RIYADH: From tapping lenders to selling personal assets, Saudis are scrambling to raise cash to invest in Aramco stocks after the oil giant announced its blockbuster market debut even as it offered few listing details. After years of delay and false starts, the state-owned company said on Sunday it plans to sell an unspecified number of shares on the Riyadh stock exchange, but no date was set and the firm’s valuation remains shrouded in mystery.
But retail investors in Saudi Arabia still appear to be salivating at the prospect of owning a piece of the world’s most profitable company, seen as the kingdom’s crown jewel, amid calls to make the initial public offering (IPO) a success. “Some (Saudis) have started to sell other stocks in preparation to buy Aramco (shares),” said Ibrahim Ahmed, a Saudi energy industry analyst who is also considering investing his savings. “People look at it as a sound investment. (But) I’m aware that it is a long-term investment that is good to have in a portfolio and not some kind of lottery ticket.”
The IPO, billed by the company as a “historic milestone”, forms the lynchpin of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to transform the petro-state by generating much-needed cash to fund mega projects and non-oil industries. The government has reportedly pressed wealthy Saudi business families and institutions to invest in the IPO, and many nationalists have labelled it a patriotic duty.
Fahad Hashemi, portfolio manager at the Riyadh-based Middle East Financial Investment Co, told AFP his firm had a “strong intention” to participate despite the lack of listing information. Saudi Arabia has sought to ease lending restrictions for ordinary citizens to buy a stake in the company, a strategy deemed risky by observers. Eid Al-Shamri, chief executive of investment bank Ithraa Capital, said some Saudis were considering selling their homes or borrowing money to purchase shares. “This is definitely a serious event that will be recorded in the history of Saudi Arabia,” Shamri told Bloomberg News. “A lot of people are talking about it. But what is the extent of the people’s participation? We are tightening our belts.”
Aramco said its final offer price and the number of shares to be sold “will be determined at the end of the book-building period”. In a 21-page document released by the company, the company called the IPO a “unique investment proposition”. Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser said the company was committed to offer shareholders “long-term value creation”.
To promote participation by all sections of Saudi society, divorced women or widows with minors will be eligible to receive bonus shares, local media reported. But amid scant information about the listing, it is difficult to determine the pay off. It is unclear whether Aramco will get the $2 trillion valuation Prince Mohammed had hoped for, with investment research firm Bernstein estimating that a “fair value range” for the company is between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion.
There are also reports the firm is struggling to get institutional investors on board amid a bearish outlook for the energy sector and questions over the company’s transparency and governance. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, has said it does not plan to invest in Aramco, a Norwegian official told AFP.
Investors are also concerned about geopolitical risks weighing on the stock. The news of the listing comes just weeks after crippling attacks on the heart of Aramco’s facilities briefly halved its output amid a spike in tensions with Iran. But the company, a cash cow that catapulted the kingdom to become the Arab world’s biggest economy, holds enormous appeal for local retail investors.
“I do think there is significant local demand among retail investors, though large family businesses might be more skeptical,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics. “Aramco will be a blue chip company producing fairly reliable dividends.” Its 2018 net profit of $111.1 billion is higher than the combined profits of Apple, Google and Exxon Mobil. “We are excited and fascinated by the IPO,” said analyst Ahmed. “We always looked at the company as a semi-national company. To see it float on the stock exchange is a new era for us.” – AFP