Category Archives: business intrigue

Germany Suckers Russia into Automotive Boondoggle

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The Wall Street Journal reports:

The German government has bound the fate of General Motors Corp.’s (GM) European business to the faltering Russian economy by selecting auto-parts supplier Magna International (MG.A.T) as a partner for Adam Opel.

{Click the link to read the rest, explaining how Russia has been suckered into a major boondoggle by the Germans}

EDITORIAL: In Russia, Winning does not Guarantee Victory

EDITORIAL

In Russia, Winning does not Guarantee Victory

In February of last year, we reported on how a Norwegian company called Telenor was locked in battle with a Russian company called Storm LLC, proxy for a Russian firm called Altimo, itself a proxy for a Russian congolmerate called Alfa Group, over control of a Ukrainian telecommunications enterprise called Kyivstar GSM.  As is the usual thing, the Russian company was playing dirty, and the Norwegians turned to the American legal system for help, notching a big victory over the Russian side.

The Russians responded by launching a billion-dollar lawsuit against Telenor in an obscure Siberian court using a proxy entity called Farimex over shares held by Telenor in the Russian telecom giant VimpelCom.

Now Telenor’s website reports the following:

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Essel on Russia vs. Zimbabwe

Russia Still Second, Zimbabwe Still Leads…

by David Essel

Russia is still a runner-up to Zimbabwe in the economic mismanagement stakes but the two countries are competing in the same league of Commie Mentality States.

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Latynina on Putin and Mechel

Other Russia translates Yulia Latynina from Yezhedevny Zhurnal:

Last week, at a meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin came down hard on a company which was damaging Russia’s economy with its work.

It turned out this company was by no means Baikalfinansgrup, which bought Yuganskneftegaz at a non-competitive auction on credit provided by the government. And it wasn’t the Gunvor group, which belongs to a friend of premier Putin and receives 70 billion dollars annual income from the export of Russian oil. And not RosUkrEnergo, whose right to deliver gas to the Ukraine using non-transparent arrangements is whole-heartedly defended by Russian bureaucrats at the highest level.

It turned out to be Mechel, condemned for selling coal abroad at prices two times lower than domestic ones. The company’s owner, Igor Zyuzin, did not appear at at the meeting, citing illness. “Of course, illness is illness,” premier [Putin] said, then recommending a speedy recovery for Mechel’s owner. “Otherwise we’ll have to send him a doctor to clear out all these problems.”

Putin’s promise to send Zyuzin a doctor cost Mr. Zyuzin 5 billion dollars — it was exactly this amount by which Mechel’s market capitalization collapsed that evening on the New York exchange.

The reason why Mechel in particular dissatisfied the premier was such: The largest Russian metallurgical giants, including the Novolipetsky [NLMK] and Magnitogorsky metallurgical complexes, buy up coal on the side, and as a consequence, are interested in long-term contracts for coal delivery during times of sharp price increases.

Mechel, which supplies them with coal, is a coal extracting company, and is accordingly interested in spot contracts for coal delivery, which allow it to maximize sales profit; And, should the opportunity arise, to use the deficit of coal as a lever to gain control over small factories (Gubakha, for instance).

It is clear that giants like NLMK and Magnitka are much closer to the Kremlin, and especially to Vice-Premier Sechin, who now oversees industry. It was precisely Sechin, who, with active participation of the metallurgical giants, prepared the report that has raised so much attention.

It sticks out like a sore thumb that this is already Premier Putin’s second attempt at direct interference in the economy. A week ago, high prices for jet fuel elicited his discontent. If earlier, during his presidency, President Putin underscored in every way that “the Yukos affair” was an exception, then now, it seems Premier Putin is making it clear to everyone that he is intent on directing the economy by hand.

Mechel, which was worth around 15 billion dollars just last week, recently laid out around 2.5 billion dollars for a controlling stake in two large coal companies –Yakutugol and Elgaugol –and in doing so, beat out the state-run ALROSA. Yakutugol has been online for a long while. Elgaugol is simply a section of taiga, and several billon dollars are needed to develop it.

It is obvious that in the near term, it will be hard for a company that paid money for non-operational assets in an open auction to raise the means to develop them. If Mechel goes bankrupt, and its assets are sold for peanuts, Mechel’s shareholders (I’ll remind you that the company had its IPO and lists its shares on the New York Stock Exchange), may well file against Premier Putin in the New York City court.

And if the Yukos shareholders, in filing their corresponding lawsuit, expect to prove that precisely Vladimir Putin or Igor Sechin are guilty for their misfortunes, then everything is available right here. It is hard to imagine George Bush, threatening to “send a doctor” to Bill Gates. One doesn’t speak to businessmen this way in the free world. Crime bosses speak this way to an out of line merchant. Usually, proof of these threats is obtained in a strategic way, wrapping oneself in microphones. Here the threats sounded right on the television.

One question –how much will this affair cost Mechel? Although in my opinion, something else is far more interesting –how much will it cost the Magnitka and Lipetsky [metallurgical plants]. What has happened comes out as the classic illustration of the proverb: don’t call a wolf to help you with the dogs. The metallurgical giants turned to Vice-Premier Sechin, to help him fight with inflation by forcing Mechel into long-term contracts. The general fall of the market has already cost Russia’s steel sector far more than the losses from spot contracts, by which Zyuzin sold coal. After all, zealous bureaucrats will now be checking everyone, not just Mechel. It is always this way with chekists and bandits: if you ask them for a favor, it’s uncertain if they will accommodate it or not. But you’re still certain to owe them.

But the most interesting part –how much will this affair cost Premier Putin? It isn’t a question of whether business will start to speak up in Mechel’s defense –no one has any illusions here. Business will be tearing chunks out of Mechel, and its mouth will be busy. But then Mechel will likely run for protection to President Medvedev, and there aren’t any reasons why President Medvedev wouldn’t provide it with protection. If nothing happens with Mechel, and prices for airline tickets don’t fall, this will mean that Premier Putin can’t regulate the prices of either jet fuel, or coking coal.

And this is very bad, when the premier sends a doctor every week, and the doctor just doesn’t arrive. This way one can quickly tumble down to the level of Premier [Mikhail] Fradkov, who every week would loudly censure [German] Gref, or [Alexei] Kudrin. But for some reason, he could never do anything to them.

Browder Speaks

The Times of London reports:

Bill Browder calls himself a value investor – it is fund manager-speak for someone who looks for latent value in stocks that are ignored, hidden gems – but value investment barely begins to describe what he does.

In common with other money managers, the chief executive of Hermitage Capital has a PowerPoint presentation that sets out his strategy, but if you know anything about Bill Browder, the rehearsed explanation is strangely unsatisfying; you wonder if you are getting the whole story.

All fund managers, barring those who follow indices and the weird ones who predict the future from lines on charts, call themselves value investors, but the Hermitage chief does something altogether different – he pursues value with a vengeance.

This is not about taking a stake in a dull family engineering company with a view to prodding the management out of slumber.

On the basis of past performance, Mr Browder’s strategy is to target a leading company with close connections to government and to conduct a forensic examination of its investments.

Upon discovering fraud and embezzlement, a very public campaign of exposure and denunciation ensues, followed by partial recovery of funds and huge stock price appreciation. It finally ends with Mr Browder being chased out of Russia.

Hermitage Capital’s campaign against fraud at Gazprom made enormous amounts of money for investors, including many who never put their money in Mr Browder’s fund.

He started with $25 million in 1996, achieving almost tenfold gains in 18 months and then raised $1billion from new investors. At one stage the pot totalled $4 billion and Hermitage became Russia’s biggest foreign portfolio investor.

However, Mr Browder offended someone with great power – he insists that he still does not know who – and in November 2005 was refused re-entry into Russia. He has not returned since.

Hermitage is shifting its focus to the Middle East, in particular the Gulf, where Mr Browder is investing the proceeds of a new fund. He raised $625 million in April last year and is targeting infrastructure companies in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

His portfolio includes 15 investments at present after a lengthy selection process from a thousand companies worldwide. He reckons that the Gulf investment climate is a holiday compared with Russia. “Corporate governance is so much better [in the Gulf]. In Russia it was all about fraud. We have never seen anything like that in the Middle East.”

The parallels between Mr Browder’s Russian exit and the present rumpus at TNK-BP (the Russian affiliate of BP, where a power struggle has resulted in BP’s nominated chief executive running the company from somewhere in Central Europe) are obvious.

“If my experience is anything to go by, BP’s problems are only just beginning … They [BP] should fight back, use everything they have. It’s the only thing that these people understand.”

He ought to know. Although the visa denial put paid to his Russian strategy, it was trivial compared with what happened next.

In June 2007, while the Hermitage boss languished in London, a lieutenant-colonel in the tax unit of the Interior Ministry became aware of Mr Browder’s predicament.

Under the guise of a tax inquiry, his team raided the Moscow offices of Hermitage and its law firm, seizing documents, computer discs and corporate seals, in the process beating up a Russian lawyer who dared to protest.

Over the next six months there followed an elaborate fraud in which the ownership of several Hermitage companies was changed and new directors appointed.

A lawsuit was fabricated against the Hermitage companies, the bogus directors accepted the claim and “judgment” was awarded for $376 million.

Mr Browder has PowerPoint presentations that explain the fraud in minute detail and you almost sense that he enjoys pursuing the gangsters through the shadowy corridors of the Kremlin.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he says. It gets more amazing because the crooks failed to get the money – the Gaz-prom stock held by the companies had been transferred offshore.

Undeterred, the “police” then pursued another avenue. Having bankrupted the Hermitage companies with bogus lawsuits, they then demanded repayment from the Government of taxes legitimately paid by Hermitage, a total of $230 million, to the Russian Treasury. This was duly repaid to the crooks – a tax fraud perpetrated by tax inspectors.

Why does the Hermitage chief do it? “I went to Moscow hoping to find cheap stocks.” He was at the time a fan of Vladimir Putin, supporting the President’s programme of reform.

His first confrontation was with Vladimir Potanin, a Russian oil and metals tycoon, over shares in Sidanco, an oil company later acquired by BP. Hermitage bought 2 per cent, but the tycoon wanted to assert control.

“He decided to issue shares to a group of insiders, including himself. I had to go into battle to prevent it being diluted.”

He cuts an unlikely figure as a caped crusader for corporate governance in this cloak-and-dagger world of post-Soviet corporate gangsterism but talks about “the good guys” and “the bad guys” in a way that brushes aside the amorality of Moscow business deals.

His grandfather was Earl Browder, one of the founders of the American Communist Party, who went to Russia in 1927 and became the party’s general secretary.

During the Second World War he was expelled for arguing in favour of co-existence with capitalism and during the 1950s communist witch-hunts he was interrogated by Senator Joe McCarthy but refused to incriminate his former comrades.

The younger Browder says that he has taken on the role of family black sheep, embracing capitalism and rejecting academia, the profession of his father, who is a respected mathematician.

The black sheep initially worked for Boston Consulting Group and got a taste for investing when he was sent to Poland to sort out a failing bus factory.

The Polish Government was privatising state companies by public flotation. “I took all my savings, $4,000, and applied for all the privatisations and made ten times my money.” He joined Salomon Brothers and traded Eastern European equities. In 1995 he quit to set up Hermitage.

The rebel has a suitably apocalyptic view of the financial world. The credit crisis has a long way to go, he reckons. “There is going to be huge attrition in the world of investment. We have been in a 20-year bull market.”

The fashionable emerging markets will continue to be hit hard. “The Chinese stock market was trading at 50 times earnings. As the bubble bursts in China, there will be a knock-on effect, it will be the de-Bric-ing of the world,” he says, referring to the acronym of Brazil, Russia, India, China that has became a buzz-word for emerging market dynamism.

The Hermitage boss has his own slogan: “Get off the financial grid.” By this, he means the world of financial markets, places where capital is consumed, rather than generated. “You don’t want to be in places where capital markets are active.

If you can’t borrow money, who will do badly? Those who need to borrow money.” That logic drives Mr Browder to the Middle East, where capital is in huge surplus and there is cultural disapproval of lending for interest.

Local Middle Eastern companies have yet to excite the investment banks, he says, and money is flowing into Middle Eastern coffers. The income of the big oil exporters totals $1.3 trillion at an oil price of $100 per barrel – and it is staying in the Gulf.

“It’s the biggest wealth transfer that has ever happened in the world,” he says.

Hermitage has 18 analysts, mainly Russian, because they are “some of the smartest people in the world trained in the one of the worst business environments”. He quotes Frank Sinatra’s song about New York: if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.

But he has adopted Britain as his home. He acquired British nationality when he married and is a huge fan, recalling the support he received from the British Government when was trying to regain his Russian visa. “This is a good country. I like the rule of law.”

Russia’s Stock Market in Freefall

The Russian stock market lost nearly 6% of its value last Friday as a rabid, frothing Vladimir Putin launched another one of his crazy Stalin-like diatribes against Russia’s “enemies” — this time Russian steel maker Mechel (whose shares lost nearly half their value).  An editorial in the Times of London:

Russian stocks are in freefall, spooked by threats of anti-trust inquiries by Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, falling oil prices and the chicanery over TNK-BP. Foreign investors have been patient optimists, preferring to turn a blind eye to the mounting chaos in Moscow while keeping a steady gaze on commodity price indices. Yesterday, they lost their bottle and began to sell – and the selling may continue. It is a reminder that reputations built over several years can be lost in a day.

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Russia’s Crony Statism

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

By now, the jilted investor in Russia is a bear-bites-man story. No one who puts serious cash in Vladimir Putin’s realm, not least in its flush gas and oil fields, can be surprised to find himself fleeced, run out of town, jailed in a Siberian gulag or worse.

So let’s not shed many tears for the latest oil major brought low in Russia, BP. The British company got into TNK-BP—a 50-50 $7.6 billion joint venture with four Russian oligarchs—presumably, with eyes wide open. The initial blessing of Mr. Putin—then president, today prime minister—made the obvious risks easier to swallow. For a while, business was gangbusters, with profit in 2006 alone at $6.6 billion. Then the same old thing happened: Someone in Russia wondered, Why share the spoils with foreigners? And BP found itself defenseless in the wild east.

To make a long story short, BP is losing TNK-BP to another Kremlin-backed forced expropriation. The usual tricks were used. The tax and labor authorities, the police and the courts launched no less than 14 probes of BP, forcing out its expatriate staff from the country. The last man left—TNK-BP’s CEO Robert Dudley—had his work visa pulled and on Thursday fled Russia for an undisclosed location, citing “sustained harassment of the company and myself.” He says he’ll run the company from abroad. Sure. BP officials pretty much admit the game is over.

If the past is a guide, BP will be forced to cede control of TNK-BP to a Kremlin-owned energy giant such as Gazprom or Rosneft. Mr. Putin has pushed aside other big players once considered untouchable, in his quest to Kremlinize oil and gas wealth. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos—then Russia’s biggest and best-run oil company—was broken and its founder sent to Siberia. BP’s Russian misery has good company abroad, too; Total, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Amoco, before BP’s acquisition of it, all stumbled in Russia.

Mr. Putin coined the phrase, “dictatorship of the law,” and in the early days many investors endorsed his authoritarian policies as a path to stability. It turns out that something other than mere “stability” is emerging in Russia.

Local tax authorities and health inspectors are a power unto themselves, extorting large businesses (as in BP’s case, directed from above) or free-lancing on their own against the medium and small. Their victims are mostly Russians, who won’t be able as easily to conclude their property isn’t safe and pack up and take their businesses, and jobs, elsewhere. No matter how much money there is to be made in Russia these days, it ultimately doesn’t count for much the day a boyar or simple chinovnik decides to take it away.

The steady erosion of the rule of law in Russia is a distressing sign of the times there. Mr. Putin complains of not getting proper respect from the West. Forcing the president of a major Western oil company to literally flee Russia earns respect in no one’s land.