The money behind Prigozhin
Global markets are fairly calm on Monday morning after a weekend of turmoil in Russia. And there’s been no word from either President Vladimir Putin of Russia or his rebellious military chief-for-hire, Yevgeny Prigozhin, after Mr. Prigozhin’s aborted march on Moscow.
But experts expect the Kremlin to squeeze the man who launched the biggest challenge to Mr. Putin’s authority in his 23 years in power — and to try to limit the tools Prigozhin has used to build a multinational, multimillion-dollar enterprise to help fund his operations.
The incident exposed deep fissures in the Kremlin’s war machine. The instability pushed down the ruble, and is expected to roil commodities markets for months. European natural gas prices spiked this morning, and Brent crude is climbing. (Trading in European stocks and U.S. futures was mixed.)
“The risk of further civil unrest in Russia now must be factored into our oil analysis for the back half of the year,” Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in an investor note this morning. Rising commodity prices could put further pressure on central banks already struggling to rein in inflation.
Who is Mr. Prigozhin? Europe and the United States have been trying to shut down Prigozhin’s sprawling business operations for years. On the F.B.I.’s most wanted list, Mr. Prigozhin rose quickly in Putin’s Russia — from being the president’s favored caterer to winning major contracts that bankrolled Wagner Group, his private mercenary operation. Founded in 2014, Wagner fights wars and trains militias in politically restive countries, and it has been Mr. Putin’s go-to force when military campaigns go awry, such as in Syria and Ukraine. And Wagner’s internet troll farms target Western democracies and elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Wagner is a “brutal” transnational criminal organization, according to the Treasury Department. Evro Polis, a Prigozhin-linked company, that won energy concessions in Syria in return for military support. In Sudan and the Central African Republic, Wagner has muscled in on mining operations to help bankroll its operations.
To avoid sanctions and conceal its finances, Wagner often demands payment in gold, diamonds and shipments of oil and gas. The Financial Times estimated that between 2018 and 2021, revenues from Wagner’s holdings in natural resources were roughly $250 million.
Mr. Prigozhin also relies on a global network of corporate lawyers to fend off Western authorities, according to a separate F.T. report. The Treasury has identified business partners that are helping Wagner fight in Ukraine: two Russian firms — Terra Tech and AO BARL — and China’s Spacety, which provides satellite imagery to the group.
The uprising has weakened Mr. Putin, but what will he do next? Bill Browder, a former investor in Russia who has become one of Mr. Putin’s biggest critics, told DealBook that the president would look to reassert his authority by whatever means necessary. “Unless he can show he’s so brutal that everyone needs to deal with him, this is the beginning of the end. Recovery will require a huge crackdown,” he said.
Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, told DealBook that Mr. Putin may be far from finished. “This might be another demonstration of dysfunctionality, but he’s very good at finding a way to adapt and survive. His major talent is staying in power.”
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
China’s currency hits a seven-month low against the dollar. The renminbi is facing continued pressure from China’s slowing economy, including declining consumer spending. A cheaper renminbi will help Chinese exporters by making their goods less costly abroad, but domestic businesses are likely to suffer.
Britain plans to tamp down on “greedflation.” The country’s finance minister, Jeremy Hunt, is set to meet with regulators this week to discuss ways to prevent companies from raising prices too high. The move signals a change by the government, which had previously been more relaxed about reported profiteering, as Britain suffers from stubbornly high inflation.
Wall Street continues swinging the ax. Goldman Sachs is in the process of laying off 125 managing directors worldwide, while JPMorgan Chase is cutting 40 investment-banking positions in North America, Bloomberg reports. The moves come as banks look to save on costs amid a prolonged slump in deal making.
SpaceX reportedly pursues a $150 billion valuation. Elon Musk’s rocket company is planning a new round of employee stock sales that would lift its valuation from the $137 billion it fetched in January, according to Bloomberg. It comes amid SpaceX’s ongoing success in launching rockets and expanding its Starlink satellite-based internet service.
Ryan Reynolds and RedBird bet on Formula 1
As investments in sports teams heat up, a Hollywood-motorsports mash-up was announced on Monday: A group that includes the actor Ryan Reynolds is taking a 24 percent stake in the Alpine Formula 1 team owned by Renault. It’s the latest bet on sports team ownership and the lucrative sponsorship and media rights deals it can generate.
The deal: RedBird Capital Partners (which owns stakes in Fenway Sports Group and A.C. Milan), Otro Capital and Mr. Reynolds’s Maximum Effort Investments are leading a 200 million euro ($218 million) investment in Alpine, at a valuation of $900 million. Joining the investment are the actors Michael B. Jordan and Rob McElhenney.
It’s the first deal for Otro Capital, which was spun out of RedBird to invest in sports teams and is led by Alec Scheiner, who previously worked for the Dallas Cowboys of the N.F.L. and then ran business operations for the Cleveland Browns. Mr. Scheiner will join Alpine’s board.
It’s a bet on continued U.S. interest in Formula 1. The competition has jumped in popularity in the United States since its sale to Liberty Media in 2017. That’s in large part because of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” which helped push attendance and overall fandom of the sport to new heights.
Renault is hoping to continue building up the Alpine brand. The team, which finished fourth in Formula 1 last year, is an important showcase for the French carmaker’s electric vehicle prowess as the company strives to have E.V.s make up over half of its sales by 2030.
The buyers have had plenty of success in profiting from sports teams:
RedBird bought a 15 percent stake in the Rajasthan Royals, the Indian Premier League cricket team, in 2021 — and saw the value of its investment take off after the cricket league sold its broadcasting rights for a record price.
And Mr. Reynolds and Mr. McElhenney bought Wrexham A.F.C., the low-ranked Welsh soccer club, in 2020 and turned it into a media phenomenon, thanks in part to the successful reality TV series “Welcome to Wrexham.”
“They looked at us like, ‘Maybe you can help us across the verticals where you’ve had success in the U.S. — ticketing, hospitality, sponsorship, licensing, merchandising, content,’” Mr. Scheiner told DealBook.
Legal giants get closer to the Saudis
With global dealmaking in a rut, Big Law is increasingly looking to capitalize on Saudi Arabia’s oil-powered flurry of investments to lift their fortunes. That now includes major firms like Kirkland & Ellis, which is considering opening up shop in the kingdom, joining the likes of Latham & Watkins and Greenberg Traurig, The Financial Times reports.
But doing so could put some firms in an uncomfortable internal conflict:
The foray into the kingdom by large law firms sets up a potential clash between the liberal values espoused by senior staff in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, which continues to imprison dissidents and where homosexuality remains a capital crime. …
American law firms have increasingly faced political pressure to drop certain clients, with Kirkland & Ellis parting ways with two star attorneys who represented the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby, last year, after widespread outrage over a school massacre in Texas. Other firms have refused to work for anti-abortion groups or opioids manufacturers, while former U.S. president Donald Trump and his associates have been turned down by numerous elite outfits.
Some top lawyers defended their firms’ deepening ties to Saudi Arabia: “We do not independently judge the local customs, religious views and value systems of every jurisdiction and culture we enter,” Richard Rosenbaum, Greenberg Traurig’s executive chair, told the F.T. “It is not our place to be judgmental in that manner.”
“I’m not going to use the word ‘E.S.G.’ because it’s been misused by the far left and the far right.”
— Larry Fink, the C.E.O. of BlackRock. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Fink — a longtime advocate for factoring environmental and social concerns into investment decisions — said the common term for that strategy had become too politicized. (He reiterated that he hadn’t abandoned the precepts of E.S.G. investing themselves.)
The week ahead
Inflation data, a big central banker gathering and earnings from big consumer-focused companies will be in the spotlight. Here’s what to watch.
Tuesday: The Conference Board is set to release its latest consumer confidence report. Walgreen Boots reports fiscal third-quarter earnings.
Wednesday: The European Central Bank concludes its annual forum in Sintra, Portugal. Central bank leaders, including Jay Powell of the Fed, Christine Lagarde of the E.C.B. and Kazuo Ueda of the Bank of Japan will discuss monetary policy there. The Fed is set to release the results of its annual bank stress tests, the first big report card on lenders since the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.
Satya Nadella, the C.E.O. of Microsoft, and Bobby Kotick, his counterpart at Activision Blizzard, are expected to testify on the last day of a hearing tied to the F.T.C.’s effort to block their $70 billion deal.
Thursday: Nike and H&M deliver quarterly results.
Friday: Japan and the eurozone will publish their latest consumer price index reports. The Commerce Department will also release its latest report on personal consumption expenditures.
THE SPEED READ
Western banks fear that growing tensions between Washington and Beijing may prevent them from working on the Shanghai I.P.O. of Syngenta, the agricultural chemical giant. (FT)
IBM agreed to buy Apptio, which makes software for managing information technology, for $4.6 billion. (IBM)
Junk-bond sales are up — because issuers are offering more protections to potential buyers. (WSJ)
Gerson Lehrman Group, which connects clients with a network of industrial experts, is reportedly laying off employees in China as Beijing cracks down on Western consulting companies operating there. (FT)
The centrist political group No Labels is pushing for Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, to run for president on a third-party bid — but isn’t saying who’s funding the effort. (Politico)
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