Gref calls for full privatisation of Russia's state Sberbank

By Jason Corcoran November 23, 2015

German Gref, the current chief executive of Sberbank, has called for the full privatisation of Russia's largest lender in a radical move which is likely to be resisted by Kremlin hardliners.

Gref, a former economy minister under President Vladimir Putin, told Handelsblatt newspaper that the government is "too heavily involved in the economy".

The state, via the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), currently controls a 50% stake plus one voting share. For a transitional period, Gref said the CBR could retain a 25% stake.

"We should completely privatise Sberbank," said Gref, an ethnic German born in Kazakhstan. "This would greatly improve our performance."

Sberbank is the most systemically important company in Russia. It controls about 46% of all of the nation's deposits and a more than a third of all retail and corporate lending across the country. More importantly, the former Soviet Union piggybank acts as a safe haven when the Russian economy is buffeted by domestic and international economic shocks.

Russia's much-heralded one trillion ruble privatisation programme has stalled and actually never got off the ground. Over the past six years the Kremlin has shown its unwillingness to sell assets and stakes in its crown jewels at prices that institutional investors might find attractive. 

Indeed, the Kremlin's control over the economy has actually been growing ever since the 2008-2009 crisis despite campaigns and policies to try to break up state monopolies and introduce more competition.

Olga Dergunova, the long-suffering head of the agency responsibile for privatisations, has lately been talking up reviving the asset sale programme and trying to fluff up Rosneft, Rushydro, Aeroflot and Alrosa for the market.

"At the meeting, which was held by Shuvalov [Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister] it was recommended that we should provide an opportunity for speeding up sale of major assets regardless of prices on international markets," Dergunova said on November 5. "Earlier we presumed that we should not sell state assets for any price. The situation on the international markets is not improving, and, if the president supports such a decision, we can come up with the list of assets which are ready for privatization."

A 25% stake in Sovcomflot is already listed for privatisation in 2016, Dergunova added.

But Gref and the liberal wing of the Kremlin, which includes Shuvalov and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, will no doubt face oppositions from the national leadership's security service-linked strongmen who favour the state retaining control of large corporations.

The state-controlled energy behemoths Rosneft and Gazprom are hugely inefficient and are controlled by the Kremlin's inner circle who have been digging in during the crisis to legitimise their influence on economic policy and secure control of key cash flows.

Inefficiency pays though, as has been evidenced by the $27mn salary taken home last year by Gapzrom boss Alexei Miller and the $17.5mn enjoyed by Rosneft chief Igor Sechin.

Prior to the economic crisis, industry sources predicted that Gref would take over from Miller and transform Gazprom as he has at Sberbank. 

In the same Handelsblatt interview, Gref also criticised the lack of reforms in Russia. His candour comes at an interesting juncture as Putin is said to be annoyed by the way that heads of state companies have run their companies, and resents their repeated requests for subsidies while the government is dealing with the economic crisis.

Questions marks remain over the departure this summer of Vladimir Yakunin, the boss of Russian Railways, the country's biggest employer. Commentators say his departure may have been due to  mismanagement or his flagrant liking for the good life, or it could be a signal that the statists are on the way out. (However, his son's application to Britain for a passport was also said to have been a catalyst for his exit from the giant rail company.)

Putin is also said to be unhappy by the way Sechin, his former energy czar, runs Rosneft.  CBR governor Elvira Nabiullina, a former protégé of Gref, said the monster RUB625bn bond sale by Rosneft in December spooked the markets and helped fuel the ruble's collapse. 

Citing five government sources, Bloomberg reported that Putin is planning to announce an economic liberalisation policy and tougher new measures to fight corruption in his annual presidential state of the federation address on December 4.

The announcement is reportedly the outcome of a victory of the more liberal faction led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Shuvalov and Gref over hard-liners led by Sechin and Putin's chief of staff and Sergei Ivanov.

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