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.”


Saudi-backed SoftBank to ramp up tech investment

Updated 20 June 2018
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Saudi-backed SoftBank to ramp up tech investment

  • SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son to step up company's "unicorn hunting" investment strategy
  • Saudi Arabia's PIF has contributed $45 billion to SoftBank's Vision Fund

LONDON: Japanese conglomerate SoftBank will double down on its ambitious tech investment strategy, in a move that could create opportunities for further collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).
SoftBank — which owns Japan’s third-largest telecoms operator — has emerged in recent years as one of the world’s largest tech investors, acquiring stakes in companies including Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and UK chipmaker ARM Holdings.
It last year launched the $100 billion Vision Fund, boosted by a $45 billion investment from PIF. It attracted $93 billion in funds last year, aided by contributions from Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company, Apple, Foxconn and others, making it the world’s largest buyout fund.
The Vision Fund has invested in disruptive firms, especially those in the technology space, including Swiss pharmaceuticals startup Roivant, office space company WeWork, and enterprise messaging service Slack.
CEO Masayoshi Son signaled that such dealmaking will become even more of a focus for SoftBank.
“I have spent 97 percent of my time on managing the telecoms business and only 3 percent on investing,” he told investors at the group’s annual meeting on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Reversing that balance will allow SoftBank to grow faster, he said.
Son’s comments fit with a transformation underway at SoftBank from a domestic telecoms firm to “unicorn hunter” — as Son termed it — focusing on late-stage startups around the world.
Last month, SoftBank invested $2.25 billion in GM Cruise, the carmaker’s autonomous vehicle unit, complementing its shareholdings in China’s Didi Chuxing, the world’s largest ride-sharing app, as well as rivals Uber, Grab and Ola.
The Vision Fund will initially invest $900 million in GM Cruise Holdings, investing the remaining $1.35 billion when GM’s Cruise AVs are ready for commercial deployment. The investment gives the Vision Fund a 19.6 percent stake in GM Cruise.
Saudi Arabia’s PIF has been key to SoftBank’s tech investment strategy with its contribution to the Vision Fund, with the Kingdom also benefiting directly from partnerships with SoftBank.
Son said in November that SoftBank planned to invest as much as $25 billion in the Kingdom in the next three to four years, and aimed to deploy up to $15 billion in Neom, a futuristic city to be built on the Red Sea coast.
PIF and the Vision Fund in March announced a partnership to build the world’s largest solar project in Saudi Arabia, with a capacity of up to 200 gigawatts, in line with the Kingdom’s solar ambitions as set out in Vision 2030.
The agreement will establish an electricity generation company in Saudi Arabia, and will commission two solar plants with a capacity of 3GW and 4.2GW by the end of next year. It envisages localizing a significant portion of the renewable energy value chain in the Saudi economy, including research and development and the manufacturing of solar panels.
SoftBank shareholders on Wednesday approved the appointment of three executive vice presidents — SoftBank unit Sprint Corp’s former chief executive, Marcelo Claure, and former bankers Katsunori Sago and Rajeev Misra.
Bolivian-born billionaire Claure was appointed SoftBank’s chief operating officer in May, tasked with driving cooperation between the group’s portfolio companies. Former Goldman Sachs executive Sago became chief strategy officer on Wednesday and will focus on group investment. Misra runs the Vision Fund.
Son yesterday bemoaned the so-called conglomerate discount weighing on SoftBank’s shares at its investor meeting.
He said when the market value of stakes the firm holds in companies such as Alibaba Group Holding and ARM Holdings are taken into account, SoftBank’s shares should be trading above 14,000 yen ($127), rather than about 8,000 yen currently.