MOSCOW (Reuters) - A delay in allowing billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov’s gold firm Polyus to sail into the prestigious FTSE 100 Index, while probably procedural, leaves nagging concerns that politics and business in Russia make for a dangerous cocktail.
The postponement, ordered by a committee chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, comes just two months after Prokhorov’s sudden exit from Russian politics following an acrimonious clash with the Kremlin.
In his brief foray into politics, Prokhorov had hoped to lead a liberal party that enjoyed official backing into December’s parliamentary election, but his autonomy and ambition unnerved Russia’s leaders and he was abruptly ousted.
Putin’s announcement that he will run for a third term as president in 2012 has reinforced concerns amongst Russia’s super rich that they own their assets at the pleasure of the country’s rulers. Prokhorov’s fortune has been estimated at $18 billion by Forbes magazine.
“The power is such that nothing is really safe,” said one industry source.
Officials have given assurances that the delay to allowing Polyus (PLZL.MM), Russia’s largest pure-play gold miner, to list in London was purely technical.
“There were no political reasons there and could not have been. The matter required additional work because certain documents were lacking,” said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
But no date has yet been set for the next meeting of the committee, which has a sweeping mandate to rule on issues concerning the foreign ownership of strategic assets in Russia.
And memories remain fresh of the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed for fraud and tax evasion in 2005 and lost his $40 billion oil empire after mounting a political challenge to Putin. Khodorkovsky remains in jail.
Political ties, however, have not proven universally problematic.
“Polyus has had a colorful history -- but a lot of other companies have in the past and that hasn’t stopped them being listed,” said Roland Nash, chief strategist at hedge fund Verno Capital in Moscow.
Robert Mantse, mining analyst at Otkritie bank in Moscow, said Polyus’ premium London listing was a question of “not if, but when.”
While Britain’s relationship with Russia has been rocky in recent years, London’s draw is more powerful than ever for Russian businessmen who seek capital, prestige and a haven from the rough and tumble of their home country’s business world.
“When you’re worth $10 billion you are probably less focused on getting to the next $20 billion -- you’re probably thinking: ‘How do I preserve what I have?'” said one senior banker.
“You would naturally take all steps to diversify your wealth and your exposure away from one geography that you know is going to be volatile, at least for the next generation.”
A hold-up for Polyus could allow two rival Russian miners to beat it to coveted spots in the FTSE 100 index, gaining access to a wider pool of investors and creating an acquisition currency just as the sector undergoes global consolidation.
Steelmaker Evraz HK1q.L, part-owned by Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich, and Polymetal PMTL.MM, controlled by tycoons Vitaly Nesis and Alexander Mamut with Czech investor PPF, have also filed for premium listings.
A step on the road to the FTSE is a change of domicile -- effectively moving firms to Britain, where Russian tycoons often make their homes, educate their children and seek legal redress when unpredictable Russian justice fails them.
“They are trying to find a way to access capital markets when all the markets have gone down,” said a source involved in one company’s FTSE move. “Where can you get some lift for your share price? You put UK Plc at the top.”
The appeal of London is particularly strong for mining and metals firms, given the capital and analytical coverage of the sector that is concentrated there.
“(The Metals & Mining sector) of the FTSE is a fairly sizeable group,” said the London Stock Exchange’s Jon Edwards, who’s job is to attract emerging-market firms to list.
“It is a very important constituency. That’s a major draw,” Edwards said. “Being a metals company in the FTSE 100 means you tend to see a lot of coverage.”
While a total of 47 Russian companies have their shares traded on London’s main market, the vast majority are in the form of global depositary receipts, effectively a certificate of foreign ownership of a Russian domestic share.
Those that have full listings are not in the FTSE -- meaning the three miners pursuing FTSE inclusion would be the first Russian companies to enter the blue-chip index. Moving to a premium listing requires a significant free float and more exacting standards of corporate governance, but brings with it access to additional tracker funds which follow the index.
Being a premium-listed company can also help a company clinch deals or make them more attractive takeover targets.
“If you have a wider investor base and greater dispersion, that makes your shares more of an acquisition currency, so it would facilitate that process, if those conditions apply,” said Edwards.
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski, Kylie MacLellan, John Bowker, Polina Devitt, Clara Ferreira-Marques and Douglas Busvine