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Mexico's oil rush is on as black gold fever strikes ex-president

Ben Bain, Adam Williams and Eric Martin
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News


MEXICO CITY — Mexican companies are racing to be first in line to invest in the country's energy industry even before lawmakers pass final legislation that would end a 76-year state monopoly.

Alfa SAB, owner of Mexico's largest petrochemicals producer, sold $1 billion of bonds Thursday to help fund its energy business and refinance debt. State-owned Comision Federal de Electricidad plans to take advantage of the legal changes to sell natural gas, Chief Executive Officer Enrique Ochoa said at the Bloomberg Economic Summit in Mexico City Thursday. Former President Vicente Fox is creating a fund that aims to raise $500 million to invest in the country's oil and power sector.

Mexican companies are seeking to reap the benefits from a potential surge in new investment, as President Enrique Pena Nieto attempts to attract funds and arrest nine straight years of crude production declines with an energy overhaul. While lawmakers have yet to consider rules for putting in place the constitutional changes, Bank of America Corp. estimates the proposed legislation could boost foreign investment by as much as $20 billion a year. Oil production in Mexico may double to 5 million barrels per day, according to Citigroup Inc.

"It seems like an opportune moment," Fox said at the Bloomberg event. "Many people are already moving based on the real expectations for the secondary laws and what comes next."

The constitutional amendments approved in December represent the biggest economic revamp for Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement implemented in 1994. The changes prompted Moody's Investors Service in February to raise Mexico's credit grade to A3, four levels above junk, saying it will help add about 1 percentage point to the country's long-term economic growth rate.

State oil company Petroleos Mexicanos will Friday signal which fields it will open up for potential foreign participation, Energy Minister Joaquin Coldwell said. The company, known as Pemex, could form joint ventures for some of the fields, he said.

Even as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. express interest in Mexican crude exploration, some investors remain wary of risks after New York-based Citigroup alleged last month that Ciudad del Carmen-based oil contractor Oceanografia SA defrauded the bank of $400 million, according to Jesus Reyes Heroles, a former head of Pemex.

"It's an unusual situation with big repercussions," Reyes Heroles, who founded energy consulting firm Energea Structura, said Thursday at the Bloomberg event. "People are watching how the authorities act in this case."

Alfa's bond sale Thursday pushed issuance this year from oil-related companies to $5.7 billion, more than half of the total amount sold by Mexican corporations. Alfa's energy unit, Newpek, posted the fastest sales expansion of its five divisions last year, bolstered by a growing U.S. oil and gas drilling business. The San Pedro Garza Garcia-based company is getting its "war chest" ready to participate in Mexico's energy projects, Ricardo Fernandez, a managing director at Credit Suisse Group AG, said during Thursday's event.

Oro Negro Drilling Pte. Ltd., which provides oil and gas services, sold $725 million of debt due in 2019 on Jan. 8. Pemex issued $4 billion in bonds in January. Ex-President Fox, 71, said the private equity fund he's promoting will be devoted "exclusively to investment of capital in energy, oil, electricity generation and infrastructure." He said he's in talks with potential investors, including those in the U.S.

By allowing foreign investors to drill for oil for the first time since 1938, Mexico is looking to increase natural-gas supply, reduce its dependence on U.S. imports and lower the cost of electricity generation. For CFE, the state electricity company, that would lead to greater operating efficiencies and returns, Ochoa said.

"The reform opens the opportunity for CFE to evolve from an electricity company to an energy company," he said.

— With assistance from Patricia Laya, Nacha Cattan, Jonathan Levin, Jonathan Roeder, Bradley Keoun, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez and Brendan Case in Mexico City and Jose Enrique Arrioja in New York.

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