About Face

April 2008:

Russian state-controlled giants Gazprom and Rosneft have been handed monopoly rights to all hydrocarbon developments on the Russian shelf, Natural resources Minister Yuri Trutnev has confirmed.

September 2009:

Russia will consider relaxing laws regulating foreign participation in offshore projects in a bid to attract investment from abroad, Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev said.

“We will look into this issue (laws regarding foreign investment) first of all in relation to offshore exploration. We believe that state regulation creates many obstacles for exploration,” Trutnev told Reuters on the sidelines of an economic forum.

The minister also blamed state-controlled energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom , which are the only two players carrying out offshore exploration in Russia at the moment, for underinvestment.

Underinvestment?  Here’s what I said in April 2008 when the new law was announced:

Without a doubt, Russia will still attract inward invesment, enormous amounts of it, and much of this will be into its oil and gas sector. But this investment will come at an increased cost, be it in the form of upfront payments or reimbursable terms on major projects, higher interest rates from banks and financial institutions, or more stringent guarantees and performance criteria. At a time when Russia is going to be shopping around for $2.6 trillion of investment, it could probably have handled things better this last few years.

Perhaps Mr Trutnev has been reading this blog?  Or has economic reality just bitten?

Barclays Idiocy, Part 187

Finally, after 3 years of trying, I am getting shot of Barclays bank who for the past 13 years have handled all my banking matters.  When I was in the UK they were fine, but when I transferred to their international banking in 2003, they have been nothing but useless since.  I wrote a post in April 2007 describing their shortcomings and the period since has seen a continuation of much the same sort of stuff. 

For example, when I was in Thailand in June I found my card had been blocked, despite my calling them to put a holiday marker on the account (this happens all the time).  When I called up what passes for customer services, they told me the card had been cancelled and a new one issued, supposedly on my request (which was nonsense).  Naturally, the new card hadn’t been sent to me due to Barclays not wishing to pay for a courier and instead preferring to hide behind unfounded security concerns as soon as the word “Russia” is heard.  So I was left drawing out cash on a credit card until I returned home, whereupon I was told that the woman on the phone had misinformed me and the card wasn’t cancelled and that it should now work (it did), which was 4 weeks before Barclays called and confirmed it had been cancelled due to a banking error.  Barclays would save time and money by informing their customers only when they haven’t made an error of some sort.

So it now looks as though I am transferring to RBS, the main reason being that they have a branch in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk following their takeover of ABN-Amro.  I am a little suspicious of how much help this will be, especially when my experience of HSBC in Dubai cooperating with HSBC in the UK was less than impressive (oh, they’re nothing to do with us!), and every time I’ve gone into the local RBS branch here I’ve been greeted by a row of blank faces saying “ya ne znayu“, but I know the branch manager and he’s helped me out in the past, so I’m hoping it will be an improvement on Barclays.  It can’t be much worse.  So far, RBS say they can send cards to my address in Russia, which has always been the biggest problem (with HSBC too, I believe).  I’ll wait to see if this is true, but at the very least they should be able to send them to the branch.  Can’t they?

Anyway, to open an RBS offshore account I need to show them the last 6 months statements from my current account.  Unfortunately, Barclays typically cocked up my changing of address and have been sending all the statements for my GBP account to an old address; the statements for the USD account, which in theory shares the same address as the GBP account, have been reaching me fine.  RBS accept online printed records, but for some reason which indicates a level of uselessness impressive even for Barclays, their online banking system can only display the last 6 weeks of records.  That’s right, Barclays online banking cannot show you what happened in your account 2 months before.  So I rang up and asked them to send me the last 6 months statements.  Of course, this was not possible: according to Barclays it is illegal (which I doubt).  In fact, nothing is possible in Barclays, I don’t know why I bothered ringing them up in the first place.  Their motto should be “Sorry, we can’t do that!

I was advised to go and visit a local branch and ask them to call an Isle of Man number so they can then fax my statements across.  Fortunately, I am in London for a couple of weeks, one of the main reasons being that I can finally change my bank having failed to do so from Sakhalin (this current experience is demonstrating as to why).  I asked the woman on the phone if she could contact the Aldgate branch of Barclays and fax them across and I could go and collect them.  Apparently she couldn’t, because the UK branches were “nothing to do with them” (perhaps she’s ex-HSBC!) and they have awful trouble getting through to them.  Ah, much better to let the customer negotiate such obstacles!

So I wandered down to the Aldgate branch and handed a youth in a turquoise tie the number he needed to call, which he did.  20 minutes later, he is still waiting to be connected.  It seems Barclays’ internal system is as crap as their external customer service desk.  Eventually somebody answered and after another 10 minutes, something arrived on the copier/fax machine across the room: 10 blank sheets of paper.  The blithering idiot on the Isle of Man had put them in the feeder the wrong way up.  There was nothing for it but for Turqouise Tie to call again, which meant another 20 minute wait for somebody to answer.  I asked him why he didn’t call her direct line, and he told me she doesn’t have one, and nor does anybody but the most senior people.  And he couldn’t email her because nobody has an email either, even branch managers.  That’s right: Barclays branch managers don’t have an email address!  No wonder they are so utterly useless at responding to and solving customer issues, they spend all day on the phone listening to tinny music waiting for somebody to pick up.  No wonder Barclays refuse to email me scanned copies of my statements, the clowns don’t have an email account to do so!  Eventually something with writing on came to the copier/fax: 10 poor quality sheets indicating in an appalling format my transactions over the past 6 months.  No, wait: from January ’09 to July ’09.  The woman who cannot load paper into a fax machine also cannot understand the meaning of “the last 6 months”.

And these idiots want to manage my financial affairs.  Let’s hope RBS is even marginally better.

Gazprom In Charge

It has now been just over two years since Gazprom assumed majority ownership of the Sakhalin II project, forcing Shell to concede its majority share whilst retaining operatorship and overall management of the development.

So what has changed since then?

Lots.  Firstly, almost all the non-Shell expatriate staff have been booted, leaving the organisation looking somewhat thin on the ground especially concerning project completion and maintenance.  Although to be fair, booting a whole load of expats out of Sakhalin Energy was something that should probably have happened in 2007.  Secondly, terms and conditions of employment have been squeezed to the point that there is very little overtime or training, which is having a big effect on the Russians.  And business class travel has been pretty much eradicated which, despite a review of the travel policy being sorely overdue, is probably not a smart move given where we live and what airports we must pass through to get here.  And it must be noted that it is open to question how much of the above is being driven by Gazprom or the Shell management who have been in charge since the beginning.  Ask the right people the right questions, and the fingers point to the latter.

Then last month Gazprom sent no less than 80 people to carry out an audit on Sakhalin Energy, the purpose of which was not clear but was subject to volumes of speculation by Russians and expats alike.  At one point, one of the senior Shell asset managers, a chap who I worked with on and off for 2 years but who never bothered to learn my name, asked one of the auditors how it was all going.

“You’re not paid to ask those sort of questions!” came the reply.

Ouch!  Welcome to your new masters, gentlemen.