Riots in the streets. Killings of protesters. Shortages of consumer staples liketoilet paper and flour. Power outages. Confiscations of private property. Capital flight. Inflation running at more than 50%. The highest murder rate in the world.
The situation in Venezuela has grown so terrible that we could very well be witnessing the waning days of the Chavez-Maduro regime.
But don’t hold your breath. Despots propped up by revenues from natural resources have had a surprisingly robust track record over the past 100 years. Saddam Hussein survived through ruthlessness and handouts to Baath party loyalists. Khadafi perfected the same model in Libya. The Saudis and other Gulf sultanates and emirates have survived by paying off tribe members. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is still around thanks to his trade in blood diamonds.
In each case, the big boss keeps his head by paying off everyone who matters.
Hugo Chavez appeared to have the same kind of staying power. But with a difference. Rather than just focusing on lining the nests his generals and ministers and doers, Chavez, and Nicolas Maduro after him, found a different way to squander Venezuela’s great oil wealth. They could have created a mechanism by which the people of Venezuela could leverage oil wealth to finance investment and capital formation (like, say, Norway). Instead they’ve simply given it all away.
Indeed, it might not happen this month or this year, but Venezuela is ultimately doomed to collapse because of cheap gasoline.
Befitting Venezuela’s position as holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, Chavez set the price of gasoline at the official equivalent of 5 U.S. cents per gallon. Using the more realistic black market exchange rate, a gallon of gas in Venezuela costs less than one penny. You can fill up an SUV for less than the price of a candy bar.
It’s one thing for a dictator to curry favor among his subjects by handing out cash. You can trade cash for goods today. You can save it up and buy something bigger tomorrow. And vitally, you can invest cash and create capital. Cash has unsurpassed option value.
But in Venezuela, cheap gasoline doesn’t. Sure, some enterprising Venezuelans would fill up their tanks, drive to Colombia, siphon it out and sell it for a profit. But most just take it for granted, like breathable air. You can’t trade it, can’t sell it, can’t store it up.
Over time, when a government continually gives its people a non-tradable subsidy, they will come to consider it a right, not a privilege. When that happens it will no longer occur to them to be thankful toward their generous president for the handout. When that take-it-for-granted moment occurs, the handout no longer retains any political capital for the ruler who presides over it. On the contrary, once the populous sees the subsidy as a right, it necessarily become a political liability for the leader — tying his hands and preventing the implementation of a more reasonable policy.
Grant people a right and they will thank you, for a little while. Try to take away that right and they will revolt. The last time Venezuela tried to hike gas prices, in 1989, there were riots in the streets.
Cheap gasoline is why the government of President Nicolas Maduro is doomed to collapse. He can’t raise gas prices meaningfully without setting off an even greater populist uprising than the one already wracking the capital. But without change, the Venezuelan economy and its state-run oil company Petroleos Venezuela (PDVSA) cannot last long.
Let’s work through the numbers to see how bad it is:
Pres. Maduro with PDVSA workers. (Credit: AP)
Venezuela produces about 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, about the same as Iraq.
About 800,000 barrels per day of gasoline and diesel is consumed domestically for which PDVSA doesn’t make a dime. That’s about 290 million barrels per year in subsidy oil.
What’s that cost PDVSA? Oil minister Rafael Ramirez has said that the breakeven cost to supply refined gasoline to the masses is $1.62 per gallon, or about $70 per barrel. But because Venezuela’s refineries can’t even make enough fuel to meet demand, PDVSA also has to import about 80,000 bpd of refined products (for which they must pay the far higher market price in excess of $2.50 per gallon). All told, the subsidized fuel costs PDVSA about $50 billion a year — that’s at least $25 billion a year in fuel subsidies plus another $20 billion or so in foregone revenue that PDVSA desperately needs to reinvest into its oil fields. Even a well managed company would have trouble climbing out of such a big hole.
Deducting that 800,000 bpd of domestic consumption from the 2.5 million bpd total leaves a subtotal of 1.7 million bpd that Venezuela can sell into the world market.
But we have more deductions. In order to finance fuel subsidies and other social spending, PDVSA has borrowed massively. According to PDVSA’s statements, its debt has increased from $15.5 billion in 2008 to $43 billion now. Venezuela’s biggest creditor is China, which has reportedly loaned the country $50 billion since 2007. China is not interested in getting Venezuelan bolivars; it insists on being paid back in oil — about 300,000 bpd worth of oil.
Paying China its oil knocks PDVSA’s saleable supply down to 1.4 million bpd.
We’re not done yet. Chavez was not just generous to his own people. In an effort to make friends with his neighbors, he forged a pact called Petrocaribe, through which PDVSA delivers deeply subsidized oil to the likes of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Nicaragua. Though shipments at peak were more than 200,000 bpd, including 100,000 bpd to Cuba, there’sevidence that PDVSA has cut the volumes. No wonder, when the Dominican Republic has reportedly been paying back PDVSA in black beans. Cuba sends doctors and athletic trainers. (Jamaicaputs its PetroCaribe debt to Venezuela at $2.5 billion.)
As if that weren’t enough, PDVSA, through its U.S. refining arm Citgo has even donated more than $400 million worth of heating oil to poor people in the United States. That’s about 4 million barrels over nine years.
So all that largesse knocks off another 200,000 bpd or so, bringing PDVSA’s marketable supply down to 1.3 million bpd.
Over the course of a year, selling that 1.3 million bpd of oil brings in about $50 billion in hard currency (assuming about $100 per barrel). This contrasts with PDVSA’s reported revenues of $125 billion, most of which is not in dollars, but bolivars, of uncertain worth.
That $50 billion might seem like a tidy sum, but keep in mind that this represents more than 95% of Venezuela’s foreign earnings. And that’s not enough for a country of 40 million to live on.
Because no one in their right mind would want to exchange goods for bolivars, it’s out of this pile of greenbacks that Venezuela has to pay for all its imports as well as about $5 billion a year in dollar-denominated interest payments. Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves have plunged from $30 billion at the end of 2012 to about $20 billion today.
Newspapers have closed because they can’t import paper. Toyota has stoppedmaking cars because it can’t get dollars to import parts. Shortages of sugar, milk and butter are common. The CEO of Empresas Polar, a big food manufacturer, has rejected Maduro’s criticisms that his company is to blame for shortages, insisting that because the government holds all the country’s dollars he can’t get the hard currency he needs to import raw materials.
Venezuela’s official exchange rate stands at about 6 bolivar to the dollar. But on the black market one greenback will fetch 87 bolivars or more.
If you’re an entrepreneur or a business owner in Venezuela, you’re not likely to keep throwing good money after bad there, especially if you’re a retailer like Daka. Last November Maduro ordered soldiers to occupy Daka’s five stores and forced managers to sell electronics at lower prices. In some cases looters just helped themselves.
Reuters reported that Maduro was outraged at a store selling a washing machine for 54,000 bolivars — $8,600 at the official rate. That might seem high until you hear from a business owner: “Because they don’t allow me to buy dollars at the official rate of 6.3, I have to buy goods with black market dollars at about 60 bolivars, so how can I be expected to sell things at a loss? Can my children eat with that?” said the businessman, who asked Reuters not to identify him.
When the president of the country speaks to the merchant class saying, “The ones who have looted Venezuela are you, bourgeois parasites,” that’s a sign to any entrepreneur that it’s time to round up whatever dollars you can and get out.
Venezuela is more likely past the point where it can grow out of its problems. Oil production is believed to have fallen as much as 400,000 bpd in the past year due to natural decline rates from mature fields. PDVSA says it is on track to invest more than $20 billion in its operations this year — but are those official dollars or black market dollars? Western oil companies are wary about putting their capital into the fields, considering that Chavez has famously nationalized assets of ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips , Harvest National Resources, Exterran and others. PDVSA says it owes oil company partners and contractors $15 billion.
Some partners, like Chevron CVX -1.68%, Repsol, Eni, Rosneft and Total, have pledged to invest in increasing production and even to extend more loans to PDVSA. But like China they want to get paid back in oil. Not much is likely to come of these ventures: 10,000 barrels here and 10,000 barrels there is not going solve the problem. What’s needed is a real plan. The analysts at oil consultancy WoodMackenzie tell me that Venezuela’s best bets for growing production lie in the ultra heavy oil deposits of the Orinoco Basin. There, to increase output by 1.5 million bpd will require investment of $100 billion to drill enough wells and build enough “upgraders” to take the heavy oil and transform it into something readily exportable. So far PDVSA hasn’t gotten any interest in this plan.
The oil is there, but the oil companies are in no hurry to get at it. They have plenty of opportunities to drill in the United States, and are looking forward to the first exploration contracts to be awarded in Mexico. They know someday Venezuela will again become a safe place to invest.
That day may be approaching. Venezuela’s credit default swaps are at five-year highs. According to Reuters, prices for some of its debt issues have fallen to 63 cents on the dollar. Some short term issues are yielding 20%. These are the kind of sovereign yields that presage defaults.
The sad thing for Venezuela is that (barring an explosive rise in oil prices) it’s hard to imagine the situation not getting worse before it gets better. In time the government will simply run out of the dollar reserves it needs to pay its debts and import goods. Trading partners will refuse to ship. Oil companies will refuse to invest. Those tankers of cheap PetroCaribe oil will stop arriving in Havana. Chavez’s daughters will be kicked out of their presidential party palace. And the people of Venezuela will some day be forced to pay more than a dollar to fill up their SUVs.