Riding the Bakrie Roller Coaster

Erry Firmansyah, the president of Indonesia's insider-trading-riddled stock exchange, has never been known for an aggressive approach to policing the country's casino-style trading regime. But the last couple of weeks have been too bizarre for even Firmansyah, apparently.

On Thursday, after stalling for months on a request by minority shareholders for a probe into suspect purchases by Bakrie group units allegedly in less than arms length transactions, Firmansyah warned investors that stocks of Bakrie Group companies, controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, the Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare could pose a high investment risk for retail traders after the group's seven traded stocks tripled in price on average since the first of the year. At times in recent days, Bakrie companies have accounted for more than half of the total trading volume on the market.

The exchange temporarily suspended trading in PT Energi Mega Persada, Bakrie's oil-drilling unit, after the stocks made a cumulative gain of 184 percent since April 24 alone, and warned investors of "unusual market activity in shares of PT Bakrieland Development."

Despite mediocre results for most of the units, the shares, which underwent sharp falls yesterday, have been led upwards by Energi Mega Persada, which has risen fivefold despite recording a first-quarter loss, while PT Bumi Resources, the flagship coal mining operation, has more than doubled in price. Bakrie & Brothers rose by only 82 percent, the most modest rise among the group's shares.

It is difficult to describe the sway the Bakrie companies have over Indonesia's equities market. Bumi Resources is Indonesia's biggest coal exporter and the biggest listed company on the Indonesia Stock Exchange. The group has wide-ranging interests in palm oil plantations, oil, property, telecommunications and media. Bakrieland Development is the largest listed property company on the exchange. In all, they account for 40 percent of the market capitalization.

"Bakrie stocks are not for the faint-hearted," Mirza Adityaswara, chief economist for PT Bank Mandiri, told the Jakarta Globe this week. "They are only good for daily trading, while for longer-term investment, investors should pick firms with better fundamentals."

Despite their lackluster fundamentals, Bank Mandiri's Mirza said, all seven Bakrie stocks have been among the top 10 most actively traded over the past two weeks, dominating the market. Together, the seven accounted around half of the market's daily transactions, led by Bumi, whose trades towered above the rest of the market, averaging more than Rp 1 trillion (US$97.5 million) in daily trades over the last two weeks.

The runup in Bakrie shares is particularly astonishing in the wake of what happened less than eight months ago, when wild falls in Bakrie company share prices closed the Indonesia market, raising questions among the cynical whether unknown pressures are responsible for their skyrocketing value. For months, Bakrie has been in a continuing struggle to rescue his distressed empire, Indonesia's biggest corporate entity, after its share price collapsed in October during the global financial crisis, causing creditors whose loans were covered by Bakrie stocks as collateral to demand payment. For months, the group sought buyers for its assets to pay the debt.

The roller-coaster rise in Bakrie stocks over the last few weeks has resulted in increasing the group's market capitalization several times over and probably has rescued his empire, at least for now.

{mospagebreak}

Three of the group's listed firms, Energi Bakrie Sumatra, and the holding company Bakrie & Brothers, posted net losses in the first quarter, although the other four did post net profits during the same period.

The return of investor confidence, which picked up in mid-April after last October's market meltdown is largely responsible for the dramatic gains in Bakrie-related companies, analysts say.

Or maybe not. The interesting thing is what happens from here on out. And as with most things in Indonesia, politics are involved. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's president, has discarded his former vice president Jusuf Kalla, in favor of a technocrat, Boediono, the respected governor of Bank Indonesia, the country's central bank, to run with him in the July election. Bakrie himself has said he would give up his cabinet position in the next government.

Bakrie has been the moving force behind Kadin, the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. With a tiny minority of the legislative seats in the 2004 presidential election, Yudhoyono made common cause with Kadin, making Kalla his vice president, to give him a big enough coalition with the Golkar Party, which was previously controlled by the late strongman Suharto, to run for the presidency.

With his Democratic Party now holding more than 20 percent of the legislative seats, Yudhoyono, who made his name as a reformer, has decided he could get along without the Kadin electoral support. Kalla is now running on his own against Yudhoyono, but in recent polls has been running a distant third, partly because he is an ethnic Buginese in a country which has never opted for a leader who wasn't Javanese. There have been reports that Bakrie convened a meeting of Golkar stalwarts to consider dumping Kalla as Golkar chairman, which would probably finish his presidential candidacy outright

If Yudhoyono were to pull it off and win strongly, that would raise the question of where Bakrie would go in a country where government support has often been deemed crucial for success – witness the previous government-led Bakrie rescues. For instance, one of Bakrie's companies, the gas exploration unit PT Lapindo Brantas, caused the biggest manmade environmental disaster in Indonesian history, according to environmentalists, when a gas well blew out near Sidoarjo, East Java, 35 kilometers south of Indonesia's second largest city, Surabaya.

The mud volcano that ensued has continued to spew toxic mud despite all attempts to stop it, inundating thousands of houses, businesses and schools and entire villages, with the only answer anybody has been able to figure out is to channel the mud off into the ocean, wrecking the fish and shellfish-rich coastline. No serious government attempts have ever been made to prosecute the company or the Bakrie interests.

Whether that protection will continue after Bakrie and Kadin lose their government influence remains to be seen, and raises questions about how long the group's torrid share price performance will continue.

However, one of the most intriguing theories is that Bakrie has already seen the writing on the wall and now is using the rising value of his stocks to raise funds to support Yudhoyono's almost certain presidential victory, guaranteeing himself a continuing place at the government table.

Having left public office, he loses his immunity from prosecution – unless, of course, he were to be appointed to Indonesia's legislative upper house, a largely toothless body with little lawmaking clout. It does have one crucial function. Its members are immune from prosecution. Watch this space.