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mick silver
21st October 2008, 21:22
Norilsk Nickel is open to receiving offers to buy its only North American asset and is revising its investment program for next year because of pressure from the economic crisis, chief financial officer Oleg Lobanov said Tuesday.

Lobanov, speaking at a conference of finance executives, said Norilsk would consider offers for its stake of 55.4 percent in Stillwater Mining Company, the only platinum and palladium producer in the United States. It bought the holding for $257 million in 2003.

The Montana-based company on Tuesday had a market capitalization of $415 million on the New York Stock Exchange, valuing Norilsk's stake at $230 million.

The global economic downturn has a led to declining demand for industrial goods, including cars and construction materials, leaving metals companies faced with plummeting prices and mounting losses.

Severstal, Russia's largest and United States' fourth-largest steelmaker, said earlier this month that it was cutting output at its North American plants by 30 percent. It also slashed its production in Italy by 30 percent and at its main Russian mill, in Cherepovets, by 25 percent.

Novolipetsk Steel, another Russian steelmaker, was sued earlier this month for missing a deadline to complete a $3.5 billion deal to buy U.S. steel-tube maker John Maneely Co.

Lobanov said Norilsk, the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, expected to finish drafting its investment program for 2009 by mid-December. "We are prepared for a hard year," he said, adding that Norilsk was for now not planning to reduce production but was considering an "optimization" of salary levels.

"In a crisis situation, cash is king," Lobanov said. "And we have to prioritize our projects," he said, adding that Russian projects took precedent over foreign ones because of differences in production costs.

Lobanov also said Norilsk had on hand the $400 million it needs to pay off a loan due in November, its last major debt payment until September.

The company, which said last week that it would halt operations at the Cawse mine and plant in Australia because of increasing costs, has seen its capitalization fall by nearly three-quarters from its high this year. The company on Tuesday had a capitalization of 374.64 billion rubles ($14.1 billion) on the MICEX.

"We have been hoping for a synergy with our palladium assets in Russia and the United States, but it hasn't worked out," Lobanov said. "The crisis has aggravated the situation with Stillwater Mining."

Prices for palladium have fallen 56 percent in the third quarter, and they dropped 34 percent last month, Bloomberg estimated. Palladium futures for December delivery cost $184 an ounce in New York on Tuesday.

"Stillwater Mining has always been a marginally profitable asset due to its environmental sensitivity and the cost of labor," said Michael Kavanagh, a metals and mining analyst at UralSib. He said Switzerland-based metals giant Xstrata and South Africa's Empala Palladium were potential buyers of Norilsk's stake.

The rest of the Stillwater Mining's shares are free-floated in New York.

Xstrata spokeswoman Claire Divver declined to comment on a potential purchase Tuesday. No one answered the phone at the Empala Palladium's office in Johannesburg on Tuesday evening.

Stillwater Mining's press office did not respond to requests for comment recorded on an answering machine.

n Norilsk Nickel has named Oleg Pivovarchuk a first deputy chief executive, the company said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday.

Pivovarchuk, who has served as a deputy director for foreign economic operations at carmaker AvtoVAZ, will have a seat on Norilsk's management board and will be in charge of the company's foreign economic operations, the statement said.
http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/600/42/371831.htm