Mikhail Prokhorov, 51, one of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons (number 14 on Forbes’ list of the richest Russians), is selling his business assets in Russia. Prokhorov’s Oneksim Group is looking for buyers directly and is not using middlemen, Vedomosti reports, citing several sources inside the group.
Onesksim owns a 17.2 percent stake of the aluminum giant UC Rusal, 27 percent of the Russian fertilizer producer Uralkali, 83.3 percent of the OPIN real estate development company, 75 percent of the Quadra joint-stock company focusing on power generation, 50 percent of Optogan, an LED manufacturer, and 100 percent of Renaissance Capital Bank, Renaissance Credit Bank, Soglasie insurance company, and the Snob and RBC media holding companies. In addition, Oneksim has a 19.7 percent stake in the International Financial Club joint-stock bank (MFK), in which Prokhorov also personally has a 27.7 percent stake.
Prokhorov has been trying to sell parts of his holdings for a while now. Oneksim was going to sell Uralkali a year ago, and Quadra, Soglasie and Renaissance Credit have being looking for buyers for a couple of years. This is different.
On April 14th, while Vladimir Putin was hosting his annual nationwide call-in show, the FSB searched Onesksim’s headquarters in Moscow, as well as the offices of all three of the banks the group owns. 200 officers of the FSB and the Federal Tax Service were deployed in the raid. Russian media linked the raids to Putin’s displeasure with the reporting that Prokhorov’s independent RBC was doing on Putin’s daughter’s vast wealth and stratospheric rise in academia, as well as to the company’s ongoing investigations into the Panama Papers.
The FSB, however, explained that the searches were due to criminal investigations into the troubled Tavrichesky Bank, which had had its operating license revoked by the Russian Central Bank due to capitalization problems. Prokhorov’s MFK was chosen as the chief investor in Tavrichesky’s resolution proceedings in March of last year. A few months later, in September, two former executives of Tavrichesky were detained under suspicion of illegally withdrawing $6 million abroad.
It’s true that RBC’s editorial board was purged less than a month after the searches, and Prokhorov is in fact said to be looking for a buyer for his media companies. But as it turns out, all that was due to a parallel line of pressure coming from the Kremlin. In the case of the raids against Oneksim, the FSB was telling the truth: those raids really had nothing to do with RBC.
The Tavrichesky criminal investigation was not the only attack on Prokhorov’s business interests. In April of this year, MFK’s depositors suddenly withdrew 10 billion rubles ($151 million) from the bank. As Vedomosti reported, both corporate and private clients emptied their accounts according to the bank’s records. Renaissance Credit Bank also lost deposits totaling 3 billion rubles ($46 million) in April. MFK declined to officially comment, and Russian media proceeded to connect the mass deposit outflow from Prokhorov’s bank with April’s FSB searches. This, however, could not be the real reason for the capital flight, because in April, Renaissance Credit was positioned much higher than MFK in Russia’s official bank rankings (Renaissance Credit was ranked 60, compared to MFK’s 71, meaning it is significantly larger measured by net assets). Yet it suffered much smaller losses. This suggests MFK’s losses were in fact not due to a public panic triggered by the news of the raids (which would have affected both banks proportionately), but rather by something else.
This is not the first time that a large Russian bank has suffered a sudden mass outflow of deposits in recent history. In October of 2015, depositors withdrew 15.6 billion rubles (around 3 percent of all deposits) from Alfa Bank, the 7th largest bank in Russia. The capital flight occurred right after the bank had been compromised by mysterious hackers, who proceeded to send the following text message to its clients: “From pretty reliable sources: Alfa Bank shareholders have withdrawn their assets from the bank—and out of the country.” The aftermath of the attack was also odd: The bank’s representatives denied that there was any connection between the capital outflows and the hacks, and instead tried to explain away the deposit outflow as being due to currency fluctuations. Reports were filed with law enforcement agencies, but no further action was taken. Alfa Bank’s founder and part-owner, Mikhail Fridman, is known to be a ruthless businessman. Had it been a competitor, Fridman would not have hesitated to retaliate.
To understand what is going on, it’s important to remember that the FSB’s Directorate K—officially known as the “Counterintelligence Department for Securing the Financial-Credit Sector of the Economic Security Service of the FSB”—is responsible for overseeing Russia’s financial sector. As such, it has been able to shake down that part of the economy for hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The FSB frequently arrests bankers and businessmen on trumped-up charges and demands its unfair share of their businesses. But it does not necessarily need to go that far. It’s quite possible that unanticipated, mysterious bank runs are being used to send a signal to owners: “Come and make a deal with us, and everything will be fine.”
Apparently, Fridman managed to come to some sort of working arrangement. Prokhorov, who has always had a reputation as someone with clear exit strategies, appears to have realized that it is time to go.
As we noted last week, there is a huge ongoing fight inside the FSB, between the organization’s Directorate K and its 6th Service. The former has made substantial inroads into the latter’s bank “regulation” racket, and as Novaya Gazeta describes it, is now signaling that all previous arrangements will need to be renegotiated. The fallout in the business community is already substantial, and will probably get worse. In a kleptocratic, militarized state such as modern Russia, running a business is increasingly becoming impossible. Money doesn’t give one power in today’s Russia. Rather, as Bill Browder, the vigilante investor behind the Magnitsky Act, explained to us a few weeks ago, “Power goes to the people who have the power to arrest other people.”
Putin’s regime has started to eat even those who have always been its loyal courtesans. Prokhorov, who came up in Yeltsin’s time, dutifully headed the spoiler Just Cause party in the 2011 Duma elections, and even played the role of the officially sanctioned “opposition” by running against Putin in the 2012 presidential elections. None of this has made him untouchable. Prokhorov is now abandoning his Russian businesses, and probably Russia too.
Outside the country Prokhorov owns 100% of the Brooklyn Nets, which he acquired in 2010.