Aramco IPO bankers question whether deal is worth the effort

Nicolas Parasie, Dinesh Nair and Matthew Martin July 18, 2019

DUBAI (Bloomberg) -- When Saudi Arabia announced plans to sell shares in its crown jewel Aramco, international bankers scrambled to get a piece of the action. Three years on, they’re questioning whether what could be the world’s biggest IPO is worth their time and effort.

Some banks, which worked on the deal for more than two years before the oil giant put it on hold, are having internal discussions about whether to re-pitch for a role as the kingdom restarts preparations for the listing, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

High-level advisers descended on Aramco’s desert headquarters in Dhahran and the capital Riyadh for nearly two years, constantly travelling from London and New York to work on the IPO and sacrificing other business, people familiar with the process said. A number of banks expanded their operations in the kingdom in anticipation of winning a cut of the $100-billion Aramco planned to raise and roles on future deals.

Banks originally associated with the plans -- Evercore Inc., Moelis & Co., HSBC Holdings Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley -- were celebrated for landing roles. The 2017 mandate won Ken Moelis the nickname “Ken of Arabia” as the firm anticipated its biggest payday ever. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc were also among banks in contention for top advisory roles before the listing plan was suspended, people familiar with the matter said last year.

But that was before Aramco’s $69-billion deal for local chemical giant, Saudi Basic Industries Corp., put everything on hold.

2020 or 2021

Now, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman insists the IPO will take place in 2020 or 2021. While Saudi Arabia and Aramco remain key for business, some executives are concerned that they’ve spent too much time working for a small retainer fee, and would prefer to devote themselves to more lucrative deals, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private.

Even with these concerns, banks are aware that there could be business and political consequences if they don’t put themselves forward for a role and many will probably decide to pitch in the end, according to the people. The reluctance of some banks to be involved is also being seen as a tactic for Aramco to increase its fees, some of the people said.

Evercore is set to lose out after its relationship with Aramco deteriorated and the boutique investment bank found the oil giant’s fees too low, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing people familiar with the process who it didn’t name.

Restarting work

The company, officially known as Saudi Arabian Oil Co., recently held talks with a select group of investment banks to discuss potential roles, people familiar with the matter said earlier this month.

Prince Mohammed first said Aramco was considering an IPO in 2016 as part of plans to modernize the Saudi economy.

With such high stakes, some banks are still keen to have a role on the offering, despite the delays. One firm that didn’t work on the original deal plans to do whatever it can to be hired this time around, mainly because of the size of the offering, according to an executive at that bank.

Representatives for Aramco, HSBC, JPMorgan, Moelis, Citigroup and Evercore declined to comment. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs didn’t immediately respond to requests.

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