London tries to lure Saudi Aramco with new listing structure: Report

The London Stock Exchange.
The London Stock Exchange. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON/HONG KONG (REUTERS) - The London Stock Exchange is working on a new type of listing structure that would make it more attractive for oil giant Saudi Aramco to join the bourse, sources familiar with the discussions said.

Exchanges around the world are vying for a piece of Saudi Aramco's initial public offering (IPO), expected to be the largest in history. The company is expected to list on the Riyadh exchange, the Tadawul, and at least one major international stock market.

The LSE is seen as one of the front-runners to win part of the IPO and has been pushing hard to land it.

LSE chief executive Xavier Rolet travelled with British Prime Minister Theresa May last month to Saudi Arabia, with the pair meeting the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund, which is expected to be a major decision-maker in the listing process.

But none of the exchange's current listing structures are likely to appeal to Aramco. It is working on a new model that would allow it to avoid the most onerous corporate governance requirements of a primary listing, without being seen as second class.

Such an approach could leave the British stock market open to criticism that it is changing the rules in order to attract large state-backed companies which are reluctant to meet more stringent corporate governance requirements.

Currently most companies on the LSE have a "premium listing", which is required if they are to be included in the FTSE index. That requires firms to list at least 25 per cent of their shares in a free float, unless regulator Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) makes an exception, and be subject to corporate governance rules which include giving minority shareholders extra voting power on issues such as independent directors.

But Saudi Aramco, which estimates its total value to be around US$2 trillion (S$2.78 million), has so far indicated it wants to list no more than 5 per cent of its shares, leaving private investors with little chance to influence the company.

The existing alternative is for Aramco to opt for a"standard listing" which has less onerous corporate governance requirements, especially in relation to the issue of controlling shareholders. Standard listings are however generally seen as less attractive to investors and have connotations of being second best.

Advisers often tell companies not to pursue this option. "By listing as premium or standard, big pension funds and asset managers know where they sit in terms of governance," said Mr Russell Holden, corporate partner at international law firm Taylor Wessing.

Instead, sources said the LSE and the UK Listing Authority, which is part of the Financial Conduct Authority, are discussing a new category of listings for large international companies which may fail to meet the premium listing standards but is more prestigious and more appealing to investors than the "standard" category.

An FCA spokesman declined to comment on an individual company's listing arrangements but said it aimed to ensure markets functioned well.

The LSE declined to comment. Saudi Aramco said it did not comment on rumour or speculation.