MOSCOW - Russia's business elite is ripe for a dramatic reshuffle as the country's worst stock market crash in a decade wipes tens of billions off their fortunes in a matter of weeks.
Many of the oligarchs - the term for the businessmen who amassed vast fortunes through the flawed privatisations of the 1990s and a natural resources boom under Vladimir Putin's eight-year presidency - have lost paper fortunes through plunging stock prices.
But some of them are in a much more precarious position: the ones who borrowed heavily against their shares and who in some cases are being squeezed to sell assets or cancel business deals.
"The funding squeeze globally has hit Russia more than most other places and you are seeing enormous stress on the oligarchs who borrowed to finance growth," said David Aserkoff, an analyst at Renaissance Capital.
Aluminium king Oleg Deripaska, ranked by Forbes in May as the wealthiest Russian with an estimated fortune of some US$28 billion, is one of most high-profile victims of the crisis. The owner of a majority stake in aluminium company Rusal, he has expanded his vast interests abroad, buying stakes in General Motors, construction companies Strabag and Hochtief, and Canadian vehicle components maker Magna.
But as he expanded, he borrowed heavily, using shares as collateral, say analysts. When the stock market went south, much of this collateral was slashed in value, which entitled creditors to issue margin calls - demands to put up more money.
Deripaska's Basic Element holding ceded its 20 per cent stake in Magna to creditors, bought last year for US$1.5 billion, and "relinquished" its 10 per cent stake in Hochtief to Germany's Commerzbank. Rusal also borrowed to acquire Mikhail Prokhorov's 25 per cent stake in mining company Norilsk Nickel this year; Rusal has insisted it has no problems with refinancing the loan.
But speculation is swirling in the market about almost every oligarchic holding - ranging from Vladimir Yevtushenkov's Sistema holding to Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group. Yevtushenkov has called off a merger between his two telecom subsidiaries, while its construction arm, Sistema-Hals, has seen its share price hammered since the beginning of the year over concerns on debt and project delays.
Alfa Group's woes have led to lay-offs at Alfa Bank, and its telecoms subsidiary is reported by business daily Vedomosti to be facing margin calls on its Vimpelcom shares - put up as security for a US$1.5 billion loan.
Leverage helped swell the number of Russian business figures on Forbes' list of the world's rich this year to a new high of 87. Leverage will now likely help shrink that number.
"They've been so obsessed about Forbes," billionaire Alexander Lebedev said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "They will see their fortunes shrink."
Lebedev, a part-owner of national airline Aeroflot, said he had seen about two-thirds of his stock portfolio wiped out by the crisis, and joked that he had fallen off the Forbes list.
Russia's stock markets are off their May highs by some 65 per cent. Troika Dialog now estimates that Petrobras, the Brazilian oil major, can be bought for more than the entire Russian oil industry - a staggering thought for the world's second-largest producer of crude.
In the case of Vladimir Lisin's NLMK steel company, the market drop has wiped away roughly 75 per cent of the company's market value.
While there may be some small comfort for ordinary Russians in seeing the billionaires brought down a peg, they have played a role in firing up Russia's economy, which grew at an average 7 per cent annually over the past eight years.
"If billionaires aren't billionaires, then millionaires don't stay millionaires. If millionaires don't stay millionaires, then the average person has a hard time as well," said James Fenkner, director at Red Star Asset Management. "It just hasn't hit yet."
But others are poised to take advantage. Some have used the opportunity to buy back shares - albeit at small levels to date - while shareholders in Lukoil, the country's largest privately owned oil company, have boosted their personal stakes. Norilsk said last month its subsidiaries had bought back nearly 9 per cent of its shares, a move believed by analysts to strengthen control of board chairman Vladimir Potanin.
Tycoon Prokhorov, awash with cash after selling out of Norilsk, swooped down on leading homegrown investment bank Renaissance Capital in September, picking up a 50 per cent stake for a song at US$500 million. For others, opportunities are still to come.
"Oligarchs with cash will be able to use their knowledge of the business and political landscape to find the next billions of wealth in Russia," said Aserkoff in a recent note. "The rest of us can only watch this process, but eyes open, it will be a game with bigger stakes than the early 1990s privatisations and the redistribution after the 1998 crisis."