Ukraine’s billionaires steel themselves

Ukraine’s billionaires steel themselves

Ukraine has about a dozen billionaires, the crisis has cut their net asset value in half... They have leveraged themselves less than Russian counterparts, but have “some $10-20bn in outstanding foreign debt...”

Just like his Russian counterparts, Ukrainian steel billionaire Rinat Akhmetov is feeling the pinch of the global financial crisis.

His Metinvest holding company has been caught by the global decline in steel prices and demand. Production levels in Ukraine’s vast steel industry are falling and orders are dwindling. Hundreds of thousands of blue collar employees at factories he and other Ukrainian businessmen own are nervous about losing their jobs.

“These are difficult times,” Mr Akhmetov said during a Financial Times interview in Donetsk, the largest city in Ukraine’s eastern industrial region.

Sitting in the restaurant of a luxurious hotel he owns, he added: “The recession has already arrived.”

He is not the only billionaire to be suffering. Tomas Fiala, director of Dragon Capital, a Kiev-based investment bank, said: “Ukraine has about a dozen billionaires,” adding that the crisis has cut their net asset value in half. They have leveraged themselves less than Russian counterparts, but have “some $10-20bn in outstanding foreign debt,” he added.

A Donetsk native, Mr Akhmetov became very rich during what is seen as the crony capitalist days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reputably Ukraine’s richest man, he snapped up steel mills, mines, utilities and other assets at fire-sale prices.

In Russia, most of the wealth is rooted in the export of gas and oil. Wealth in Ukraine is also concentrated on exports, although in its case the focus is steel. The country ranks as a top ten world steel exporter.

In an April ranking, Dragon Capital valued Mr Akhmetov’s net worth at $31bn (?24bn, £19bn).

In a sign that Mr Akhmetov is not alone in suffering, Igor Kolomoisky – another billionaire and co-owner of three export-oriented ferroalloy plants in Ukraine – halted production on November 1.

In 2007, 34-year old Kostyantin Zhevago floated his Ferrexpo ore company in London. In a gamble, he used a quarter of Ferrexpo as collateral for a loan to fund expansion plans. But its share price has plummeted this year and an investment bank exercised its option to sell the stake to a third party, reducing his stake from 75 per cent to 50 per cent.

Lenders have been more cautious in lending to Ukrainian billionaires because of the country’s relentless political turmoil. The prospect of a recession and low steel prices raises doubt about their ability to service debt. But Mr Akhmetov still has deep pockets, according to Mr Fiala.

Fearful of a recession and lay-offs, Donetsk residents hope billionaires such as Mr Akhmetov will help cushion them from serious trouble. He refused to comment in detail on the impact of the recession, but he pledged to avoid lay-offs at all costs.

He stressed the need for Ukraine’s government to bail out troubled Ukrainian banks, but insisted “I need no special treatment”.

Kiev’s government has offered bail-outs in return for equity stakes that could be sold off later.

By Roman Olearchyk in Donetsk, Financial Times

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