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Norilsk has since become an efficient operation and the globe's top nickel and palladium producer. Polyus, the gold company spun out of Norilsk three years ago, is the world's 10th-biggest gold producer and has ambitions to break into the top five. Mr. Deripaska overhauled Rusal to similar effect. It is now the world's biggest aluminum maker.

Former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev revitalized National Reserve Bank and used the wealth it generated to buy a chunk of Aeroflot and create one of Russia's largest potato agribusinesses. Alexei Mordashov used Severstal to become a global steel magnate. His company's holdings include Rouge Steel, the steelworks created by Henry Ford in the 1920s.

Self-inflicted wounds

As it turned out, Mr. Putin never had to destroy the oligarchs. They're doing it all by themselves. Russian investment bank Troika Dialog estimated that the homegrown billionaires have shed an astounding $260-billion of wealth since the credit crunch started and the stock markets collapsed. Russia's Micex index is down almost 70 per cent since its spring high.

In an interview in Moscow, Troika chief economist Evgeny Gavrilenkov said the "banks and corporations borrowed irresponsibly" during the boom years, when Russian inflation rates were high, interest rates low and commodity prices soaring. Russia's foreign debt last autumn was $540-billion, almost all of it held by corporations and much of which can't be paid back as cash flows dry up and the ruble rusts like an old Lada.

Mr. Deripaska, he said, was certainly one of the irresponsible borrowers. The former metals trader used leverage piled on leverage to assemble Russia's biggest industrial conglomerate, Basic Element, whose 60 or so companies covered six industries, from energy to autos. Assets are now being shed or forfeited - in the autumn, a margin call deprived him of his $1.5-billion investment in Canadian auto parts maker Magna International. Rusal, the industrial heart of the Deripaska empire, relied on an emergency $4.5-billion loan from state-controlled Vnesheconombank (VEB) to escape the clutches of its international creditors. Mr. Deripaska was so desperate for the money that parts of the loan were backed with personal guarantees.

Last year, Forbes magazine put Mr. Deripaska's pre-crunch worth at $28-billion, making him the richest oligarch. It's possible he is no longer a billionaire. There is little doubt he ranks as the biggest loser among the oligarchs.

Judging which oligarch is up and which is down is difficult because most sit on a portfolio of public and private investments inside and outside of Russia, and their debt loads often are obscure.

Mr. Lebedev, for instance, owns about 30 per cent of Aeroflot, which has lost more than two-thirds of its market value in the past year. But his main holding, National Reserve Corp., owner of National Reserve Bank, is private, though allegedly still profitable. "Everything I have is loss making, except for the bank," he said in an interview.

Having shed his Norilsk stake before the collapse, Mr. Prokhorov is riding high and will no doubt exploit his rivals' financial misery. A Moscow investment banker said he expects a flurry of takeover activity starting as soon as this month and wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Prokhorov is leading the charge.

Mr. Mordashov, of Severstal, the Russian steel giant that once tried to buy Canada's Stelco, has lost billions in wealth. Severstal shares are down about 80 per cent in the past year, but Mr. Mordashov does not appear to be fighting for his life. His company is sitting on $3-billion of cash, and the Russian mills, unlike the U.S. ones, are holding up relatively well. Unlike dozens of other big companies, Severstal has not asked the government for emergency loans.

Mr. Mordashov's rival, Vladimir Lisin, the chairman of Novolipetsk Steel (NLMK) was said to be one of Russia's richest men until NLMK shares went into freefall. But he has a couple of things going for him. NLMK is relatively un-leveraged; net debt at Sept. 30 was about $600-million. The company also backed out of a deal in the autumn that could have proved fatal - the $3.5-billion purchase of American steel-tubing maker John Maneely.

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