Key to Aramco’s calm lies with stock owners

January delivered a hefty slice of volatility for oil and global energy stocks as the spreading coronavirus shocked investors. But in Riyadh, shares in Saudi Aramco followed a different narrative in their first full month of trading.The stock weathered the month - marked by the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and then the spread of the coronavirus - much better than oil-major peers, ending well above the price set at its record initial public offering. Aramco retreated 3.1 percent in January, in contrast with the 12 percent slump in Brent crude and a drop of more than 10 percent for global peers such as Chevron Corp., Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

The reason for the outperformance lies within Saudi Arabia itself. Shares in the oil giant are mostly owned by locals, who are less likely than foreign money managers to sell in times of increased geopolitical tension or during swings in the oil price. The government relied heavily on local investors and funds based in neighboring Gulf monarchies to sell about 1.7 percent of Aramco in the world’s biggest IPO, with almost five million individuals - more than one-in-seven Saudi residents - placing bids. In the end, foreigners subscribed for 23.1 percent of the stock on offer.

UBS Group AG analysts Jon Rigby, Henri Patricot and Kseniia Maslova wrote in a Jan. 29 note that Aramco’s largely domestic investor base gives it “a likely higher degree of comfort around geopolitical and country risks.” They initiated coverage with a neutral rating and a price target of 34 riyals.

Aramco promised bumper dividend payments of at least $75 billion a year until at least 2024, providing guaranteed returns no matter what. Investors who bought during the IPO have an additional incentive to hold on to their stock, as they are in line for bonus shares after 180 days.

Further support for Aramco could come from government-connected funds motivated to ensure that such a prominent national asset as the state oil company makes a success of its entry to the market. Twenty-two out of 24 money managers interviewed in a survey by Bloomberg before Aramco’s debut said they expected this to happen.

Aramco endured a tough test last month, touching the lowest level so far in the days after the U.S. killed Iran’s most prominent general in Iraq, triggering fresh concerns of a wider conflict in the Gulf region. It later held its ground against a sell-off in oil and energy shares triggered by fears that the coronavirus could reduce demand for crude.

On the final trading day of January, Aramco stock barely flinched following news of an attempted attack by Houthi rebels that targeted the oil company’s facilities, as the projectiles were intercepted before they could strike. And there’s another factor explaining Aramco’s relative stability - it’s less heavily traded than some of the world’s largest oil stocks. An average of $106 million of the Saudi company’s shares changed hands daily during January. That compares with $1.1 billion for ExxonMobil Corp., $259 million for Total and $152 million for Shell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 03, 2020, on page 3.




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