Argentina's move to nationalize oil firm YPF highlights Spain's decline
Spain used to be one of the most powerful economic forces in Latin America, but now it's struggling to punish Argentina for nationalizing a Spanish-owned oil producer.
Spanish and European leaders directed fresh threats towards Argentina yesterday over the nationalization of Spanish-controlled oil producer YPF. But in a clear sign of Spain’s withering might in South America, their threats increasingly sound like pleas. Years of economic decline have diminished Spain’s regional sway and there seems little Spain can do.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week the Argentina's President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner moved to nationalize YPF, expropriating 51 percent of the company controlled by Spanish company Repsol. YPF is Argentina’s biggest oil company and Ms. Kirchner accused Repsol of failing to invest properly in increasing oil production, which contributed to Argentina becoming a net oil importer in 2008. Repsol, like other foreign companies, has said regulations limit profits, and by extension how much it can investment.
“We have to avoid a train collision, but that depends on the Argentinean government,” Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Margallo said yesterday after a meeting of European foreign ministers. He said that if negotiations fail that all legal means will be considered “to make Argentina reconsider.”
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“We don’t dispute Argentina’s right to chose energy sovereignty, although in my opinion that is a mistake," Mr. Margallo said.
The priority, he said, is making sure Repsol is paid fair value for the YPF stake. Repsol valued its 57.4 percent stake in YPF at $10.5 billion, implying a $9.3 billion sale price for 51 percent of YPF. An Argentinean tribunal will determine the fair value. Repsol is seeking international arbitration and has threatened to sue any company that helps the Argentina develop its expropriated oil reserves. A 25 percent stake owned by Argentina’s Eskenazi family and the remaining share in hands of small shareholder will not be expropriated.
But his European counterparts offered little more than moral support, partly because much broader economic ties are at stake.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said last week the expropriation “severs” the historic good relations between the two countries. “After what happened, you could think this could happen to anybody," he said.
But Spain stands to lose a lot more than Argentina. Many of Spain’s biggest companies and banks are strongly rooted in Argentina, and they have privately warned Spain against a diplomatic fight that could endanger the remaining significant Spanish investment in the country.
The Spanish government didn't see it coming and then dithered over whether to negotiate or take a strong stance, says José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. In the end, it overreacted.
“If your job is to defend Spanish interests, and companies are asking for restraint, than you can’t push much harder. Spain needs more of Latin America now than the other way around,” Dr. Torreblanca says.
The end of the Reconquista
Repsol's $16 billion purchase of YPF from national and regional governments and private shareholders in 1999 was one of the biggest symbols of the Reconquista, the nickname given to Spain's massive foreign investment drive during the 1990s and 2000s. Spanish companies bought up controlling stakes in the region’s banking, energy, and telecom industries. As the second biggest investor in Latin America during that period, only the United States had more economic clout in the region than Spain.
Between 2006-2009, its share of foreign investment in Latin America was 10 percent, but in 2010 it decreased to 4 percent. The decline was partly due to Spain’s economic troubles, but it was accelerateD by countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia moving to increase foreign ownership of their raw materials.
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