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Business Watch: April 22, 2003

22 April 2003, Volume 3, Number 14
With parliament set to vote on 24 April on the future of production-sharing agreements (PSAs), state-owned energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft have stepped up their efforts to retain a forgiving tax climate at oil and gas fields they operate. (PSAs establish a lenient tax environment for a specific project to encourage investment; they frequently provide a framework for Western investment in the developing world.) Gazprom and Rosneft were moved to protest after a 10 April meeting of the Budget Committee struck down an exception in the tax code, gutting the PSA at the Prirazlom oil field. Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov penned a letter to State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, while Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov wrote to Budget Committee Chairman Aleksandr Zhukov, "Kommersant" reported on 16 April. Bogdanchikov's letter objects in principle to changes that would curtail PSAs, while Ryazanov's missive asks for specific concessions on the Prirazlom oil field. The two companies together have invested more than $350 million into the Prirazlom field, which they are developing jointly; without a PSA, the companies argue that they might not be able to continue developing the field, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 April. With the new tax code likely to provide for the general elimination of PSAs, companies that currently benefit are gearing up to fight for specific exemptions. For example, Duma Deputy Sergei Shtogrin told "Vedomosti" on 16 April that the status of four current PSA projects will be discussed at an upcoming meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko. DK

A 17 April cabinet meeting cheered Russia's privately owned oil companies with support for their Murmansk pipeline project and a hint that the state is less than dead set on maintaining its monopoly over pipelines, "Izvestiya" reported on 18 April. Ministers assigned state-owned pipeline monopolist Transneft and the ministries of Economic Development and Trade and of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study of the $3.4 billion-4.5 billion pipeline project, which could boost Russia's export capacity by as much as 120 million tons yearly and open the door to the lucrative U.S. market. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov heartened the consortium of oil majors that hopes to construct the pipeline -- LUKoil, Yukos, Tyumen Oil Company (TNK), Sibneft, and Surgutneftegaz -- when he remarked that "there is no need for an exclusively property-based form of state control in this area," "Kommersant" reported on 18 April. The comment would seem to indicate that the state, which lacks the funds to pay for such a project, would be willing to let the oilmen retain ownership -- and control -- of a pipeline they pay to construct. Pipelines are currently the sole domain of monopolist Transneft. Trust Investment Bank (formerly the Trust and Investment Bank) analyst Vladislav Metnev told "Vedomosti" on 18 April that the Murmansk project, which is primarily directed toward the U.S. market, might require rethinking in light of the Iraq-induced chill in U.S.-Russian relations and the impending return of Iraqi oil to world markets. DK

Mikhail Fridman, president of Alfa-Group, told journalists on 16 April that Alfa-Group's Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) now owns all of oil company Onaco and its chief production subsidiary, Orenburgneft, "Izvestiya" reported the next day. TNK raised its stake to 100 percent by purchasing a 38 percent stake in Orenburgneft and a 1 percent stake in Onaco from fellow oil major Sibneft. The companies did not disclose the amount of the deal, but United Financial Group analyst Pavel Kushner commented to "Vedomosti" on 17 April that TNK likely spent far more than the $430 million Sibneft shelled out to acquire its chunk of Onaco. Aton analyst Steven Dashevskii told the newspaper that Orenburgneft is currently worth $1.5 billion-1.7 billion, putting the value of a 38 percent stake at $650 million-750 million. Analysts queried by "Kommersant" the same day were less generous, estimated the worth of the deal at $300 million-550 million. A clearer picture should emerge when Sibneft publishes its financial results for the first half of 2003. According to "Vedomosti," Orenburgneft produced 9 million metric tons of oil in 2002. DK

LUKoil's board of directors reviewed the company's strategic development plan through 2013 at a 16 April meeting, "Kommersant" reported the next day. Slated for final approval in November, the plan envisages investment of $19 billion to increase oil production from current levels of 75 million tons a year to 110 million tons by 2010, "The Moscow Times" reported on 17 April. Gas production would rise even more dramatically, from 4 billion cubic meters to 33 billion cubic meters. The plan would also double the number of LUKoil filling stations in Russia and Europe to 2,800 and 2,000, respectively. If successfully implemented, the strategy could enable LUKoil to regain the status of Russian production leader from competitor Yukos, which surged into the number one spot in late 2002. The board also recommended that shareholders approve a dividend payment of 19.5 rubles ($0.63) per share, increasing dividends from $407 million to $530 million, or 28 percent of the company's net profit, "Vedomosti" reported on 17 April. Only Sibneft, which paid out virtually all of its 2002 profit in dividends, has a more generous policy. LUKoil Vice President Leonid Fedun told the newspaper that the company is also introducing an option incentive program for 100 to 300 of its top managers. DK

Sergei Bogdanchikov, president of state-owned oil company Rosneft, announced on 14 April that his company plans to spend $700 million to modernize the Tuapsa refinery, Interfax reported the same day. The modernization will allow the refinery to process sulfurous oil; it is currently capable of processing only low-sulfur sweet crude. The refinery's processing capabilities became vitally important on 1 April, when pipeline monopolist Transneft began pumping sulfurous oil through the pipeline that services the Tuapsa refinery. While the move adds much-needed export capacity to Russia's transport system, it also makes the refinery's modernization a high-priority issue for Rosneft. Company sources told "Vedomosti" on 15 April that the modernization, which is scheduled to take four years, will be conducted in stages so that the refinery never comes to a complete halt. The reconstruction will be financed "on the fly" from a variety of sources. Aton analyst Temirbulat Karimov told the newspaper that the refinery might be causing Rosneft more trouble than it is worth, however. Each barrel of refining capacity will cost $16 as compared to an average of $2-3 for Russia and $5 for Eastern Europe. DK

Talk of a major deal in the works drove Sibneft shares up 6 percent in the first week of April, "Vedomosti" reported on 9 April. According to the newspaper, persistent rumors predict that a Western investor will snap up a 25 to 51 percent stake in the Russian oil major "within two to three weeks." Word on the street mentions Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch/Shell, U.S.-based ExxonMobil, and France's TotalFinaElf as possible suitors. BP entered into a $6.5 billion joint venture with Tyumen Oil Company (TNK) in February, sparking hopes of an impending rush to invest in the Russian oil sector. With Sibneft mum on the speculation, Aton analyst Steven Dashevskii told "The Financial Times" on 10 April that he was skeptical: "Something is brewing, but it is more likely that Sibneft will complete another acquisition itself or buy out Slavneft." (Sibneft and TNK together acquired Slavneft in a December 2002 privatization auction.) "Vremya novostei" cited an "informed source" on 9 April as saying that talks are ongoing between Sibneft and investors over the sale of a stake in the company. According to the source, "Any size stake could be sold; what matters is getting the right price." DK

State-owned oil company Rosneft is bidding for influence over the Vankor oil field, with 125 million metric tons of oil reserves and 73 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Rights to develop the field belong to Eniseineft, 59 percent of which is owned by the Anglo-Siberian Oil Company (ASOC). Rosneft made an offer on 4 April to buy all the shares of ASOC for $72 million, double their market value, "Vremya novostei" reported on 7 April. Privately owned oil major Yukos controls approximately 20 percent of Eniseineft, "Gazeta" reported on 7 April. Legal disputes swirl around the ownership of an additional 17 percent stake in Eniseineft currently held by Soyuzneftegaz, a company controlled by former Energy Minister Yurii Shafranikov. Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii announced that his company is willing to part with its stake in Eniseineft for $30 million-40 million once all legal disputes are settled, Interfax reported on 11 April. Meanwhile, ASOC management told investors that it has reached an agreement with France's TotalFinaElf to guarantee more than $200 million of investment into the Vankor field, "Vedomosti" reported on 14 April. Vankor currently lacks an infrastructure and will require some $2.4 billion to develop. Though the announcement of an agreement with TotalFinaElf seems calculated to discourage shareholders from selling out to Rosneft, they will have some time to make up their minds -- Rosneft's offer remains in force until 25 April. DK

Citibank has expanded the variety of credit options available to Moscow residents, making available unsecured loans that borrowers may use for any purpose they desire, "Vedomosti" reported on 15 April. A Citibank representative told the newspaper that the ruble-denominated loans range from 32,000 rubles ($1,030) to 320,000 rubles with a repayment period of 1 1/2-3 years at an annual interest rate of 22 percent. In order to obtain a loan, borrowers must be able to prove that they earn no less than 16,000 rubles a month, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 April. According to "Vedomosti," unsecured loans of more than $1,000 remain a rarity in Russia. As Troika Dialog senior analyst Andrei Ivanov explained to "Vremya novostei," "For now, there aren't that many in people in Moscow you can give $10,000 for two-three years without a significant risk to the bank." DK

As the Russian consumer-credit market picks up, U.S.-based investment fund Delta Capital plans to open the country's first private credit bureau, reported on 16 April. With two draft bills to create a state-run credit bureau apparently lost in the legislative labyrinth, Delta Capital will try to show that the private sector can pick up the slack, matching its own 25,000-person database with the resources of several banks. Regional banks are also looking to create a clearinghouse of credit histories, "Kommersant" reported on 17 April. Vladimir Kievskii, vice president of the Association of Regional Banks of Russia, told the newspaper that the organization plans to register a credit bureau in the spring that will bring together 110 banks. An unwillingness to share information about creditworthy clients has hampered banks' previous efforts to pool their resources and form a workable credit bureau. DK

The board of directors of the Russian Trading System (RTS) decided at a 10 April meeting against a change in the exchange's legal status, "Gazeta" reported the next day. The RTS is currently a noncommercial partnership with 245 partners. The Federal Securities Commission (FKTsB) recently suggested through unofficial channels that the RTS switch its status from a noncommercial partnership to a joint-stock company, "Vedomosti" reported on 10 April. Though the move would ostensibly ensure greater openness, brokers greeted the proposal with suspicion, since shares in a joint-stock company can be bought, sold, and accumulated to form a controlling stake. An anonymous source in the banking industry told "Gazeta" that the aim of the FKTsB initiative was "to put the RTS under the control of a specific party." The FKTsB and RTS sparred earlier this year in the course of a still unresolved price manipulation investigation that led to the unexpected resignation of RTS President Ivan Tyryshkin. Some observers linked the investigation and subsequent resignation to a personal conflict between Tyryshkin and FKTsB head Igor Kostikov. Although second in volume to the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange, the RTS is commonly cited as the leading indicator of the Russian stock market. DK

Alfa-Group President Fridman wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov proposing that Alfa subsidiary Alfa Echo be entrusted with the management of Sheremetevo International Airport in exchange for an investment in the beleaguered Sheremetevo-3 terminal project, "Vedomosti" reported on 14 April. The prime minister reacted with guarded optimism, asking the ministries of Economic Development, Property Relations, and Transportation to evaluate the project and report back to him as quickly as possible. Preliminary evaluations from the ministries appeared to be positive, but the state-owned airport is considered a "strategically important object," meaning that the project could require presidential approval. Alfa-Group's willingness to invest in the $300 million-350 million terminal project, a capacity-boosting measure considered as necessary as it is overdue, could give it a foothold in a lucrative new business. Sheremetevo took in 2.7 billion rubles ($86.6 million) in 2002, generating a net profit of 540 million rubles, "Gazeta" reported on 15 April. Experts told the newspaper that only the oil and gas sector presents comparable profit opportunities. Opportunity, of course, begets competition, and National Reserve Bank (NRB) President Aleksandr Lebedev announced on 17 April that the NRB would be willing to go the mat with Alfa-Group in the event of a competitive tender to manage the airport, "Vedomosti" reported on 18 April. According to "Gazeta," other potential participants in a tender could be France's Aeroports de Paris, Germany's Hochtief, and Russia's own Sistema AFK. DK

Yevgenii Panteleev, head of Moscow's Department of Science and Industrial Policy, announced on 18 April that a suit has been filed with the Moscow Arbitration Court to initiate bankruptcy proceedings at the Moskvich auto factory, Interfax reported the same day. The factory, which has stood idle since late 2001, owes about $1 billion, most of it in Soviet-era loans from the Finance Ministry. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov wrote to Prime Minister Kasyanov on 4 April asking for support in the city's effort to move the bankruptcy along, "Vedomosti" reported on 15 April. The city, which claims to have a comprehensive plan for returning the factory to financial health and profitable production, has long dreamed of obtaining a controlling stake in the automaker from the Property Relations Ministry, which holds 60.36 percent of Moskvich shares. An unnamed representative of the Ministry of Industry and Science told "Gazeta" on 15 April that bankruptcy proceedings are a good idea but "the factory shouldn't be taken to pieces...[and] there shouldn't be any sale of assets." Courts have rebuffed previous attempts to begin bankruptcy proceedings at the factory, but the initiators have been small creditors who lacked the influence of the Moscow city government. DK

The Siberian Coal Energy Company (SUEK), the coal arm of MDM Group, has acquired stakes in coal companies Kuzbassugol and soon-to-be-privatized Vorkutaugol, "Vedomosti" reported on 11 April. According to the newspaper, SUEK purchased a 48.5 percent stake in Kuzbassugol and a 14 percent stake in Vorkutaugol, both from the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant (NLMK). Although the parties to the deal declined to reveal the sums involved, Aton analyst Aleksandr Agibalov estimated the value of a 48.5 percent stake in Kuzbassugol at $87.3 million and a 14 percent stake in Vorkutaugol at $1.8 million. A controlling stake in Kuzbassugol, the third-largest coal company in Russia, belongs to Severstal. A 60.5 percent stake in Vorkutaugol, where SUEK representative Sergei Veinberg occupies the post of deputy director, is earmarked for privatization. SUEK announced in late March that it intends to borrow $162 million and issue 1 billion rubles ($32 million) in bonds to fund the acquisition of coal companies slated for privatization. Coal might have a bright enough future to justify the interest and investment. With gas reform set to raise prices from their current domestic level of $22 per 1,000 cubic meters to between $60 and $100, coal is poised to pick up the slack. Significant investment will be required to boost production, however. Deputy Energy Minister Anatolii Yanovskii estimated at a recent conference in Moscow that the coal industry will need $27 billion in investment by 2020, "Vremnya MN" reported on 8 April. DK

With moves afoot to eliminate external tolling, governors friendly to the aluminum industry are lobbying to retain the practice. (In a so-called external tolling arrangement, a raw material is brought into the country for processing and subsequently exported under a contractual agreement that makes it possible to avoid paying customs duties and the value-added tax. Approximately 60 percent of Russian aluminum production takes place under tolling arrangements.) The Commission for Protective Measures in Foreign Trade decided on 12 March to get rid of tolling, prompting a group of governors friendly to leading aluminum producer Rusal to ask Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to reconsider the question, "Vedomosti" reported on 7 April. Kasyanov found the governors' arguments sufficiently convincing to request that the issue receive "further study." The aluminum industry might be lobbying up the wrong tree, however. A 7 April meeting of the State Duma's Budget Committee recommended the passage of a new customs code that would eliminate tolling once and for all, "Kommersant" reported the next day. If lawmakers approve the changes to the customs code when they vote on 23 April, it will "render current discussions in the cabinet [about tolling] irrelevant," "Gazeta" reported on 8 April. DK

Aluminum group SUAL and France's Aluminum Pechiney signed an agreement to cooperate on SUAL's $2.1 billion Komi Aluminum project, ABNews reported on 9 April. The project envisages the construction of two plants, one to produce 1.4 million tons of alumina annually and another to produce 500,000 tons of aluminum. For now, Pechiney will conduct a detailed analysis of the project. If the numbers point in the right direction, Pechiney could become a strategic investor with up to a 40 percent stake in Komi Aluminum. NIKoil analyst Vycheslav Smolyaninov told "Vedomosti" on 10 April that the search for investors is a logical part of such an ambitious project: "SUAL doesn't have enough funds to pull off the project by itself, and Pechiney is a large international company with technology that is advanced by Russian standards." The reference is to Pechniney's AP-50 technology, which significantly reduces the cost of producing primary aluminum. The fourth-largest aluminum producer in the world, Pechiney has been hit hard by lower prices for the metal. The company lost 500 million euros ($544 million) in 2002 after posting a 233 million-euro profit in 2001, "Gazeta" reported on 10 April. SUAL is no novice in the business of courting foreign investors. In early 2003, the company entered into a partnership with British investment company Fleming Family & Partners, granting FF&P a 25 stake in its business. Aton Vice President Aleksandr Agibalov told "Vremya novostei" on 10 April that the Pechiney deal is "probable," adding that "it all depends on the price." DK

Germany's Deutsche Telekom has reduced its holdings in leading Russian cellular operator Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) by 15 percent, selling a 5 percent stake on the London Stock Exchange on 15 April and unloading a further 10 percent when Russia's AFK Sistema exercised a buy option on 17 April, Prime-TASS reported on 17 April. Struggling to reduce an overall debt load of some 60 billion euros ($65.2 billion), the German telecommunications giant earned 200 million euros from the sale of its 5 percent stake in MTS, "Gazeta" reported on 16 April. Analysts noted, however, that the deal could have brought in $15 million-20 million more if it had been executed in less hurried fashion. For its part, Sistema paid $347 million for the 10 percent stake in MTS, a 20 percent discount on the market price of $43.8 per share, "Vedomosti" reported on 18 April. The deals leave Sistema with a controlling 50.4 percent stake in MTS and Deutsche Telekom with a blocking 25.1 percent stake. DK

Second-place cellular operator Vimpelcom announced in a 15 April press release that it has kicked off its own network in Russia's northern capital of St. Petersburg. As a latecomer to a market where competitors are already dug in, Vimpelcom will have its work cut out for it. According to ACM Consulting, cellular penetration in the city is 37.8 percent, with 59 percent of the 2.4 million subscribers MegaPhone customers, 35 percent Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) customers, and the rest apportioned among minor players, "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 April. Vimpelcom plans to break into the market by replicating an aggressive marketing tactic that won MTS nearly 1 million subscribers when it first set its sights on St. Petersburg, "Vedomosti" reported on 16 April: outgoing calls inside the network will cost $0.01 per minute within the city. MTS ran its promotion for one year; Vimpelcom has not said how long the special rates will last. Though the cellular operator starts out playing catch-up, its $50 million investment into a network with 110 base stations bespeaks a serious commitment to the region, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 April. ACM Consulting analyst Anton Pogrebinskii told "The Moscow Times" that with cellular penetration in St. Petersburg expected to reach 49 percent by the end of 2003, Vimpelcom could gain 200,000 new subscribers in the city by year's end. DK

A hot line for complaints about the quality of cellular communications in Moscow has failed to produce conclusive findings, "Gazeta" reported on 9 April. The hot line was set up in the course of a recent campaign by Mayor Luzhkov to improve the quality of cellular communications in the capital. According to "Gazeta," the greatest part of the 800 complaints received as of 8 April concerned Vimpelcom's BeeLine brand (350 complaints), with MegaPhone's Sonic Duo and Mobile TeleSystems coming in second and third with 250 and 100 complaints, respectively. Representatives of cellular operators were quick to point out that call-in results are not the same as a scientific survey. Despite their criticism of the hot line, cellular operators have responded to the mayor's campaign with steps to improve the quality of their services. MegaPhone has increased the number of channels it uses to connect subscribers to fixed-line operator Rostelecom, and Vimpelcom now connects its subscribers directly to MegaPhone subscribers without going through a fixed-line operator, "Vedomosti" reported on 10 April. Vimpelcom also made what could be the most important quality-control improvement of all when it equipped City Hall with its own base station. DK

Russia's Siberia Airline took over most of the flight routes from Armenia's debt-ridden national carrier on 15 April, "Kommersant" reported the next day. Armavia, in which Siberia holds a 70 percent stake, assumed 29 of 36 flight-destination licenses from state-owned Armenian Airlines, which is buckling under a $20 million debt load. Siberia agreed to pay Armenian Airlines $15 million for the routes and to ensure 8 percent annual growth in passenger volume, Armenian Justice Minister David Arutyunyan told the newspaper. Armavia's single Airbus 320 will give Siberia, which currently operates a fleet of Russian-made aircraft, experience in operating foreign-made planes. Siberia Airline is looking to add similar aircraft to its own fleet as soon as the Russian government eliminates prohibitive import duties, "The Moscow Times" reported on 15 April, and the Armavia involvement will allow its technicians to obtain valuable know-how. Armenian Airlines employees took a dim view of the deal, however, demanding an end to the route transfer and asking United Nations representatives in Armenia to defend their rights, Rosbalt reported on 18 April. The employees complain that their labor contracts are not guaranteed in the switch and that 800 of the company's 1,500 workers stand to lose their jobs. DK

LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov signed an agreement in Baku, Azerbaijan, on 4 April to raise his company's involvement in Caspian-shelf oil projects, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 7 April. Under the deal, LUKoil's stake in the project to develop the Yalama/D-222 block will jump from 60 percent to 80 percent, while the contracted area will increase from 1,286 square kilometers to 3,037 square kilometers. The agreement complements a contract originally signed in 1997. LUKoil Vice President Leonid Fedun told "Nefte Compass" on 9 April that the company plans to begin drilling its first well in Yalama in mid-2004, adding that the field might hold at least 3.7 billion barrels of reserves. Trust and Investment Bank analyst Vladislav Metnev told "Vedomosti" on 7 April, "The increased stake in the Yalama development further confirms the company's commitment to Caspian projects." The news might serve to reassure Azerbaijan after LUKoil sold its 10 percent stake in the Azeri, Chirag, Guneshli field to Japan's Inpex for $1.25 billion in November. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the payment of $250 million in taxes on the sale remains an unresolved issue. DK

Russian beer brewers are finding it increasingly difficult to do business in Belarus, "Vremya novostei" reported on 9 April. Protective measures introduced on 1 April have led to an almost-complete halt in Russian imports. The new measures require that each bottle of imported beer sport an excise stamp and that importers pay $13,500 for each 100,000 liters (26,425 gallons) of beer they bring into Belarus, a 25 percent increase over previous duties. Dmitrii Kistev, acting export director at Russia's Baltika, said the new rules will translate into a 40 percent price hike for consumers, effectively making Russian beer uncompetitive in Belarus, "Vedomosti" reported on 8 April. Attempts to circumvent increasingly restrictive trade measures by opening domestic production facilities have proven troublesome. Baltika reached an agreement with Belarus in 2001 to invest $50 million in the reconstruction of the Krinitsa brewery in Minsk in exchange for a controlling stake in the enterprise. With only $10.5 million invested, the agreement foundered amid a welter of mutual recrimination, "Moskovskie novosti" reported on 8 April. Baltika has sought protection in international arbitration, while Belarus has begun looking for new investors. DK