Reader Shah8 asks about the problems is Venezuela’s economy. It’s a good question.What are the time bombs waiting to go off?
Before I start, let me present the case for the defense. The linked paper argues that Venezuela’s economic expansion is sustainable. The linked paper, however, is incorrect.
First, the authors sustain that payments on Venezuela’s foreign debts are manageble. They are correct. (Figures 3 and 4.) The problem is that the interest burden is not the problem. The problem is that government of the Bolivarian Republic requires capital inflows around $15 billion every year to stay in balance. If those inflows drop, then BLAM ... sudden stop.
(The authors are convinced that China would not allow Venezuela to collapse. I am unclear as to why they believe that.)
Second, the authors argue that the bolívar is not overvalued. They base this on a scatterplot of countries. On the Y-axis they put the ratio between the official (or market) exchange rate and the exchange rate at which a basket of goods and service would cost the same as in the United States. Venezuela is not out of the pack.
The problem is that this measure has a lousy track record of predicting currency movement.
There is better measure of the bolívar’s overvaluation: the difference between the official rate and the black market rate. (The black market rate is tracked, more or less, at this website.) The gap has now approached three-to-one. It hard to see how Venezuela can sustain that without worsening shortages of imported goods or a major devaluation.
The only other country in the hemisphere in a similar situation is Argentina. When I was in Argentina in May and June of 2012, I was very tempted to blog about the controls despite a lack of time. (I wish I had; perhaps I still will.) Pesos were pegged at 4.5 per dollar, but while I was there the “blue market” rate hit 6.15. A Brazilian couple was arrested by dog-using police teams practically in front of me; they were carrying several thousand dollars. (The papers reported that they were acquitted.) That was legal, but the dollar-sniffing dogs were hunting black marketeers. The controls made (and make) life difficult for small manufacturers, which often find it difficult to buy the dollars they needed to import specialized goods.
But Venezuela’s exchange controls are in a whole different level from Argentina’s. The Argentine blue rate is around 60% above the official rate; the Venezuelan parallel rate is almost three times the official rate. Argentine controls hurt some importers who cannot get dollars, but they are not noticeable in the shops and streets. Venezuelan controls, on the other hand, cause cooking oil, margarine, and toothpaste to disappear. Venezuela has been plagued by periodic shortages for years, but they are now becoming pervasive.
That is not sustainable. Well, it is ... but at the cost of ever-worsening import shortages. Either Venezuela will develop an extensive set of import-substituting industries (a la Mexico circa 1980) or most Venezuelans will lose access to manufactured goods. There is no sign of the first thing happening.
Both these problems — a dependence on foreign borrowing and unsustainable capital controls — come together in the electricity crisis. I blogged about it in 2009: it is not getting better. Other countries have experienced temporary shortages (Ecuador in 2009) but none have suffered ever-more-erratic service for four years. (Ecuador has resolved its problems.) Installing thermal generators requires the government to borrow to get the dollars, and the refusal to charge market prices for energy drives up the budget deficit. Then, to make things worse, the exchange controls drive up construction costs. (I explain why that happens here.)
In other words, there are three ticking time bombs waiting to hit the next Venezuelan administration. First, capital inflows could slow; at some point they will slow. Venezuela is not in a position to handle that without a severe recession. Second, at some point either the shortages will become unsupportable or the bolívar will be devalued. Shortages will not be good for the party in power. A devaluation is equally problematic. With inflation already running north of 20%, it could (oh, heck, almost certainly will) cause large price spikes with all the ensuing damage to living standards. Third, the electricity crisis shows no sign of abating. Maduro blamed the blackouts on gringo sabotage; I do not think that is an effective political strategy.
There is a fourth time bomb: crime. Hugo Chávez was seemingly immune to criticism on the topic; the next administration will not be.
And there is a fifth: Chavista foreign policy. More on that in a future post.
I make no predictions about which will blow up first or how badly. But at least one of them almost certainly will. The next administration will have to fix the problems or deal with the aftermath ... but there are no painless fixes.