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Yukos to Ponder Bankruptcy

Yukos is calling for an extraordinary shareholders meeting Dec. 20 to consider whether to file for bankruptcy under the crippling weight of $14 billion in outstanding tax claims, or to pave the way for an ownership change in case of a last-ditch settlement, the company's CEO, Steven Theede, said Wednesday.

In an interview, Theede said the meeting call came in response to staggering new tax claims worth nearly $10 billion and came ahead of a possible fire sale of the oil major's main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz. The moves, he said, could make a long-feared bankruptcy scenario unavoidable.

The company was slapped with a massive new tax claim Monday worth $6.7 billion in taxes and penalties for its operations in 2002, while Yugansk was hit with an additional $2.35 billion for 2002. In total, the company's outstanding tax claims of $14 billion are worth more than its market value.

If the government announces a sale of Yugansk for less than $10 billion, Yukos would be forced to file for bankruptcy. That would create a scenario where the value of the company's assets was less than its outstanding liabilities. This situation, under Russian law, is a technical definition of bankruptcy, Theede said.

Theede said the shareholders meeting was being called as it became clear that the government's legal onslaught against Yukos was coming to a head.

Yukos' call appeared to be a direct challenge to the government to reach settlement before the company is forced to file for bankruptcy, a scenario that President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to avoid. It also appeared to be a last-ditch bid to stave off a sale of Yugansk, which produces more than 60 percent of Yukos' total output.

The government has said it plans to sell off Yugansk to cover Yukos' outstanding tax debts.

The shareholders meeting will also be asked to discuss a possible restructuring of the company, a move aimed at opening the way for a possible change of ownership at the company if a settlement is reached with the government, Theede said. He added that a second EGM, tentatively scheduled for around the third week in January, could also pave the way for an ownership change by dismissing the current board of directors.

Theede confirmed Wednesday that on-off talks with top-level Kremlin and government officials on proposals to settle the tax bills, including Khodorkovsky's shares offer, had taken place.

The government, however, has made no indication of whether it would accept the offer and talks were abruptly curtailed three weeks ago, he said. Theede said the massive new tax claims for 2002 appeared to be a sign the government had decided against the offers made by Yukos and was far from agreeing to any settlement. In a news conference earlier Wednesday, Theede said Yukos would be able to maintain production at 1.73 million to 1.75 million barrels per day this year, despite a company-wide account freeze that sees half of its revenues seized as payment for tax bills. But during the interview, he warned that Yukos' cash situation was getting so dire that it could have to cut output.

Under what he called "a day of reckoning," Yukos could be forced to cut back production if a Russian court rejected the company's application for bankruptcy. Bankcruptcy is also seen as highly risky, because a Russian court could reject the claim as being filed "with malicious intent." In the worst case, Theede and other senior Yukos managers and board members could face criminal charges.

(The St. Petersburg Times 05.xi.04)

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