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Putin May Be Own Biggest Hurdle in Plan to Woo Foreign Investors

Putin May Be Own Biggest Hurdle in Plan to Woo Foreign Investors

President Vladimir Putin is considering selling stakes in some of Russia’s state jewels to foreign buyers to raise cash for an economy brought to its knees by the collapse in oil prices and sanctions related to Ukraine. Investors are dubious.

On the surface, an opportunity to buy into such firms as the country’s largest oil producer Rosneft OJSC and rail monopoly Russian Railways JSC would seem almost too good to be true. Potential buyers see many obstacles that could prevent any deals from happening, not the least of which include Russia’s track record in mismanaged sales and the uncertain role of the state in new ownership structures.

“I will believe it when I see it,” said Pavel Laberko, a London-based money manager at Union Bancaire Privee, a wealth manager that oversees about $90 billion. “The government has been talking about privatization for several years, but they always find an excuse not to do it. I see a high probability of this not happening.”

A deepening recession, a ballooning budget deficit and Brent crude at around $30 a barrel have weakened the oil-reliant economy and forced Putin, who has tightened his grip on the state, to mull privatization. Rosneft global depositary receipts gained 1.5 percent to $3.43 as of 3:15 p.m. in London, leaving it down 49 percent since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago. VTB Group, the nation’s second-biggest lender, slid 1.8 percent to $1.721 on Wednesday.

“Russia was and remains open for foreign investment and Russia is interested in attracting new foreign partners,” the president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday. The Finance Ministry has said it wants to raise about 1 trillion rubles ($12.5 billion) selling stakes in state companies over two years. Fitch Ratings on Wednesday said that although state ownership in mentioned companies is “unlikely” to be cut to a minority stake in the near future, weakening state ties could trigger a review of ratings.

The country has struggled to ramp up an ambitious asset-sale plan after relations between Russia and former Cold War adversaries soured when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, triggering a series of punitive bans on U.S. and European business transactions with major companies including Rosneft. There hasn’t been a major divestment of a state asset since the government reduced its stake in Alrosa PJSC in October 2013.

“U.S. and European investors will stay away from privatization sales even if the stock prices are really attractive since they’re afraid of possible new sanctions,” Sergey Vakhrameev, a money manager at GL Financial, which oversees about $100 million in assets, said by phone from Zurich.

The privatization program is a contentious topic given that Russia’s most prized assets wound up in the hands of oligarchs in the 1990s at bargain prices following the collapse of the Soviet Union, turning them into billionaires almost overnight. After Putin came to power in 2000, he promised to destroy oligarchs “as a class.”

Any interest in assets being privatized would likely come from countries such as China and possibly from some Russian oligarchs, according to George Hoguet of State Street Global Advisors.

“The first round of Russian privatization resulted in the missallocation of resources and concentration of wealth in the hands of the oligarchs, so a lot depends on how they do it this time around,” Hoguet, a Boston-based global investment strategist at State Street, said by phone. “You might find buyers from China’s state-controlled corporations who might be interested in these assets — companies that have a need for resources.”

Past privatizations have left international investors with mixed experiences. VTB Group’s 2012 share buyback at their initial public offering price from investors who lost money after participating in the 2007 share sale triggered criticism by foreign fund managers. Funds including Charlemagne Capital Ltd. and Van Eck Associates decried the plan, which only applied to investors who bought the shares when the company went public, as Putin maneuvered to gain votes from smaller shareholders. 

Buyers of privatized assets won’t be able to finance deals with loans from state-run banks and any sales “must take account of market conditions,” Putin said this week at a meeting at the Kremlin. Shares shouldn’t be sold “at a knockdown price,” while the state must retain control of strategic and systemically important companies, he said.

The Russian state budget’s in a “critical” situation and, given the global turbulence in financial markets, there’s no use waiting for more favorable conditions, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said at a meeting on Tuesday. The ministry said the government is considering broadening the list of major enterprises to be privatized in 2016.