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Gazprom, Once Mighty, Is Reeling

James Hill for The New York Times

A Gazprom drilling rig in Siberia. The monopoly company was supposedly emblematic of a resurgent Russia, but this year its shares have plunged.

Published: December 29, 2008

MOSCOW — A year ago, Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, aspired to be the largest corporation in the world. Buoyed by high oil prices and political backing from the Kremlin, it had already achieved third place judging by market capitalization, behindExxon Mobil and General Electric.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Gazprom says it will continue to invest in pipelines like this one near Ukhta, Russia.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

President Dmitry A. Medvedev of Russia, left, and Alexei Miller, chief executive of Gazprom.

Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters

A Gazprom office in the southern city Stavropol, decorated for the New Year holiday.

Today, Gazprom is deep in debt and negotiating a government bailout. Its market cap, the total value of all the company’s shares, has fallen 76 percent since the beginning of the year. Instead of becoming the world’s largest company, it has tumbled to 35th place. And while bailouts are increasingly common, none of Gazprom’s big private sector competitors in the West is looking for one.

That Russia’s largest state-run energy company needs a bailout so soon after oil hit record highs last summer is a telling postscript to a turbulent period. Once the emblem of the pride and the menace of a resurgent Russia, Gazprom has become a symbol of this oil state’s rapid economic decline.

During the boom times, Gazprom and the other Russian state energy company, Rosneft, became vehicles for carrying out creeping renationalization.

As oil prices rose, so did their stocks. But rather than investing sufficiently in drilling and exploration, Russia’s president at the time, Vladimir V. Putin, used them to pursue his agenda of regaining public control over the oil fields, and much of private industry beyond.

As a result, by the time the downturn came, they entered the credit crisis deeply in debt and with a backlog of capital investment needs. (Under Mr. Putin, now the prime minister, Gazprom and Rosneft are so tightly controlled by the Kremlin that the companies are not run by mere government appointees, but directly by government ministers who sit on their boards.)

“They were as inebriated with their success as much as some of their investors were,” James R. Fenkner, the chief strategist at Red Star, a Russian-dedicated hedge fund, said of Gazprom’s ambition to become the world’s largest company. “It’s not like they’re going to produce a better mousetrap,” he said. “Their mousetrap is whatever the price of oil is. You can’t improve that.”

Investors are now fleeing Gazprom stock, once such a favorite that it alone accounted for 2 percent of the Morgan Stanley index of global emerging market companies. Gazprom is far from becoming the world’s largest company; its share prices have fallen more quickly than those of private sector competitors. The company’s debt, amassed while consolidating national control over the industry, is one reason.

After five years of record prices for natural gas, Gazprom is $49.5 billion in debt. By comparison, the entire combined public and private sector debt coming due for India, China and Brazil in 2009 totals $56 billion, according to an estimate by Commerzbank.

Mr. Putin used Gazprom to acquire private property. Among its big-ticket acquisitions, in 2005 it bought the Sibneft oil company from Roman A. Abramovich, the tycoon and owner of the Chelsea soccer club in London, for $13 billion. In 2006 it bought half of Shell’s Sakhalin II oil and gas development for $7 billion. And in 2007, it spent more billions to acquire parts of Yukos, the private oil company bankrupted in a politically tinged fraud and tax evasion case.

Rosneft is deeply in debt, too. It owes $18.1 billion after spending billions acquiring assets from Yukos. And in addition to negotiating for a government bailout, Rosneft is negotiating a $15 billion loan from the China National Petroleum Corporation, secured by future exports to China.

Under Mr. Putin, more than a third of the Russian oil industry was effectively renationalized in such deals. But unlike Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia, who sent troops to seize a natural gas field in that country, the Kremlin used more sophisticated tactics.

Regulatory pressure was brought to bear on private owners to encourage them to sell to state companies or private companies loyal to the Kremlin. The assets were typically bought at prices below market rates, yet the state companies still paid out billions of dollars, much of it borrowed from Western banks that called in the credit lines in the financial crisis.

Rosneft, which was also held up as a model of resurgent Russian pride and defiance of the West as it was cobbled together from Yukos assets once partly owned by foreign investors, was compelled to meet a margin call on Western bank debt in October.

Critics predicted Russia’s policy of nationalization would foster inefficiency, or at the very least disruption as huge companies were bought and sold, divided up and repackaged as state property. At stake were assets worth vast sums: Russia is the world’s largest natural gas producer and became the world’s largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia reduced output this summer to support prices.

A deputy chief executive of Gazprom, Aleksandr I. Medvedev, predicted the company would achieve a market capitalization of $1 trillion by 2014. Instead, its share price has fallen 76 percent since the beginning of the year and its market cap is now about $85 billion.

By comparison, Exxon’s share price Monday of $78.02 is down 18 percent since January. The company’s market capitalization is $393 billion. And the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index stocks is down more than 40 percent for the year

Mr. Medvedev, the Gazprom executive, defended Gazprom’s performance and attributed the steep drop in its share price relative to other energy companies to the company’s listing on the Russian stock exchange, which is volatile and lacks investors who put their money into companies for the long term.

Mr. Medvedev said the share price “does not reflect the company’s value” and blamed the financial crisis that began on Wall Street for the company’s woes.

It is true that Gazprom is far from broke. The company made a profit of 360 billon rubles, or $14 billion, from revenue of 1,774 billion rubles, or $70 billion, in 2007, the most recent audited results released by the company.

Valery A. Nesterov, an oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog bank in Moscow, said Gazprom’s ratio of debt to revenue — before interest payments, taxes and amortization — was 1 to 5 in 2007, high by oil industry standards but not so excessive as to jeopardize the company’s investment grade debt rating.

The company, meanwhile, says it will go ahead with capital spending to develop new fields in the Arctic, and continues to pour money into subsidiaries in often losing sectors like agriculture and media. It is also assuming, through its banking arm, a new role in the financial crisis of bailing out struggling Russian banks and brokerages.

Investors say an unwillingness to cut costs in a downturn is a common problem for nationalized industries, and another reason they have fled the stock. When oil sold for less than $50 a barrel in 2004, Gazprom’s capital outlay that year was $6.6 billion; for 2009, the company has budgeted more than $32 billion.

Gazprom executives say they are reviewing spending but will not cut major developments, including two undersea pipelines intended to reduce the company’s reliance on Ukraine as a transit country for about 80 percent of exports to Europe. Gazprom and Ukraine are again locked in a dispute over pricing that Gazprom officials say could prompt them to cut supplies to Ukraine by Thursday.

“All our major projects in our core business — upstream, midstream and downstream — will continue with very simple efforts to meet demand both in Russia and in our export markets,” Mr. Medvedev said.

But revenue is projected to fall steeply next year. Gazprom received an average of $420 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas sold in Western Europe this year; that is projected to fall to $260 to $300 in 2009.

“For them, like everybody else, sober realism has intruded,” Jonathan P. Stern, the author of “The Future of Russian Gas and Gazprom” and a natural gas expert at Oxford Energy, said in a telephone interview.

A significant portion of the country’s corporate bailout fund — about $9 billion out of a total of $50 billion — was set aside for the oil and gas companies. Gazprom alone is seeking $5.5 billion.

For a time, Gazprom, a company that evolved from the former Soviet ministry of gas, had been embraced by investors as the model for energy investing at a time of resource nationalism, when governments in oil-rich regions were shutting out the Western majors. In theory, minority shareholders in government-run companies would not face the risk their assets would be nationalized.

But with 436,000 employees, extensive subsidiaries in everything from farming to hotels, higher-than-average salaries and company-sponsored housing and resorts on the Black Sea, critics say Gazprom perpetuated the Soviet paternalistic economy well into the capitalist era.

“I can describe the Russian economy as water in a sieve,” Yulia L. Latynina, a commentator on Echo of Moscow radio, said of the chronic waste in Russian industry.

“Everybody was thinking Russia had succeeded, and they were wondering, how do you keep water in a sieve?” Ms. Latynina said. “When the input of water is greater than the output, the sieve is full. Everybody was thinking it was a miracle. The sieve is full! But when there is a drop in the water supply, the sieve is again empty very quickly.”


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