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Deals

Russia's big asset sales in 2010 unlikely

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s multi-billion dollar privatization is unlikely to start this year, a senior official said, but analysts forecast that budget demands ahead of an election will ensure the much awaited sale is not canceled.

Investors had hoped to get their hands on some of the state assets as soon as this year after the head of VTB VTBR.MM said in June the government could start divesting its stake in Russia's number two bank within six months.

But Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin poured cold water on expectations that the first of the sell-offs -- potentially worth a combined $29 billion -- would be launched so soon.

“Most likely, this year we will not privatize stakes of big companies,” he told journalists at a briefing on a flight to Yakutsk in Russia’s far east over the weekend.

“We did not have such a specific goal for this year.”

He said the general terms of the sale -- Russia’s most ambitious since the 1990s -- could be finalized in September, while details should be decided early next year.

Investors are looking for any sign of a u-turn on privatizations, since such plans have often been shelved in the past. But analysts said Kudrin’s words should not be seen as a turnaround, especially given that officials had previously signaled the bulk of the sales would happen in 2011-2013.

“I wonder if Kudrin is being a realist here - managing expectations,” said Tom Mundy, equity strategist at Renaissance Capital in Moscow, who expects the privatization plans to go ahead, but sees the timing dependent on market conditions.

Unlike previous privatization plans, this time Russia needs the cash as its budget, strained by the worst recession in 15 years, is expected to remain in deficit until at least 2015.

“I can understand the skepticism given their track record, but there are two factors that will push privatization -- the budget factor and the desire to reverse the increase of the state role in the economy which happened during the crisis,” said Yaroslav Lissovolik, strategist at Deutsche Bank.

Presidential elections due in 2012 may give further impetus to a plan which could put heavyweights like No. 1 oil producer Rosneft ROSN.MM up for sale and help the government avoid tax hikes.

“If spending is kept high before the election, that will demand greater efforts on privatization,” Lissovolik said.

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Russia is expected to use up most of its 1.2 trillion rouble Reserve Fund this year. The government also has a 2.7 trillion rouble National Welfare Fund at its disposal, but is keen to keep a cash safety net against future crises.

Oil -- a key source of cash for Russia’s commodity-driven economy -- is also unlikely to rise far enough above budget forecasts to remove the need for extra cash.

Citi estimates that each $10 above the assumed price of $75 per barrel of oil gives the government around $17 billion, or 1 percent of GDP, not enough to get rid of the deficit next year.

“I think the oil price would have to increase significantly for them not to move on with the privatization plans,” Elina Ribakova, an economist at Citi in Moscow.

Kudrin said the primary goal behind the privatization plan was to ensure funds to cover deficit in the next three years.

“This is why it was created,” he said.

RenCap’s Mundy said this confirmed that the government would likely want to wait for the best possible market situation before pressing on with the sale.

“If this were a reform story, then I think they would not worry so much about the timing,” he said.

Russia's benchmark MICEX index has doubled in value from its October 2008 crisis-time trough .MCX, but, at 1,376 points, is still worth about a third less than at its December 2007 peak.

Citi’s Ribakova, who also reckons the government is waiting for a better market, said that privatization may start mid-2011.

Kudrin reiterated that foreign companies will be invited to participate.

“I am not afraid of foreign investors,” Kudrin said. “We’ll be selling non-controlling stakes ... and I don’t see any danger from selling non-controlling stakes to any foreign or domestic investors.”

Reporting and writing by Lidia Kelly; editing by Patrick Graham

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