Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Argentina Re-Nationalises an Oil Company

Standard & Poor's puts Argentina on 'negative watch' over YPF nationalisation plan

Standard & Poor's has put a "negative watch" on Argentina's credit rating, citing "rising restrictions to international trade" and "steps to nationalise oil company YPF" as reasons for the move.

Spain’s Repsol has threatened legal action against any company that attempts to invest in YPF following its expropriation by Argentina last week as the government expressed determination to “pay nothing at all” in compensation to the Spanish oil company.
Women walk past a poster that reads "CFK - YPF. They're ours, they're Argentine" in Buenos Aires last week. Photo: Reuters
Despite affirming its "B" credit rating, S&P added that the South American country's recent actions "could exacerbate existing weaknesses in the economy", pointing to high inflation and increasingly rigid government expenditure.

The news came after Spain’s Repsol threatened legal action against any company that attempts to invest in YPF following its expropriation by Argentina last week, as the government expressed determination to “pay nothing at all” in compensation to the Spanish oil company.

The move would discourage external partners from providing the investment YPF needs to exploit vast shale oil deposits discovered within the Latin American country and is the latest attempt by Repsol to fight back against the illegal seizure of its subsidiary.

“We reserve the right to take legal action against any party investing in the YPF and its assets following the unlawful expropriation of the company,” Kristian Rix, a spokesman for Repsol in Madrid, told the Daily Telegraph on Monday.

The Spanish energy company believes billions of dollars are required to develop Argentina’s prospects including at least €25bn a year over the next decade to exploit the Vaca Muerta shale discovery made last year.

Julio De Vido, Argentina’s Planning Minister has already approached Brazil's state-run oil company Pertobras over investment in YPF and plans to contact other foreign oil companies including Exxon, Chevron and ConocoPhilips.

The development comes amid yet more rhetoric from Argentina as government sources insisted the offer of compensation would be “zero pesos”.

Shares in Repsol and Spanish builder Sacyr Vallehermoso, which owns a 10pc stake in the company, fell by 4.7pc and 10.7pc respectively on Monday after government sources quoted in Argentina’s daily newspaper La Nacion said the government was “determined to pay nothing at all to Repsol”.

Antonio Brufau, CEO of Repsol has argued that its YPF stake had a value of $10.5bn.
“They are looking into and finding out everything on the management of Repsol: irregularities, lack of investment, defective technical plans, financial and accounting issues. There is a debt of $9bn,” an unnamed official told the newspaper.

The government is assuming that any legal action processed through international tribunals could take five or six years, confided the source.

Meanwhile, details of the aggressive tactics employed by the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner towards Spanish executives at YPF during the takeover emerged in a briefing issued by Spain’s foreign office to all its embassies fermenting hostilities between the two countries.

Mr de Vido and Axel Kicillof, the deputy economy minister, arrived at company headquarters with armed security guards who used “physical violence and threats” to force Spanish YPF employees from the building giving them five minutes to collect their personal belongings, the internal memo said.

Spanish YPF executives were then “hunted down” for “harsh interrogation” and they and their families sought refuge at the home of a senior executive awaiting repatriation to Spain.

In addition, eyebrows were raised over the state appointment of one of new managers of YPF. Exequiel Espinosa, the head of state oil company Enarsa, was once embroiled in a corruption scandal that threatened to derail Mrs Kirchner’s campaign for presidency in 2007.

Mr Espinosa was one of the Argentine officials on board a plane carrying Guido Antonini, a Venezuelan businessman who was caught landing in Buenos Aires with a suitcase of $800,000 allegedly destined for Mrs Kirchner’s campaign.

The matter forced the resignation of Claudio Uberti, an Argentine government official involved in trade and investment deals with Venezuela and cost Diego Uzcategui, president of Venezuela oil company PDVSA as both were on board the plane.

But Mr Espinosa, who was also one of the eight passengers on the private jet hired by Enarsa, survived the association unscathed.

“He’s a complete Kichnerista crony and now he’s in charge of exploration and production at YPF,” said a source connected to the Latin American energy industry.

Repsol may fight a move by the Eskenazi family to buy back shares in YPF citing a “force majeure” argument to declare the agreement void.

The company could argue that the agreement to buy back Eskenazi shares in the event that Repsol was to lose its majority stake was not applicable in the context of expropriation.

It also emerged on Monday that Argentine officials had searched a property used by Mr Braufau in Buenos Aires, seizing computers and documents apparently without an official court order.



Argentina's oil grab is timely retort to rampaging capitalism

Cristina Fernández's actions, however clumsy, are part of a worldwide reaction to exploitation by business and the rich
Cristina Fernández's move was populist and clumsy, but perfectly understandable. Photograph: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Suppose the British government knew that a key shareholder in Centrica, our last great British energy company and owner of British Gas, was to sell its stake to Gazprom, so making Russian state ownership inevitable. I hope that, in this scenario, the government would expand the provision of the Enterprise Act that allows Britain to block takeovers that are against the national interest to include gas and nuclear power. (The act is currently confined to defence, financial services and the media.) I'm pretty certain that Centrica chairman Sir Roger Carr, also president of the CBI, shares the same view. No country can be indifferent to the ownership of strategic assets and thus the use to which they might be put. Its first obligation is to the well-being of its citizens.

The Argentinian government was faced with just this dilemma last week. YPF is its national oil and gas company, which it sold to the Spanish oil company Repsol for $15bn in 1999 as part of its privatisation drive. It has not been a great deal for either party. Argentinian oil and gas production has slumped, exploration for new reserves has been run down and this oil-rich country is now an oil importer, with Repsol accused of looting the company and betraying its obligations.

Repsol's excuse is that Argentinian price controls are absurdly tough. It has wanted to sell its holding for some time and last July finally found a potential buyer: the Chinese state oil company Sinopec. On Monday, fearing that the deal was about to be done, the Argentinian government seized the lion's share of Repsol's stake to get majority control. Better that YPF is owned by the Argentinian government than the Chinese Communist party is their reasoning.

Many governments would have done the same. Ownership matters. Yet Argentina has been roundly condemned – the EU, Spain, Mexico and even Britain have all weighed in. The Economist thunders that President Cristina Fernández's antics must not go unpunished; nationalisation is a sin beyond redemption. The inference is that Repsol should have been allowed freely to dispose of its shares to whichever buyer and at the best price it could achieve. Argentina and its citizens have no right to intervene.

Ms Fernández was certainly high-handed and very arbitrary. She only seized enough shares from Repsol to secure 51% control and has yet to say what the state will pay in compensation; the other shareholders are hapless bystanders with their investment shredded. There is more than a whiff of shameless populism to her actions. But to portray Repsol as an injured innocent whose natural rights have been unfairly suborned is to traduce economic and political reality.

For too long, companies and the rich worldwide, egged on by American Republicans and British Tories, have shamelessly exploited the proposition that there is only one proper relationship between them and society: they do what they want on their own terms. And society must accept this because it is the sole route to "wealth generation". Capital exists above state and society.

Fernández's actions, however clumsy and unfair in their execution, are part of a growing worldwide reaction to the excesses that this proposition has brought. Repsol does not, and did not, have a God-given right to sell control in YPF to whomever it pleases while Argentina's interests can go hang. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the society in which it trades. The right to trade and to own are privileges that come with reciprocal obligations as the Ownership Commission, which I chaired, argued earlier this year. They cannot exist in a vacuum because companies' actions have profound effects.

Moreover, companies, especially energy companies, need public agencies to help mitigate the risk of undertaking huge investments in a world where the future is unknowable. Across the globe, business and the rich insist on denying these elementary truths. Now they are reaping the whirlwind as a hostile reaction gathers pace worldwide. Capitalism's self-appointed custodians have become its worst enemies.

It is the driving force behind the Occupy Movement. It is why Jean Luc Melénchon, the hard left French presidential candidate, has had such a successful election campaign. It is why so many governments are co-ordinating their investigation into Amazon, the company paying negligible tax on its worldwide profits. It is why President Obama has adopted the Buffet tax on millionaires as a popular part of his re-election campaign. It is why George Osborne felt he had to balance his high-risk reduction in the top rate of income tax to 45%with a passionate declaration of war on the rich evading tax.

The reaction is long overdue and is producing some long-needed corrections. For example, in the last fortnight alone, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, Barclays' Bob Diamond and Citibank's Vikram Pandit have all faced angry shareholders, responding to the new mood, protesting about the extravagance of their bonuses compared to their institutions' paltry performance. They are being forced to accept less. Proportionality in top pay is beginning to be restored, if still a long way off.

But the mood needs to be channelled. Argentina may have done everyone a service by forcibly reminding global business that there are unpleasant consequences for neglecting economic and social responsibilities, but summary nationalisation without compensation is hardly a solid template for the future. It is a harbinger of Chinese-style arbitrary government; a move from crony capitalism to crony statism. It is time to reassert that while capitalism may be a proven route to prosperity, it only works in a complex interdependence with the state and society. There have to be rules at home and abroad to make a desirable world of open borders, free trade and free business work. Taxes have to be paid rather than evaded. Pay has to be proportional to contribution. Labour leader Ed Miliband was roundly and universally criticised as a leftist innocent just seven months ago when he differentiated between good and bad capitalism; now he looks extraordinarily prescient.

If more of his party – especially the shadow cabinet – would rally to his cause, there is a phenomenal political opportunity. The mood is changing. It needs to be channelled: the creation of a new and different compact with business, finance and the rich. It is what electorates across the world want to see. President Fernández, in her gauche way, has tapped into a global mood.



Argentina's critics are wrong again about renationalising oil

In taking back oil and gas company YPF, Argentina's state is reversing past mistakes. Europe is in no position to be outraged
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
Argentinia's president, Cristina Kirchner, announces that the oil company YPF is subject to expropriation. Photograph: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
The Argentinian government's decision to renationalise the oil and gas company YPF has been greeted with howls of outrage, threats, forecasts of rage and ruin, and a rude bit of name-calling in the international press. We have heard all this before.

When the government defaulted on its debt at the end of 2001 and then devalued its currency a few weeks later, it was all doom-mongering in the media. The devaluation would cause inflation to spin out of control, the country would face balance of payments crises from not being able to borrow, the economy would spiral downward into deeper recession. Then, between 2002 and 2011, Argentina's real GDP grew by about 90%, the fastest in the hemisphere. Employment is now at record levels, and both poverty and extreme poverty have been reduced by two-thirds. Social spending, adjusted for inflation, has nearly tripled. All this is probably why Cristina Kirchner was re-elected last October in a landslide victory.

Of course this success story is rarely told, mostly because it involved reversing many of the failed neoliberal policies – that were backed by Washington and its International Monetary Fund – that brought the country to ruin in its worst recession of 1998-2002. Now the government is reversing another failed neoliberal policy of the 1990s: the privatisation of its oil and gas industry, which should never have happened in the first place.

There are sound reasons for this move, and the government will most likely be proved right once again. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that currently owns 57% of Argentina's YPF, hasn't produced enough to keep up with Argentina's rapidly growing economy. From 2004 to 2011, Argentina's oil production has actually declined by almost 20% and gas by 13%, with YPF accounting for much of this. And the company's proven reserves of oil and gas have also fallen substantially over the past few years.

The lagging production is not only a problem for meeting the needs of consumers and businesses, it is also a serious macroeconomic problem. The shortfall in oil and gas production has led to a rapid rise in imports. In 2011 these doubled from the previous year to $9.4bn, thus cancelling out a large part of Argentina's trade surplus. A favourable balance of trade has been very important to Argentina since its default in 2001. Because the government is mostly shut out of borrowing from international financial markets, it needs to be careful about having enough foreign exchange to avoid a balance of payments crisis. This is another reason that it can no longer afford to leave energy production and management to the private sector.

So why the outrage against Argentina's decision to take – through a forced purchase – a controlling interest in what for most of the enterprise's history was the national oil company? Mexico nationalised its oil in 1938, and, like a number of Opec countries, doesn't even allow foreign investment in oil. Most of the world's oil and gas producers, from Saudi Arabia to Norway, have state-owned companies. The privatisations of oil and gas in the 1990s were an aberration; neoliberalism gone wild. Even when Brazil privatised $100bn of state enterprises in the 1990s, the government kept majority control over energy corporation Petrobras.

As Latin America has achieved its "second independence" over the past decade-and-a-half, sovereign control over energy resources has been an important part of the region's economic comeback. Bolivia renationalised its hydrocarbons industry in 2006, and increased hydrocarbon revenue from less than 10% to more than 20% of GDP (the difference would be about two-thirds of current government revenue in the US). Ecuador under Rafael Correa greatly increased its control over oil and its share of private companies' production.

So Argentina is catching up with its neighbours and the world, and reversing past mistakes in this area. As for their detractors, they are in a weak position to be throwing stones. The ratings agencies threatening to downgrade Argentina – should anyone take them seriously after they gave AAA ratings to worthless mortgage-backed junk during the housing bubble, and then pretended that the US government could actually default? And as for the threats from the European Union and the rightwing government of Spain – what have they done right lately, with Europe caught in its second recession in three years, nearly halfway through a lost decade, and with 24% unemployment in Spain?

It is interesting that Argentina has had such remarkable economic success over the past nine years while receiving very little foreign direct investment, and being mostly shunned by international financial markets. According to most of the business press, these are the two most important constituencies that any government should make sure to please. But the Argentinian government has had other priorities. Maybe that's another reason why Argentina gets so much flak.

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