By Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Mike Stone
SAO PAULO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Petróleo Brasileiro SA (PETR4.SA) has hired JPMorgan Chase & Co to handle $3 billion in planned asset sales this year, as fallout from a corruption scandal has shut access to financing for Brazil's state-controlled oil producer, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation said on Wednesday.
JPMorgan (JPM.N) will be tasked with luring the largest number of bidders possible for the assets and then structuring their sale, said a first source, who asked for anonymity since the process is private. Properties and drilling licenses are among assets that could be put on the block, the source added.
According to a second source, meetings are being scheduled in the coming weeks to further look at deal opportunities. Both Petrobras, as the company is commonly known, and JPMorgan declined to comment.
Asset sales have become imperative for Petrobras now that Moody's Investors Service has stripped the company of its investment-grade rating and has warned that further cuts are possible. Worries over a looming cash crunch and the scandal were behind the downgrade, Moody's said late on Tuesday.
In what is being called Brazil's worst corruption scandal in history, prosecutors have alleged that allies of President Dilma Rousseff used Petrobras to skim billions of reais through overpriced contracts in political campaign kickbacks for over a decade.
The scandal has cut Petrobras' access to bond markets after independent auditors, concerned over the need for potential asset impairments, refused to sign off on the company's quarterly earnings reports.
Chief Executive Officer Aldemir Bendine, who took office a month ago, has made investment cuts and asset divestitures the cornerstone of his plan to restore confidence in the scandal-battered company. A reduction in the company's five-year, $221 billion capital spending plan is also widely expected.
Moody's was the first of the three major rating firms to put Petrobras ratings on so-called junk status. Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor's currently rate Petrobras at the lowest investment-grade ranking.
Last week, JPMorgan Securities analysts predicted that Moody's would be first to announce a Petrobras downgrade. Moody's Petrobras ratings cut was the largest corporate downgrade in terms of the amount of debt impacted in 10 years.
According to the first source, potential bidders could include Middle East investors, mainly sovereign wealth funds familiar with oil and gas projects.
Petrobras sold $10.7 billion worth of assets between October 2012 and December 2013, as part of a plan to exit non-core assets to fund its investment program.
(Additional reporting by Jeb Blount in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Diane Craft)