Aug 23, 2018 - Economy

Saudi Aramco's teetering IPO

Gas nozzle dripping

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Saudi Aramco's troubled IPO plan is increasingly looking dead, or at least in a deep freeze, but the Saudis pushed back against those reports late last night.

Driving the news: Reuters, citing "four senior industry sources," reported yesterday that Saudi Arabia had called off the plan to sell about 5% of the company. And a source familiar with the company's work with outside advisers and banks told me roughly the same thing after their story hit.

Why it matters: The kingdom had hoped to raise tens of billions of dollars through the IPO to help fund initiatives to diversify its oil-dependent economy away from crude oil sales.

But the plan to sell about 5% of the company has been beset with delays, indecision about an international listing venue, and related questions about the Saudis' appetite for the transparency that comes with going public.

  • Plus, multiple analysts believe the company would not achieve the kingdom's hoped-for $2 trillion valuation.

Yes, but: Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, pushed back againstyesterday's obits for the plan. "The Government remains committed to the IPO of Saudi Aramco at a time of its own choosing when conditions are optimum," he said.

  • Reality check: Absent from his lengthy statement is even a rough timeframe for the IPO.

One big question, via Axios' Dan Primack: The IPO's seeming demise, or at least deep freeze, could be good or bad news for the prospect of the Saudis bankrolling CEO Elon Musk's plan to take Tesla private.

  • The bullish case for Tesla: The Saudis think they can diversify their economy without the IPO, and Tesla could be one avenue.
  • The bearish case for Tesla: Without cash from the IPO, there's less money to spread around.

The intrigue: The fate of the IPO appears to be bound up in a separate transaction — Aramco's potential purchase of a controlling stake in the petrochemical firm Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) from the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund.

  • Al-Falih's statement obliquely references this, noting the IPO timing will be affected by a "downstream acquisition which the Company will pursue in the next few months."
  • Bloomberg writes that could be a roughly $70 billion deal. "That will replace at least some of the money the Public Investment Fund had been expected to receive from the Aramco IPO," they report.

What they're saying:

  • Randy Bell, director of the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center, tells Axios that the delay is a good development: "A delay suggests that Saudi leadership recognizes the challenge and is going to wait until they get it right to proceed. That should give the investor community more confidence in the country over the long run."
  • Jim Krane of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy says that while the rationale behind the IPO — raising money to diversify the economy — remains sound, the plan itself turned out to be "flawed": "Aramco executives worried that the company's vaunted autonomy and long-term planning would be sacrificed to meet short-term demands of shareholders."

Go deeper: I wrote about the rationale for pouring resources into SABIC here.

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