By Irina Slav
Reeling under sanctions and a recession caused by depressed oil prices, the Russian government is working to finalize a list of seven strategic state-owned companies slated for partial privatization in a bid to inject fresh funds into federal coffers, and the country’s largest oil producer and pipeline monopoly may make the cut.
The list reportedly includes Russia’s largest state-owned oil company, Rosneft, and its state-owned pipeline monopoly, Transneft, along with diamond miner Alrosa, airline Aeroflot, Rostelecom, shipping line Sovcomflot, and Russian Railways. Two banks—VTB and Sberbank—are believed to have been taken off the list already.
The driving force behind this renewed privatization drive is Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, who is gunning for President Vladimir Putin’s approval of a final list as early as the end of this week.
Russia is in dire need of a cash injection into the budget, which this year could suffer an over $21-billion deficit, even with an oil price baseline of $40 a barrel. Crude is currently trading well below this mark, with only mildly optimistic hopes that it will recover to $50 and above by the end of this year.
It’s a tough time to privatize. This week alone we saw two oil giants report bleak 2015 figures-—BP and ExxonMobil—both suffering the effects of cheap oil. BP, which has a large stake in Russian TNK-BP, has been especially hard hit.
And the Kremlin will be picky, making it clear that the preferred buyers will be local, though officially, foreign companies are welcome to bid and the Austrians have been formally invited to take part. The playing-hard-to-get aspect is in part a negotiating card.
Last November, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told media that the government was considering letting Chinese bidders take part in the partial privatization of Rosneft; however, this year has seen no more talk of this. Even if the Chinese are still interested in Rosneft, they might find it challenging to make such an acquisition line up with their strategic objectives in the current oil price environment. With the economic slowdown in China, commodities markets are feeling the tight squeeze.
The current market turmoil has created a once in a generation opportunity for savvy energy investors. Whilst the mainstream media prints scare stories of oil prices falling through the floor smart investors are setting up their next winning oil plays. Rosneft is in a bit of trouble. It’s 25-year deal to supply oil to China National Petroleum Corp.—one of its most lucrative cash cows—risks fizzling out as crude continues on the downward spiral and these advance payment funds go with it. These prepayment contracts have been a major source of alternative financing for Rosneft. That deal was valued at $270 billion when oil was trading at $100 in 2013.
The assets are even less tantalizing when we consider that the Kremlin is only looking at a partial privatization here.
Russian state-run media are hinting that Rosneft and Bashneft would be at the top of the privatization list. According to Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukayev, in his invitation to potential Austrian interests: “These are the companies that are already in the privatization plan. Public companies that have listings, thus – technically and legally ready and are known to investors. That is where we are going to start. Bashneft, Alrosa, Rosneft are all in this list.”
While Ulyukayev seems to view the pending privatizations as a done deal, there is plenty of opposition—most of which view the timing as bad for such a move.
Former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin is one such figure. He recently told media that “the value of these companies is very low at the peak of the fall in oil prices,” and that while Rosneft should be privatized because it “does not receive other sources to cover the deficit,” these privatizations should be postponed for a year and a half when they would bring in substantially more money.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com