The arrest last week of Guido Mantega, Brazil’s longest-serving finance minister, would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Just as his wife was about to undergo surgery at a São Paulo hospital, police carted off Mr Mantega to answer questions about his alleged role in the corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled energy company of which he was chairman between 2010 and 2015. Mr Mantega, who was finance minister between 2006 and 2014, has denied wrongdoing.

The wide-ranging investigation into corruption at Petrobras — prosecutors allege that former directors conspired with politicians and contractors to loot an estimated R$42bn ($13bn) from the company — promises to draw a line under a period of highly damaging state interference in the oil producer. 

Under Brazil’s leftist Workers’ party, which ruled Brazil for almost 14 years until Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August, Petrobras was not only systematically pillaged but also forced to adopt lossmaking practices to help the government fight inflation.

Since Brazil’s congress opened impeachment proceedings against Ms Rousseff at the beginning of December, Petrobras’s shares have soared more than 70 per cent. 

“A weight has been lifted from the company’s shoulders,” says Sérgio Lazzarini, a professor at Insper, a São Paulo university.

Pedro Parente, who became Petrobras’s chief executive in June, is now starting to repair the company by reducing its vast debt load. With gross borrowings of $124bn, Petrobras ranks as the world’s most heavily indebted listed energy company.

In his first five-year plan for the company released last week, Mr Parente set out an ambitious deleveraging timetable that analysts hope will prove to be a turning point for Petrobras’s finances.

Mr Parente, who won investors’ respect as the former Brazilian head of agricultural trader Bunge, promised to reduce Petrobras’s net debt from a hefty 5.3 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation last year to 2.5 times in 2018.

Part of this debt reduction strategy involves cutting Petrobras’s investments between 2017 and 2021 to $74.1bn — a fall of 25 per cent compared to the company’s previous forecast.

Petrobras chief executive Pedro Parente © EPA

Mr Parente is also seeking to introduce transparent fuel pricing rules, ending one of the most contentious and damaging practices at Petrobras while the Workers’ party was in power.

Analysts say Mr Mantega’s greatest error was forcing the company to, in effect, subsidise domestic fuel prices, as part of the government’s efforts to control inflation.

Between 2011 and 2014, the government, which directly and indirectly controls about 61 per cent of Petrobras’s voting shares, required the company to import petrol and diesel and sell it at a loss in the domestic market.

Mr Parente has promised a “business-orientated policy for fuel prices” and is expected to announce a methodology by the end of this year whereby Petrobras’s diesel and petrol prices would be adjusted regularly, based on the value of international oil and currency movements. 

“The big discussion is about periodicity — whether prices would be adjusted every two, three or four months,” says Celson Plácido, a strategist at XP Investimentos. “The market believes in Parente — he has credibility because of his management history.”

Less state interference will also allow Petrobras to downsize, creating opportunities for overseas companies to acquire assets focused on ethanol, fertiliser, and petrochemicals, which the oil producer intends to sell.

Former Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega being escorted by police for questioning © Reuters

After disposing of $15.1bn of assets during 2015 and 2016, including one of its largest offshore oil licences to Norway’s Statoil for $2.5bn in July, Petrobras proposes to make divestments worth $19.5bn during 2017 and 2018. Its petrol station chain BR Distribuidora is one of the most coveted assets up for sale.

“This rebalancing of priorities is likely to create more opportunities for international oil companies and other investors in Brazil’s energy sector,” says João Augusto de Castro Neves of Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.

Petrobras is also set to benefit from legislative changes under President Michel Temer’s more business-friendly government.

Next month the lower house of congress is expected to approve legislation that would relieve Petrobras of its obligation to be the lead operator in Brazil’s deepwater “pre-salt” oil and gasfields, in a move that could allow the company to further reduce its investments.

“While some kind of financial aid from the government cannot be completely ruled out, such action is unlikely for the time being as Petrobras’s course correction appears to be on track,” says Mr Castro Neves. 

Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff © EPA

However, risks remain. Low oil prices have reduced interest from overseas companies in Brazil’s pre-salt fields and Petrobras’s assets, while battles with trade unions about wages and a US class action lawsuit over the corruption scandal could all derail Mr Parente’s five-year plan.

“Petrobras’s new business plan is challenging,” says Nymia Almeida, analyst at Moody’s. “The company’s success in achieving its ultimate deleveraging goal, which would be positive for its credit profile, will depend on extreme managerial focus and discipline.”

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