UPDATE 3-Tax cloud hangs over Gazprom superprofits
* Gazprom's net income 1.31 trln rbs, f'cast 1.27 trln
* Gazprom's share in Europe rose to 27 pct in 2011
* Taxes to increase for Gazprom, talks are under way
* Shares up, outperform broader market
* Management reshuffle eyed amid government change
* Europe gas exports to be flat in 2012 (Adds company comment, updates shares)
By Vladimir Soldatkin
MOSCOW, April 27 (Reuters) - Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom earned nearly $45 billion last year, up 35 percent and beating market expectations thanks to rising production and prices, figures which show why it has become such a tempting tax target.
Analysts say there could be tough times ahead for state-controlled Gazprom as the government targets the lucrative gas industry to help cover the spending promises made by Russian leader Vladimir Putin ahead of his election as president last month.
The government plans to raise regulated gas prices within Russia by just 15 percent per year, turning down a call by Gazprom for a bigger hike to compensate for an increase in the Mineral Extraction Tax (MET) that would grab 80 percent of the price rise.
"Clouds seem to be gathering around the gas sector, as an MET hike seems more and more likely. Any guidance on the portion of the burden to be levied on Gazprom is key to the stock's performance," Alfa Bank said in a note before the results.
A Gazprom official told a conference call that the company has been in talks with the government over the tax hikes and that a formula, which is pegged to changes in domestic gas prices, is being discussed.
"The tax rate is too high for normal development (of Gazprom," Vasily Smirnov, in charge of Gazprom's pricing department, said.
The company also faces marketing challenges in Europe, where cash-strapped buyers are pressing for discounts. There is also pressure on prices worldwide now that the United States has become the world's top gas producer thanks to its shale gas boom. A potential upheaval among top management is a further factor worrying investors.
Gazprom's 2011 net income attributable to shareholders rose to 1.31 trillion roubles ($44.68 billion) from 969 billion roubles, above the 1.27 trillion projected in a Reuters poll of analysts.
As of 1501 GMT, Gazprom's Moscow-traded shares were up by nearly 3 percent Thanks to the better-than-expected result, outpacing the broader market, which inched up by 1.1 percent.
Sales increased to 4.64 trillion roubles from 3.6 trillion roubles in the previous year, also ahead of 4.62 trillion roubles expected by analysts.
Net debt rose to 1.03 trillion roubles as of Dec. 31 2011 from 870.99 in the previous year as Gazprom increased borrowings for new projects, including its expansion in the Yamal peninsula and the second stage of Nord Stream sub-sea pipeline to Germany.
Gazprom is seeking to develop deposits in Yamal, north of its traditional production regions where reserves are gradually being depleted, to achieve its long-term goal of boosting market share in Europe to a third from around a quarter now.
In summer, Gazprom is set to launch the Bovanenkovo field, the largest on Yamal, with reserves of 4.9 trillion cubic metres - enough to supply global demand for over a year.
CHALLENGES IN EUROPE, MANAGEMENT
Prices under Gazprom's long-term contracts - the backbone of its deals with European buyers - are tied to those of oil and oil products, which rose sharply last year.
Export chief Alexander Medvedev has said that European sales volumes could be flat this year due to stiff competition from liquefied natural gas and cheaper spot markets.
Gazprom has had to bend to the demands of European companies to make some concessions related to contracted volumes of gas they had to by from the Russian company.
A company official said that concessions made to some of its European contract customers were retroactive for 2011 and would result in a reduction in revenues over the course of 2012.
There has, meanwhile, been market speculation about the future of long-time Chief Executive Alexei Miller, a former colleague of President-elect Vladimir Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor's office in the 1990s.
"There are two ideas related to Gazprom: taxes and changes in management. Gazprom has to deal with different kind of problems compared to what it faced in the past," Uralsib Analyst Alexei Kokin said.
"Now, it has to solve issues with European customers. It also has to choose the right strategy to Gazprom from expected exports of U.S. gas to Europe."
($1 = 29.3200 Russian roubles) (Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Editing by Douglas Busvine and Andrew Callus)
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