Demand for Saudi Aramco bond sale now tops $100bn

Record figure is seen as a gauge of potential investor interest in the company's eventual initial public offering

FILE PHOTO: An Aramco employee walks near an oil tank at Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo
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Orders for Saudi Aramco's debut international bonds topped $100bn billion mid-afternoon on Tuesday after breaching $85bn earlier, which itself was a record-breaking vote of market confidence for the oil giant despite some investor concerns about government influence over the company.

State-owned Aramco was expected to raise around $10bn from the deal, which will be priced later on Tuesday and is seen as a gauge of potential investor interest in the company's eventual initial public offering.

Before the six-part bond deal was marketed on Monday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih said initial indications of interest for the paper was more than $30bn.

Demand for the paper was the largest for emerging markets bonds since an orderbook value of more than $52bn for Qatar's $12bn bonds last year, and surpasses $67bn in demand for Saudi Arabia's inaugural bonds in 2016.

"Purely on figures, it is a fantastic credit," said Damien Buchet, chief investment officer of the EM Total Return Strategy, Finisterre Capital.

But he added: "The thing is, they are part of Saudi Arabia, they are a government arm. For equity investors this is always going to be an issue, more so than for bond investors."

The Aramco bond has attracted interest from a wide range of investors, as the oil producer's vast profits would put its debt rating – if unconstrained by its sovereign links – in the same league as independent oil majors such as Exxon Mobil and Shell.

The state company has insisted on its independence while meeting investors ahead of the bond issue last week, saying the Saudi government remained committed to Aramco’s governance framework to safeguard its independence even when oil prices dropped.

"Aramco is more transparent, has stronger credit metrics and is on an improving ESG [environmental, social and governance] trajectory whereas the government is more complex," said Mohieddine Kronfol, chief investment officer of Global Sukuk and Mena Fixed Income at Franklin Templeton Investments.

"The link between the two however is understandably very strong," he said.

Aramco last week opened for the first time its books to investor scrutiny, showing it is by far the most profitable company in the world.

Having made core earnings of $224bn last year and with $86bn in free cash flow at the end of 2018, Aramco does not need to borrow.

Initial indications of more than $30bn in investor demand – before the bonds were actually sold – prompted Aramco to market the notes with almost no premium to Saudi government debt.

"They are clearly trying to price it [the bond] off existing AA corporates in this world, so people are looking at curves like Shell, Total, Exxon but also technology giants like Apple," said Mr Buchet.

The issue follows on the heels of Aramco's planned $69.1bn acquisition of a 70 per cent stake in petrochemicals company Sabic from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Aramco, however, said the bond issue was not linked to the Sabic deal.

The acquisition will be financed through a mixture of bonds as well as the oil company's vast cash reserves, The National reported last week. Aramco said last week it has established a Global Medium Term Note Programme and will conduct a series of fixed income investor meetings to potentially sell a bond to partly fund the Sabic acquisition.

"We assume the transaction will be funded largely from Saudi Aramco's free cash flows, and the company's leverage will remain very conservative by industry standards," the ratings agency said.

Many see the deal as a relationship building exercise with international investors ahead of its planned IPO, which was scheduled for last year but then postponed to 2021.

The bonds are divided into tranches of three, five, 10, 20 and 30 years. The offering also includes a three-year floating rate bond.

Aramco has hired Lazard as financial adviser for the bond deal. JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Citi, Goldman Sachs and National Commercial Bank have been chosen to arrange the bond issue.