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RUSSIA

Gazprom May End Year as No. 2 Earner

Propelled by historically high oil prices, Gazprom is poised to earn enough cash in 2008 to end the year as the world's second most profitable company.

Its net income will rise as high as $41.5 billion, leaving it only slightly behind global leader ExxonMobil, Alfa Bank said in a research note released Thursday.

The U.S. energy major will turn a profit of around $45 billion, according to consensus estimates. Royal Dutch Shell is projected to finish a distant third, with around $25 billion in net income, analysts have said.

If Gazprom lives up to Alfa's estimates, its profits will be equal to the budget of a small country. Ukraine, for example, has forecast budget revenues of $43 billion for 2008.

"It's quite possible," a Gazprom source said about Alfa's findings, asking not to be identified, as she was not authorized to talk to the press. "We would be happy if everything turned out that way, and we hope that it will."

Other analysts believed Gazprom would rake in less this year than Alfa is predicting. Bank of Moscow's Vladimir Vedeneyev put Gazprom's maximum net income at $36 billion.

Nevertheless, that figure would be enough to keep it comfortably ahead of Shell in second place, something Vedeneyev said was not hard to believe.

"I wouldn't be surprised," he said. "The market situation is very good."

Gazprom finished in third place, after Exxon and Shell, in last year's profitability ratings, as compiled from projected results produced by analysts, Alfa Bank said. A consensus estimate put Gazprom's net income for 2007 at $24.5 billion. Official figures will only be available later this year.

The jump in the rankings this year and last is relatively sharp, as the energy major was only the eighth-biggest global earner in 2006.

"In 2008, there's not much mystery left," said Ronald Smith, head of research at Alfa Bank. "We have basically nine months of the pricing era gone."

Gazprom derives its profit from exports to Europe, basing its gas prices on costs for oil, set six to nine months ago, which have lately risen from $90 to $100 per barrel.

As for sales, CEO Alexei Miller said last month that the company would charge an average of $378 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas this year. He told President Vladimir Putin that Gazprom plans to sell 157 billion cubic meters to the European Union this year.

Depending on the fluctuations of oil prices, Smith said Gazprom could de-throne Exxon as No. 1 as early as 2010.

Low taxes in the gas industry are a "distant" second factor underpinning Gazprom's higher earnings this year, Smith said.

Mikhail Korchemkin, a director at U.S.-based consultancy East European Gas Analysis, said Gazprom's high profitability came despite its low cost efficiency.

Gazprom's profitability is at odds with its market value, which stood at $310 billion Thursday, making it the world's fifth-largest company by capitalization. The valuation included a modest increase of 1.5 percent at the London Stock Exchange on Thursday.

(The Moscow Times 14.iv.08)