Monday, December 3, 2012

Top Latin America Analyst Says $19B Ecuador Judgment Will Be Enforced Against Chevron

Chevron's stock price appears to be down in recent weeks in large part due to the company's $19 billion Ecuador liability.

An influential Latin America investor analyst this week concluded that the $19 billion Ecuador judgment “will be enforced” and only “risk tolerant investors” with a long-term investment plans should buy Chevron’s stock.  The title of the report: Chevron, A Dividend Champion In Trouble.

Included in the analysis is a chart that shows how the value of Chevron’s stock has dropped considerably in recent weeks as the oil giant has suffered multiple courtroom setbacks in the Ecuador case, including a devastating defeat when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the oil giant’s appeal. See chart here.

Expressing concerns shared by some large Chevron shareholders, the analyst observed that “surprisingly” Chevron’s Chairman and CEO John Watson and other company executives have been “reluctant to recognize the financial impact” of the litigation.  The lawsuit was first filed in 1993 in New York by indigenous and farmer communities from Ecuador against Texaco, which was bought by Chevron in 2001.

During the past few years, shareholders have complained that Watson has been withholding information from investors and have demanded he be more transparent. One U.S. Congresswoman asked that the SEC investigate the company to determine if it is lying to shareholders about the Ecuador risk.

An analyst with the Colombian-based independent investment firm, Caiman Valores, has joined a growing chorus of Wall Street analysts in questioning Chevron’s management of the historic litigation. See here.

Writing on the influential Seeking Alpha web site, the analyst said: “Chevron … is certainly experiencing some rough going…. (i)t is appearing more likely … the judgment … will be enforced. While it is difficult to predict the outcome, it is certain that this matter will continue to run for many years and at great cost to Chevron….”

The analyst also made observations about the controversial role of Watson, who was a key Chevron official who vetted the Texaco purchase:  “It certainly raises questions as to why Chevron's due diligence of Texaco was not more thorough, before purchasing the company, and why management has consistently downplayed the impact of the case,” he said.

Confronted publicly last week about the growing risk posed by the Ecuador liability, the embattled Watson – in conduct most unbefitting a CEO -- called the Ecuadorians and their lawyers “criminals”.  Yet Chevron is the party that has been found by multiple courts to have committed severe environmental abuses that some believe rise to the level of criminality. For a partial summary of the devastating charges against Chevron, see these claims filed against the oil giant by a New York lawyer who has been the target of Chevron’s corporate espionage and vicious personal attacks. See here.

As a result of Chevron’s refusal to pay the Ecuador judgment, the Ecuadorians have been forced to file asset seizure actions in Canada, Brazil and Argentina.  Chevron stripped all but a few residual assets from Ecuador.

The Caiman Valores analyst cited not only the Ecuador litigation but also growing legal problems facing Chevron in Brazil, where the oil giant’s offshore drilling practices resulted in a spill earlier this year. Prosecutors in Brazil have brought a $22 billion lawsuit against Chevron for trying to mislead officials about that spill.

Meanwhile, news accounts surfaced recently about yet another explosion at a Chevron refinery in California.  This is just one more example of the company’s shoddy standards and unsafe culture, which has led to an ongoing criminal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency.  See here for additional background.

In the blog, the analyst offered different scenarios on the impact of the liability on the company’s stock price.

One investor writing in the comment section of the blog concluded that full payment of the $19 billion judgment would cost Chevron roughly $10 per share.   He said: “Hence if CVX [Chevron] pays out $19 billion, it should lower the stock by roughly $10 per share…. This implies that Mr. Market now puts the probability at around 80% that CVX will pay the full amount eventually.”

Seeking Alpha makes four important points about the Ecuador case:

1) The 1995 remediation agreement between the Government of Ecuador and Chevron did not release the private claims in the lawsuit. This is Chevron’s key defense in ongoing litigation in the U.S. and in the countries where the Ecuadorian communities have filed seizure lawsuits.

2) The Government of Ecuador filed an amicus brief in support of Chevron when the lawsuit was first filed in the U.S. in 1993, citing economic concerns should the company be sued successfully. Today, one of Chevron’s main defenses is that Ecuador’s government has committed fraud and has pressured the courts to rule against the company, even though Chevron submitted 14 affidavits to a U.S. court arguing it could get a fair trial in Ecuador. The court agreed and sent the lawsuit to Ecuador, where it was re-filed in 2003.

3) Before the court allowed the trial to be moved to Ecuador, it required Chevron to submit to Ecuadorian jurisdiction and Chevron agreed. The analyst wrote: “Since the judgment was issued, Chevron has not in any way complied with the judgment and has sought to prevent its enforcement.”

4) Chevron was the sole designer and operator of the substandard oil production system in Ecuador that was built to dump waste into the environment to save money. Chevron now wants to blame the state-owned oil company for the pollution, but PetroEcuador did not operate the system until after the lawsuit was filed.

Seeking Alpha argues that Argentina -- where a court already has frozen Chevron assets because of its Ecuador liability -- offers the “greatest opportunity” to enforce the judgment because of a treaty between Argentina and Ecuador that “reduc(es) the burden” on the Ecuadorians to have the judgment recognized and enforced.

Brazil is probably the least likely country to allow enforcement because it may want to recover the $22 billion in its own lawsuit, according to the blog. If successful in Canada, though, the blog observed that “it is highly likely that it be recognized and become enforceable in countries such as Australia, where Chevron has considerable assets.”

For an earlier summary of Wall Street’s increasingly critical view of Chevron’s stock because of the Ecuador matter, see here.

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