Brazilian ex-senator takes over as Petrobras CEO; shares fall

(Reuters) – The board of directors of Petrobras (PETR4.SA) on Thursday approved former Senator Jean Paul Prates as the firm’s chief executive, marking a strategic shift for the state-run Brazilian oil company.

A longtime energy consultant-turned-politician, Prates was tapped for the top Petrobras job by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and is expected to oversee a strategic shift to more renewable energy projects and renewed investments in refining.

Sao Paulo-traded shares in Petroleo Brasileiro SA – as the company is formally known – dropped more than 3% following the news, making it the biggest decliner on Brazil’s benchmark stock index Bovespa (.BVSP), which was little-changed.

Prates was unanimously approved by the board, on which he will also hold a seat, Petrobras said in a securities filing. He is taking office on an interim basis until April, when he will be sworn in permanently.

A source familiar with the matter said Prates would nominate picks for senior executive management on Friday, after meeting with Lula later on Thursday to discuss board appointees.

Markets fear Prates may dramatically change the company’s fuel pricing policy, which currently tracks global oil markets with its domestic prices, something that Lula has repeatedly criticized.

Prates has previously said he did not intend to entirely unlink fuel prices from international markets, but would move away from “import parity.” He has said the Lula government would not take an aggressively interventionist approach to Petrobras.

Investors also worry about the future dividend policy. Petrobras made bumper payouts in recent quarters, but Prates has said the company cannot “just keep tapping sub-salt oil and paying dividends”.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs said they would keep their neutral rating on Petrobras despite an attractive valuation, “as we acknowledge increased uncertainty around policies to be adopted in the forthcoming years.”

Credit Suisse analyst Regis Cardoso said in a note to clients that he expects “market participants to watch closely Mr. Prates’s initial remarks on Petrobras’ pricing policy, dividends and future strategy.”

Prates, who was a senator for the past four years, is the first politician in several years to hold a high-ranking office at Petrobras.

“The challenge he faces is trying to place together a modern Petrobras, returning cash to shareholders, and the new government’s more interventionist stance,” said Paulo Valois, a partner at law firm Schmidt Valois Advogados.

Earlier in the day, the Brazilian Senate’s official gazette published the resignation of Prates as a lawmaker.

Prates took over from the head of production development at Petrobras, Joao Henrique Rittershaussen, who had been serving as interim CEO since Jan. 4 after Caio Paes de Andrade, a nominee of former President Jair Bolsonaro, resigned.

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