Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Friday, 31 October 2008

Oligarchs oblige as Kremlin steps in

By Konstantin Rozhnov
Business reporter, BBC News

Vladimir Putin and Oleg Deripaska
The Russian government agreed to provide loans for Russian companies

Among those hardest hit by the global financial crisis are Russia's super-rich oligarchs, who are being forced to go cap in hand to Kremlin, begging for a bailout - though help will not come for free.

According to some estimates, more than two thirds of the oligarchs' $300bn (183bn) wealth mountain has evaporated, leaving them with a paltry $70bn to weather what could turn into a global recession.

"They should take us all off the Forbes list,'' says Alexander Lebedev, who towers high in 39th place on Forbes' Russian billionaires list from May this year, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

Among the worst hit during the recent downturn is Oleg Deripaska, whose prominence emerged after his recent meetings with UK politicians Peter Mandelson and George Osborne on his yacht.

In May, he was the richest Russian on the Forbes list with an estimated $28bn fortune. Since then, he has clocked up losses of some $28.4bn, according to the Russian business weekly SmartMoney.

Hard hit

If both magazines are right in their estimates, Mr Deripaska has slid into the red - though Bloomberg puts his losses at $16bn, which means he still has plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Roman Abramovich
According to estimates, Mr Abramovich could have lost up to $20bn

Either way, Mr Deripaska has been struggling to pay his debts to a group of Western banks, so the Russian government is riding to the rescue with a $4.5bn loan.

But the Kremlin is not stepping in for free. In return for a previously announced $50bn bailout package for banks and companies, the oligarchs may have to hand over some of their assets to the state.

Wiped out?

Nobody really knows how much money the oligarchs have, but many are making more or less educated guesses.

Bloomberg looked at the fortunes of the 25 richest Russians and found that the sum of their losses had topped $230bn by early October, with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich taking a $20bn hit "based on assets excluding property and cash".

SmartMoney puts Mr Abramovich's losses at $15bn, also large when you consider that Forbes clocked up his cash and assets in May and found he had $23.5bn.

Russian pyramid

The sources of the oligarchs' wealth are the same as those that have caused their downfall.

Russia has had a decade of soaring economic growth that was kick-started by the devaluation of the rouble and fuelled by oil and other commodities, whose value soared in ever hungrier global markets.

With the value of crude oil shooting up from less than $20 a barrel to a record high of almost $150 recorded in July this year, both the economy at large and individual oligarchs saw their wealth and power expand.

Investors also rode the energy wave, with oil and gas companies making up some two-thirds of the Russian stock market, and the RTS index of leading Russian shares rising 400% between 2003 and 2008.

For many, the temptation to borrow money from Russian and foreign banks to buy shares was great. If loans dried up, lending could be revived by using share portfolios as collateral for further loans, which in turn were used to invest in more equities.

In recent weeks, the high level of debt, or leverage, has blown up in the faces of many, including some of the high-flying oligarchs.

New reality

OLIGARCH'S LOSSES
Oleg Deripaska - $28.4bn
Vladimir Lisin - $21.7bn
Alexei Mordashov - $16.6bn
Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal FC shareholder) - $14.4bn
Source: SmartMoney business weekly, 20 October

Russia's stock market has seen some 75% of its value shaved off in months, with falls accelerating in recent weeks - though this week there has been a rally that may or may not last in this hugely volatile market.

In terms of underlying fundamentals, stock market losses have been spurred on by concerns about the government's behaviour towards investors and a sharp fall in the price of oil, which has dived to around $60 a barrel in recent weeks.

A subsequent shortage of investment from abroad, coupled with the prospect of lower earnings potential, means Russian oil companies have scaled back their ambitions to expand.

Other commodity operators have also suffered, in line with a slump in the global prices of minerals and metals.

The Russian mining and metallurgical company Norilsk Nickel has seen some three-quarters of its value vanish, as nickel prices have fallen from $50,000 to $10,000 per tonne.

Mr Deripaska, who owns 25% of the strategically important Norilsk Nickel, used the shares as collateral for a $4.5bn loan from Western banks, which must be paid back in full by 31 October.

In this case, the Kremlin bail-out does two things. Firstly, it ensures that nationally strategic assets remain in Russian hands. Secondly, if Mr Deripaska is unable to pay back the government loan the state may take a stake in his operations.

Redistribution

Many oligarchs found themselves in a similar situation, facing a risk of losing their assets to creditors or getting money from the Kremlin in exchange for stakes in their companies.

But there are also those who say they have not been hit too hard. Mr Abramovich, for instance, points out that losses only become real once assets are sold, and he has no plans to sell his gold and mining shares.

Other cash-strapped Russian oligarchs are lining up to get a piece of the $50bn loan package from the government set to help strategic companies to refinance their foreign debts.

These state loans may well allow the Kremlin to conduct the biggest property redistribution in the country since the 1990s, especially as the government still has plenty of cash to lend.

Though down from some $600bn in August, Russia's international reserves remain huge at $485bn, with the drop mainly being caused by efforts to support the rouble and help cash-strapped companies.

Indeed, Russia's foreign currency reserves are still the third greatest in the world - after China's and Japan's.

And the money brings power.

During the 1990s, when Russia needed a cash injection, many oligarchs handed over money in return for stakes in state-owned firms.

This time around, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.

The terms of a government support programme have yet to be hammered out, though analysts suggest the Russian government will want the oligarchs to pledge the same stakes - as collateral in return for state loans - as they pledged to the Western banks.

In the process, Kremlin's muscle continues to grow.

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