Speaking at an industry conference this week, Putin, Russia’s former president and now prime minister, spoke five sentences critical of one of his country’s big steel companies, Mechel, and its billionaire chief executive, Igor Zyuzin.
In a sign of Putin’s enduring power in Russia and around the world, that criticism came with a price: about $1.2 billion per sentence in lost shareholder value.
This is a perfect illustration of how sensitive the markets are. When Schumer wrote his nastygram warning against IndyMac, IndyMac failed. When Bethany McLean and cohorts at the Wall Street Journal began publishing nasty Enron-related articles day after day after day, Enron collapsed. When Meredith Whitney wrote an opinion a week ago about Wachovia, Wachovia plummeted to the very brink of bankruptcy. Words matter. One must use them responsibly.
Such is the power of Putin’s words – even after “stepping down” to prime minister in May – that shares in Mechel, a coal mining and steel company, plunged almost 38 percent on the New York Stock Exchange after Putin complained that the company was charging more to its domestic customers than to its foreign ones. The comments wiped out, at least for a day, about $6 billion in stockholder value.
Mechel, which closed Wednesday at $36.61 in New York, tumbled $13.77 on Thursday to close at $22.84, after Putin spoke. The company, which responded Friday, was up $3.15, or 13.8 percent at $25.99 in afternoon trading.
The company’s shares trade as American depository receipts in New York. Putin spoke Thursday evening at the conference in Nizhny Novogorod, southeast of Moscow.
On the heels of the imprisonment of one tycoon and some bare-knuckled corporate raids and renegotiations of large energy contracts under Putin, the market did not take this talk lightly.
Over all, the Russian stock market slid more than 5 percent Friday, on fears that Putin’s comments might presage another attack on a company similar to the destruction of the Yukos oil company in 2004.
The remarks also coincided with the departure of the American chief executive of the British energy company BP’s joint venture in Russia, which is under pressure from its Russian partners and the government, in another glum sign for investors here.
Putin’s speech began simply enough.
“We have a respected company, Mechel,” Putin said in introducing his subject.
“By the way, we invited the owner and director of the company, Igor Vladimirovich Zyusin, to today’s meeting, but he suddenly got sick. Meanwhile, it is known that in the first quarter this year the company exported raw materials abroad at half the domestic, and world, price. And what about the margin tax for the government?”
He added: “Of course, sickness is sickness, but I think Igor Vladimirovich should get better as quick as possible, otherwise we’ll have to send him a doctor.”
Putin’s comments came in the broader context of a discussion of rising raw materials costs and the prospect of imposing high export tariffs on steel as a result.
With inflation soaring in Russia, particularly for manufacturing inputs like steel, government officials are concerned about the impact on a vast infrastructure rebuilding effort that is a centerpiece of Putin’s economic program.
The government is also seeking to diversify the economy away from dependence on raw materials exports, to provide employment and protection against a possible retreat in global commodity prices. Putin has asked business owners to comply with this approach, even at the cost of profits.
In response, the company issued a statement Friday seeking to calm the waters.
“Mechel shares the concerns of the government of the Russian Federation, steel plants and metallurgical industry in regard to the growth of prices for steel and raw materials in the recent time,” the statement said.
“Mechel is ready for cooperation with federal authorities of the Russian Federation and, if required, will provide complete information on any arising issues,” it added.
If there were any doubt over who holds sway over Russia’s oil-fueled economy, the power of Putin’s words could be seen putting that to rest. Indeed, his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, has spoken often of the need to burnish Russia’s investor image and improve the rule of law, so far with little effect.
Terrifying, isn’t it?