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Argentina risks investment woes by seizing oil firm

Move shows 'strains in the model' for energy production and consumption in the South American nation

AFP, Wednesday 18 Apr 2012
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Argentina's decision this week to nationalise its largest oil company might help reduce its dependence on energy imports but could hurt its foreign investment, analysts say.

The Argentine government decided to take a 51 percent stake in YPF from Spain's Repsol after accusing the firm of failing to adequately fund the enterprise.

Buenos Aires officials argue the move will help boost the country's domestic energy supplies, and some experts agree.

"Argentina has a problem of loss of oil and gas reserves," Francisco Mezzadri, an energy policy consultant, told AFP. "The demand for imported gas causes problems in the trade balance of the country."

Former Argentine economic minister Roberto Lavagna added, "There is no way to endure these energy imports of more than $12 billion annually (9.15 billion euros), which is the estimate for 2012."

From this point of view, "in the short term, the takeover of YPF can mean a good deal for the government from the funds created by the annual revenues of 65 billion pesos ($14 billion)," said former energy secretary Emilio Apud.

Kirchner's actions comes amid an energy crunch which has prompted the government to cut subsidies for Argentines, especially for gas, in stages.

The president's "heavy approach to renationalisation... without a usual takeover bid, indicates desperation in her attempt for quick results," said Anita Paluch, analyst for Gekko Global Markets in London.

Michael Henderson, economist at the consulting firm Capital Economics in London, said the move by Argentina shows "strains in the model" for energy production and consumption in the South American nation.

But seizing YPF could have a high cost in terms of foreign investment, some observers warn.

"We see this as a negative for Argentina's (already poor) long-term investment prospects and believe that this could spark a partial withdrawal of locally based foreign operators across other sectors," Henderson said.

The Argentine government's decision is a "very negative signal" and could "seriously harm investor confidence (in) Argentina," said European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

EU officials have decided to postpone a meeting with Argentine officials scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Tuesday he was "seriously disappointed" by Argentina's decision and that the EU "expects the Argentinian authorities to uphold international commitments and obligations."

Repsol officials said they would seek compensation they estimated at more than $10 billion from Argentina through international arbitration.

"Repsol will take all legal actions that are available to it," said company president Antonio Brufau.

In the case of France's Suez Environment, which claims to be owed 930 billion euros by Argentina after losing its water distribution license, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in 2010 recognized Argentina's responsibility to pay the amount demanded. So far, there is no agreement on payment.

"It is not like it is the first time Argentina has scorned international laws and regulations, but it will definitely not make it any easier for the country to find sources for funds... should it need to revert to private investors any time soon in the future," Paluch said.

"YPF plans to invest seven or eight billion dollars annually over the next four years," Mezzadri said. "The Argentine government has neither the resources nor the access to international credit markets to seek those funds."

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