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2nd Leak Puts Fair Price on Yugansk

Investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has completed its valuation of core Yukos production unit Yuganskneftegaz, pricing it at between $15.7 billion and $17.3 billion, Interfax reported Friday. If confirmed, the range would be in line with market analysts' hopes for a fair valuation.

Citing unnamed sources, the agency said the bank had not yet delivered its report to Yukos or to the Justice Ministry, which hired it to conduct the valuation ahead of a potentially market-transforming sale of the production unit as payment for Yukos' crippling back taxes.

The head of Russian investment banking at Dresdner, Bob Foresman, declined to comment Sunday on the figures given by Interfax. "We are still finalizing the report and have not yet submitted it to the Justice Ministry," he said by telephone.

But the estimate leaked to Interfax is in line with an earlier report by Vedomosti, which on Sept. 23 cited unnamed sources as saying that the bank had settled on a range between $15 billion and $17 billion. Dresdner immediately denied the report.

The market has seized on the reports of Dresdner's valuation as an indication that Yukos' core Siberian production unit could be sold off at a fair price.

Investors have feared that Yugansk could be sold for a song to Kremlin-friendly oil and gas companies at a time when the state is increasing its control over the energy sector, especially after the announcement of Gazprom's planned merger with state-owned Rosneft.

As news broke about the second leak of Dresdner's appraisal, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin also attempted to assuage investor concerns during a G7 meeting in Washington over the weekend. Kudrin blamed Yukos' core shareholders for destabilizing the situation by consistently raising the specter of possible bankruptcy for the company, an event that President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to avoid.

The Kremlin has been locked in a yearlong battle with Yukos core shareholders, in a legal onslaught widely seen as an attempt to destroy any political ambitions held by jailed Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Yukos faces a slew of back taxes worth more than $7 billion and climbing. Due to a crippling asset freeze, the company has been hampered in its ability to pay them off.

The Justice Ministry has said it is preparing to sell off Yuganskneftegaz, which produces more than 60 percent of Yukos' total output, as payment for the tax bills.

But even as hopes rose that Yuganskneftegaz would be sold off at a fair price, it was unclear how any Russian company would be in a position to pay such a price.

Even if invited to bid for the asset, foreign oil majors could well shy away from an auction tainted by questions over Kremlin expropriation tactics. Neither of the two domestic front-runners, Gazprom and Surgutneftegaz, have enough cash to buy it outright.

The leak over the Dresdner valuation came ahead of a possible decision by the Natural Resources Ministry on whether to revoke Yuganskneftegaz's production licenses over nonpayment of taxes.

If approved, such a move would void Dresdner's valuation and slash Yuganskneftegaz's value to as little as $2 billion.

The ministry was due to rule on the licenses last Thursday, but at the last minute the decision was deferred indefinitely. Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev has indicated that Yukos might be given time to pay off the debt, saying that regulations would give Yugansk three months to rectify the violations.

Lawyers for Yukos' majority shareholder, Group Menatep, have warned of international legal action against any buyers of Yukos assets, claiming any sale would effectively amount to expropriation by the Kremlin.

Although tax bills for 2002 and 2003 could still be levied, leaving Yukos with a potential total back tax bill of about $14 billion, the company has already paid off most of the bill for 2000, Dashevsky said. That means the outstanding tax bills against the company would still likely be below Dresdner's valuation, making any auction of Yuganskneftegaz a mockery, he said.

(The Moscow Times 04.x.04)

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