PetroChina Under a Cloud as China’s Graft Battle Guts Front Office

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- China's current oil crisis has nothing to do with fuel shortages. Nor is it about the geopolitics of Chinese oil rigs in the South China Sea or even the Middle East.

This is an executive staff crisis brewing at China's biggest oil producer PetroChina (PTR), whose front office has been shaken by a Communist Party purge tied to Chinese President Xi Jinping's ongoing campaign against high-level corruption.

Investors who think that a company's management staff can affect its stock value should look beyond PetroChina's financials -- 2013 net profit of $22.5 billion, up 1.1% from 2012, and revenue of $432 billion, up 5.7% year-on-year) and successes such as an historic 30-year gas deal it recently signed with Russia's Gazprom. PetroChina's ADRs in the U.S. are around $130, up 18% for the year to date. 

PetroChina's personnel shakeup, which began a year ago next month with no end in sight, has sent dozens of top executives packing. Some have been formally detained by party authorities on extrajudicial charges of bribery or other graft. Other company chiefs have simply disappeared.

Some market analysts have hailed the anti-corruption drive at PetroChina by pinning it to Xi's push for more market reforms at state-owned companies. Oil majors such as PetroChina, which is the listed unit of China National Petroleum Corp., and Sinopec (SHI) are high on the reform agenda.

Sweeping out "tigers," the word Chinese use to describe corrupt government officials and company executives, is said to be good for targeted companies.

But anecdotal evidence suggests PetroChina's top managers are functioning in a climate of fear. One source told TheStreet that some departments have contingency plans for immediately replacing any executive who vanishes. A head check every morning determines whether it's time for someone new. Meanwhile, PetroChina's press office is refusing routine media queries.

To date, at least 50 executives working at PetroChina or one its affiliates or close contractors have been ousted, according to a tally published Thursday on the business pages of the Sohu (SOHU) online news portal. These include the company's chairman, five group vice presidents, a planning chief, the company treasurer, several sales department heads, and executives in charge of overseas projects in Iran and Canada.

In many cases, replacements have been announced. But the Sohu report said there's been no word on whether new executives have been appointed to fill 12 of the 27 most important positions left vacant by the cleanup. For example, no one has apparently taken over for former executive Jia Xiaoxia, who had been in charge of a PetroChina oil sands development in Canada.

Also removed have been executives at several companies working closely with PetroChina, including the global engineering firm Wison Group.

As of Thursday, the PetroChina Web site's executive directory still listed the names of several executives who were previously reported as under investigation for graft by state media.

The most prominent executive to fall so far, Jiang Jiemin, served as company chairman before getting axed last September. He was expelled from the party in June. In charge today is his successor, Chairman Zhou Jiping.

PetroChina was rocked again late last month when authorities bagged their biggest tiger yet by leveling corruption charges against former PetroChina executive Zhou Yongkang. Zhou is best known for formerly serving on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee and as head of the country's top security agency.

The Sohu report quoted a PetroChina spokesman surnamed Li who said that the personnel changes over the past year have not affected the company's everyday operations, and that "everything is running fine."

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

TheStreet Ratings team rates PETROCHINA CO LTD as a Buy with a ratings score of B. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate PETROCHINA CO LTD (PTR) a BUY. This is driven by several positive factors, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its attractive valuation levels, good cash flow from operations, increase in stock price during the past year, largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures and notable return on equity. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had sub par growth in net income."

Highlights from the analysis by TheStreet Ratings Team goes as follows:

  • Net operating cash flow has increased to $3,307.54 million or 20.18% when compared to the same quarter last year. In addition, PETROCHINA CO LTD has also modestly surpassed the industry average cash flow growth rate of 18.80%.
  • Compared to where it was a year ago today, the stock is now trading at a higher level, regardless of the company's weak earnings results. Turning our attention to the future direction of the stock, it goes without saying that even the best stocks can fall in an overall down market. However, in any other environment, this stock still has good upside potential despite the fact that it has already risen in the past year.
  • PETROCHINA CO LTD's earnings per share declined by 5.0% in the most recent quarter compared to the same quarter a year ago. This company has reported somewhat volatile earnings recently. But, we feel it is poised for EPS growth in the coming year. During the past fiscal year, PETROCHINA CO LTD increased its bottom line by earning $11.70 versus $10.11 in the prior year. This year, the market expects an improvement in earnings ($11.71 versus $11.70).
  • The current debt-to-equity ratio, 0.47, is low and is below the industry average, implying that there has been successful management of debt levels. Even though the company has a strong debt-to-equity ratio, the quick ratio of 0.21 is very weak and demonstrates a lack of ability to pay short-term obligations.

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