Global Trader: Has Latin America’s Biggest Stock Turned Around?

Investors watching gas prices and dreaming of increased government supervision need only look south of the border for an example of what happens when the public good and private enterprise collide.

For years, integrated energy powerhouse Petrobras (PBR) was dead money because as Brazil’s largest stock, its largest shareholders were the country’s powerful unions and other government-affiliated entities. As such, they controlled the board and dictated policy.

It’s great when you’re a consumer trying to make sure you can afford fuel. The company has actively cut prices a few times lately, sacrificing its own profit in order to keep the population happy.

This is nothing new. Whenever PBR gets a break in the global energy market, the board routinely votes itself an extraordinary dividend to pad its own pension funds, which doesn’t leave a lot behind to replenish the company’s reserves or update its refineries.

I thought that might be changing, but the latest vote reestablished the pattern. Two directors come from the business world. Six come from the government.

And the stock keeps lagging its global peers. Yes, PBR is up YTD, but put those gains into perspective: this was an $18 stock back in 2013 and even in the depths of the 2008 crash you rarely got a chance to buy shares for significantly less than that.

Only those dividends have made any money at all . . . and even on a post-dividend basis, shareholders are still down 25% in the past decade. Latin America’s biggest stock is steadily shrinking.

Most recently the board voted to sell off refineries and the company’s sprawling potash deposits. The moves will bring in cash but won’t exactly grow the business.

Furthermore, those refineries are an object of political controversy. Former president Lula da Silva wants to buy them back if he’s elected, effectively giving private investors a chance to flip the assets on the government’s bill.

That’s no way to run a world-class company. And that’s why PBR stubbornly refuses world-class status . . . even though its assets are truly spectacular.

There’s no need to own this stock unless you’re a Brazilian union or want something exotic. ExxonMobil (XOM) does it all and keeps an eye on its shareholders.