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Last Updated: April 2, 2019
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The first official glimpse of Saudi Aramco’s financial performance confirms the state-run oil giant can generate profit like no other company on Earth: net income last year was $111.1 billion, easily outstripping U.S. behemoths including Apple Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp.

But accounts published before the firm’s debut in the international bond market also show Aramco -- an organization that produces about 10 percent of the world’s crude -- doesn’t generate as much cash per barrel as other leading oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell Plc because of a heavy tax burden.

The bond sale, being pitched to investors this week in a global roadshow, has forced Aramco to reveal secrets held close since the company’s nationalization in the late 1970s, casting a light on the relationship between the kingdom and its most important asset. Both Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service assigned Aramco the fifth-highest investment grade, the same as Saudi sovereign debt, but lower than oil majors Exxon, Shell and Chevron Corp.

The company is preparing to raise debt in part to pay for the acquisition of a majority stake in domestic petrochemical group Sabic, worth about $69 billion. The deal is a Plan B to generate money for Saudi Arabia’s economic agenda after an IPO of Aramco was postponed. In effect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is using the firm’s pristine balance sheet to finance his ambitions.

For more details on the ratings and bond issue, click here

Aramco will pay 50 percent of the Sabic acquisition cost when the deal closes and the rest over the subsequent two years, according to a person who saw a presentation made to potential investors on Monday. Aramco declined to comment.

The 470-page bond prospectus, filed with the London Stock Exchange, detailed a litany of risks for prospective investors, including missiles falling on Aramco’s installations, the impact of proposed U.S. antitrust laws on OPEC, the fight against climate change, and even the risk that Saudi Arabia will break the peg between its currency, the riyal, and the U.S dollar. It also revealed the Saudi oil giant was the victim of a "successful" cyber attack in 2012 that forced the company to move some operations into "manual" mode.

While the prospectus revealed the richest company on the planet, it also showed how reliant Aramco is on high oil and natural gas prices. In 2016, when the price of Brent crude plunged to average $45 a barrel and OPEC cut production, the company struggled to break even. Net income for the full year was just $13 billion and free cash flow a tiny $2 billion.


The kingdom’s dependence on the company to finance social and military spending, as well as the lavish lifestyles of hundreds of princes, places a heavy burden on Aramco’scash flow. Aramco pays 50 percent of its profit on income tax, plus a sliding royalty scale that starts at 20 percent of the company’s revenue and rises to as much as 50 percent with the price of oil.

To read Bloomberg’s reporting on Aramco’s accounts from last year, click here.

Aramco reported cash flow from operations of $121 billion and $35.1 billion in capital spending, and paid $58.2 billion in dividends to the Saudi government in 2018, according to Moody’s. In a presentation to potential bondholders, the company said its "ordinary dividend" last year was $52 billion. There wasn’t an immediate explanation about the gap between the two figures.

Fitch said its A+ rating reflects the “strong links” between the company and the kingdom, and the influence the state has on Aramco through regulating the level of production, taxation and dividends.

“Over time, a low oil price environment could cause a sustained fiscal deficit for Saudi Arabia that could result in changes down the line for Aramco’s fiscal regime,” said Neil Beveridge, an energy analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in Hong Kong. “You can’t disassociate the sovereign government from Aramco given the very close relationship and the contribution Aramco makes to the overall funding for Saudi Arabia.”

Aramco reported funds flow from operations -- a measure closely watched by investors and similar to cash flow from operations -- of $26 abarrel equivalent of oil last year, according to Fitch. That’s below what Big Oil companies such as Shell and Total SA enjoy, at $38 and $31 per barrel, respectively.

“Funds from operations, which is operation cash flows before working capital changes, is the best measure to compare oil companies’ profitability, since Ebitda does not take into account taxation,” Dmitry Marinchenko, senior director at Fitch in London, said in an interview.

Aramco told potential bondholders it generated operating cash flow of $121 billion in 2018. Although that’s significantly higher than oil majors produce, the difference isn’t a large as the Ebitda or the net income. Shell, for example, reported cash flow of $53 billion, despite a significantly lower oil and gas production than Aramco. Exxon reported cash flow last year of $36 billion.

Fitch’s A+ rating for Aramco is one level below the AA- for both Shell and Total. The Moody’s rating is well behind Exxon’s top Aaa level.

The oil giant has mandated banks to hold a roadshow for dollar-denominated notes from April 1, potentially including tranches from three to 30 years, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fitch said that Aramco planned to pay for the 70 percent stake in Sabic “in installments over 2019-21.”

The company will hold meetings with investors in coming days in cities including London, New York, Boston, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Chicago. Aramco picked banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley to manage the debt offering.

The bond plan, credit rating and the publication of the first extracts of Aramco’s accounts are all part of the ambitions of Prince Mohammed, who controls most of the levers of power in the kingdom and wants to pursue an IPO as part of his plans to ready the country for the post-oil age. Yet his ambition to secure a $2 trillion valuation has faced pushback from global investors, prompting a delay in the IPO.

For all the shock and awe in Aramco’s big reveal, the published numbers appear to leave that valuation a long way off, implying a dividend yield about half of what Shell pays.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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