The fallout from the YPF seizure

The players are taking sides as Argentina consolidates the ground it has taken

The fallout from Argentina's seizure of 51 per cent of its former state oil company YPF continues today, both in diplomatic and financial sectors.

The most immediate impact is that a deal to sell the company has fallen through. The Financial Times reports that Repsol, the Spanish company that held 57 per cent of YPF, was negotiating a deal to sell the company to the Chinese firm Sinopec. Now that Repsol owns 6, rather than 57, per cent of the company, that deal is obviously unlikely to go through.

The sale was being negotiated in secret, according to the FT's sources, because the firms hoped to present it to the Argentine government in its finalised state. The government holds a golden share in YPF, which means that any sales have to be approved by it.

To what extent Argentina will feel concerned about this is debatable. On the one hand, they nationalised the company without knowing all the details, but on the other, even if the takeover had gone ahead, it seems unlikely it would have changed the state's rationale for action. Repsol was already investing more into YPF than it was getting from it, and there is no reason to believe that Sinopec would have behaved differently.

The impact of the move on Repsol itself has been a 6 per cent overnight fall in its share price, but where it goes from here depends on how many concessions it manages to extract from Argentina. The company is demanding $10bn compensation for the move, but the government seems unlikely to fork it over, with the deputy economic minsiter saying:

We are going to determine [YPF’s] real value. We are not going to pay what [Repsol] say.

Unless Argentina volunteers to enter arbitration, as Repsol is demanding, the real action looks to be diplomatic. Surprising nobody, Britain has entered the debate on the side of Spain. William Hague criticised the move, saying:

This is the latest in a series of trade and investment related actions taken by Argentina which are damaging to business interests, and will undermine Argentina’s economy. We will work with Spain and our EU partners to ensure the Argentine authorities uphold their international commitments.

The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, hinted at further problems which Argentina could face as a result, telling El Pais:

In my opinion Argentina has shot itself in the foot. Argentina needs 36 billion euros in funding and it could see itself cut off from credit by international investors after this measure.

An editorial in the paper is similarly damning, writing:

The fact of the expropriation, threatened for months with the intention of undermining Repsol’s resistance and cheapening YPF’s shares, goes beyond a mere breakdown of the legal security one expects in a democratic country; it is an intentional betrayal of the agreement on reciprocal protection of investments signed by Spain and Argentina in November 1991, and initiates a period of grave uncertainty for Spanish companies in Argentina, and for all foreign investors there.

But the dissenting voices have started to come out of the woodwork. In the Guardian, Mark Weisbrot writes that Argentina has made the correct decision:

Now the government is reversing another failed neoliberal policy of the 1990s: the privatisation of its oil and gas industry, which should never have happened in the first place.

There are sound reasons for this move, and the government will most likely be proved right once again. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that currently owns 57% of Argentina's YPF, hasn't produced enough to keep up with Argentina's rapidly growing economy. From 2004 to 2011, Argentina's oil production has actually declined by almost 20% and gas by 13%, with YPF accounting for much of this. And the company's proven reserves of oil and gas have also fallen substantially over the past few years.

Weisbrot seems likely to stay in the minority, however. Given the disastrous effects of price controls on oil, the massaging of inflation figures (thought to be at 18-20 per cent, rather than the official 9-10 per cent) and the aforementined high investment by Repsol into YPF, Argentina is hardly a paragon of economic rationality.

A woman jogs past a sign referencing YPF in Argentina. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit