Russian ministry eyes $16 billion in privatizations in 2017-19

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s economy ministry wants to raise almost 1 trillion roubles ($15.8 billion) from selling state stakes in major companies over 2017-2019 and sees no risks if Russia were to double its debt burden, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told Reuters in an interview.

Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev speaks during an interview with Reuters in Moscow, Russia, November 1, 2016. Picture taken November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The Kremlin launched its latest privatization drive this year to plug holes in the budget caused by weak oil prices but had planned to drastically scale back the number of deals. It plans to raise a total of around 1 trillion roubles in 2016.

Under budget plans being reviewed by parliament’s lower house, Russia was to raise around 138 billion roubles from privatization deals next year, followed by 14 billion roubles a year in 2018 and 2019.

Ulyukayev is now suggesting these figures be increased.

“Those figures which stand in the finance ministry’s three-year plans are very small. We have now introduced our proposals. We think we can significantly increase the fiscal component,” he said.

“Two hundred to three hundred billion (roubles) a year is a conservative assessment. It could be more ... In total for the three years it (budget revenue from privatization) comes to almost 1 trillion.”

State stakes in No. 2 bank VTB VTBR.MM, shipping firm Sovcomflot and Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port were among the first that could be sold starting next year, Ulyukayev said.

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Later stakes in Russian Railways, Rostelecom, and oil pipeline firm Transneft TRNF_p.MM could go on the block.

This year Russia sold stakes in diamond miner Alrosa ALRS.MM and oil firm Bashneft BANE.MM for around 380 billion roubles in total and plans to sell 19.5 percent in Rosneft ROSN.MM before the end of the year for another 704 billion.

Ulyukayev said if Rosneft ROSN.MM were to buy back 19.5 percent of its own shares currently held by state holding company Rosneftegaz that would be a "transit operation" just to get money into the budget this year.

Russia could raise more than the 704 billion roubles from the sale of the 19.5 percent Rosneft stake, which is now penciled into this year’s budget, he added, given added value from Rosneft’s purchase of Bashneft.

Among other ways that Russia could finance the budget deficit, Ulyukayev cited increased borrowing, something the finance ministry plans from next year.

“In a situation with a liquidity surplus we can borrow much more on the domestic market. With sovereign debt of 12-13 percent of GDP, and with the bulk of this debt in roubles, one can’t speak of serious risks,” he said.

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“From the point of view of risks to macroeconomic stability, increasing domestic debt to 15-20-25 percent of GDP doesn’t carry risks.”

Ulyukayev also said the central bank’s 4 percent inflation target was of secondary importance and that what mattered more was returning to economic growth following a deep slump.

In addition to the collapse in prices for oil, Russia’s main export, growth has been hampered by Western sanctions imposed in 2014 over the Ukraine conflict.

“It seems to me we aren’t setting our priorities accurately. ... Reaching 4, 3 or 5 percent inflation is an excellent goal and what’s important is that it’s achievable, but it’s of secondary importance.”

Ulyukayev worked for almost a decade at the central bank and regularly calls for looser monetary policy to support growth.

In comments directed at the finance ministry, he added that the time frame for cutting the budget deficit should not be too radical.

“You can see a deficit as an investment project,” Ulyukayev said. “You can allow yourself a deficit if you know how you will cover it and you know that in several years the way you chose to finance it will allow for greater prosperity.”

Editing by Katya Golubkova, Andrey Ostroukh and Richard Balmforth