The water around Russian state-owned oil major Rosneft is getting decidedly muddy. A pillar of Russia’s state-led economy and a major taxpayer, the company surprised Russia watchers in December by ditching widely criticised plans to sell a 19.5% stake to itself using money borrowed from its parent holding company Rosneftegaz.
Instead, Igor Sechin, the CEO of both the oil company and its holding company - and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin - announced he had pulled off a deal to sell the stake to oil trade Glencore and the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, raising €10.2bn in the process.
However, as the deal progressed commentators began to question the deal’s details, with some now speculating that the Russian government actually received hardly anything from it after all.
The truth will be harder to discover after the government decided that Rosneftegaz won't publish its 2016 financial accounts, the television network Dozhd reported on January 11. The move is bound to deepen suspicions that some creative accounting is underway.
Rosneftegaz changed its legal status from a public company last year and is no longer obliged by law to publish its accounts. At the same time, Sechin has used the same argument and refused to declare his salary, as required by law of all state servants that run state-owned enterprises.
Rosneftegaz owns a 50.1% share in Rosneft and an 11% stake in Gazprom. According to Dozhd, only an unspecified part of dividends collected by Rosneftegaz is transferred to the Russian budget.
Questions as to what was actually agreed to by Rosneft, Glencore and Qatar were raised the same day as the deal was announced in a blog by Craig Pirrong, a professor of finance and energy markets at the University of Houston.
“It appears there is some financial engineering going on here. A Glencore-[Qatar investment authorities] joint venture will buy the Rosneft shares, and the two investors will put up a mere €300mn each in equity. The remainder will be financed (according to Putin) by one of ‘the largest European banks’. Furthermore, the debt is supposedly non-recourse to Glencore or QIA. This means that the loan is essentially secured by the Rosneft shares,” Pirrong wrote.
Subsequently the “large European bank” (which turned out to be Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo Bank) did come up with the financing, but only provided €5.2bn, the bank said on January 2 – half the deal’s reported value.
Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority say the deal is now closed. “The final settlement is completed and the transaction, which was announced December 10, 2016, is closed,” Glencore said in a statement quoted by the newspaper.
Some of the rest came from Qatar, which, according to the Financial Times, offered to pay €2.5bn. However, the fund has not commented on how much it was willing to pay or if indeed it has paid anything. That means between €4.3bn and €1.8bn remains unaccounted for, although there were reports that Gazprombank would lend another €3.7bn to finance the deal.
Still, Rosneft did go ahead with a promise to supply Glencore with 11mn tonnes of crude oil annually over a five-year period and signed a contract to that effect on January 4.
Atlantic Council fellow Anders Aslund raised more questions in a recent article for Intersection, an online publication.
“Suddenly, the question arises: Is there real money anywhere? The key is probably given by Reuters, when noticing that Rosneft this week placed $9.4bn in domestic ruble bonds. Reuters does not say so, but good sources claim that these bonds were bought by the Central Bank of Russia, that is, the Russian state. Reuters did record one government source, which said that “the bond issue was a safety net in case the negotiations with the outside investors fell through", Aslund writes.
Aslund raises the possibility that December’s privatisation was actually a sham and Glencore together with the QIA were persuaded to act as cover to a scheme where the state basically lent Rosneft $9.4bn from the reserve fund but dressed the deal up as a privatisation.
Meanwhile, Russia’s finance ministry reported on January 10 that funds in the Reserve Fund tumbled by 73% in 2016 to $16.2bn. More significantly, the ministry took out RUB1 trillion ($16.6bn) from the fund in December to meet a budget shortfall. This money was supposed to be an emergency loan that the ministry said earlier it would use if slated privatisation failed. But if the Rosneft money had come in then the €10.2bn deal value, which is about RUB 1 trillion, should have been enough to cover most of the December budget deficit payments.
To add to the limbo-nature of Rosneft’s legal status – neither state-owned nor private – now comes Rosneftegaz’s decision to obfuscate the picture by refusing to publish its accounts any more, only adding to suspicions of some accounting subterfuge.
“The money from Qatar may be real, but the rest is likely to be either Russian state money, or Russian state-related money. Glencore clarified that it would obtain preferential access to Rosneft oil exports, so its notional ‘€300mn’ can probably be disregarded as a trading discount,” Aslund believes.