Saudi Aramco’s impending IPO is set to be the largest in history

  • The oil giant’s mammoth IPO, to be formally announced this Sunday, is set to earn $40 billion for the kingdom.
  • Saudi Arabia is pushing forward after delays caused by international scandals, drone-attacks and fears of an economic downturn.
  • Investment banks are sharing in $450 million in fees paid out by Aramco in exchange for help with the listing, to the dismay of environmental and human rights groups.

Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco has been planning its initial public offering (IPO) for about three years. The energy company is the most profitable in the world, making $111 billion last year – more than the top five publicly traded oil companies combined. On Thursday the government is expected to give the official thumbs-up for the IPO to go ahead, and a formal declaration is to take place this Sunday.

The Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s hope is that selling 3% of the shares in Aramco will raise money (estimated at $40 billion) for the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, and the proceeds are going to be used to diversify the Saudi Arabian economy away from an over-reliance on oil. This means it is projected to be the largest IPO ever, with the next highest being Alibaba’s 2014 IPO which raked in $25 billion.

A portion of the oil giant’s shares will be floated on the domestic stock exchange in the capital Riyadh, called the Tadawul, with general plans to pursue a listing on an international exchange at a later date. Why is it that such a lucrative opportunity for the kingdom has taken years to come to fruition?

Intense global backlash related to the murder of the outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, Jamal Khashoggi, last year almost certainly spooked international investors and resulted in the oil company pushing back its IPO. But more recent crises have heaped uncertainty on the nation’s oil industry specifically.

On September 14, two of Aramco’s largest refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones, paralysing about half of the nation’s oil production (output plummeted by ~5.7 million barrels per day, which equates to about 5% of global oil production) and destabilising global financial markets. The U.S, a host of European countries and Saudi Arabia itself blamed Iran for the bombings, although the Yemeni Houthis declared themselves responsible.

Aramco states that it has recovered production to pre-drone strike levels, at about 10 million barrels per day. This remains shy of its full capacity of 12 million barrels that it expects to reach by the end of November. While this suggests the oil giant may be resilient in its ability to rebound back to its preferred output, the attacks nonetheless reveal major vulnerabilities in the firm’s infrastructure. Its seeming unpreparedness for threats of this nature no doubt worried potential investors, delaying its IPO.  

On October 7th, one of the Big Three credit rating agencies, Fitch Ratings, downgraded Saudi Aramco’s credit score by a notch given these concerns over security. In addition to all this, at the beginning of this week the price of a barrel of Brent crude measured at less than $60, and this is below the level prior to the drone attack. This signals universal fear among investors of an impending global economic slowdown.

Nonetheless, it’s full steam ahead for Aramco’s entrance to the public market, and in its effort to sweeten the deal for hesitant investors the firm is offering $75 billion in annual dividends. The kingdom is also going to pay between $350-$450 million in fees to professional advisors in exchange for help with selling its shares. This equates to about 1% of the expected proceeds of $40 billion, which is a lower proportion than many engaged in the project were anticipating. For comparison, Alibaba paid $300 million to its pool of investment bankers, coming to about 1.2% of its $25 billion proceeds.

Among those hired to sell Aramco’s shares are ex-Trump national security advisor and partner at Goldman Sachs Dina Powell, and ex- United States congress representative Eric Cantor. According to Bloomberg, “The roster of bankers reads like a who’s who of finance, underscoring the importance of Saudi Arabia a year after the murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi prompted a brief spell of skittishness over doing business with the country.”

A question hovers over the company’s valuation. The Crown Prince originally desired a valuation of $2 trillion – but this looks to be overly ambitious. A recent Economist report which took the dividend yield as a reliable metric for valuing an energy company found that a valuation of about $1.2 trillion is closer to the mark.

The listing has incited criticism from a swathe of environmental advocacy groups (such as Earthworks and Share Action), discouraging potential investors from financing “the biggest single infusion of capital into the fossil fuel industry” since the passing of the Paris climate agreement in 2016. It has also attracted the ire of human rights watchdogs, who blast Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record in a letter sent to nine international banks associated with Aramco’s IPO (such as JP Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse). The antipathy is only set to escalate following the formal announcement this coming Sunday.

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