Ukraine’s state-owned gas company is not usually at the top of the business news here in the Western Hemisphere. But there is a story to it, and like usual in this blog, an investment opportunity.
So here’s the short story and the long story.
The Short Version
Naftogaz, 100% owned by the Ukraine Government, is not in the finest of financial conditions these days. But as a government entity, the Ukraine government by way of subsidy or capital infusion has bailed it out, time after time.
The company has a series of loans and other debt obligations coming due over the next two years, which it wishes to reschedule. The total is $1.7 billion. The interesting part (for us) of these obligations is a $500 million bond issue coming due September 30. Two weeks from now.
All summer long, Naftogaz has fueled speculation about whether it would pay these bonds on time. At one point, it seemed they would pay. And then they’d be back in the “restructuring” mood.
Two weeks ago, they hired Credit Suisse to help them with the process, so the “restructuring” seemed to back on. LINK. Yesterday it was announced that talks with bondholders were beginning. Some tentative terms were leaked to the press. LINK. Not everyone is happy with this, and there is a dissident group trying to block the efforts and make Naftogaz pay up on time. LINK.
Naturally, all this has bondholders quite nervous and that 2009 bond (with a 8.125% coupon) maturing in two weeks is trading at 85-86%.
The terms “leaked” about the restructuring are a coupon of 9.5%, an additional five years, an explicit government guarantee and possibly an upfront “consent” payment. If that’s it, sign me up.
Certainly, Ukraine is not an easy place to invest, and there is a rocky road ahead. But it’s not easy finding double digit yields anymore, not even in the emerging markets. This is a risk I can stomach. This isn’t Ecuador, who thumbed its nose at the international financial markets, recently. LINK. Ukraine has a $16 billion program with the IMF established last year in the midst of the global crisis. You don’t sign on with the IMF, if your plan is to default a few months later. (You default FIRST, and THEN go to the IMF)
Now the LONG version (more interesting…but well, LONGER)
The Ukraine and Russia have had a complicated relationship going back centuries. I’ll let you wiki that if you will, but here’s how it all relates to gas.
Russia has gas, with 25% of the worlds known reserves. Europe needs gas, since it gets cold in the winter (and at other times also) Since the 1970’s, the Soviet Union has been exporting gas to Eastern and Western European countries through a network of pipelines.
Here’s a great map of those pipelines. LINK. (Don’t you just love maps?)
I did write “Soviet Union”, but the USSR is no more and the main trunkline of the pipeline now goes straight through now independent Ukraine. That pipeline now belongs to Naftogaz. But the gas belongs to Gazprom (Russia).
If this sounds like fertile grounds for conflict, it has been. Through the 1990s, Ukraine and Russia quibbled about these issues and in particular gas debts, since Ukraine had the habit of getting behind on payments for the gas it consumed.
Not surprisingly, things really started to get testy after the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of November 2004-January 2005, from which a pro-Western government emerged with talk of joining the European Union and (OMG) even NATO.
So at that time, Gazprom figured out that it was about time to look at the easy terms (below “market”) that Ukraine was enjoying for the gas it consumed, and of course, Ukraine wanted more money for “transit fees” through its territory. Naftogaz admitted to “turning the valves” its way (diverting gas for domestic needs).
The dispute culminated with Gazprom turning off the gas for EVERYONE on Jan 1, 2006. The Europeans, not really enjoying the prospect of freezing in January, helped broker a deal and supply resumed. A similar spats over debts and prices resulted in a disruption in supply earlier this year, again with some Western European intervention.
At the moment, Naftogaz is current with its payments to Gazprom, but that probably doesn’t leave a lot of room for other creditors (hence the proposed restructuring). Add to this the fact that Naftogaz still subsidizes local gas consumption heavily (something the IMF isn’t particularly happy about) and Naftogaz’ financial situation is still suspect. But, as stated above, there is an “implicit” government backing and frankly for all practical purposes, Ukraine can not cut Naftogaz loose.
If all this weren’t convoluted enough, Ukraine is scheduled for presidential elections in early 2010. The incument president (Yushenko) AND primer minister (Tymoshenko) are expected to run, as well as former president (and loser in the “Orange Revolution”) Victor Yanukovych, (Putin’s favorite., BTW)
If all this is a little too complex for your stomach, well, maybe investing in the emerging markets is not your cup of tea. Personally, I love this stuff, especially when I’m sitting 6,000 miles away. I’ll take the Florida heat over the Ukrainian winter (with or without gas) anytime.
PS. The picture is of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has the Princess Leia look down pat. She appears to be Yanukovych’s (the pro-Russia ex-prez) strongest opponent in the upcoming elections. Incumbent President Yushenko, the Orange Revolution “Victor”, is nowhere to be seen in the polls.