Rosneft Distraction

I got another notification in my Google Alerts yesterday about the Rosneft “privatization” scheme. According to the Russian press, the money for the purchase of the 19.5% stake in Rosneft came from Russian bank VTB:

But this just raises more questions, as Russia’s former deputy Finance Minister Sergei Aleksashenko points out.

First, Aleksashenko points out, despite the Russian government’s claims to the contrary, the money from the “sale” did not reach the federal budget last year. Of course, we already knew this based on both the statements of Glencore and Qatar, and on the filings I shared in my last post on this subject.

But a government official lying about something in Russia is nothing new, and you can’t fire them for it. So there cannot be “any political continuation of this story”.

Then there is still confusion about how the money is supposed to be transferred to the federal budget. Technically, the money should be paid to Rosneftegas, then paid to the budget as a dividend on profits earned from the sale. But that would not equal the full 692 billion roubles. And it would not show up on the books until this year or even next year.

But nobody in Russia cares about any of this, Aleksashenko says. Rosneftegas won’t be audited, and won’t be investigated. And these are all just “technical details” anyway. The main question that nobody seems to be able to answer is “who is the real buyer of the 19.5% stake in Rosneft?”

“The official version of a parity partnership of Glencore and QIA (Qatar investment fund) does not maintain the minimum checks on plausibility. Indeed if the partnership is created on the principle of 50/50, then why do the financial contributions of the participants differ by an order? The Qatar foundation paid 2.5 billion euros, and Glencore only 300 million [euros]?”

And then there is the question of why Glencore got a contract for gas deliveries, and Qatar didn’t. “Where is the equality there?” Aleksashenko asks.

Note: this is not entirely true. As I wrote last week, the deal on the gas deliveries was with QHG Trading LLP (which is equally split between a QIA subsidiary and Glencore Energy UK).

“Continuing on. We still do not know who Intesa’s partner is and who lent the buyer [Qatar] 2.5 billion euros.”

Then Aleksashenko casts doubt on the ability of the “borrowers” [Qatar & Glencore] to repay the loan. He also notes that the terms of the loan from Intesa are still a mystery.

But this is also not quite true. The paperwork for the three loans (possibly only two?) has been uploaded on the website of Companies House in the UK, but I am having difficulty making any sense of them. The numbers don’t match what we were told, and the participants are still murky. Who is QHG Cayman, for example. And Intesa is still listed as the lender.

Even so, Aleksashenko writes, if the “borrowers” (QHG Investment & QHG Holding) cannot repay the loans, then the “lender” (technically still Intesa) will own the shares.

“And that, it seems, is the essence of the transaction.”

He then reminds his readers that the initial proposal was for Rosneft to “buy” its own shares from Rosneftegas and then sell the same shares to an outside buyer at some later date. But this idea was allegedly rejected by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But, Alexsashenko continues, that it seems likely that Sechin’s original plan was implemented, but “with modifications”. And he alleges that VTB’s role here was to distract from this fact.

Depleting Russia’s Reserves

The Ministry of Finance posted a long explanation at the beginning of the week on the state of Russia’s two reserve funds. I was planning on breaking it down, but Vladimir Milov has done my work for me. Some key points:

In the Reserve Fund as of 1 January [2017], there were only 0.97 trillion rubles, [that is] more than a trillion rubles were spent [in December alone];

It is unclear, Milov continues, what happened to the money supposedly received from the “privatization” of Rosneft [see my previous blog post on this].

In the SWF [Sovereign Welfare Fund] remains 2.8 trillion rubles that are “liquid” (© Siluanov).

And finally, Milov writes, the budget deficit for 2017 is slated to be 2.75 trillion rubles.

If everything continues in the current trajectory, by the end of this year the two funds will be depleted.

“Anyone who tells you that this supposedly “does not matter because the government is selling the currency to the Central Bank, while maintaining the same volume of gold reserves” is dissembling or does not understand the essence of the matter, because to finance the budget deficit with the gold reserves is useless.”

And once the reserves are empty, then “the fiscal deficit can only be financed by borrowing (and in this respect, the removal of the sanctions acquires a decisive role), or the Central Bank has to loan money to the government…”

Or the third option the government could take is budget cuts.

For reference – even at today’s frozen budget expenditures:

  • real pensions declined by 3.5% for 11 months of 2016;
  • the indexation of wages in education and health care for 11 months in 2016 were 4.2% and 6%, respectively (Rosstat).

By reducing budget spending you can imagine what will happen.

Rosneft Mysteries

Yesterday Reuters had a headline that caught my eye: “Rosneft signs 5-year oil supply deal with QHG Trading”.

Of course, I had questions. So I went digging. It turned out that this was the deal that had been agreed to last month with Glencore as part of Rosneft’s “privatization” scheme. But more than that, filings with Companies House in the UK revealed that Glencore had set up a complex structure just prior to the deal’s announcement in early December.

This is perhaps not so strange if you had read Glencore’s statement from early December about the proposed partnership with the Qatar Investment Authority.

In the press release, Glencore stated that they had put together a “limited liability structure fully ring-fenced and non-recourse to Glencore…”

So what does the structure look like?

On 5 December 2016 Glencore registered three LLPs (Limited Liability Partnerships) in the UK. They are as follows:

QHG Investment is split equally between QHG Holding & Qatar registered Qatar Holding LLC (a subsidiary of Qatar Investment Authority). The structure had initially been divided between Glencore UK Limited and Glencore Energy UK Limited. QHG Holding replaced Glencore UK on 28 December, and Qatar Holding did not sign on until 30 December, replacing Glencore Energy UK.

QHG Holding is split between Glencore Energy UK, Qatar Holding LLC, and an entity called QHG Cayman Ltd. (more about this later). Again the pattern repeats, and Qatar did not sign on until 30 December, this time replacing Glencore UK.

And finally, QHG Trading is split equally between Glencore Energy UK and Qatar Holding LLC. And Qatar again replaces Glencore UK on 30 December.

Now here is where it gets interesting. On 3 January 2017, three charges are registered. QHG Investment registers two “fixed charges” from “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch”.

 Unfortunately there is no paperwork to show exactly what the deals entail, but according to Companies House, one of the charges:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains floating charge.
  • Floating charge covers all the property or undertaking of the company.
  • Contains negative pledge.

And the other charge:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains negative pledge.

QHG Holding also registers a “fixed charge” from “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch” on 3 January 2017:

  • Contains fixed charge.
  • Contains negative pledge.

A quick look at “Intesa Sanpaolo S.P.A., London Branch” shows no such charges, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But it does raise more questions about where exactly the money for the transaction came from, and where it went, or if it even existed at all. Meanwhile, Reuters reported on 3 January that Intesa said they were underwriting “a loan for up to 5.2 billion euros ($5.4 billion)…”.

According to the Russian business daily RBC, Rosneft was supposed to conclude the privatization deal by 15 December 2016.

“On the same day, Rosneftegas transferred funds from the transaction to the federal budget. However, Glencore only confirmed the completion of the settlements on 3 January 2017 [the same date as the charges mentioned above, -ed.] and Rosneftegas on 4 January. In [its] January report the state holding company reported “the end of all corporate and technical procedures of closing and settlement”, associated with the transaction. Rosneftegas specified that it came to… more than 50 documents and agreements signed in “more than five” jurisdictions.”

RBC also reported that QHG Investment LLP holds a 100% stake in QHG Shares PTE which was registered in Singapore on 8 December 2016. The authorized capital of QHG Shares PTE is divided into 201 ordinary shares & totals €10,243 billion. QHG Shares PTE holds the 19.5% stake of Rosneft that Russia “privatized”.

And another mystery remains: who is the beneficial owner of QHG Caymen Ltd.?  RBC couldn’t find it, and neither can I.

Review & Forecast

Many Russians are writing reviews of the past year and speculating about what the next year holds. Ivan Preobrazhansky writes:

“Western democracies have rebelled against their elites, but in the East authoritarian regimes have only been strengthened. The main event of 2016, of course, is now considered to be “Brexit”.”

The elite have retained power, he continues, but “…they must now perform “the will of the people”.”

And the same thing happened in the United States. It does not appear that Trump and his staff expected to win. But Americans “tired of the dictates of tolerance, decided otherwise…”

Trump’s foreign policy plans are still mostly a mystery but Preobrazhansky repeats the belief that seems to be held by many in the Russian commentariat: that Trump will not end the sanctions imposed by the US government.

“Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the new president will start his activities with the recognition of Crimea’s accession to Russia.”

Preobrazhansky also believes it unlikely that Trump will overturn the majority of Obama’s own executive orders. “In particular, the ban on the production of hydrocarbons in the Arctic.”

Expectations of Trump are likely over-hyped by both his supporters and his opponents, he alleges. “But this will become clear only in the coming year.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, last year Russia “… was one of the most talked about and influential (at least in words) of the countries in the world. It became clear to Western leaders that they would not succeed in solving the Syrian crisis without the participation of Vladimir Putin.”

Preobrazhansky reminds his readers how at the beginning of 2016, Russia and Turkey could not have been farther apart, as a result of the Russian military aircraft which was shot down by Turkey over a contested area in Syria. “It seemed that the states were on the verge of war.”

But the tense situation suddenly turned for the better after the alleged coup against Turkey’s President Erdogan in July, “…which led to the transformation of the authoritarian regime of Erdogan to [one that is] openly dictatorial, and Moscow is surprising perhaps the closest partner of Ankara. As a result, together with Iran they have divided Syria  into zones of influence, ignoring the US.”

And then, of course, there was the decision by the Obama administration to invoke new sanctions on Russia for the hacking of the DNC. This has only reinforced the stereotype that the Kremlin can “intervene in the internal affairs of any country in the world and influence it according to its own interests…”

So now “the whole world is infected with a virus of general mistrust. Voters do not trust the national ruling elites – and a vivid example of this is not even the Trump victory, but the presidential elections in Austria, where, because of differences in the counting of the votes had to carry out a second round [of voting].”

And even the elites do not trust one another. Europe no longer trusts the US (and even more so after Trump’s election).

“China is on the verge of a military conflict with several of its neighbors, including Japan, and has shown a willingness to take Russia under its wing. And Russia itself has lost the confidence of its only ally – Belarus, given Lukashenko’s [recent] refusal to attend the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union.”

There are only two ways out of this impasse, Preobrazhansky concludes. Either slowly attempt to rebuild confidence in the current system, a process that will take years, or try to chart a new path and “…create a new system of international relations. However, history shows that, as a rule, a radical redivision of the world order needs a great war.”

Default is Impossible

At Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference in December, the President “…said that according to the rules of the government and the Ministry of Finance that a region’s debt should not be more than 50% of its own revenue. At present, five Russian regions have already crossed this threshold. Is the situation serious?”

Rosbalt talked to Professor Natalia Zubarevich from the Independent Institute of Social Policy about the situation.

“Putin said nothing new. The situation in the regions is not worse in comparison with the previous year, they did not increase debt. Between January and early October 2016, it even declined slightly. But in different parts of the country it is a different story, so that the total numbers never reflect the situation in each region.”

Additionally, she continues, “two-thirds of the regions in 2015 had a budget deficit… larger than half of their own revenues. That is, income less the money that they get from the federal government.”

Zubarevich rejects the idea that the regions can default because they are “not a company.”

There are other options, however.

“If they are low cost loans, and many are, then, firstly, it is virtually free money – with a one percent annual rate. Secondly, they can roll over [the loan]. During the preparation of the Sochi Olympics and during the preparation of the Universiade in Kazan, Krasnodar Krai and Tatarstan had their loan extended by 20 years.”

But how can the regions escape this? Rosbalt asks.

“Wait and see. Never say “never” — this is Russia.”

Rosbalt then asks about Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko’s recent suggestion that the Kremlin resume its amalgamation program in Russia’s regions.* Matvieynko has made such comments before. See for example this statement from 2013:

Speaking in Kazan on Wednesday, Matviyenko said that the current number of federal subjects—83—is “too large” and that the differences in economic and social terms among them are too great. Consequently, some of them should be combined together by referendum, although she refused to say which ones (www.kommersant.ru/doc-y/2126614).

Zubarevich answers Rosbalt’s question:

“They think it is easier. Connect fat with lean, you get average. It seems to me that this is a very simplistic view of the problems in the regions.”

She also seems to think that it is unlikely that Matviyenko’s suggestion will be heeded because it will create “turbulence. The elites do not want it. We would have to dramatically change management. And the population also does not want this, people are accustomed to their regions.”

* If you are interested in reading more on the Kremlin’s amalgamation plans Paul Goble has written extensively on this subject over the past several years.

Central Bank Scheme

In February of last year I started to list the banks that had been shut down (retroactive from 1 January 2016) by Russia’s Central Bank. The idea was to see if they could beat their own record from 2015. Last week the final bank was closed for the year and when tallied the Central Bank did indeed beat their own record from 2015: 97 banks shut their doors in 2016 as compared to the 93 closed by the Central Bank in 2015. To put that in perspective, 32 Russian banks lost their licences in 2013, and 86 in 2014.

In December 2015, Sberbank’s German Gref predicted that 10% of Russian banks would have their licences pulled in 2016. That would have been approximately 70. The Central Bank exceeded that.

Gref said that he supported the revoking of licenses from banks that are involved in “anything other than banking activities,” Interfax reported.

In May this year the Russian news agency Rosbalt reported:

The Central Bank is selling this process as an anti-corruption campaign to clean up the banking sector. There are too many banks, the narrative goes. Thus it is necessary to close the weaker players, many of whom are using their clients’ money to make bad loans to themselves and their cronies, and moving the money offshore. See, for example, billionaire Alexander Lebedev’s version of events here.

Former deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank Sergei Aleksashenko wrote in October that the scheme:

“…has already cost over one and a half trillion rubles and, taking into account the interest to be paid, the federal budget is going to have to shell out considerably more than two trillion rubles.”

It does not appear that this process will end anytime soon. In July of 2015, VTB’s Andrei Kostin “…predicted that 500 Russian banks will be shut down over the next 5 years…”

“There are too many banks in Russia now — about 800 institutions. In five years, this number may be reduced by 500, but we could achieve a steady level even with 100 banks,” Kostin said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, according to Interfax.