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On bonds, gifts to the rich and economic distortions in Venezuela

By Miguel Octavio | The Devil's Excrement

27.11.05 | Politicians in Venezuela have always been fairly ignorant about economics. In fact, it does not appear as they ever had a clear idea about the difference between economics and economic policies, believing you can violate well established economic principles in order to implement creative economic policies. Time and time again, one mistake in policy is built on top of another leading inevitably to an economic crisis in the country.

Such is the case of the exchange controls currently in place in Venezuela. What should have been a temporary measure has now introduced so many distortions that they become harder and harder to remove. The Government has increased spending by over 40% from 2004 to 2005, and so has the monetary liquidity, all of the circulating money in the country, creating problems of various sorts, such as pressure on inflation and liquidity that has nowhere to go as there is no demand for it.

Thus, this week, the Government resorted to a solution that has been used already a few times in the last two and a half years, which represents nothing but a huge gift to the wealthy of the country, the issuing of a dollar denominated bond sold to local investors in Bolivars.

The idea is quite clever and simple: issue a bond in dollars with a low coupon and offer it to Venezuelans who are hungry for foreign currency which is restricted. Sell it to them at the official exchange rate of Bs. 2150 then they turn around and sell the bonds to foreign investors, hedge funds and the like at a discount, effectively purchasing dollars a rate somewhere between the official of Bs. 2150 and the “parallel” rate which is around Bs. 2650 at this time.

In the other bonds, not all conditions were clear when the bonds were announced or the parallel and the official rate were sufficiently close that there was an element of risk to it. Not so in this case, which is in reality a combo of two bonds, one maturing in 2016 and the other one in 2020.

Because there is a Venezuelan sovereign bond which matures in 2018, then it becomes very easy to predict what yield foreign investors would want from the new ones being issued. From this, it is equally easy to know at what discount you will be able to sell the dollar denominated bonds in the international markets. In this case it is somewhere around 87% for the combination of the two bonds, which tells you will be buying the foreign currency at Bs. (2150/.87) = Bs. 2471 per US$ or so.

While many companies and individuals will use this simply as a mechanism for purchasing cheaper foreign currency, for many, this is simply free money courtesy of the Venezuelan Government. You either have the money, like the banks, or you borrow the money to purchase the bonds. You get the bonds, sell them and turn around with the US dollars and sell them in the parallel market at a tidy profit of 7.2% in just a few days using the numbers I gave you above. Thus, the revolution is simply giving a gift of money to the rich as a way of solving an economic problem they face.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to remove the controls, which would simply reduce liquidity by itself. But because the controls have been in effect so long, there are too many distortions in the system and removing them would imply that some banks would be in trouble, interest rates would have to go up to be above inflation and last but not least, the Government would lose an important weapon of control over the people and the private sector.

The example I gave above in terms of profits for the transaction will likely be even better than described for those that buy the bonds. Because there are rumors that the Government plans to use the funds raised in part to repurchase some of the country’s debt, Venezuelan bonds went up after the announcement. If this rise is sustained thru Monday then people will likely make more like 10% in this quick, riskless and profitable trade. Nice gift, no?

This gift is well received by the banking system, which has so much money from depositors, but can’t lend it all, so they use that excess to participate in this as well as to lend to clients to purchase the bonds. The other big players are obviously speculators. Curiously, other distortions also help others in purchasing these bonds: The Government regulates the rates at which banks lend money to agricultural and tourism enterprises below market rates, some of them have excess credit which they are tapping this week to make a little money on the side.

In the meantime, Venezuela’s external debt goes up, yearly interest payments go up in foreign currency and the distortions in the economy increase. Of course, this also means that one day it will blow up again and the longer it goes on, the less oil prices will have to drop to create a crisis. Only this week, President Chavez announced a five year US$ 100 billion investment program to be financed by PDVSA (US$ 10 billion a year), Pequiven (US$ 2 billion a year), Fonden (US$ 2 billion a year) and the Miranda Fund (US$ 3 billion) a year. These are funds additional to the excess spending that is being carried out by the Government in the regular budget which is an all time high in the country’s history in real terms as well as a percentage of GDP.

Where the money will come from for this plan nobody knows, what is clear is that distortions and expenditures are being stretched to the limit, which bodes badly for the country were oil prices to drop, by even a relatively small amount.

And as usual, it will be the poor that suffer with another crisis as the rich can save these easy profits given to them by the revolutionary Government for a rainy day. The poor just can't.

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