy, Israel and Russia have embarked on a path of close cooperation. Prime Minister Sharon's visit to Russia last month was a resounding success. Faced with these millennial geopolitical developments, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

The Jewish lobby, they say, is coercing America, its long arm, to hijack the Iraqi oil fields in the forthcoming war and thus to counterbalance surging Russian oil exports. Israel, they aver, planned to carry out, in October 2001, an operation - "Mivtza Shekhina" - to secure southern Iraq's oil fields while also mitigating the threat of weapons of mass destruction aimed at its population centers.

Conspiratorial paranoia notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the USA is motivated by oil interests in its war on Saddam. A battle in Iraq aimed solely at apprehending its crude would be fighting over yesterday's oilfields. Only an easily replaceable one tenth to one eighth of American oil consumption emanates from the Gulf, about a million barrels per day of it from Iraq. Moreover, the war is likely to alienate far more important suppliers, such as Russia - as well as the largest European clients of Gulf oil extracted by American firms. Strictly in terms of oil, a war in Iraq is counterproductive.

Additionally, such a war is likely to push oil prices up. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "for every dollar-per-barrel increase in oil prices, about $4 billion a year would leave America's $11 trillion economy, and other importing countries would lose another $16 billion per year".

Israel understandably did discuss with the USA its role in a showdown with Iraq. Russia, unsettled as it is by America's growing presence in central Asia and exercised by its determination to take on Iraq - may be trying to lure Israel away from its automatic support of US goals by dangling the oiled carrot of a joint pipeline.

Russia also hopes to neuter the rapprochement between Israel and the Islamic nations of Turkey and Azerbaijan, traditional adversaries of Moscow. Israel is the second largest buyer of oil from Azerbaijan. It is one of the sponsors of a pipeline from the Baku oilfields to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey. The pipeline stands to compete with a less costly and more hostile to the West Russian-Iranian route.

These are momentous times. Oil is still by far the most strategic commodity and securing its uninterrupted flow is essential to the functioning of both developed and developing countries. There is a discernible tectonic shift in production and proven reserves from the Persian Gulf, the US except Alaska, the North Sea, and Latin America to northern Europe, Russia, and the Caspian Basin. Yet, oil is still a buyers' market. OPEC has long been denuded of its mythical power and oil prices - even at the current interim peak - are still historically low in real terms.

But Russia stands to gain whichever way. Middle East tensions, in Palestine and Iraq, have ratcheted oil prices up resulting in a much-needed budgetary windfall. Russia's mostly-privatized oil industry has cleverly ploughed back its serendipitous profits into pipelines, drilling, and exploration. When the dust settles in the deserts of Arabia, Russia will emerge victorious with the largest oil market share. Israel is not oblivious to this scenario.

Success is the best proselytizer. Faced with the imminent demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, both Russia and Germany - erstwhile champions of peace and the sanctity of international law - expressed their hope yesterday for a swift victory of the hitherto much-decried coalition forces.

But this may be too little and way too late, as far as the United States is concerned. The two prostrates are firmly included in the victors' grey list - if not yet in their black one. The friction is not merely the outcome of sanctimonious hectoring about human rights from the Chechen-bashing Russians. It runs deeper and it turns on more than a dime.

Another German-Russian collaboration may shortly attain the limelight: the $800 million, 1000 megawatt light water reactor in Bushehr, an Iranian Persian Gulf port facing southern Iraq. Abandoned by West Germany in 1979, following the Iranian revolution, it was adopted by the Russians in the 1990s. A second reactor is in the offing. More than 2000 Russians are employed in the site.

Following the discovery by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Natanz and an Iranian admission that they are mining their own ore, Alexander Rumyantsev, the Russian Atomic Energy Minister, acknowledged that his country lost control over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran, like Iraq, is a celebrated member of the "Axis of Evil". Thus, the atomic complex, though protected by at least 10 SAM batteries, may well be the target of an attack, Israeli and Russian officials told the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group. This will not be without precedent: in a daring air operation, Israeli jets pulverized an Iraqi nuclear power plant in Osirak in 1981.

Ironically, it is America's aggressive stance towards Iraq that drives the likes of Iran and North Korea back into the arms - and nuclear technologies - of the Russian Federation. Russia is positioning itself to become an indispensable channel of communication and intermediary between the USA and what the State Department calls "rogue states".

On March 17, Russia's State Property Minister, Farid Gazizulin, met Iran's Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani, during a session of the Iran-Russia Economic Commission in Tehran. The host's message was unequivocal: "Cooperation between Iran and Russia is to contribute to sustaining peace and prevent conflicts in the region."

According to Asia Times, in an earlier visit to Tehran, Russia's Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, pledged to continue to collaborate with Iran on nuclear energy projects. "Iran has no plans to produce nuclear military projects, this is a fundamental truth." - he insisted.

Nor is the teamwork limited to commercial goods and services. An October 2001 bilateral framework agreement has since fostered more than $400 million in Russian annual military exports to Iran, including air defense systems and fighter jets.

Russia is also increasingly involved in the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's security adviser, Ra Jong-il, have held talks earlier this week with their counterparts in Moscow and Beijing. Russia, like the United States, opposes the military nuclear efforts of North Korea.

Though vehemently denied by all parties, South Korea floated last week, in an interview Ra granted to the Financial Times, the idea of supplying Pyongyang with Russian natural gas from Siberia or Sakhalin through a dedicated pipeline, as a way to solve the wayward regime's energy problems.

According to the Korean daily, The Chosun Ilbo, Russian Ambassador to Seoul, Teymuraz Ramishvili, revealed that discussions have been held on posting Russian or South Korean troops in the North to protect such a pipeline.

North Korea insists that its atomic reactors are intended merely to forestall severe power shortages, now that the 1994 Agreed Framework, to provide it with fuel and two proliferation-resistant reactors financed by the West, is effectively annulled. Even Beijing, hitherto an unflinching supporter of the Dear Leader, halted oil supplies to the North last month.

The scheme is not new. In February 2002, Russian Deputy Energy Minister Valentin Shelepov declared in Moscow at a
meeting of the Russian-South Korean Committee for Cooperation in the Sphere of Energy and Natural Resources that Russia seeks South Korean investments in the coal industry and in oil and gas extraction in Eastern Siberia and the Far Eastern regions.

The Russian daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, notes that, together with China, South Korea is already involved in LNG ventures in Irkutsk and the Yurubcheno-Tokhomskaya oblast.

According to Stratfor, the strategic forecasting consultancy, Russia offered in the past to construct nuclear power stations on its side of the border and supply North Korea with electricity.

Russia is close to North Korea. In its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, in 1965, it built North Korea's infamous Yongbyon facilities. Russia was also instrumental in convincing the North to agree to reactivate a railway line connecting it to South Korea. Kim Jong-il, the North's enigmatic leader, celebrated his 61st birthday, in February, in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

The mooted pipeline may be nothing but a pipe dream. Even optimists admit that it would require 4 years to construct - more likely 8 to 10 years. But Russia is in no hurry. Russian gas to the pariah state could yet prove to be a key ingredient in any settlement. Russia intends to drive a hard bargain. It is likely to try to swap gas supplies to the Koreans for the preservation of Iraqi oil contracts signed by Saddam's regime with Russian energy behemoths.

Regardless of geopolitical vicissitudes, Russia views Asia - mainly China, Japan and South Korea - as growth markets for its energy products. By 2008 or 2010, Russia plans to sell 20-30 billion cubic meters a year of gas from the Kovykta field, co-developed by Interros, the Tyumen oil company and British Petroleum, to China, South Korea and, possibly, Mongolia.

According to Asia Times:

"Russia is looking at two competing plans. One, backed by Russia's top oil firm Yukos and China, is a $2.5 billion, 2,400- kilometer extension of the existing network from near Irkutsk to Daqing, China. The other, backed by Rosneft and Japan, would cost $5.2 billion and circumvent China, running 3,800 kilometers to the Russian Far East city of Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan ... The Russian Energy Ministry eventually recommended that the Japanese and Chinese proposals be combined into one project, a third option to build the (1.6 million barrel a day) pipeline to Daqing and then extend it to Nakhodka."

Extending the network eastward is by no means the consensus. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov opened a cabinet meeting last month with the confident - but speculative - declaration that there is enough oil in Siberia to justify a pipeline. Russia's Energy Minister, Igor Yusufov, observed correctly that, in the absence of sufficient exploration, oil and gas reserves in Siberia and the Far East, pegged at 1 billion tons, are, at best, guesstimates. If these are smaller than projected, the eastern thrust would prove to be a costly error.

More than $12 billion are needed in order to explore the vast swathe and to develop it to a profitable level of production - about 100 million tons a year by 2020. The pipelines will funnel 70-80 million tons of crude and 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year to Asian buyers.

Still, Russia cannot ignore the Asian markets, nor can it wait a decade or two to avoid commercial risks. Last week, Russia's Energy Ministry concluded the negotiation of a 10-year collaborative effort with Japan involving the construction of oil and gas pipelines, the development of hydrocarbon fuel reserves in Siberia and other projects.

Yesterday, Russian Ambassador to China, Igor Rogachev, told Interfax, the Russian news agency, that "in the past three years, the dynamic growth of merchandise turnover (between Russia and China led to a) volume (of) close to $12 billion last year. This year the volume of bilateral trade grew 37 percent for the first two months and exceeded $2 billion."

Russian exports to China since the beginning of the year soared by 27 percent and Russian imports by 62 percent. China is an avid consumer of Russian electricity generation, aviation, space, laser, and nuclear technologies. Russian firms made inroads into the construction of Chinese hydroelectric plants and railways.

The two countries have "plans for the construction of the Russia-China oil pipeline, and delivering up to 30 million tons of oil a year in it, and a gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to the northeast of (North Korea), and to consumers in third countries". Russia is constructing "a number of major, modern facilities ... in China, (including) the first and second (generating) units at the Tianwan nuclear power plant". China has also signed a contract to buy Russian Tu-204 civil aircraft.

Nor is the cooperation limited to heavy or military industry, explained the Ambassador:

"Agreements between Chinese and Russian companies that provide for the assembly in Russia color televisions and household air conditioners are being successfully implemented."

Twelve years after the demise of communism, Russia is regrouping. It is patching the torn fabric of its diplomacy. In the best American tradition, it is leveraging its growing pecuniary clout - now that it is poised to become the world's leading energy producer. It is reorienting itself - emphasizing Asia over Europe. It is building new bridges and forming new alliances, both commercial and strategic.

As long as these serve the interests of the sole superpower - as may be the case with North Korea - Russia's revival as an important regional player is tolerated. But, following its sudden swing to the Franco-German camp in the run-up to the Iraqi campaign, it is on probation. Should it engage in anti-American activities, it may find that American patience and tolerance are rather strained.

YukosSibneft Oil - the outcome of the announced merger of Yukos Oil and Sibneft, two of Russia's prominent energy behemoths - will pump 2.06 to 2.3 million barrels of crude a day. This is more than Kuwait, Canada, or Iraq do.

With 19.3 to 20.7 billion barrels in known reserves (excluding Slavneft's), 150,000 workers, $15 billion in annual revenues and a market valuation of c. $36 billion - YukosSibneft is, by some measures, the fourth largest oil company in the world behind only ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell and British Petroleum. Its production cost - around $1.70 per barrel - is half the average outlay of its competitors. The merger offers no synergies - but, in oil, size does matter.

The listing of Yukos stock on the New York State Exchange, slated for the end of this year, will have to be postponed. Still, its American Depository Receipts shot up by 10 percent on the news. In contrast, Sibneft's barely budged, up 3 percent.

Having been shelved in 1998, the annus horribilis of the Russian economy, the deal was successfully struck two days ago. Yukos will pay $3 billion and dole out 26 percent of the combined group to Sibneft's "core" shareholders - namely the oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky. Minority stock owners are to be made a "fair offer" backed by a valuation produced by "an internationally recognized bank".

This would be Citigroup. Citibank placed $900 million of Sibneft's corporate debt in the past 5 quarters. It also advised Sibneft in its controversial acquisition, with Tyumen, of the government's stake in Slavneft. The purchase of Lithuanian oil company Mazeiku Nafta by Yukos was virtually designed by Citibank.

Yukos, owned 36 percent by Khodorkovsky, may also distribute a chunk of its $4 billion cash trove either in the form of a dividend or through a share buyback.  Whatever the future of this merger, the magnate-shareholders seem to be eager to cash in prior to the expected plunge in oil prices.

Such mergers have become a staple of the sector in recent years. Spurred to consolidate by dropping oil prices and wild competition from Latin America, Central Asia and the Middle East - the giants of the industry mate fervently. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the chief executive officer of YukosSibneft, is already eyeing acquisition targets to expand retail operations abroad.

Yukos has recently acquired refineries and pipelines in Lithuania and the Czech Republic, for instance. The combined outfit owns, in Lithuania, Belarus and Russia, ten refineries with a total capacity of c. 2 million bpd and more than 2500 filling stations.

The merger - coupled with British Petroleum's takeover of Tyumen Oil in February - depletes the pool of investments available to Western corporate suitors. It also cements Russia's dependence on energy. Oil accounts for close to one third of the vast country's gross domestic product and one half of its exports.

Production in the oil segment has been growing by annual leaps of 20 to 30 percent - compared to a standstill in the rest of Russian industry excluding energy. Reflecting this disparity, YukosSibneft's market value amounts to one half that of all other listed Russian firms combined.

Contrary to congratulatory noises made by self-interested Western bankers and securities analysts, the merger is not good news. It rewards rapacious oligarchs for the unabashed robbery of state assets in the 1990s, keeps much-needed foreign competition, management and capital out and reinforces Russia's addiction to extracted wealth. It spells another orgy of asset stripping and colossal self-enrichment by the junta of former spooks and their business allies.

This is the first time that the Putin administration approves of cooperation between oligarchs. The Kremlin also permitted Yukos to build the first private pipeline to the northern port of Murmansk, the export gateway to the lucrative American market. The avaricious elite sees no reason to share this bonanza with foreigners.

Vladimir Katrenko, the Chairman of the State Duma's Committee on Energy, Transport and Communications confirmed that "by uniting their capital, leading Russian oil and energy companies are trying to stand up to international corporations which exploit every opportunity to squeeze out competitors".

Furthermore, with a parliamentary vote by yearend and presidential elections looming next March, Putin, like president Boris Yeltsin before him, may be discovering the charms of abundant campaign finance and mogul sponsorship in the provinces. Yukos contributes heavily to political outfits, such as the Communist Party, the Union of the Right Forces (SPS), and the Apple (Yabloko) party.

Kohodorkovsky even announced his presidential ambitions in the 2008 campaign. Should he team up with the Family - the inner core of the Yeltsin-era crony machine - The Kremlin would justly feel besieged.

In a thinly-veiled allusion to Khodorkovsky's political aspirations, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Budget Committee, Sergei Shtogrin, mused that "certain people in Russia have a great deal of influence in national politics and economics. At the moment it is still unclear what the policy of the new management will be and whether or not it will support the government in developing the economy or not."

Not surprisingly, therefore, Kremlin involvement is ubiquitous. It virtually micro-manages the oil sector. Putin leaned heavily on Sibneft not to conclude a deal with foreign suitors such as TotalFinaElf, ExxonMobil and Shell and to favor Yukos. Abramovich is said to be impotently seething at the loss of control over Sibneft. The merger was also a way to denude the outspoken Berezovsky, much-hated by the Kremlin, of his last assets in Russia.

The disgraced tycoon - whose extradition from the United Kingdom on fraud charges has been officially requested by Russian authorities last month - bought Sibneft for a mere $100 million in the heyday of Yeltsin the corrupt, in 1995-6. Asia Times reported, based on Moscow "banking sources", that Yukos has hitherto refrained from going public in New York due to Kremlin pressure. The firms have been hitherto closely held with the free floats of Yukos and Sibneft equal to less than one quarter and one seventh of their capital, respectively.

While it maintained Yukos' rating as is, Moody's Investors Service kept Sibneft under review for a possible downgrade:

"Moody's sees significant benefits of the transaction in terms of scale, the limited cash financing of the merger, and the good underlying reserve quality and operational efficiency of the two companies ... The enlarged group's intention (is) to maintain a moderate level of leverage and a strong working capital position. (But) the new entity's activities will remain wholly concentrated in Russia ... (and) while positive changes are being promised, corporate governance is also likely to persist as a constraining rating issue. This reflects the ongoing discussions with TNK regarding the split of the assets of Slavneft acquired in late 2002 by the two companies and Sibneft's practice of making high dividend payments."

These civil understatements disguise an unsettling opaqueness as to who exactly owns Sibneft. Nor are its frequent dealings more transparent. It recently sold its stakes in oil company Onaco and its chief production subsidiary, Orenburgneft, to Tyumen Oil - yet, no one knows for how much. Another imponderable is Gazprom, now a formidable and superbly connected direct competitor - with state-owned partner Rosneft - for energy reserves in eastern Siberia.

The YukosSibneft merger is in the worst of Russian traditions: self-dealing, self-serving and murky. This offspring of political meddling, egregious profit taking, insider trading, backstabbing and xenophobia it is unlikely to produce another Shell or BP. It is the venomous fruit of a poisoned tree.

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