It wasn't long ago that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's decision to end the functional independence of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), and bring its revenue under his control resulted in a failed coup that very nearly cost him his post.
Now, Chavez's aggressive economic policies are again being called into question, this time as the country slides into what could be a protracted period of stagflation, which is defined by the exasperating mixture of torpid economic growth and high inflation.
Before that, however, the period from 2004-2007 was marked by rapid economic growth - punctuated by a miraculous 19.42% burst in 2004. Since that time, unfortunately, Venezuelans have watched as their standard of living was slowly eroded by restrictive price controls, rapid inflation, unsustainable public spending, and widespread nationalizations that have put a stranglehold on industry.
Even as these problems festered, an unprecedented surge in oil prices allowed Chavez to maintain his questionable - and ultimately unsustainable - economic policies. When the bull market in commodities abruptly stalled last year, Venezuela's economy lumbered to a stop.
Venezuela's economy grew by 3.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008 and just 0.3% in the first quarter of 2009. Then - for the first time in more than five years - that country's economy contracted, shrinking 2.4% in the second quarter.
Unfortunately for Venezuela, the decline in gross domestic product (GDP) did little to quell surging inflation. The annual rate of inflation climbed to 26.2% in July, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela. Many foreign sources have it higher.
President Chavez insists his country is not in the midst of a financial crisis, but analysts believe this is just the beginning of a bad-news saga that will trip up a country whose heavy-handed economic policies have made it few friends.
"To sum up, we could say that such scenario of stagflation has two basic components," Orlando Ochoa, an economist and professor with Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB), told El Universal. "On the one hand, price control, exchange control, nationalizations and restricted distribution of foreign currency damage supply. On the other hand, lower oil prices curtail revenues and have an impact on demand."
Going forward, Venezuela's currency controls are perhaps the biggest hurdle for the economy to overcome. Chavez and his cabinet have said they are preparing to announce measures to stimulate the economy, but that may not be enough.
The problems that come with over-reliance on oil and a vast net of unwieldy social programs and the cost burden of nationalized industry aren't going anywhere. And the nation's other obstacle - the gap between its official and parallel exchange rates - won't be addressed until at least the end of September.
An Unparalleled Problem
Indeed, the problems facing Venezuela are many. But President Chavez and his cabinet believe they have the solution.
"There is a remedy," Venezuelan Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said in an interview broadcast on state television. "The differential between the official dollar and the [so-called] 'parallel dollar' can be reduced."
Rodriguez was referring to the difference between the country's "official" exchange rate - which remains at 2.15 bolivars per U.S. dollar - and the so-called "parallel market," which suggests a rate of about 6.5 bolivars per U.S. dollar.
The official exchange rate of 2.15 bolivars per U.S. dollar was arrived at in 2003, when Chavez imposed currency controls that force Venezuelans who want to import goods to apply for a government permit. Importers that are unable to get permits to buy currency at the official exchange rate have been forced to turn to the parallel market, where they pay three times the official price.
The problem now is that a large drop in oil revenue has sharply reduced the amount of dollars the government has available to exchange. That has driven more importers to the pricier parallel market. Some have stopped importing entirely.
With limited access to imports, Venezuela's manufacturing sector contracted by 8.5% in the second quarter.
"The manufacturing sector is going to have a negative performance, mostly because of the restriction in imports and dollars, which has caused a drop in the supply of primary materials," Miguel Carpio, an economist at Banco Federal CA in Caracas, told Bloomberg News. "Add to that the drop in consumption, and this is going to be a very difficult year."
Now, with the threat of stagflation looming large, Chavez has no choice but to take action. But economists are unsure of what the government will do.
Few analysts expect the government to order an outright devaluation, because it would push inflation beyond the 28% annual rate. (Venezuela last devalued the official rate in 2005, weakening the currency by 11%.)
Instead, the government could try to lower the parallel rate by issuing dollar-denominated debt, by creating a second, separate exchange rate for "necessary" industries, or by doing both those things.
This could be taken a step further by imposing a tax on lower priority industries seeking dollars at the official exchange rate, Russ Dallen, head trader at Caracas Capital Markets, said in a research note. Or the government could simply create multiple "official" rates for different industries. Venezuela may create four different exchange rates to help the government deal with a drop in oil revenue.
"This complicated system, if implemented, would satisfy the requirements of the government of pretending not to have a formal devaluation of the exchange rate," Dallen said.
Credit Suisse Group AG (NYSE ADR: CS) said in an Aug. 28 report that it expects the government to avoid devaluating its currency by selling dollar-denominated debt to the parallel market. In 2008, after an aggressive sale of dollar-denominated bonds, the administration was able to bring down the parallel rate to around 3 bolivars.
Ultimately, it's Chavez - who opened the door to speculation in August by saying he would "restore balance" to the parallel rate - who will decide what to do about his country's quandary. But he won't be making a decision until later this month.
"Is there going to be an adjustment? I can't respond to that right now," Chavez said Sunday at the presidential palace in Caracas. "If any adjustment comes, it will be in September, towards the end of the month."
But whatever Chavez decides to do, his remedy is likely to fall short, analysts say. That's because the parallel rate is not the problem - it's actually a symptom of flawed economic principles. The restrictive price-and-exchange-rate controls, government expansion, and political obtuseness that Chavez has made the cornerstones of his economic policy will continue to conspire against Venezuela until there is reform.
"We always said the situation was only tenable for the government if oil prices not only remained high, but also rose constantly. But that has not happened, and the fall in oil income is now clearly in evidence," UCAB's Ochoa told Inter Press Service News Agency. "That's the first factor contributing to stagflation, to which are added price and exchange controls and restrictions on hard currency availability, which harm supply and investment, and thirdly, the policy of nationalization."
Venezuela's Crude Oil Slick
In the years leading up to the financial crisis, Chavez used PDVSA's growing revenue to finance large social programs, as well as the nationalization of other industries.
Spending on social programs soared 340% from 2000-2005, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It rose even higher as oil prices soared into 2008, boosting purchase orders and fueling a spending spree among even the poorest Venezuelans.
But since the financial crisis eviscerated commodities prices, Venezuela's oil bounty has all but evaporated. Oil brought in $22.8 billion in the first six months of 2009. That's less than half of the $52 billion it brought in during the first half of last year. For 2008 as a whole, oil generated about $90 billion in revenue for Venezuela.
Meanwhile, FONDEN - Venezuela's development fund - has already committed all but $3 billion of the nearly $20 billion it had available at the end of January, as the government used most of the money in the first half of the year to sustain fiscal spending.
And while Venezuelan oil traded at an average of $53 a barrel in the second quarter, up from $40 a barrel in the first three months of 2009, that's still a far cry from last year's levels.
That means borrowing has had to rise to compensate for the decline in revenue. Venezuela's domestic debt jumped 44% during the first half of the year to $20.42 billion from $14 billion at the end of 2008.
"Public spending keeps rising and is financed by more public debt, which increases spending in a vicious circle, while the government defers or postpones workers' demands, which is itself another sign of the approaching recession, although the government seeks to deny it," economist Domingo Maza Zavala, a former head of the Central Bank told the IPS.
Calculations based on official figures suggest domestic and foreign debt repayments will total about $19.6 billion between the second half of this year and 2011, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported. Roughly $10 billion of that total will be due on foreign debt, with the remaining $9.6 billion destined for the domestic account. Total state debt is estimated at $50.3 billion.
What's the government figures don't include is the cost of compensating private companies that have been taken over or bought out under Chavez's nationalizations and expropriations.
Chavez's government earlier this year seized the assets of more than 70 foreign and domestic oil service companies after conflict erupted over nearly $14 billion in debt owed by PDVSA.
PDVSA demanded that service companies accept a 40% cut in their bills; when they refused, the Venezuelan government seized at least 12 drilling rigs, more than 30 oil terminals, and about 300 boats.
The demonstration was a pointed reminder of a 2007 incident, which is still playing out in the international courts. Two years ago, Venezuela forced six oil majors to hand over equity stakes of 60% or more to PDVSA. However, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) and Conoco Phillips (NYSE: COP) opted to walk away from their contracts rather than accept a minority role.
This conflict is still being disputed, and last year Exxon won a court order to freeze $12 billion in assets from PDVSA as compensation for its lost projects. Additionally, Chavez's heavy-handed policy has cost the country untold billions worth of oil-related investments, as many oil majors now refuse to operate there
"There is the uncertain outlook over how the extensive nationalization pursued over the past 12 years will pan out," Alvise Marino, an analyst at Ideaglobal, told The Wall Street Journal. "Based on the government's unimpressive track record on the economic management front, we tend to take a less-than-optimistic view."
The Colombia Conundrum
In addition to alienating foreign oil majors, Chavez has also sequestered Venezuela from many of its neighbors, especially Colombia. Chavez has ordered his country to prepare for an outright "rupture of relations" with Colombia after that country gave the United States permission to use its military bases.
The United States says access to the bases will help it fight drug trafficking, but Chavez has his own theory. He says American use of the bases could be used as a launch point for an invasion of his oil rich nation.
"Those seven military bases are a declaration of war," Chavez said last week. "We must prepare for the rupture in relations with Colombia. There is no possibility of a return [to normal relations] with Colombia, an embrace."
However, cutting off ties with Colombia poses yet another economic hurdle for the Venezuelan economy to overcome. Colombia provided about $6 billion in products to Venezuela in 2008, or about 15% of Venezuela's total imports, according to Venezuela's government statistics institute INE.
In fact, when Chavez closed the border for three days in 2006, there was shortage of food in Venezuela.
Chavez can turn to other South American countries, but his credit extends only so far.
"Nobody wants to sell to Venezuela if payment isn't made in advance," José Rozo, president of Fedecámaras Táchira, the region's main business association, told the Latin American Herald Tribune
About 70% of trade activity in Venezuela depends on imports from Colombia, Rozo said, adding that the only country that had been willing to export on credit had been Colombia.
Without Colombia, Venezuela will have to settle for trade terms that heavily favor its partners.
For instance, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made a visit to Venezuela last month, and signed no less than 22 accords. Virtually all of the deals were in Argentine's favor, the Tribune reported.
"We're going to drive a horse and cart through all the regulations if they want to do business with us," an Argentine official told the paper prior to the signing of the deals. "Prompt payment. Simple procedures. Fewer controls. Less bureaucracy. No delays. Hard currency. I'll tell you the rest when I've thought of them."
That means if Venezuela wants to keep doing business with Argentina, it's going to have to pay more.
And that will fuel inflation.
"The cost of purchasing in Argentina is higher, and that means that prices will be higher in Venezuela," Abelardo Daza, an economics professor at Caracas-based IESA business school, told The Journal.
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Andrés Bello Catholic University:
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Banco Federal CA:
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Latin American Herald Tribune:
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