ExxonMobil Decision A Win For Venezuela

October 12, 2014

Finally the arbitration panel of the World Bank, the ICSID ruled on the compensation for ExxonMobil over the nationalization by the Venezuelan Government of its Cerro Negro and La Ceiba projects, in a 138 page decision published this week. That there would be compensation there was no doubt by now, the only question was how large it would be and whether the panel would say anything about the relationship between its award and that of the International Chamber of Commerce in New york, where ExxonMobil was awarded US$907 million in 2012, which was covered in detail in this blog.

As expected, both sides claimed victory. The same way that both side fought with extremes during the case, Venezuela saying it had to give little to ExxonMobil in compensation and ExxonMobil asking for absurd amounts that people somehow took seriously in Venezuela. This has led many to believe that Venezuelan won huge, because in the end it will “only” have to pay a total of US$ 1,943 in compensation for ExxonMobil’s 41% stake in the Cerro Negro project. Exxon claimed victory and Venezuela said it was satisfied with the decision and that it would pay after November this “manageable” amount.

But the truth is that the number are not that far away from what analysts believed would happen and they are very far from what either side wanted. In fact, while most estimates were around US$ 10 billion for both ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (which is 2.5 times bigger than Cerro Negro), there were estimates as low as US$ 5.6 Billion.

But let’s look at the facts of the case prior to this week:

i) ExxonMobil was asking for US$ 14.5 billion in compensation (page 52 of decision), arguing that if it had not been expropriated, the 120,000 barrels per day (bpd) produced could have been expanded to 344,000 bpd by 2014. While this was feasible, the original project had a target of 120,000 bpd, there was never any authorization to expand it and it was clear none would not be given by the Bolivarian Government. This is typical over reach when you sue, you include everything asking for the moon, hoping the final award will be what you want. Dismissing this absurd request cut ExxonMobil’s claim by a factor of 2.4 to US$ 6 billion.

ii) On the opposite side, Venezuela was only offering US$ 353 million (page 57), based on a price cap set forth in the association agreement, from which the country would subtract US$ 238 million from the repurchasing of the Cerro Negro bonds by PDVSA.  The tribunal dismissed the price cap argument based on the laws that created the association, as well as subtracting the payment of the bonds. .

But let us also look at statements made by Venezuela on the case, which were purely grandstanding: “Venezuela considers the ExxonMobil case closed” said in 2012 Rafael Ramirez, the same one that claimed this week the decision was “just”. Or “the book value is less than US$ 750 million” said Ramirez on a different occasion and that is what would be fair to pay. But the best contrast may be what Hugo Chávez said in 2012 “From now on I tell you: Venezuela will not recognize any decision by that Ciadi (Spanish acronym for ICSID)”, which he said after Venezuela “won” the ICC case.

So, given this. Did anyone score a victory this week?

Let’s look at this week’s numbers and facts:

The ruling: The arbitration panel ruled in favor of ExxonMobil, deciding that it had no jurisdiction over tax increases to the participants of the project, but it did have jurisdiction over the remaining claims, including the imposition of an extraction tax, production limitations imposed by the Venezuelan Government and the actual expropriation of the projects.

No jurisdiction over tax increases means that there would be no compensation for that part. Subtract that from the US$ 6 billion requested.

The Compensation: The final award given to ExxonMobil and its affiliates is: a) US$ 9.0 million for the forced production cuts in 2006 and 2007, b) US$ 1.411 billion for the investment in the Cerro Negro Project c) US$ 179.3 million for the expropriation of the La Ceiba project. This amounts to a total of US$ 1.599 billion dollars plus 3.25% interest since the date of expropriation (June 27th. 2007) to the date on which payment is made. From this amount, the arbitration panel ordered the subtraction of the US$ 907 million awarded by the International Court of Arbitration (ICC) in December 2011, which has been paid in full.

If PDVSA pays this in November, as it has announced, I calculated the interest to be US$ 345.2 million, where I separated the interest due in the original US$ 907 million of the ICC decision, paid in early 2012 and the interest on the remainder US$ 1.1 billion since June 27th. 2007. This gives a total of US$ 1.943 billion for the award, minus the US$ 907, which would give a total bill due of US$ 1.036 billion, assuming PDVSA pays in November.

The award for La Ceiba is easier to judge. ExxonMobil asked for US$ 179.3 million. It was awarded exactly US$ 179.3 million for its half of the project. (The other half was owned by a Canadian company which accepted US$ 75 million in negotiated compensation). A small victory for ExxonMobil.

Obviously the award is on the low end of things, which is the reason that I consider this to be a slight win for Venezuela. But the actual reason the award is on the low end of things is quite ironic: Venezuela argued that country risk (it’s own!) was high and the discount rate used in the calculation of the payment should be near 20%. In the end, the panel used 18% versus ExxonMobil’s proposed 8.5% which made a roughly US$ 1.5 billion difference in the compensation.

This is what Venezuela argued:

“The Respondent (Venezuela) contends that the CAPM methodology is of little relevance in determining the value of an international oil project because it does not take into consideration the country risk. According to the Respondent, Prof. Myers has relied on a single, inappropriate method, whereas Respondent’s experts have used four separate methods, ICAPM and country risk survey (“market acquisition approach”), and backward- and forward-looking data (“make-whole approach”). These four methods resulted in discount rates “within a relatively narrow range”, which the Respondent’s experts averaged, yielding a discount rate of 19.8%”

Thus, the same Government that is always complaining that the markets demand such a country premium when it sells it bonds, turns around and cheers for the high country risk they have created by their mismanagement of the economy. .

Oh! The pretty revolution!

So, technically, ExxonMobil got less because the revolution has made the country so risky. Strange, but not only true, but also correct from a technical point of view. But I don’t believe analysts were using such a high rate in their calculations.

If ConocoPhillips was 2.5 times larger, then you can expect this decision to establish some precedents and that case will be 2.5 times larger, plus a bit more because that panel already ruled Venezuela negotiated in “bad faith” with ConocoPhillips. I don’t know how much that will cost, but say it takes it from 2.5 times to 3 times and ConocoPhillips will be awarded with interest around US$ 6 billion. This gives a total of US$ 8 billion for both cases, below the “average” expected by markets of US$ 10 billion between the two projects.

Yes, it is low, but ISCID awards have always been on the low side, this is after all, the second highest award ever after the Occidental Petroleum-Ecuador case. In fact, two weeks ago, the ICSID awarded Canadian company Gold Reserves US$ 730 million in its arbitration case against Venezuela in an award that surprised many by its large size. The company started asking for US$ 5 billion, was cut down to US$ 2 billion and was awarded US$ 730 million after investing some US$ 300 million in the Las Brisas gold project. Venezuela has not said what it thinks of this award, whether it will pay it or not.

Yeap, a slight win for Venezuela. But I get the feeling the real winners are the lawyers on both sides.


Puzzling Over The Events Of The Last Few Days in Venezuela

October 8, 2014

Anyone that tells you that they know what is going on within Chavismo and the recent events in which a PSUV Deputy was killed at home, followed by the Head of a “colectivo” being killed two days later by none other than the investigative police, is simply lying. To begin with, the death of the Deputy is as strange as it gets, with the Deputy sending his bodyguards home minutes before those that killed him showed up. There was no violence, it was efficient and barely noticeable in a neighborhood where the smallest anomaly is duly noted.

Then, there was the incredible noise by Maduro and his cohorts, blaming everyone from Uribe, to the US, to the opposition and threatening to reveal it all. Even Samper got into it.  Both Maduro and the Prosecutor claimed that the investigations were really advanced, the heat was on the opposition, when Maduro even blasted the new Head Of The MUD Chuo Torrealba. Then, all of a sudden Jose Odreman, leader of one of the Chavista “colectivos” is killed, no more than one hour and fifteen minutes after saying on TV that “Math never fails”, that they are after them and he makes the Minister of Interior and Justice “responsible” for anything happening to him and accuses the investigative police of killing someone that worked with him. In the now infamous video, Odreman threatens to take to the streets with other “colectivos” and one hour and ten minutes later he was dead:

Afterwards, the Head of the CIPC, accuses Odreman’s “colectivo” of “carrying out a number of murders in the greater Caracas area and…there were shots between the police and a number of former cops who were part of Odreman’s gang”

So, this is a chicken and egg problem: What comes first? the Deputy´s death or the war against the colectivos? Were the colectivos involved or was the Deputy, with his connection to the colectivos, part of the same story.

I really have no clue in this puzzle. All I know is that the Government allowed these paramilitary groups, the “colectivos” to exist. Chávez did seem to have control over them, but now they seem to have become a force of their own. They fight and criticize the police (they are mostly former police too) while going around the city armed to their teeth and act as if they are above the law. Meanwhile, the police finds these people a pain in the you know what, they are autonomous and untouchable. A veritable monster. Venezuela’s version of Colombia’s paramilitary groups.

The problem is that the actions of the colectivos is interfering with the President and his spin on things. He now orders an investigation of Odreman’s death, but the truth is that all of the ruckus raised with the Deputy’s death has died down. How can you blame the opposition when the whole thing stinks to high heaven of being an inside job within PSUV. And Maduro orders the investigation without saying a bad word about his Minister of the Interior (Las Matematicas no mienten, Odreman dixit) or the Head of the CIPC. Odreman thought his statements on video would protect his life. He was wrong, someone thought he had to go, no matter what even Maduro may think or do.

Complicated, no? A true and veritable puzzle.

Is the Government trying to placate the colectivos? Is this the military trying to get rid of Chávez’ creation because they have become a force within Chavismo that they don’t want? What happened to the big announcements that Maduro was going to make about the Deputy’s death? Did Odreman’s death stop them?

Meanwhile the opposition is as quiet as can be. When you don’t know what is going on, it is better to just shut up. The problem is that more and more Venezuelans die each day that goes by, pro-Chávez and against Chávez, in this macabre dance that Hugo left his successor to direct. And the colectivos are not controlled by anyone, as the last few days demonstrate. Which to me seems like a situation that the military would not like. Maybe absent Chávez, they decided to do something about it.

But who knows. With so many guisos and rackets in Venezuela, maybe this is just about money. Somehow in socialist Venezuela, money is always at the crux of things. The last few years have taught us that. Think money and you will have your answer.

But, who knows? All I know is that it is hard for me to get over Odreman’s statement. In a Government that does not believe in knowledge and numbers, he said it a few times: “las Matematicas no mienten” (Math never fails).

What was he trying to tell us?

That’s the puzzle…

 


In Search Of Good News In Venezuela

September 28, 2014

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I know, I know, I have been away for too long. I agree. Somehow this happens now every time I am in Venezuela. It is not writer’s block, it is more like information overload. Everything is a story, but in the end nothing appears to be one. The lack of information and the lack of transparency, in the presence of a thousand daily headlines, makes it impossible to understand most things. Let alone write about them.

I spent the week trying to find good news. Not that I am a masochist, but I figure if I can find something positive to write about in Venezulea, that alone will make it a good story. Everything seems to be so negative. But good stories are hard to find, every time I think I have one, I find a wrinkle in it, some orthogonal feature that makes the good news somewhat iffy.

Take Chikungunya. Before I went looking for experts on it, I learned to spell the word, I didn’t want to be like Maduro and call it something else. I talked to a couple of people that suggested that something was up in Maracay, but.. It is the but that gets me intrigued. The but is that there is so little information that it is not clear whether it is the Ch. word or it is dengue that is to blame for what is going on. That is certainly good news, until I am told that the number of dengue cases is ballooning to levels not seen in the country’s history. To top it all off, people who either get dengue or the Ch. illness need Acetaminophen, which is in lvery ow supply in Venezuela. It seems like Chikungunya is not the good news story I am looking for, even if I learned how to spell it.

I then turn to the release of political prisoner Simonovis, who has been been given house arrest instead of jail for health reasons. This is certainly great news, at last the Government seems to have shown some compassion for someone in the vast array of injustices that go from political prisoners, to crime, to persecutions and to human rights abuses. But then you start to see the wrinkles in the case. The measure is only temporary and he is taken to the hospital shackled and treated like a common criminal. But worst of all, you see the dark side of Chavismo in the outcries of the radical Chavistas who find this humanitarian measure incomprehensible, filled with hate, unable to have even a the slightest empathy for human beings. Unable to even consider, not only Simonovis’ role in the affairs of 2002, but to realize how Chavismo got away with murder and murders in the 1992 coup attempts. They were all forgiven. They got away with it. From Chávez to Arias Cardenas, to all of them. Many of them rule the country today.

What happened to Venezuela and Venezuelans, that hate and politics became more important than humanity and compassion? How can sending a very sick man home become a subject of protests and revolutionary symbolism? As if this was not enough, a friend explains to me why Simonovis was finally given house arrest: Don’t believe anything you read, Maduro was just worried that he may die in jail. It was a political move, nothing more. Another good story dies at this point.

I then turn to shortages.  I go to the market and see milk, margarine and even toilet paper.  Surely this is good, no? Except that now you can’t find diapers or cleaning products. It is the rotation of priorities. The Government devoted all of its efforts to make sure there was toilet paper, but forgot about diapers, it imported milk, but forgot about margarine, and there had never been shortages of cleaning products, so the Government did not even understand they could be in short supply.

The worst part is that by now, the shortage mentality has taken over the population. There is milk in the shelves, but you don’t know how long it will last and take home as much milk as they will sell to you. The fact that there are limits, people reason, must mean that there isn’t enough for everyone. Everyone hoards whatever they give priority to. The end result is that it will be quite difficult to bring inventories up, it is sitting in people’s homes..

Take water, for example. It is raining cats an dogs in Caracas. The dams are 70% full. Reportedly, the Government is punishing middle class neighborhoods limiting their water supply. But the shortage mentality has taken over residents too. Water is rationed even when there is plenty of it. In my building, they cut it off at the usual time mid-morning, despite the fact that the tank is half full and water is coming in. This means that everyone will be ready at 12:30 to wash all the clothes, fill all the pails, pots and pans and shower again just in case. The end result is more water consumption, all clothes are clean all the time and most people (like me!) take extra showers, just in case.

Hard to break this vicious cycle. Shortages are definitely not a good story either.

And then there is Convenio Cambiario #30, some analysts hail it as a sign of further “adjustment”. A positive. But all I see is a decree allowing Pdvsa to have total freedom as to whether it gives Bs. at three different exchange rates, to opacity-ladden-Fonden, so that Maduro may have more funds at his convenience, simultaneusly creating a new perverse mechanism for printing money: Pdvsa exchanges with the Central Bank at Bs. 50 (Sicad 2 rate) but the BCV can turn around and sell those same dollars at Bs. 6.3 per US$. All stages of this may be done with total discretion and no disclosure. Sorry, not a positive, another negative.

And the I notice something. The new President of PDVSA has been talking only about oil since he took over the position. First, he said that he will reactivate one thousand wells to increase oil production. He talked about modernization, met with managers and talked about increasing production by 60 to 70 thousand barrels of oil a day. He then intervened the marketing division of PDVSA, where Maduro said there were “mafias” involved in the commercialization of products. Finally, yesterday Del Pino called for making investments in the Orinoco Heavy Crude belt a reality. After years of his predecessor announcing projects and projects but little happening, Del Pino wants it to become reality saying “it is time to go beyond the presentations to financing and building the projects”. Wow!

The best part, Del Pino seldom mentions the party or politics, even if he can’t help mentioning the almighty Hugo. He apparently wants to be President of PDVSA and see if he can increase production of oil in Venezuela. What a concept! He is praising the company’s workers, trying to improve moral. For now, I will give Del Pino the benefit of the doubt. He is saying the right things and concentrating on what he should. And that, in the current Venezuela is a HUGE positive. And that, my friends, is the GOOD NEWS!

And now that I have given you the good news, here is the bad news. One Bolívar fuerte is now worth less than a penny. That is not even bad news, it is simply depressing:

bolfA true tribute to the success of the revolution!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


S&P Downgrade Of Venezuela’s Debt To Add To The Noise

September 16, 2014

As if there was not enough noise around Venezuela’s and PDVSA’s debt, credit agency S&P downgraded Venezuela to CCC+ this afternoon, citing concerns about the economy, inflation and increasing risk. This announcement will certainly add to the confusion of the last week or so, where the default opinion piece of Hausmann and Santos, has generated so much discussion and interpretations of what was said, creating such a stir that President Maduro ordered the Prosecutor to ¨take action¨ against Hausmann for seeking to destabilize the country.

One has to wonder what Maduro will say about S&P now.

But in reality, the announcement by S&P is not surprising, because the rating agency already had placed Venezuela on “negative watch“, suggesting that it was considering downgrading Venezuela’s sovereign debt. (So far, the downgrade only applies to the Republic’s debt, but a similar downgrade of PDVSA is likely to follow base on the criteria usually followed by credit rating agencies that no risk can be higher than the sovereign one)

According to the definition by S&P, this downgrade to CCC+ means that Venezuela is “vulnerable and dependent on favorable business, financial and economic conditions to meet financial commitments.” S&P is not suggesting that there will be a default anytime soon, but that things are getting complicated. But we are sure that the announcement will be misinterpreted.

And I say this, because during the last week, there have been many misinterpretations of statements made by a number of people (including me) and in both Twitter and blogs, terms have been confused.

As an example, I made statements in Twitter that I did not recommend investing in Venezuela and PDVSA bonds at this time, which was taken by some as an indication that I thought Venezuela would default. As I made clear in the previous post, I do not believe that Venezuela will default in October, or that Venezuela is likely to default in 2015 or even in 2016. What I am saying is that on a risk adjusted basis, the return on Venezuelan and PDVSA bonds are just not high enough for the  lack of transparency on the country’s numbers, the political uncertainty and the volatility that these bonds exhibit.

Take, for example, the PDVSA 2022 bond, one of the people’s favorites because of its high 12.75% coupon. Today that bond was yielding about 16.1% per year if you held it until 2022 and had a “current yield” of 14.66%. The latter means that if you buy the bond today at around 86% and in one year it is still at 86%, you will make 14.6% on your money. This is what that this bond has done since the beginning of the year:

pdvsa22

As you can see, it started the year at about 92%, dropped in six weeks to 75%, bounced back to 104% only to drop to 80% once again with all the default talk and recovered some to close today at 86%. That is a 19% drop, a 38.7% rise and a 23% drop in the space of less than nine months.

To me, this is too risky, too much volatility, given that I am paid less than the last two drops for holding the bonds. Imagine you are a fund or you have a client that buys at 100% and you have to tell him or her, that the bond is down 23% since the purchase. If it stays down there (nothing guarantees it will bounce back) the fund or your client will lose money over the first year and a half of the investment.

Now, if the price comes down below 80% again, I might be intrigued for aggressive investors (including myself). In fact, I did that when it started bouncing back in February, but sold when the yield became too low again for the risk I perceive. (Again, this is my personal perception of what the risk/return should be)

Add to this, what the Government has done (or not) in terms of giving negative signals to make the bonds even less attractive:

-It invited foreign investors to two meetings in New York with then VP for Economic affairs, both meetings were cancelled.

-It said it wanted to sell CITGO

-It has said nothing about whether or not it (or PDVSA) had significant amounts of funds in Banco Espiritu Santo or its affiliates.

-It has said a few times that all foreign currency in parallel funds will be added to international reserves, but Maduro only mentioned US$ 750 million. Analysts believe that there should be much more than that in the parallel funds

-It has done little in terms of the exchange rate and/or gas prices and moved sideways the only Minister proposing changes.

-There was a report that Venezuela was storing heavy crudes in Caribbean islands, while PDVSA “reviewed its pricing structure”. This was never clarified.

None of this gives you any confidence in the strategy of the Government or the bonds.

But whether you invest or not, has nothing to do with believing in default or not. That is a separate question and I don’t think that there will be default this October, even if I understand that this is a political decision in the end.

But I also think that the discussion has become somewhat circular. When I read Hausmann and Santos, I read: “If the authorities adopted common-sense policies and sought support from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral lenders, as most troubled countries tend to do, they would rightly be told to default on the country’s debts”

This is an extremely hypothetical question, as the current authorities are not considering this even remotely. In my mind, what Hausmann and Santos said was a number of truths to warn investors not to be so complacent about the country’s debt. ( I also think that an IMF agreement and some adjustments would provide ample funds to avoid default)

In the same manner, when Francisco Rodriguez answers back that the real problem is that Venezuela is selling ten dollar bills for one dollar and it should really just change that, this is another highly hypothetical question as the last year and a half under Maduro has shown that there is no intent to sell the $10 bills for ten dollars, but at most for $2 or $3 dollars, which really solves nothing.

And now to make things even more confusing, people will certainly over interpret and confuse what S&P said today. Which, by the way, will not help the prices of the bonds tomorrow or for the next few days. Neither will it help if they announce they sold Citgo or parts of it, nor if they announce little in terms of correcting the distortions in the Venezuelan economy.

The amazing thing is that some simple steps, like talking to the market (not cancelling meetings), moving assets to international reserves and addressing issues like Espiritu Santo, would have done wonders to calm investors down. Even if you lead a “revolution”, if you want financing, issuing debt becomes cheaper the more transparent and communicative you are with investors. In the end, not doing so, becomes very costly for the country and Pdvsa to issue new debt. Ramirez seemed to have understood that, but currently, it appears as if we are back to Giordani’s days of not talking to those that provide your financing.

And in the end, all Venezuelans will have to pay for it.


Venezuela’s Economic Adjustment That Never Was Or Will Be

September 8, 2014

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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…


There IS Too Much Money To Be Made In THe Bolivarian Revolution Part II: The Cadivi Rackets

September 3, 2014

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The Cadivi rackets are much harder to quantify. It has a long history of schemes and variety, but each one of them has its peculiarities and details that make it difficult to quantify. There is, of course, the statement made by both former Minister Giordani and the former President of the Venezuelan Central Bank Edmee Betancourt, that in 2012 alone, “briefcase companies” (Compañías de Maletín) had received US$ 20 billion for imports that never materialized in what is in the end the ultimate corruption scam: Get foreign currency at Bs. 6.3 to import stuff that you will not even attempt to bring into the country. Sell enough of the foreign currency at the parallel rate, which is about ten times larger to pay the Bolívars and you keep the rest in foreign currency.

Nice work if you can get it.

But let’s look a little bit at the history of rackets within Cadivi. There are many stages in them. Like so many of the rackets of the Bolivarian revolution, they started small and grew and became even more daring:

-The bring the empty container racket.

This is the earliest racket I remember hearing about. You would get some foreign currency to import something, say barrels of some expensive chemical compound use in some industrial process. Bring a few hundred barrels of the stuff with invoices and bills of lading and the like, but the containers only have water. Or bring containers of empty computer boxes. Something that has value added, so the profit is maximized.

This particular racket required little or no participation of Government authorities at CADIVI. You brought bona fide import permits; you maybe even brought a small fraction of the stuff. You just needed to pay the National Guards and the custom employees when the stuff arrived so that it would no be checked thoroughly (A couple of times mistakes were made, empty containers were discovered).

My favorite anecdote of this was overheard in a business class commercial aircraft leaving Hong Kong by a Venezuelan flying next to some pro-Government importers who had no inkling there was another Venezuelan nearby. One guy explained to the other one how he had imported 400,000 key chains made in China with a Chavez’ figurine, for which he got from Cadivi two dollars a piece. The key chain actually cost only 10 or 15 cents, giving the loudmouth a huge profit. On top of that, he boasted, he gave the key chains to the same military official that helped him get the foreign currency for the racket, to use in Chavez’ 2006 Presidential campaign.

You see, in these earlier rackets, those involved had to basically fake the imports, because the difference between the official rate of exchange and the parallel arte was not huge, thus leaving little room for charging commissions and the like.

These type of racket is very hard to quantify but at some point the Government claim to be investigating some of them in the 100-200 million dollar range. How many were there? Hard to tell. Let’s say only a few, five to six in the US$ 100 million range. Total, less than a billion. Let’s round it off at a billion.

-The pay to get your dollars racket.

This was the second stage racket, when Government officials got involved. It started small time, when differences between the Cadivi rate and the parallel arte were small, but then it grew and grew. By the time that the exchange rate was increased to Bs. 4.3 per US$ and the parallel rate was Bs. 6+, Cadivi officials were asking for Bs. 1 to “ease” your way. Once the swap market disappeared in 2010, Bs.1 or 2 was the norm. Once companies fell in for it and started paying, it was the only way to get their Cadivi dollars.

During the last two years, as the parallel rate soared from around Bs. 10 per US$ to Bs. 80 and counting, the number of Bs. Charged for Cadivi dollars by officials or intermediaries “gestores” simply grew.

It is tough to quantify how big this racket has been. The commissions charged were only a fraction of the parallel dollar, but the dollars affected were in the billions. My guess is that at least US$ 10 billion of the US$ 40 to 60 billion a year in imports from 2009 to 2013 was flowing only if it was grease appropriately. Assume a 10% commission (of the parallel dollar, which set the pace of the size of the commissions) and you are talking at least US$ 1 billion per year from about 2007 to 2013. US$ 6 billion more.

And there were 7 billion…

-The Briefcase companies rip-off (Empresas de maletin)

Note that as CADIVI grew, more and more military officials were sent there. At all levels. Soon, they got more and more involved with it.

As El Nacional has reported in its investigative reporting on Cadivi, soon retired military “friends” with active military starting founding companies to import stuff. Flight by night operations began springing up all over the place. There were two types: a) Those that were created to import stuff for real b) Those that were created to apply for the foreign currency and never bring anything to the country.

In between these two, there were other side business, such as the purchase and sale of companies already registered in RUSAD, a prerequisite for obtaining Cadivi, Sitme and now Sicad 1 dollars. The same with the sale of certificates of no local production, another prerequisite to receiving Cadivi dollars. Just trading these generated a lot of wealth for those involved.

But it was not until Giordani suggested that the fake imports were about US$ 20 billion in 2013 that we got an inkling of the magnitude of the rip-off. (Can´t call it racket, it is so huge). In fact, the only reason one could have thought that something like that was going on at the time, was the fact that despite close to US$ 60 billion in imports, there were shortages of many products. If traditional importers were not getting dollars for say, toilet paper, then someone was getting the foreign currency and not bringing the stuff.

In order to quantify it, is tough to know exactly when it started or the magnitude. Let’s first estimate how long it went on for. My assumption is that this rip-off started when or around the time when Chávez got sick. It built up and had its crowning glory the year Giordani referred to as having US$ 20 billion in fake imports. Thus, this appears to have built up over a year and half. I will assume then that whatever estimate I reach for the year Giordani said was US$ 20 billion, there was about half as much the year before. Half, because Chávez got sick in May 2011 and I imagine they got bolder as time went on.

Well, pro-Government economist Manuel Sutherland has looked at the import numbers and his conclusion is as follows: Up to the beginning of exchange controls, the average price per kilo imported was roughly one dollar, year after year. It never deviated from this empirically. Never mind that the mixture of cars, paper products, automobiles or whatever was, this never changed.

Well, he argues, it started changing in 2005 and by 2013, 17 billion kilos of “stuff” were imported, but instead of costing the canonical US$ 17 billion of the ten years prior to 2004, the cost went up by almost a factor of three to US$ 47 billion. Sutherland (or someone else during his talk) says that there is no justification for the change. The mix of imports has changed little and the prices tend to scale anyway. At most, only 50% of the increase can be attributed to a possible change in the mix, or in the type of things being imported.

Thus, if 50% of the price increase can be attribute to over prices, inflation and the change in the mix, then each kilo would cost at most US$ 1.5. But each kilo cost US$ 2.76. This means that of the US$ 47 billion, around US$ 23 billion could not be justified. (Curiously, Edmee Betancourt’s number was US$ 22 billion). A large fraction of this went “empresas de maletin”.

Thus, if you are generous, want to be conservative in the estimates, if this is all empresas de maletin, we are talking about some US$ 33 billion in the rip-off in 2011 and 2012.

In the interest of underestimating things, I will only add a couple of billion before that, from 2004 to 2011 to fake imports.

Which means that very quickly, we are up to US$ 42 billion.

There are many other rackets around imports that I cannot quantify. Overprices is one. Government imports is another, just from 2003 to 2013, the Government went from importing US$ 3.5 billion to importing US$ 34 billion. This is a factor of ten. Nobody knows in what. There are rackets in there, we do not even understand or imagine. But if I can not assign a number to it, I will just ignore it for our purpose.

US$ 42 billion…US$ 23 billion in 2012 alone, do you think those controlling that want to give up that type of racket?

Think again…


There Is Too Much Money To Be Made In The Bolivarian Revolution I: The Gasoline Racket.

August 28, 2014

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“You will never win this war when there is so much money to be made. Never”

Jhon Popeye Velasquez alias “Marino” in an interview before he was released.

To those that watched Escobar, El Patron del Mal, the character Marino is one of the worst guys in the book and series. It turns out that this week he was freed from jail after serving twenty eyars and has been in the press quite a bit. The sentence above hit me, because that is one of the things that I fear may happen in Venezuela: there is so much money to be made, that those trying to change the Government may never be able to. While “Marino” was referring to the drug war, I am referring to all of the corrupt businesses allowed and nurtured by the revolution. Everything in the rveolution has been turned into some form of business or arbitrage. From drugs, to Cadivi, to Fonden, to gas. Thus, do you really think those in control are going to give up these rackets so easily?

I don’t.

The basic question I want to answer is: How much money or profit are we talking about?

In this post I make a very rough estimate of one the biggest businesses (Billion dollar plus) where the boliburgoise and Government officials, civilians or not,  have gotten rich, filthy rich. I make many assumptions, attempting in the best case to be under the correct amount, rather than over. I will try to make a series out of this. Today, gasoline

1) The gasoline racket.

When did it become such a big business to take gasoline out of Venezuela? Since Chavez became President in 1998, the price has been frozen. When he got to power, a liter of gas was about Bs. 90 (0.09 of today’s Bolivars) and a dollar was about Bs. 600 (Bs. 0.6 of Bolivares Fuerte). Even at that level it was a good deal to send gas to Colombia. But it did not become such an organized activity until the difference was so large, that the cost of gas was irrelevant. Let’s say a factor of 50, that is, when the parallel market rate became Bs. 5. I am going to assume that this is when the racket began to become massive. We are talking around 2007. And I assume it reached the current massification when the factor became 100. This happened in 2012.

The first question is what is the current number for barrels of gasoline extracted per day. Ramirez says 100,000 barrels a day. Colombia says 55,000 alone to that country. I will assume, the latter and add 10,000 a day to Brazil and 10,000 a day each to Guyana and Caribbean islands. Total today 75,000 barrels a day. I will also assume that when it all began in 2007, about 10,000 barrels a day was being smuggled and from 2007-2011, take the slope between 10,000 and 75,000 reached in Jan. 2012 This is all very conservative.

Now, the next question is: When they say so many barrels a day, are they talking about barrels of crude? Because you only get about 19 gallons of gasoline from a barrel of crude which holds 44 gallons of crude. I am also assuming this interpretation is correct. it’s “only” a factor of almost 2.

So, here I am holding one barrel which was free, given the approximations I already made. The middleman in Colombia, Guyana, the Caribbean islands and Brazil have to make something. So, I will assume that each gallon is sold cheap for about $3, so that my barrel is worth US$ 57. Nice profit. Before we discuss who gets it, let’s calculate what this means in one year for 75,000 barrels.

It is US$ 1.56 billion per year.  Or from 2007 to 2013 US$ 8.426 billion in profit.

Now, I would bet the “bachaqueros” do a significant fraction of this business. But they have to pay the military. The question is how much is the more “formal” business. the one that takes full trucks of gasoline to Colombia. My guess is this is about half the business. Thus, assume the “bachaqueros” have to spend one third of their profits in bribes and that “you know who” takes about 80% of the profits from the other half and you are saying the ones that control the gasoline racket have pocketed about US$ 4.67 billion.

Double it if they are talking about barrels of gasoline…

Nice racket! But there are bigger ones! More, as I have time (but going on vacation)…Cadivi, Bonds, Drugs, Foreign Exchange


Government Paralysis Even At The Simplest Levels In Venezuela

August 26, 2014

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That ideology screws up the implementation of the Venezuelan Government’s plans is obvious. What is incredible is how the belief that the anyone can do anything (Chávez was President, Maduro follows…) has led to the total destruction of the Government. There is no longer institutionality. As people have been put in charge of institutions they had no clue about, the decision making process has ground to a halt. We are not talking about rocket science here, we are talking about simple things like printing currency, for example. A function the Venezuelan Central Bank used to cover rather efficiently. As inflation increases and monetary liquidity goes up, you have to print bills in higher denominations. It’s sort of obvious and as long as there were some technical people left at the Venezuelan Central Bank, it was routinely done.

Then the revolution and with it some military officers, arrived…

And a friendly reader who has some some form of contact or works at the Central Bank, sent me some slides of a report that has been circulating at the Central Bank for apparently quite a while.

The report enunciates the problem rather simply: From 2008 to 2011 bills in circulation in Venezuela increased in value by 210%. The report, which apparently was done in 2012, predicted similar growth in 2011 to 2014 of 192%, coming up short, but that is in the end a minor detail.

In 2011, according to the report, there were 1.6 billion Bills in Venezuela, that is 55 bills per citizen. Of these, 40% were in Bs. 50 and Bs. 100 bills. But, these two denominations represented 82% of the Bills in Venezuela by value. Thus, the report predicted, without really expecting it, that these bills would become 95% of the bills by value by 2016 if nothing was done. (Nothing has…)

This was the prediction:

encircNow, Venezuela has the Casa de la Moneda in Maracay, run by the Central Bank. The problem is that it has a finite capacity on terms of how many bills it can print a year (800 million). As the Government has failed to create higher denomination bills, then the result is that more and more bills have to be imported (Another imported item in Venezuela), rather than be made in Venezuela. In fact, the source tells me that today the Maracay factory is running four shifts a day, but they are still not able to keep up and about 40% of all bills are now imported. And growing…

In fact, the report says that if a higher denomination bill is introduced in 2013 (which was not done), the number of new bills will increase to 1.1 billion by 2015, before it decreases.

But nothing was done, so the numbers are much higher.

In fact, the conclusions of the report are:

-A Bs. 200 bill (or even Bs. 500) is needed before 2014., as by 2014 the Bs. 100 bill would be 70% of all bills by value. (This was not done, of course)

-The Bs. 2 bill should be replaced by coins (This was not done)

-The 12.5 cent the “locha”, reintroduced by Chávez’ whim, should be withdrawn (No idea if this was done, it is worthless as a coin)

-The 1 cent coin should be eliminated. Ditto.

In fact, the report suggests that with the creation of the Bs. 200 bill, this would be the percentage of bills up to 2016:

ProjectedOf course, the Bs. 200 bill does not exist yet, M2 increased faster than projected in this report and the current authorities of the Venezuelan Central Bank have done little about something that should be pretty simple to decide and implement. Don’t even think about sophisticated things like how to invest and manage international reserves or sterilize liquidity to reduce inflation.

According to the anonymous reader, nothing has been decided, nothing has been considered, no one decides, it has all fallen in the Government aralysis even at the simplest levels in Venezuela.

Such are the ways of the incompetent and improvised Bolivarian revolution…


Is There A Government In Venezuela?

August 21, 2014

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The question posed by the title of this post is not rhetorical. You have to wonder if there is a Government in a country where decisions appear to be random, if and when they are made and when incoherence seems to be the norm, rather than the exception.

Take, for example, Rafael Ramirez. This guy is supposed to be in charge of like half the Government. He is President of PDVSA, Minister of Energy and Oil and also holds a position with the over the top name of “Vice-President for Economic Affairs”.

Now, for months, Mr. Ramirez has been proposing a unified exchange rate to remove distortions and in his own words: “It is very difficult to manage three exchange rates”. Separately, Mr. Ramirez has been the main proponent of a gasoline price increase, calling the current level of subsidies “absurd”.

You would think that with all his titles Minister Ramirez has some pull in Venezuela’s Government. I mean, he made all of these proposals at the PSUV Congress (Where nothing was voted, in the best Stalinist tradition). The people even stood up and cheered for most things he said.

Despite this, not only has nothing been decided, but Ramirez has changed his tune. He now talks about “convergence” of the exchange rate, which should be read as “more than one”, maybe two or even three. But the timing is quite fuzzy too. He now says that additional measures have to be taken first, mostly monetary measures. Funny thing is, M2 not only keeps growing at the same unstoppable rate, but Treasury Bill auctions were recently declared null for the first time in years and the rates were really stupidly low.

Thus, it does not appear as this very powerful man has any power in Venezuela, as he has been preaching at least “reasonable” measures for months, but no decisions are made and his proposals change over time.

Of course, Ramirez has a boss, President Maduro. Thus, in the end it is your boss that decides things, no? But at the same time, you don’t go out publicly with anything without running it by your boss first, no? That is what organizations do, from the Girl Scouts, to companies, to Governments. They discuss, talk about it and run with the conclusions. Sure, sometimes in politics you float balloons to see how the public reacts, but these balloons don’t last six months.

But Maduro behaves much the same way. He says one thing one thing one day, only to promote the opposite later.

Take the whole issue of using fingerprint machines at supermarkets to control smuggling. The whole thing is absurd. Are you going to impose a system on the “people” you always cry you care about, given that it is hundreds of Tons of stuff that gets smuggled out of the country all the time? How much does this system cost? Who will run it? Who sells it? Who maintains it? Who profits from it? How do you implement it?

Even worse, just last week, one of Maduro’s powerful underlings, the Head of Sundde, declared the”war” on lines at supermarkets. Do you really think that implementing a fingerprint system with restrictions to boot, will help ease them.

Imagine the dialogue:

Cashier: “Sra. please move your finger. Ok, Ok, dry your finger before you place it on the scanner. Great, finally. Well, sorry you are limited to two bags of Harina Pan, two cans of powdered milk and one kilo of sugar, so we have to take it our of your cart.”

Sra: “But please, I have four kids, I need the milk. Even if I come tomorrow you will not give me any additional milk. Etc., etc., etc.”

Meanwhile the line backs up even more. People get upset, start complaining and who is going to come calm them down. The Sundee? Sure.  Most likely the National Guard.

But the worst part is that Maduro said a year ago that he was against this type of system. In fact, he ordered that Governor Arias Cardenas of Zulia State stop any form of rationing, arguing that producing stuff was the only way to go.

A year later, Maduro is the king of rationing and the surely corrupt biometric systems. As I tweeted, it would be much cheaper to put a voice transmitter on every military officer in the country, in order to stop them from charging commissions at every step, including all the flow through the borders.

Just watch this video from  this blog, and even if it is in German, you understand the guy is bribing the Guards to get thru and make a lot of money smuggling. So, are you going to check the cars or the Guards? Same idea applies to foodstuffs.

I mean, if as Ramirez says 100,000 barrels of gasoline get smuggled out of Venezuela, does Maduro believe it is one barrel per car? Or maybe it is like 500 barrels (80,000 liters) per truck and a few national Guardsmen helping out. And “colaborando”, wink, wink.

But going back to the title of the post, who then runs Venezuela?

I am starting to think nobody. This is a collection of individuals with no apparent command or direction, led by an indecisive man. I don’t think Maduro went to Cuba to receive orders. I believe he went to Cuba to ask Fidel which of the many proposals he should follow. And Fidel likely told him to just hold tight, try to sell Citgo, see how long they can last. And if they can’t sell Citgo, you can make very tough decisions, like hold payment on debt, borrow somewhere and try to ride it out. But Nicolas, Fidel likely told him: You are not Hugo.

And so the country drifts into som sort of economic black hole. Today it is fingerprint scanners, tomorrow it will be some different imaginary battle. But it will always be about attacking the consequences, not the causes. Those, they will not touch. Maybe a small adjustment in the price of gas. Maybe move the Bs. 6.3 per US$ rate to the Sicad 1 rate. But that’s it. In the absence of Government, there will be no decisions. No real policy changes until 2016

At the earliest.


What Government Control Of The Media Means In Venezuela

August 15, 2014

sidor

You would think from the headlines of El Universal, El Mundo and Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias shown above, that the Government had scored a big victory in signing a collective bargaining agreement with Sidor workers and managing to appease Venezuela’s steel conglomerate and its unions.

Except that the information is fake. False.

There is no agreement. This is just a staging of the signing of a contract.

There is no legally signed or approved contract. It has not been approved by the Assembly of workers, nor has it been signed by the Executive Committee of the union. This is simply a media operation by the Government taking advantage of its almost total control over all the print and broadcast media. For more than 15 million Venezuelans, the Government won in its fight against the “right” trying to destabilize it using Sidor. When and if there are more protests in the upcoming days, the Government will remind everyone that a contract was signed and the workers can’t go to work because a small group of “right wing” union workers (I would like to meet just one!) decided to boycott the agreement. You and I and others that read Tal Cual or Damian Prat will know it is not true. But it does not matter. The Government does not care about Sidor producing or union workers having rights. All it cares about is its image, which it can control via its control of the media.

Orwell would have been proud of them.

Some reader made a comment saying that what I posted is not from today’s El Mundo. I have no idea what he is talking about, but here is the front page of El Mundo today

mundoand here is page 14 with the story

mundo1


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