London’s best argument for staging Aramco IPO: It is not New York

A view shows Saudi Aramco’s Wasit Gas Plant, Saudi Arabia. (Reuters)
Updated 07 March 2018
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London’s best argument for staging Aramco IPO: It is not New York

DUBAI: London has some very definite advantages in the contest to stage any global element of the forthcoming initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, but whether Saudi Arabian policymakers will be convinced that the UK capital is the place for the flagship share sale — potentially the biggest IPO in history — remains to be seen.
So strong is the claim of the London Stock Exchange (LSE) that for a while it looked like a straight two-horse race between it and the much bigger New York Stock Exchange for the prestigious and money-spinning offering.
That has been complicated over the past few months by the fact that other alternatives have emerged to a big global IPO: An “exclusive” offering on the Tadawul in Riyadh; the emergence of rival venues like Hong Kong and the other New York exchange Nasdaq; and the possibility of a private sale of shares to Chinese or Russian investors; or several combinations of these options.
But London is still in the race, and the official visit by Saudi policymakers this week could be a final opportunity to “kick the tires” of the LSE as a suitable venue for arguably the most important single transaction in the Kingdom’s history. LSE officials can advance several plausible arguments why it should stage the Aramco IPO.
David Hodson, veteran oil executive and financier and managing director of Dubai-based Blue Pearl Management, said: “The big thing London has going for it is that it is not New York. It is a less aggressive investment venue in all respects.”
This was echoed by a senior American investment banker, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said: “New York presents a range of problems, with Sarbanes-Oxley (US investor protection laws), as well as JASTA (anti-terrorism financing legislation) and the whole system of class actions.”
It has become almost accepted wisdom that Aramco would find itself enmired in litigation if it were to list on Wall Street. Although there are some who do not think this is necessarily the case — pointing to the hundreds of billions of dollars of Saudi assets in the US so far left untouched by the hungry lawyers of Manhattan — there is a general feeling, shared by some of Aramco’s advisory team, that listing there would just be asking for trouble.
“The London legal system is different in many respects,” said the banker. There is no British equivalent of the JASTA laws, disclosure and regulatory requirements are looser (especially for oil companies) and, while there is a system of ‘no win, no fee’ litigation, it is not as well-organized or aggressive as in the US, with its armies of class action lawyers.
The gentler legal and regulatory rules in the UK reinforce another advantage London has: It badly wants, even needs, to stage the IPO. Certainly, listing Aramco would talk to the post-Brexit narrative, which sees the world outside the EU as a gigantic opportunity for Britain.
Anti-Brexit campaigners would maintain that this is delusional, but if LSE won Aramco it would certainly allow the British government to claim that there is indeed life after the EU, and advance its cause to continue to be regarded as the capital of the European financial scene.
City veteran Martin Gilbert, co-chief executive of Standard Life Aberdeen, said: “It would obviously be a big and welcome coup if the UK was successful given the competition.”
London has other attractions too. It is not as big as New York — the two exchanges there has a combined market capitalization more than six times that of LSE — but it has a reputation as a truly global exchange, especially reflecting the commodity and energy sector. For example, two of the big members of Aramco’s peer group — BP and Shell — are listed on LSE.
David Ramm, the corporate partner at the London office of global law firm Morgan Lewis, believes London has an advantage in its international appeal. “The LSE reaches a broader and more diverse global network of potential investors than any other exchange, including New York,” he said.
“I suspect that there may also be a view at Aramco that the LSE and its investors may currently be more receptive to foreign listings, especially from the Middle East, than more domestically or the US focused exchanges,” Ramm added.
The London market authorities have gone out of their way to make the LSE more receptive. Last year the regulators proposed to introduce a new category of listing on the market, dubbed the “sovereign IPO,” as a way of allowing governments and other state-linked investors to issue and trade shares on international exchanges without adhering to stricter IPO rules on related party transactions and governance.
While these proposals met with some criticism from a portion of the London investment community and politicians — on the grounds that London was lowering its governance standards to accommodate the Saudis — the British government, the regulators and most financial professionals would welcome the changes if they were to attract the biggest IPO in history.
The changes required for the “sovereign IPO” regime have not yet been finally agreed, but any hint that Aramco was seriously leaning toward London would likely hurry them through without too much delay.
Ellen Wald, Middle East expert and author of upcoming book “Saudi Inc”, said: “The flexibility the LSE has shown will likely appeal to Aramco. The LSE would make sense as one of the exchanges for an Aramco listing because it is a big, stable and prestigious exchange with access to a large number of global investors and capital.
London has presented a persuasive investment case for why Aramco should chose it rather than any other global venue. But in the end, other factors — like geopolitical and foreign policy considerations, as well as personal relations between top policymakers — are just as like to decide the venue for the Aramco.
Hodson summed it up: “The final decision on where to list will be as much a political and strategic call as a financial one.”


New oil, gas projects to accelerate next year

Updated 17 December 2018
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New oil, gas projects to accelerate next year

  • Global investment in oil and gas production is expected to reach around $425 billion next year
  • Many of the new projects will be around gas, with a record number of liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects

LONDON: The number of new oil and gas projects will rise five-fold next year from a 2015 trough but overall spending is still unlikely to be enough to meet future demand, consultancy Wood Mackenzie said in a report.
Shaken by a sharp drop in oil prices in recent months, boards are generally expected to stick to spending discipline imposed following the 2014 price crash.
Global investment in oil and gas production, known as upstream, is expected to reach around $425 billion next year, according to WoodMac analyst Angus Rodger.
That compares with a total spending of $770 billion in 2014, which dropped to $400 billion in 2016 and 2017.
Although spending levels have slightly recovered since then, next year’s capital expenditure will still fall short of the $600 billion required to meet demand growth and to offset the natural decline of output from fields, Rodger told Reuters.
A handful of the world’s top oil companies, including US giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron, said they would boost spending next year as they accelerate developments of highly-productive shale fields.
But overall, companies will seek to maintain spending largely flat in order to return cash to investors after years of pain, Rodger said.
Still, deep cost cuts introduced in recent years and lower rates for drilling rigs and services mean that companies can do more with their money.
In 2019, the number of large new oil and gas projects is expected to reach up to 50, compared with 40 in 2018, and around 10 in 2015, according to WoodMac’s 2019 outlook. Large projects hold over 50 million barrels of oil or gas equivalent.
Many of the new projects will be around gas, with a record number of liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects set to get the green light in 2019.
Those include the Arctic LNG-2 in Russia, at least one project in Mozambique and three in the United States, which would together require $50 billion, according to the report.
“The stars are aligning on LNG sales contracts, corporate appetite, long-term demand and costs. But these are huge investments, and investor confidence could waver if we see signs of cost inflation, global recession and falling prices.”
The LNG projects will target 100 trillion cubic feet of gas, up from 80 tcf in 2019 and 32 tcf in 2017.
Spending could see a strong increase in 2020 if oil prices continue rising steadily and as rig costs are expected to rise, Rodger said.