Obama Hits Back at Putin With Gunvor Billionaire Sanction

Barack Obama has thrown a counterpunch at Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday imposed sanctions on Russian oil billionaire Gennady Timchenko -- and alleged Putin has a direct financial interest in Gunvor Group Ltd., the businessman’s energy-trading company.

While Gunvor said that Timchenko had already sold his entire stake to his partner, Torbjorn Tornqvist, the U.S. action could still make oil producers, traders and banks reluctant to do business with the company, affecting billions of dollars of physical and derivatives contracts.

The broader sanctions marked an escalation of efforts to punish Putin and his associates for Russian intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean region. The oilman was one of 20 people added to a list of individuals banned from entering the U.S., with any assets in the country frozen and a bar on doing business with U.S. companies.

With 2012 revenue of $93 billion, Gunvor is one of the world’s largest commodity traders, employing more than 1,600 people and sourcing crude from more than 35 countries. Run from Geneva, Timchenko, 61, and fellow billionaire Tornqvist created Gunvor in 2000 to handle Russian crude shipments.

“Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement. “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”

Potential Impact

Gunvor said Putin has never had any ownership, beneficial or otherwise, in the company. In announcing the sale of Timchenko’s stake to Tornqvist, the trading company said the deal was done two days ago in anticipation of sanctions, to ensure operations weren’t disrupted. Terms of the transaction weren’t disclosed.

Before the sale, Timchenko had a 44 percent equity interest in the company and control of 50 percent of the voting shares, according to a Gunvor bond prospectus.

Sanctions on individuals are a red flag for clients to be cautious when doing business with companies if the person targeted has a controlling interest, said Behnam Dayanim, a Washington-based partner at law firm Paul Hastings. Gunvor itself isn’t subject to sanctions under the Timchenko order because he owned less than a 50 percent stake, the Treasury Department said.

“The U.S. has taken its first step in terms of sanctions against Russia that have an oil aspect,” Olivier Jakob, managing director of Zug, Switzerland-based researcher Petromatrix GmbH, said by e-mail. “Oil markets have so far discounted the Ukraine crisis, but this is starting to change the picture.”

Yukos Contracts

Timchenko, a former Soviet Foreign Trade Ministry official who moved into oil trading, met Putin in the 1990s, when the Russian president was in charge of foreign economic ties at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. When Putin seized political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos Oil Co., the government awarded many of the assets to state-controlled OAO Rosneft. Rosneft then awarded some trading contracts to Gunvor.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, declined to comment on the U.S. Treasury’s Gunvor allegations when contacted by telephone.

Timchenko became a Finnish citizen in 1999, renewed his Russian citizenship in 2012 and has a fortune of $8.4 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index. He also has stakes in OAO Novatek, Russia’s largest independent gas producer, and chemical maker OAO Sibur.

Tornqvist Control

The sale leaves his partner Tornqvist in charge of Gunvor and owner of 87 percent of its shares, with the rest held by senior managers, the company said in a statement yesterday. The Swedish oil trader, a former BP Plc employee, began working with Timchenko in 1997.

Active in international competitive sailing circles, Tornqvist, 61, is a billionaire in his own right with a net worth of $3.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He is the founder of Artemis Racing, a professional sailing team that competed in the last America’s Cup race.

The sanctions will “make their life difficult because people might not deal with them thinking that the financial transactions might be restricted,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research in Winchester, Massachusetts. “It may not kill them off but it’s going to hurt their business pretty significantly.”

Gunvor’s $500 million of notes due in May 2018 slumped yesterday, sending the yield soaring 3.41 percentage points to 10.91 percent, the highest since the securities were sold last May, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Due Diligence

Gunvor was still trading oil products in Europe yesterday and sold a barge-load of diesel, according to four traders monitoring the Platts pricing window. The company owns a 33 percent interest in the Signal Peak coal mine in Montana through its U.S. subsidiary Pinesdale LLC, according to its website.

U.S. banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. conducted a thorough investigation of the company’s ownership structure as part of the $500 million bond issuance last year, said Seth Pietras, a Gunvor spokesman.

Obama’s action against the 20 individuals, including members of the Russian government and allies of Putin, adds to the list of seven top Russian officials and four people from Ukraine who previously were subject to U.S. sanctions.

Among others on the list are businessman Arkady Rotenberg, a former judo partner of Putin whose companies won more than $7 billion of contracts for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi; his brother, Boris; and Yuri Kovalchuk, a partner at Bank Rossiya, according to a Treasury Department list.

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and continuing military movements carried “dangerous risks of escalation” and must be met by unified global opposition, Obama said yesterday.

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