Experts question motives of Russian bidders for Opel

MOSCOW, May 5 (Reuters) - Russia's debt-laden car maker GAZ GAZA.RTS is in no position to help bid for a stake in Opel GM.N, while Sberbank SBER03.MM would only be involved as a Kremlin surrogate, informed sources and analysts said on Tuesday. [ID:nL574380] [ID:nL562449]

They were responding to media reports that Canadian auto-parts maker Magna MGa.TO is teaming up with the two Russian firms to buy up a stake in Opel, a unit of General Motors GM.N. The reports in Russian newspapers cited federal and regional economic officials in Germany.

“GAZ does not have a single rouble to devote to this right now,” said a source familiar with the manufacturer’s debt restructuring talks.

GAZ and Sberbank have repeatedly denied their intent to bid.

The source added that GAZ’s involvement in such an acquisition would threaten its debt negotiations with key lenders as well as the state. “No one will let them do this.

“For them it is currently a question of survival, of urgently restructuring their business,” said Ivan Bonchev, an industry analyst at Ernst & Young in Moscow.

Analysts estimate that GAZ, which is controlled by indebted metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska, owes around $1.5 billion, half of which comes due this year. Its recent forays into the passenger car and commercial vehicle businesses have failed, they said.

EADS SALE REVISITED? Although much better off financially, state-controlled Sberbank, Russia’s largest lender, has no interest in the automotive sector, and would only seek an Opel stake if the government put up the money and gave the order, analysts said.

“Given that the automotive business is a non-core activity for Sberbank, the bid is likely to be politically motivated,” analysts for VTB bank in Moscow said in a research note.

They said the state could be acting on its desire to take advantage of the crisis conditions to cheaply get its hands on European technology.

In 2006, Russia's state-controlled VTB bank bought a 5 percent stake in European aerospace group EADS EAD.PA, overcoming initial rejections and political resistance. The stake is now held by the Development Bank, also known as VEB.

“When industries in Europe may fail if they cannot get access to new investment cash, a Russian investor is unlikely to be rejected so quickly,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Uralsib in Moscow.

“In fact, the current crisis could well allow the opportunity for strategic Russian industries, such as the auto sector, to forge these long-term relationships,” Weafter said. “Sberbank’s role would only be that of state backed financier to facilitate the deal.”


The German economy ministry meanwhile sought to downplay initial comments from its spokesman, Felix Probst, who told the English-language paper The Moscow Times that GAZ and Sberbank were teaming up with Magna to bid for Opel.

“It might have been a misunderstanding,” said ministry spokeswoman Beatrix Brodkorb. “If Magna will do the Opel deal by itself or together with Sberbank or GAZ, I don’t know.”

Analysts at Troika Dialog, a Russian investment bank, agreed. “We believe that there was some misunderstanding on the part of the German authorities regarding the possible role of GAZ in buying a stake in Opel,” they said in a research note. (Reporting by Simon Shuster; Editing by Sharon Lindores)