PetroSal's raison d'être

The concept has been much-discussed, but it looks like now the government of Brazil is moving forward with plans to create a separate state oil company called Petrosal to control its heralded potential oil reserves in the pre-salt geological layer of the ocean off the Brazilian coast.

I haven't seen much understanding in the English-speaking media of the purpose of PetroSal. It will not be an operating company (Petrobras is already among the best in the world at deepwater exploration and production, private oil majors included). Rather, it will be a separate legal and financial entity that will "own" the reserves and interface - legally speaking - with foreign oil majors interested in the pre-salt area.

Why is this necessary? For one, Petrobras is publically traded, and while the government controls voting through golden shares, any profits to Petrobras would be distributed widely to international investors, rather than kept entirely within Brazil.

Second, there are little-understood tax implications. Under existing contracts, royalties for offshore accrue mainly to the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro - two of the richest states in Brazil. President Lula's goal is to use the proceeds to fund massive social spending to rise the standard of living in the poorest parts of Brazil, and a new legal structure for oil royalties would channel more of the proceeds to the federal government.

This points to a third reason for Petrosal, which in my mind is a good one - separating social goals from business ones. We've seen in Venezuela how Chavez has used PdVSA as his private piggy bank for social programs, and its oil-related investments suffer as a result. This has hit Venezuela's overall oil production; Petrosal could be a step in the right direction to avoid that fate.

The creation of Petrosal and other new rules alone will not be enough to avoid the resource curse, which as Moises Naim points out in the FT can result from both macroeconomic factors (Dutch disease) and political ones (corruption and lack of government accountability). But I remain optimistic that Brazil will be able to walk the delicate line between attracting enough foreign investment in exploration and giving away too many of the proceeds. As for the efficacy of the resulting social spending, on that only time will tell.

P.S. For anyone interested in the many manifestations and implications of "the resource curse", I highly recommend Escaping the Resource Curse, a collection of essays from diverse points of view (academic, government, legal, business) on the resource curse. Oh, and both Joe Stiglitz and Jeff Sachs are editors.

P.P.S. Apparently the markets didn't like the announcement too much, shaving $7bn off of Petrobras' ~$180bn market cap. I'm not convinced the market really understands what's going on here, though. Bloomberg certainly doesn't.

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