We noted a month ago that the long-awaited Saudi Aramco IPO, scheduled for mid-2018, could be delayed to 2019, but now, according to The FT, Aramco is considering shelving plans for an IPO altogether in favor of a private share sale to the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds.
The FT notes that talks about a private sale to foreign governments - including China - and other investors have gathered pace in recent weeks, according to five people familiar with the IPO preparations, amid growing concerns about the feasibility of an international listing.
The Saudi state oil company has struggled to select a suitable international venue for its shares, as New York and London have vied for what has been billed as the largest ever flotation.
The company would still aim to list shares on the kingdom’s Tadawul exchange next year if they pursue the private sale, the people said.
The latest proposal by the company’s financial advisers was described by one of the people as a “face-saving” option for Saudi Aramco, which has worked on plans to list its shares internationally for more than a year.
Desk chatter included comments that the Saudis were anxious about the level of due diligence and transparency involved in a public offering.
A Saudi Aramco spokesperson said:
“A range of options, for the public listing of Saudi Aramco, continue to be held under active review. No decision has been made and the IPO process remains on track.”
The planned listing of a 5 per cent stake in Saudi Aramco is the centrepiece of an economic reform programme led by Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is keen for a 2018 IPO. He has said the company could be worth $2tn although a Financial Times analysis put the valuation figure at around $1tn.
An economic recession in the kingdom is piling pressure on the prince, the king’s son and next in line for the throne, amid calls for the government to increase investment and ease austerity. As we noted previously, there could be more at play here...
Some analysts view the possible IPO delay as a sign of the problems Aramco and the Saudi government currently face. A lack of transparency, issues with its oil and gas reserves, and the role of the Saudi government as the main stakeholder have all been suggested as the reason for this possible delay. Most of these suggestions, however, are based purely on issues surrounding the IPO itself. The true reason for this delay, however, likely hides among the intricate societal and economic problems in the Kingdom.
One obvious reason for a delay is the still-fledgling global oil price. A higher price setting—above $60 per barrel—would surely drive up the overall interest in the IPO. As long as OPEC and non-OPEC members, such as Russia, are still struggling to get a grip on the oil market, the potential for disaster looms. Needless to say, an oil price slump would have a detrimental effect on the expected revenues of the IPO.
The analysts, it seems, feel no need to look any further than this simple oil price explanation, but several other key factors should be addressed…
The impact of an influx of $1-2 trillion into the current Saudi economy is bound to have a significant impact. The implementation of Saudi Vision 2030 is broad and ambitiously planned. A full diversification of the economy is needed to guarantee work and salaries for future young Saudis, with the end of government subsidies or handouts.
A multitrillion investment scheme in a rather small local economy will likely result in total disorder, inflation and possibly ineffective investment schemes. The attractiveness of investing the total amount could lead to staggering inflation, higher costs and superfluous projects being realized.
A delay of such an influx of cash seems to be more and more attractive, giving the Saudi government and local industries more time to adjust and put in place the right steps for a sustainable and commercially attractive economic future.
We previously indicated that China could step in as a financial savior. With around 8.5 million bpd of crude oil imports, which is 2.5 million bdp more than in 2014, the attractiveness of having a stake in Saudi Aramco is huge. Even though an energy diversification program is in place, China’s imports from Saudi Arabia are going to increase. For Beijing, a stake in one of its main suppliers is a very attractive proposition. It will not only lock in Saudi crude oil and petroleum product exports to China but it will also provide some additional political and strategic clout in the heart of the Middle East.
There will, of course, be a few big bankers who will be upset as their billion dollar fee/commission just went up in smoke, but this may give MBS some breathing room - without the undue attention of an IPO - as he deals with the nation's economic slowdown. However, coming just a few days after the Saudi king's trip to Moscow, the timing of this leaked information seems interesting at the least.