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Special Report: Venezuela's Unsustainable Economic Paradigm

Released on 2012-03-08 05:00 GMT

Email-ID 1333034
Date 2010-08-04 16:03:33
Stratfor logo August 4, 2010
Special Report: Venezuela's Unsustainable Economic Paradigm

August 4, 2010 | 1208 GMT
Special Report: Venezuela's Unsustainable Economic Paradigm
PEDRO REY/AFP/Getty Images
Large reproductions of the Venezuelan bolivar on display in Caracas

Despite being a major energy exporter, Venezuela is currently mired in
economic recession and suffering from record-high levels of inflation, a
dismal condition known as "stagflation." As the country's economy
deteriorates on a number of fronts, the government continues to struggle
with an electricity crisis and worsening food shortages that are
threatening to undermine support for the ruling party in the lead-up to
September legislative elections. The Venezuelan government has tried to
impose a range of currency controls, from currency devaluations to
parallel market crackdowns, in an effort to resuscitate the economy. But
the country's distortionary and unsustainable currency regime not only
is forcing more of the economy underground (leading to higher inflation
and shortages of basic goods), but it is also catalyzing an elaborate
money-laundering scheme that now appears to be spiraling out of control,
thereby weakening the regime's grip on power.

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From the energy and food sectors to banks and steel mills, Venezuela has
been on an aggressive nationalization drive over the past four years in
order to draw more money into state coffers while increasing the number
of Venezuelan citizens who are politically (and economically) beholden
to the state for their livelihoods. While this policy has brought a
number of short-term benefits to the government, it has come at the cost
of gross inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption, leading to an
overall decline in Venezuelan productivity. In an attempt to redress the
extreme macroeconomic imbalances, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was
forced to make a substantial adjustment to the country's fixed peg to
the U.S. dollar. On June 8, the Venezuelan government devalued the
bolivar against the dollar by 17 percent and 50 percent, simultaneously
creating a dual exchange-rate regime.

The Currency Regime

An exchange rate of 2.15 bolivars per dollar was established for
"essential goods," such as food and medicine, while all other items used
a weaker rate of 4.3 bolivars per dollar. The parallel market that used
to exist in tandem (and where, unregulated, the dollar recently cost
upward of 8 bolivars) is now strictly regulated by the Venezuelan
government in a trading band of 4.2 to 5.4 bolivars per dollar, making
the parallel market the third official exchange rate. For all intents
and purposes, that parallel market was the closest thing to a genuine
exchange rate that the country had because the other two rates were
subsidized and access to them was restricted by the government.

Clearly there are problems with the current arrangement. Although dual
or multi-tiered exchange rate regimes do provide the government with the
ability to impose tighter capital controls, address economic imbalances
and make imported goods more affordable, they are inefficient and
difficult to manage. In most economic systems, the cost of capital is
the single most important factor for determining growth and development,
and when the cost of capital has three different values, entire sectors
shift (and even disappear). For example, the ability to import food for
a third of the real market price via the "essential" exchange rate
largely destroys incentives to produce food locally. Unsurprisingly,
countries with such regimes most often experience lower growth and much
higher inflation than countries with a single, unified exchange rate. To
mute the very high reported inflation (about 32 percent annually,
according to Venezuela's central bank), the government has militantly
enforced price repression, which is beginning to cause shortages of even
the most basic goods (since it makes more financial sense for businesses
to stop producing altogether than be able to sell only at artificially
low prices).

Special Report: Venezuela's Unsustainable Economic Paradigm
(click here to enlarge image)

Second, since the parallel rate was upward of 8 bolivars per dollar
before the government began regulating the market, even the weakest
possible official rate - the 5.4 at the weakest end of the official
trading band - would still be overvalued. With dollars becoming harder
to obtain in the regulated markets, more of the economy is being driven
underground, and it is probably only a matter of time before another
black market emerges (assuming that such a market has not already
emerged). The existence of another parallel currency market would bring
the total number of foreign exchange rates in Venezuela to four - the
subsidized rate, the petrodollar rate, the now-regulated parallel rate
and a new black-market rate - the consequences of which would be

Moreover, because multi-tiered exchange-rate regimes skew the value of
money, they also reward particularly creative individuals and companies
who can figure out ways to shuffle goods back and forth through the
exchange regime (for example, by placing an import order for a good at
one rate, importing it at another and selling it at a third). The
various and intricate incentives that arise from distortionary currency
regimes invariably lead to spiraling corruption and fraud. Venezuela's
currency regime is no exception, especially since practically all
public-sector entities have the ability to import via the most
subsidized rate by virtue of their being public enterprises.

The Gaming Process

Conspicuously enough, warehouses have recently been discovered in
Venezuela containing mountains of rotting food, expired medications and
unusable electricity-generating equipment - at a time when Venezuela is
ostensibly suffering from severe food and power shortages. However,
there's a very logical reason why the warehouses are filled with
"essential" goods. The most apparent is that the mismanagement of state
entities responsible for the purchasing and distribution of these goods
renders them unable to keep up with the logistical demands of their
trade. The state-run entity Bolipuertos (of which the Cuban government
holds a significant stake) that runs Venezuela's ports, for example, is
years behind on its repair schedule. As a result, goods arriving at
Venezuelan ports will often sit for weeks and months without the
necessary electricity and refrigeration to preserve them. But the less
obvious - and more nefarious - reason is that many of the ports are also
mafia-run, and Venezuela's state-owned companies and their subsidiaries
are exploiting their privileged access to the subsidized exchange rate
in order to enrich themselves. Simply put, there may be deliberation
behind many of these shortages.

Before the government began regulating the parallel market, which more
accurately reflected the forces of supply and demand (and thus the
bolivar's genuine value), private Venezuelan companies would finance
anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of their imports through a dollar/bolivar
rate of about 8. However, all state-owned enterprises can exchange just
2.6 bolivars for one U.S. dollar, provided that the dollar goes toward
importing a good on the government-determined list of essential goods.
So, the game is this: maximize the bolivar amount exchanged at the
subsidized rate, minimize the dollar amount that has to be spent on
importing the goods and pocket the difference.

Overstating the price, or intended amount, of goods to be imported - be
they actually essential or simply deemed essential for the sake of
participating in this racket - would provide the importer with extra
U.S. dollars, as would directing the import business to friends in
return for cash or favors.

For the importers to earn the "inefficiency premium" they charge on this
process, they would want to be careful not to kill their golden goose by
actually meeting the market demand for goods. So long as there exists a
"shortage" of that particular good, the importers can make a strong
argument for why they need to import even more of the goods - hence the
"inexplicable" warehouses of essential goods containing unusable
power-generating equipment and rotting food.

The Food Example

While any item on the government's essential goods list is a potential
candidate for the scam, food is perhaps the best "vehicle" simply
because it is perishable, people have to eat and there will always be
demand. The drawback to food as the vehicle, from the government's point
of view, is that bare shelves in food markets can quickly present an
insurmountable challenge for even the most resilient of regimes.
Venezuela imports about 70 percent of its food, most of which now comes
from the United States, Brazil and Argentina (Caracas has sustained a de
facto trade embargo on Colombian food imports over the past year). Since
2003, the government has placed heavy price controls on foodstuffs and
has steadily harassed private food companies with charges of speculation
and fraud to justify the state's unwavering nationalization drive.

In Venezuela, the state-owned energy firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)
- the country's main revenue stream - is also responsible for much of
the country's food distribution network, a primarily cash-based business
that makes tracking transactions all the more difficult. PDVSA
subsidiaries work to restrict food supply in the country, thereby
increasing demand and increasing their own profit when they turn around
and sell food on the black market. Those that have squirreled away vast
amounts of food can, for a hefty profit, supply the overwhelming demand
for food on the black market. The fact that PDVSA is responsible for
much of the country's food distribution makes it much easier for those
subsidiaries to corner the food market - they can both create the
shortage (by hoarding food) and be there to satisfy the pent-up demand
(with the food they've hoarded).

The two main PDVSA subsidiaries that operate in this particular
money-laundering scheme are PDVAL and Bariven. PDVAL was created in
January 2008 with a stated goal to correct the speculation of food
prices through its own distribution network. Bariven, the acquisition
arm of PDVSA, is tasked with obtaining materials for oil exploration and
production, but it is also involved in managing inventories for PDVSA, a
responsibility that extends into the food sector. From its headquarters
in Houston, Bariven will place an order for food imports from American
exporters in Texas and Louisiana. PDVSA Bank, a murky new entity whose
creation was announced in the summer of 2009, was set up to facilitate
banking agreements between PDVSA and Russian state energy giant Gazprom,
and is believed to provide loans for such food-import transactions.
(Bariven is also known to secure loans from major U.S. banks and is one
of a select few state entities that has preferential access with the
Commission of Foreign Exchange Administration in Venezuela to trade
bolivars for dollars to facilitate these exchanges.) Bariven will then
sell the food to PDVAL at a hefty discount, yet will report an even
transaction on the books. The food will then sit on the docks until it
is close to its expiration date, thus restricting supply in the
state-owned markets and building up demand. When the food is already
rotting (or close to it), it is sold on the black market for a profit
(it's no good to sell the food to the normal government distribution
network, where the price of food is tightly controlled). Since PDVAL is
the entity that collects all the revenue from state food distributors,
the bolivar-denominated proceeds from its food sales can then be
discreetly recycled back into PDVSA Bank, where the bolivars can be used
again to place ever-increasing orders that will require more dollars and
more imports.

The orders have increased to the point that the distributors are
throwing out thousands of tons of rotting food. This is the root of a
scandal that broke in Venezuela in May, when state intelligence agents
began investigating the theft of powdered milk and found between 30,000
and 75,000 tons (estimates vary between state and opposition claims) of
food rotting in warehouses in Puerto Cabello, La Guaira, Maracaibo and
other major ports.

Has the Scheme Run its Course?

The above example describes how the money-laundering scheme is playing
out in the food distribution sector, but the same concept can be applied
to the electricity, medicine and energy sectors. The priority of many
officials working in the state-owned electricity company EDELCA is to
enrich themselves through a similar money- laundering scheme in which
they can exploit and arbitrage the exchange-rate regime, place
exorbitant orders for parts, airbrush their books and then pocket the
difference. Unlike the engineers working on the power plants, state
electricity officials ordering parts lack technical knowledge and have
no interest in consulting the engineers when placing the orders. The
result is a mishmash of parts and equipment collecting dust in
warehouses while power rationing continues across the country. Even more
alarming is the fact that Brazilian engineers for Eurobras, a
Brazilian-German-Venezuelan consortium, abandoned their work on
Venezuela's Guri dam in May after having failed to receive their
paychecks from EDELCA. The work they were doing - the implementation of
larger and more efficient hydroelectric turbines - was highly
specialized and crucial to Venezuela maintaining its electricity output.
Yet EDELCA, having already reaped its profits from placing the contract
orders for the parts, apparently had little motivation to come up with
the funds to allow these workers to finish the job. This is why, despite
better-than-expected rainfall over the past couple months, Venezuela
remains mired in an electricity crisis since the dilapidated electricity
infrastructure is incapable of keeping up with demand.

The money-laundering scheme is prevalent in many strategic sectors, but
the food sector brings especially unique benefits to the money
launderers while raising the stakes for the Venezuelan leadership. Since
food is perishable, it readily lends itself to hoarding and "screw ups"
when it goes rotten, requiring more orders, more dollars and more
imports. By contrast, while one can still make money by importing a
dozen hydroelectric turbines or an expensive new oil rig, there are only
so many excuses for having ordered the wrong piece of equipment, and the
black market for such equipment is not nearly as good as the black
market for food (which, again, is essential for survival).

While this elaborate racket has kept a good portion of state officialdom
financially content, the warehouses full of rotten food, expired
medicine and unused electricity equipment, along with the gross neglect
and disrepair of the Guri dam - a vital piece of the country's
electricity infrastructure - indicate that the state is losing control
over the "essential" sectors. In short, this racket has become so
prevalent that it is now threatening the core stability of the state.
This is why, despite the obvious political risk of exacerbating food
shortages and basic supplies by increasing the costs for importers, the
Venezuelan regime has put most of its effort in the past month into
cracking down on the "speculators" in the parallel market. The cost of
not doing something about these speculators has proved to be higher than
the cost of alienating political supporters in the lead-up to
legislative elections in September.

When the food scandal recently broke, the government was quick to name
its scapegoat: former PDVAL President Luis Pulido, who, along with
several other officials, has been arrested and put on trial for
corruption. The Chavez regime is using PDVAL as an example to others who
have taken the money-laundering scheme to dangerous levels. Many of
those who are most deeply entrenched in the racket and have been less
conscious of the long-term risk to the state are the more radical
officials within the Chavez government, who are now being sought out by
Cuban intelligence services working in league with the upper echelons of
the Venezuelan regime. But these efforts could be too little too late.
Cracking down on speculators who are operating outside the state's
jurisdiction may alleviate part of the problem and provide the state
with a cover to expand its control over key sectors, but what of the
vast numbers of speculators working within the state, particularly those
higher up the chain who could pose a real threat to the regime's hold on

Indeed, the government's most recent attempts to rein in this food
scandal are already showing signs of floundering. A June 26 ban on
unregulated food sales passed in the wake of news about the scandal was
revoked shortly thereafter by the president himself, who called on
authorities to target the "food mafias" behind the gaming scheme as
opposed to the sellers on the streets. The problem with such a directive
is that those involved in the food mafias are likely to involve members
high up in the regime, which makes the likelihood of enforcement
questionable. The government is also introducing new legislation that
aims to sideline speculators from the gaming process by changing the
currency-for-food transactions altogether. The draft legislation,
entitled the Organic Law for the Promotion and Development of the
Community Economic System, calls for food in local communes to be
"bought" and "sold" primarily through bartering. For exchanges of
non-equal value, the legislation calls on communes to create their own
currencies (independent of the bolivar) to buy and sell food on the
local level. The local communes' strategy is encompassed in a package of
legislation dubbed "People Power," which aims to undermine state and
city governments while augmenting the power of community councils (220
local communes have been listed by the government thus far.) The
majority of members of these communes would come from the ruling United
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV,) thereby providing the regime with
direct access to small, local governing bodies that will stay loyal to
PSUV interests.

Though the idea of sidelining money launderers from the cash-based food
industry makes strategic sense from the point of view of a government
trying to reverse the crippling side-effects of this gaming scheme, a
number of pitfalls can already be seen in this legislation. Introducing
dozens of alternative currencies for a specific sector will further
complicate the already-complicated two-tiered currency exchange regime
that differentiates between essential and non-essential foods, while
undermining an already-weak bolivar by cutting the local currency out of
the food trade. A proliferation of local currencies also means
additional layers of bureaucracy will be necessary to manage and
implement the new law, and more bureaucracy in Venezuela means more
potential for corruption. The local food currency would also eventually
have to be transacted into bolivars, and deep-seated corruption in the
higher levels of the institutions responsible for such large-scale
transactions could end up greatly undermining the primary objective of
the plan to root out speculation. In short, the government is still
treating the symptoms, and not the cause, of this money laundering
scheme and the proposals made thus far to rein in speculators look to
have a number of shortcomings.

The Legal Battle

A crackdown within the regime's inner circle to rein in this racket
could turn politically explosive, especially when senior members of the
Chavez government already appear to have piles of evidence stacked
against them in U.S. courts. In mid-May, Chavez publicly warned in a
speech broadcast on state television station Venezolana de Television
that a U.S. district judge in Miami may soon be ordering the arrest of
Chavez, Vice President Elias Jaua, Minister of Planning and Finance
Jorge Giordani and other members of the president's inner circle,
"instead of the real culprits." Chavez's unusual warning is yet another
manifestation of how the state's money-laundering scheme has grown too
large and too loud for the regime to manage. Venezuelan businessman and
banker Ricardo Fernandez Barrueco, for example, was a close associate of
Venezuelan political elites like Public Works and Housing Minister
Diosdado Cabello and the president's older brother, Adan Chavez.
Barrueco is believed to have used his main business front, the Proarepa
Group, to open a number of offshore accounts in the Caribbean, Lebanon,
Europe and elsewhere to store funds looted from the state oil firm and
its subsidiaries. Barrueco's operation eventually got too exposed and he
became a liability for the regime, leading to his reported arrest in
November 2009. But silencing Barrueco alone will not assuage the
regime's concerns over the evidence sitting in courts in Miami and New
York that could implicate senior members of the Chavez regime.

Other Beneficiaries

Considering the prevalence of the black market, it would appear logical
that the country's unsustainable currency arrangement is benefiting a
number of other illicit actors. For those state entities experiencing
cash-flow problems, local drug dealers (who have expertise swapping
currency at multiple rates in multiple places) are believed to be
providing local currency to at least some of these firms and thus
filtering their drug money through the exchange-rate regime. The drug
revenues are also strongly believed to form the basis of Venezuela's
financial support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups like the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National
Liberation Army (ELN) - allegations which are now regaining steam
following Colombia's recent decision to release new evidence of
Venezuelan support for FARC and ELN rebels.

Driving the U.S. interest in this issue is the connection between
Venezuela's money- laundering scheme and Iran. In recent years, in an
effort to escape the heavy weight of economic sanctions, Iran has turned
to Venezuela to facilitate Iran's access to Western financial markets.
Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (EBDI) is a financial institution
based in Caracas that operates under the jurisdiction of the Export
Development Bank of Iran, designated as a sanctions violator by the
European Union as recently as July 27 and by the U.S. Treasury
Department in October 2008 for providing financial access to the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a major force in the Iranian economy
and the prime target of the U.S. sanctions campaign. Though the extent
to which Iranian money is funneled through Venezuelan channels is
unclear, evidence has been building in the United States that reveals
murky transactions among IRGC-owned companies, a Caracas-based EBDI
subsidiary, PDVSA entities in Europe and the Caribbean and even banks in
Lebanon. And with the U.S. sanctions effort accelerating in Washington,
any state willing to enforce the sanctions and crack down on
IRGC-affiliated entities can shut down these financial loopholes at any
point. STRATFOR cannot quantify the Iranian-Venezuelan money-laundering
connection, but any such connection to the IRGC would be a red flag for
U.S. Treasury officials looking to fortify sanctions against Iran.

Combined with the developing money-laundering and drug-trafficking cases
in Miami that threaten to implicate senior members of the Venezuelan
regime, the Iranian link is yet another tool that Washington could use
to pressure the Venezuelan government should the need arise. Putting the
significant enforceability issues of such court cases aside, the
district court attorneys preparing these cases against the Chavez
government would not be able to launch them without the permission of
the Obama administration, given the diplomatic fallout that could
follow. So far, there are no indications that the administration is
looking to pick this fight with Chavez, but the mere threat that
Washington is now able to hang over the Chavez regime's head is enough
to make the Venezuelan leader nervous, hence his public warning to his
constituents that Washington is preparing a grand conspiracy against
him. The nightmare scenario for Caracas is one in which the White House
chooses to expose the charges against the regime and use the evidence to
justify a temporary cutoff of the roughly 12.5 percent of U.S. crude oil
imports (47 percent of Venezuelan crude exports) that the United States
receives from Venezuela for just enough time to crack the regime. Though
Venezuela is far down on the U.S. foreign-policy priority list, making
such a scenario extremely unlikely for the moment, Venezuela's
vulnerability to Washington's whims is increasing with each day that
this money- laundering scheme shows signs of unraveling.

In addition to the money-laundering scheme explained above, the
Venezuelan economy is currently dealing with a rash of other problems:

* The devaluation has only been partly effective and the short-term
benefits have largely run their course. Devaluing helps recalibrate
the bolivar by bringing it closer to its true (lower) value, but it
does not address the underlying causes of continued bolivar
weakness. Therefore the bolivar remains overvalued and the supply of
foreign exchange (U.S. dollars) to the market is still restricted.
Cracking down on the parallel market and regulating it will likely
lead to the emergence of another black market. Consequently, the
fixed exchange rate will again become overvalued, which will
eventually require further devaluation (most likely after the
September elections), which will generate more inflation.
* These problems are forcing the government to take increasing control
of and/or regulate large sectors of the economy, while state-owned
companies that control the most strategic sectors are having
cash-flow problems and are unable to manage these sectors.
* The currency regime has given rise to widespread fraud and
corruption; the scheme described above is just the most visible one.
There is undoubtedly more corruption and fraud permeating the
system, exacerbated by the multi-tiered exchange rate and the
government's restricting access to it.
* The economy is becoming increasing reliant on PDSVA oil revenues
while the non-oil economy buckles. Venezuelan non-commodity exports
are too expensive, and the government must increase its imports of
goods to make up for domestic production shortfalls. This makes the
economy increasingly reliant on the dollar revenues generated by the
state-owned oil company, which has experienced declining production
for almost a decade.

All these problems combined are raising the political stakes for the
Venezuelan government. The government's response to the crisis has been
to bolster its control of the economy - particularly its control over
the most strategic sectors - in an effort to slow the economic decline.
The government has shut down or nationalized hundreds of businesses in
the wake of January's devaluation for various stated reasons, including
price gouging, hoarding and speculation. More recently, the government
made sweeping changes to the mandate of the Venezuelan Central Bank to
vastly expand its influence over the real economy. And in an effort to
both clean the books and root out the speculators, hundreds of brokerage
firms have been shut down by the state. Without the technical skills and
basic logistical ability to manage enlarged state enterprises, however,
the state is exacerbating the very symptoms it is trying to treat.
Venezuela still has dollars to draw from the central bank and the state
development fund Fonden to delay its day of reckoning, but it can no
longer conceal the unsustainability of this economic regime.

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