Margareta Pagano: Bad news for BP signals a good time to buy
Sunday 17 April 2011
BP's latest imbroglio reminds me of a horribly messy divorce in which two head-strong partners fight bitterly over who gets the goods.
On one side is the arrogant husband, BP, which has been caught in flagrante, having tried to pull a fast one on its partner, the four Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who make up the Alfa Access Renova consortium, with which it owns a joint-venture, TNK-BP.
Quite why BP's Bob Dudley decided to run off with a – clearly much prettier – mistress, state-backed Rosneft, without checking the legal fine print, no one at the oil giant has been able to explain. But it's not surprising that both sides, equally powerful and loaded, are squabbling like tom cats in mating season. They only have themselves to blame as both are responsible for not devising a pre-nuptial agreement when they created the TNK-BP venture. No one knows quite why they didn't, although everyone seems to be pointing an accusatory finger at BP's former chief executive, Lord Browne.
Even so, it's hard to believe that Dudley – who knows better than anyone how Russian oligarchs react when crossed – he spent months hiding from them just a few years ago – didn't anticipate that his estranged partner would stage a hissy fit on his signing the deal with Rosneft. Dudley's critics have given him, rightly, a hard time for getting himself into this mess.
But Dudley is not stupid. Surely, the more interesting explanation is that he and his board did know that the Rosneft deal, backed by the Russian government, would break the shareholder agreement which gave the joint venture first refusal on future BP deals in Russia.
But the BP boss decided that the risk – and the prize of the Arctic's deep-sea oil riches – was worth it. He must also have known that, had approached AAR before signing with Rosneft, the oligarchs would have tried to block the deal – as they did when BP first started talking to Gazprom. Those talks prompted AAR to take against Dudley three years ago, forcing him to run the business from secret hideaways. Indeed, it's probably because Dudley did know they would kick up such a fuss, whatever he did, that he tried to steam-roller the deal.
More interesting is to ask whether Dudley got the Kremlinology wrong, whether he's been stitched up, or both. There was always something odd about the way the Rosneft share swap was announced, even for cynical Kremlin watchers – the late-night timing, the presence of UK ministers and country flags smacked of panic. And, after giving his blessing, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has turned cold – accusing BP of misleading him. Rosneft's chairman, Igor Sechin, a deputy PM and a Putin ally, has also stepped down to distance himself from the deal. No good reason is yet forthcoming, unless the Kremlin is worried about annoying those rich and influential oligarchs?
Whatever the reason, BP has a month to get this deal through and keep its estranged partner sweet – or at least make it richer. So far, Dudley refuses to sell BP shares to AAR or to pay the $70bn compensation that the oligarchs are said to want for breaking the agreement. This one is going to play to the deadline. Both sides want out. The issue is whether AAR will win a whopping pay-out.
In the meantime, when the headlines get as bad as this for BP, history shows it might be time to buy the shares, closing down on Friday at 455p.
Glencore's new chairman will need all his mettle to lift veil on secretive company
The first time I met Simon Murray, the new chairman of Glencore, was in 2004 when he was preparing to walk – with explorer, Pen Hadow – the 1,200km trek to the South Pole.
He was 63, as fit as a fiddle, excited to be going, and full of stories about previous adventures – like his 242km race across the Moroccan desert – the Marathon des Sables.
But most chilling of all, were the tales he told from his five years in the French Foreign Legion where he fought in the desert in the Algerian War against the freedom fighters, the Front de Liberation Nationale. Stories of skinning cats, being shot at and being missed at point blank range are just some of the more trifling escapades – he even wrote a best-selling book about his experience: Legionnaire – The Real Life Story of an Englishman in The French Foreign Legion.
You get the picture; Murray is one of those fearless Action Men straight out of a Boy's Own story, without fear or trepidation. It's just as well – he'll need all of his fearlessness to chair Glencore which, until now, has been one of the world's most secretive companies, which was created out of the empire of Marc Rich, who famously fled to Switzerland after breaking US sanctions against Iran.
Now, it's had to lift the veil on all its riches and they are astonishing – Glencore controls huge chunks of the world's most valuable and rarest resources ranging from zinc to copper to thermal coal. But, like so many mining companies, it's also been involved in questionable practices over the years in countries like Iraq and Columbia, and last week the OECD reported a complaint against Glencore about tax avoidance in Zambia.
Yet in a couple of weeks time a chunk of Glencore's shares will be in most UK pension funds as, post listing, the company will automatically go into the FTSE 100 index. That's why Glencore has been clever to have in the chair someone as tough and experienced as Murray, who will hopefully enforce the strictest rules on corporate governance.
For all of us who will indirectly own shares, Murray must live up to his reputation as a hard man.
Girls just wanna have fun and raise money for charity
Lady Gaga is once again putting her extraordinary name to good use. From next month, the singer is donating $1 from every sale of her new album to the MAC Aids Fund, the third-biggest corporate donor for HIV/Aids causes in the US. Lady Gaga, together with Cyndi Lauper, has already helped the make-up firm MAC raise money – last year the two singers put their names to the Viva Glam campaign, where all the money from a £17 lipstick went to the fund. Nancy Mahon, the head of MAC's foundation, told me in London last week that MAC has raised $200m and hopes Gaga's latest move will push the total higher. With firms cutting back on corporate giving, it's a new trend which should be welcomed. Good for Gaga.
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