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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Jackal’s Wedding is an old Bedouin expression. It means that the beasts will love each other so long as their fallen prey is ample enough to feed the pack. And if there’s no meat, they will attack each other.

For some reason Oleg Deripaska’s announcement to a naïve television interviewer this week that he is bargaining for sale of Rusal’s 25% stake in Norilsk Nickel has been interpreted as news that he is rejecting Norilsk Nickel’s latest offer. The offer is $12.8 billion for 20% of Norilsk Nickel, valuing the company at $64 billion, and representing full value for Rusal’s 25% shareholding of $16 billion. That’s exactly what Deripaska demanded six weeks ago, when he rejected Norilsk Nickel’s offer of $12 billion on December 28.

The interview reads like a dog’s breakfast, and what Deripaska is now thinking is far from clear. Alfa Bank heard him to say: “There is a price, but not the price established now.” CNBC reported this to mean: “there is a price at which he would sell the stake, but he would not confirm if that price is $16.5 billion to $17 billion dollars.”

Alfa Bank metals analyst Barry Ehrlich interprets this as “a strong indication that he is against the deal and, most likely, he will be able to convince Rusal’s board to reject the deal, we believe.”

Mikhail Prokhorov, who may own almost as many shares in Rusal as Deripaska – if to count shares officially assigned to Deripaska which are neither pledged nor held in trust – followed the interview with an announcement from his Onexim holding yesterday. “I think it’s profitable for RUSAL to accept the offer on the 20 percent sell off in Norilsk,” the statement said. “The situation, obviously, is in a deadlock, and one of the sides has to make a decision to exit… Onexim will support the offer.”

Victor Vekselberg, who chairs the Rusal board, and his partner Len Blavatnik, are reportedly in the same frame of mind, and ready to vote their shareholding in favour of the deal.

So what exactly is the news here?

Deripaska has acknowledged publicly for the first time that he and the interests he represents are agreed with Prokhorov and Vekselberg that Rusal should exit from Norilsk Nickel; that the terms of this exit are negotiable; and that the price should be higher than the one he demanded last month. By as much as billion dollars, Deripaska now intimates.

This puts a notional valuation on Norilsk Nickel of four times $17 billion, or $68 billion. This is 50% higher than the current market capitalization of Norilsk Nickel at $45.5 billion. Indeed, Norilsk Nickel has never in its short history as a publicly traded company been worth so much –$59.4 billion was its peak value in May of 2008.

Noone can possibly doubt, certainly not the non-Russian institutional investors in Norilsk Nickel, that this is a fine valuation for their property. All that has to be resolved now is the problem of the state assistance required to put the sale and buyback through. For, lest anyone should forget, it is the state which is calling the shots on both the Norilsk Nickel and Rusal boards of directors.

So is Deripaska’s latest bargaining ploy a signal Rusal will not sell the 25% stake? Or , rather, is it a signal that the state expects Vladimir Potanin to find more cash of his own than he has found so far to redistribute around the pack? With 5% of Norilsk Nickel left in Rusal’s hands, according to the offer now on the table, there are a great many options for Potanin’s fund-raiser, the loyal Andrei Bougrov, to devise for more time and an instalment plan to feed everyone’s appetite.

For the moment, the markets ought to be remembering that other Arab maxim – the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. In Russia, it isn’t difficult to know exactly who commands the caravan, and who are the dogs.

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