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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company, promised this week that it would set a dividend of at least $75 billion through 2024 — or, that non-government shareholders would receive at least $750 million in dividends for every 1% of the company that they own, from 2020 through 2024.

Why it matters: Because the Saudi royal family controls Aramco, it doesn't need the company to pay any dividends at all. If they need to extract money from Aramco, they can always raise the company's tax rate, or simply expropriate what they need.

  • Foreign shareholders could be stuck with worthless shares paying zero dividends.

Between the lines: In many ways the Aramco situation is similar to that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The U.S. government controls the agencies and their profits. Private shareholders, who own 20% of the equity in the companies, have received nothing from them for over a decade.

  • If the U.S. government allowed Fannie and Freddie to start paying a dividend, shares would rise. But so long as the government holds the reins, shareholders know that their cashflows can always revert to zero at any time.
  • The bull case for Aramco shares is that the Saudi government wants to see a multitrillion-dollar valuation for the company. If that fact ever changes, then it's hard to see foreign shareholders being able to extract much value.

Why you’ll hear about this again: Investing in autocracies is part of modern capitalism. In China, for instance, PayPal is buying Gopay, a local payments provider.

  • It's easy to see why PayPal wants exposure to the massive Chinese market — but at the same time the company knows there's always a risk of the government turning against it and nullifying the deal.
  • If that happens, PayPal has no real recourse. (It's not going to sue the Chinese government in Chinese courts.)

The bottom line: In countries with robust civil societies, shareholders have significant legally enforceable rights, and those rights underpin the value of their shares. In countries like China and Saudi Arabia, by contrast, foreign shareholders only win insofar as it behooves the local government to keep them happy.

Go deeper: Saudi Aramco revs up IPO sales pitch

Go deeper

New report hits DOJ over lack of police shooting data

Demonstrations followed the shooting of Dijon Kizzee by Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies in 2020. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

A new government accountability report says the Department of Justice failed to consistently publish an annual summary of police excessive force data from 2016 to 2020, as required by federal law.

Why it matters: The data is crucial for the DOJ to monitor excessive force cases, and used to investigate law enforcement agencies with patterns of abuse. The DOJ can pivot off it to pursue court action to force reforms.

Congressional leaders clinch support for crucial defense bill, debt limit votes

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer passes waiting reporters on Tuesday. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Congress has found a shortcut to pass its annual defense funding bill and raise the debt limit.

Driving the news: The House will vote Tuesday night on two major bills — one creating a one-time, fast-track process for the Senate to raise the debt ceiling with just 51 votes, and another passing its annual defense bill.

Biden's pick to lead major banking regulator drops out

Saule Omarova, nominee for Comptroller of the Currency, at a confirmation hearing on Nov. 18. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

President Biden's pick to head one of the country's most powerful banking regulators is dropping out of consideration for the post, according to a statement from Biden that accepted the withdrawal.

Why it matters: Saule Omarova, nominated to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, faced a tough path to confirmation — with opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats.