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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.
Inflation is always somebody else’s fault. Ludwig von Mises called out finger pointing central bankers and politicians decades ago in his book, Economic Policy. “The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God, that inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague. Inflation is a policy.”
In the fall of 2007, Gideon Gono blamed his country’s inflation rate of 4,500 percent on “the differences that Zimbabwe has had with its former colonial master, the UK,” and added, “we are busy laying the foundations for a serious deceleration programme.” Deceleration? A year later inflation was 231 million percent.
Money printing didn’t have anything to do with it according to the central banker. Droughts began to be more frequent in the 2000’s and Gono believed ”there is a positive correlation between the drought and inflation.” Dry weather, he told New African magazine, has, “got a serious bearing on our inflation level.”
In Gono’s dilluded mind,inflation was about the weather, lack of support from other nations, and political sanctions. He had nothing to do with the hyperinflation in his country. “No other [central-bank] governor has had to deal with the kind of inflation levels that I deal with,” Gono told Newsweek. “[The people at] my bank [are] at the cutting edge of the country.”
These days in Argentina its not the weather and political sanctions causing prices to rise, its businesses engaging in commerce. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is urging her people to work “elbow-to-elbow” with her government to stop companies from looting the people with high prices. Two weeks ago the government devalued the peso by 20 percent but it is private businesses that are stealing from working people with price increases.
Posters of retail executives have been plastered around Buenos Aires. For instance, Wal-Mart Argentina’s president Horacio Barbeito has his mug on a poster with the caption, “Get to know them, these are the people who steal your salary.”
Kirchner’s cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich calls economists who point to government policies as inflation’s culprit “undercover agents.” He implies that these economists are the tools of business. “Argentines should know that independent, objective economists don’t exist,” Capitanich claims. “I want to say emphatically that when unscrupulous businessmen raise prices it has absolutely nothing to do with macroeconomic variables.”
In 2012 the president of Argentina’s central bank, Yale-educated Mercedes Marcó del Pont, said in an interview, “it is totally false to say that printing more money generates inflation, price increases are generated by other phenomena like supply and external sector’s behaviour.”
So while its central bank prints, the Kirchner government has enlisted the citizenry to work undercover in the fight against rising prices. A free smartphone application is encouraging Argentines to be citizen-cops while they shop.
The app is a bigger hit than “Candy Crush” and “Instagram.” President Kirchner wants “people to feel empowered when they shop.” And, they do. “You can go checking the prices,” marveled Analia Becherini, who learned of the app on Twitter. “You don’t even have to make any phone calls. If you want to file a complaint, you can do it online, in real time.”
“Argentina’s government blames escalating inflation on speculators and greedy businesses,” reports Paul Byrne for the Associated Press, “and has pressured leading supermarket chains to keep selling more than 80 key products at fixed prices.”
However, businesses aren’t eager to lose money selling goods. Fernando Aguirre told Chris Martenson that with price inflation running rampant, “Lots of stores don’t want to be selling stuff until they get updated prices. Suppliers holding on, waiting to see how things go, which is something that we are familiar with because that happened back in 2001 when everything went down as we know it did.”
In his Peak Prosperity podcast with Aguirre, Martenson makes the ironic point that when governments print excessive amounts of money, goods disappear from store shelves. In a hyper-inflation the demand for money drops to zero as people buy whatever they can get their hands on. Inflation destroys the calculus of profit and loss, destroying business, and undoing the division of labor.
Aguirre reinforced Martenson’s point. Describing shelves as “halfway empty,” in Argentina he said, “The government is always trying to muscle its way through these kind of problems, just trying to force companies to stock back products and such, but they just keep holding on. For example, gas has gone up 12% these last few days. And there is really nothing they can do about it. If they don’t increase prices, companies just are not willing to sell. It is a pretty tricky situation to be in.”
Tricky indeed. “It would be a serious blunder to neglect the fact that inflation also generates forces which tend toward capital consumption,” Mises wrote in Human Action. “One of its consequences is that it falsifies economic calculation and accounting. It produces the phenomenon of illusory or apparent profits.”
Inflation is also rampant at the other end of South America. Venezuela inflations is clocking in at 56 percent. Comparing the two countries, Leonardo Vera, a Caracas-based economist told the FT, “Argentina still has some ammunition to fight the current situation, while Venezuela is running out of bullets.”
Fast money growth has also led to shortages such as “newsprint to car parts and ceremonial wine to celebrate mass,” reports the FT.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is using the government’s heavy hand to introduce a law capping company profits at 30 percent. Heavy prison sentences await anyone found hoarding, overcharging, or “destabilising the economy.” Hundreds of inspectors have been deployed to enforce the mandates.
The results will be predictable. “With every new control, the parallel, or black market, dollar will keep going up, and so will the price and scarcity of milk, oil, and toilet paper,” says Humberto García, an economist with the Central University of Venezuela.
Don’t expect the printing to stop any time soon. Central bankers believe they are doing God’s work. “To ensure that my people survive, I had to print money,” Gideon Gono toldNewsweek. “I found myself doing extraordinary things that aren’t in the textbooks. Then the IMF asked the U.S. to please print money. The whole world is now practicing what they have been saying I should not. I decided that God had been on my side and had come to vindicate me.”
It seems disasters wrought by inflationary policies must be experienced again and again, as “Inflation is the true opium of the people,” Mises explained, “administered to them by anticapitalist governments.”
The practice of central banking is the same around the world. The only difference is in degree. Before he destroyed the Zimbabwean dollar Gono looked to America for inspiration. “Look at the bridges across the many rivers in New York and elsewhere,” Gono told New African, “and the other infrastructure in the country that were built with high budget deficits.”
The Zimbabwe, Argentina, and Venezuela inflations may seem to be something that happens to somebody else. But Mr. Aguirre makes a point when asked about 2001, when banks in Argentina, after a bank holiday, converted dollar accounts into the same number of pesos. A massive theft.
“Those banks that did that are the same banks that are found all over the world,” Aguirre says. “They are not like strange South American, Argentinean banks–they are the same banks. If they are willing to steal from people in one place, don’t be surprised if they are willing to do it in other places as well.”
Douglas E. French is a Director of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Additionally, he writes for Casey Research and is the author of three books; Early Speculative Bubbles and Increases in the Supply of Money, The Failure of Common Knowledge, and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Owenrship Myth. French is the former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.
January 30, 2014
Sovereign Valley Farm, Chile
Zimbabwe. You remember those guys, right?
The country’s plight with its currency became world famous, the butt of untold jokes in economic circles. At its height, hyperinflation in Zimbabwe reached nearly 90 sextillion in 2008.
That’s a 9 with 22 zeros.
To put it in context, if you had 90 sextillion grains of sand, you could cover the entire surface of the earth all the way to the outmost layers of the atmosphere.
Then, in April 2009, the government effectively abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar. The US dollar became the official currency for all government transactions, and US dollars, British pounds sterling, euros, and South African rand became the most widely used tender in circulation.
I’ve traveled to Zimbabwe frequently; they have some of the best stories you could ever hear about standing in line at the banks with wheelbarrows, and using stacks of paper currency at home for toilet paper or furniture.
Given that Zimbabwe is literally THE poster child for hyperinflation over the last half-century, one cannot understate the irony of their latest announcement.
Just yesterday, the government there announced that the Chinese renminbi (among other currencies) will become legal tender in Zimbabwe.
This is big news. As we have discussed so many times in the past, the current fiscal and monetary antics in the United States are absolutely no different than what Zimbabwe employed several years ago.
Zimbabwe printed its currency in nearly infinite quantities. So has the United States. The only difference is that the US dollar is readily accepted around the world thanks to good ole’ American credibility that was built by previous generations.
But that credibility is rapidly deteriorating. And everywhere you look, there are obvious signs that the rest of the world is quickly moving on from the dollar.
Central banks around the world are stocking up on gold. Major powers like China and Russia are calling for a new reserve currency. And a number of nations (Zimbabwe is the latest) have already begun to use other currencies like the renminbi for international trade and central bank reserves.
It’s happening. And it’s one of those things that will play out like what Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly.
The dollar’s share of global reserves has slowly fallen from roughly 75% in 2001, to just over 60% today.
But the world will eventually reach a bifurcation point where investors, foreign governments, central banks, etc. panic and start rushing for the exits.
It’s something that could happen tomorrow. Or five years from now. No one knows. But rational, intelligent people shouldn’t be waiting around for it to happen.
I very strongly recommend that you take a portion of your savings and move them into real assets– precious metals and productive land are the most obvious. But even things like collectibles or nonperishable goods (like ammunition) would be preferable to US dollars.
Then there’s other currencies that you can hold. Right now, the Norwegian krone has the strongest fundamentals in the world as it is backed by the most solvent central bank on the planet.
The Hong Kong dollar is also an interesting option because it minimizes your downside currency risk while providing protection against the US dollar’s deterioration.
(Premium members: please refer to your SMC welcome guide for actionable information about holding Hong Kong dollars and Norwegian krone.)
- The Move To Global Hyperinflation Is Now Accelerating (financialsurvivalnetwork.com)
- In-game hyperinflation (boingboing.net)
- Retirement Account Cap Will Limit Ability to Hedge Hyperinflation (wallstreetpit.com)
- Will the US dollar hyperinflate? (sgtreport.com)
- Controlling the Beginning Stages of Hyperinflation by Manipulating the Precious Metals (maxkeiser.com)
- VMCZ on the arrest of Zimbabwe Independent Editor and Chief Reporter (thezimbabwean.co.uk)
- ABC – Zimbabwe Youth Leader in Jail for Mugabe Slur (zimbabweelection.com)