Archive for September 8th, 2014

Venezuela’s Economic Adjustment That Never Was Or Will Be

September 8, 2014

a-scary-debt-default-could-be-the-best-thing-to-happen-in-china-right-now

If there is one thing that surprises me about people’s reaction to the Maduro Non-Adjustment, it was that people were surprised. For seventeen months then Minister of Energy and Oil and later VP for Economic Affairs had been telling us about the adjustments coming, but nothing ever happened. He proposed a system that would break the back of the parallel dollar, but all he did was recreate SITME at a much higher rate, creating a useless system once again, that did nothing but dispense, as usual, foreign currency arbitrarily. Ramirez also suggested regularly that prices of gasoline and certain products should be raised. Not much happened in this front either.

The problem was that we were hearing only one side of the debate taking place within Chavismo. Never the others who talked quietly among themselves. Ramirez tried, unsuccessfully, to gather support for some form of adjustment, fearing that not doing so would be worse than the alternative. In the end, Ramirez did not seem to convince too many people, others banded together and convinced Maduro to get rid of a man that had been a constant presence over oil and energy policy in Venezuela for almost ten years.

Yes, he did stay at another position in the Cabinet, but his lonely voice over the need of an adjustment becomes weak now. At the same time, giving him some perks and keeping him close, allows Maduro to insure that Ramirez will not play a Giordani on him, writing letters, criticizing or renewing his crusade for an adjustment outside the Government.

I have always been very skeptical as to the probability of a significant adjustment taking place. I always believed that it would be too little, too late. Not enough to mitigate the many distortions of the economy. Thus, the outcome of just nothing is not even a surprise, even if later we may see some small adjustments. Maduro has always acted like he is a man without concerns about the economy. This is likely to his ignorance or the existence of a plan B (Everyone in Venezuela has a plan B). It could be due to both too.

But by waiting so long, Maduro not only made an adjustment more difficult in terms of getting results before next year’s elections, but he also gave time to those opposed to a partial or a full adjustment to get together and create groups. Thus, those benefiting from the rackets oppose any form of adjustment, those that ideologically oppose the adjustment began accusing Maduro of betraying the revolution, those that thought the adjustment would be worse than not doing anything, also sided with the non-action.

In the end, in the absence of economists in or near the Cabinet, Ramirez was a lonely voice. The outcome is the one expected, even if it is remarkable that no measure has been announced, not even moving the Bs. 6.3 per US$ rate to the Sicad 1 rate of Bs. 11, the only measure I expected. (I also expect some very symbolic increase in gas prices).

So, what now?

Well, I am not in the camp of those that think there will be a default. But I think nobody knows if there will be a default. With Ramirez out of the Economic Cabinet, the probability of default is higher. He understood some of the consequences, particularly for PDVSA.

But think about it, Venezuela has to pay US$ 6.3 billion in the last three months of the year between two maturing bonds (PDVSA 14 and Venezuela 14) and interest on all bonds. Thus, don’t you think that in a world with falling oil prices some “cabeza caliente” (There are many!) in the Maduro entourage has not suggested defaulting? This is, after all, a revolution…

Did anyone think they would fire 20,000 PDVSA workers? Did anyone think they would expropriate and not pay? Did anyone think they would allow corruption at the levels they have? Do you know when and of what of Chávez died? Scruples is not a common word among revolutionaries.

People talk about default as if it would have catastrophic consequences on Venezuela. Defaults come in many flavors, look at the latest one from Argentina. Countries default regularly and few of them have catastrophic consequences, particularly if you have an oil spigot that will provide you with cash day after day, as well as trade partners that will support your default and who happen to be the ones that are sending the most food to Venezuela.

But I digress.

By now you have all heard or read the Haussman-Santos paper on default and Venezuela. They forgot to mention one detail: Venezuela already stopped paying the Sidetur bonds and it had absolutely no effect. Of course, a wider default would. But it could be selective too. Say you are willing to pay, but can’t. Keep paying interest in all bonds. Pay maturities on only some. The creativity of investment banks is unlimited. You just need a good one.

But for now, we face the adjustment that never was or will be. A sort of: what will happen now type of scenario? They will keep pushing their survival as far as they can. People die, sick patients can’t get their medicines, and there are food shortages. But the revolution is alive and well.

And they will try to keep it that way. Subsidies to the Caribbean can be removed. Even subsidies to Cuba can be stopped, if things get bad enough. But you can bet the choice is clear: Cuba comes before Wall St.

Defaulting is a political decision. If economic policy continues this way, it is inevitable. But for now, it can likely be pushed to 2017. Maybe oil prices will rebound by then.

As I have said before, Venezuelan bonds are not paying enough, given the risk you are taking. Maybe, just maybe, they will get there soon. But you don’t want to play Russian roulette, no?

Meanwhile, I continue on vacation…