Tag: Venezuela

Venezuela Verifies Hayek on Exchange Controls

Foreign airlines have begun to restrict ticket sales in Venezuela. As the bolivars’ value evaporates, and with exchange controls in force, the airlines fear that the funds they have in Caracas will evaporate, too. By restricting ticket sales, the airlines will limit the amount of new money that is trapped behind the government’s wall of exchange controls.

Of course, President Nicolas Maduro isn’t the first autocrat to impose exchange controls, and he won’t be the last to impose these confiscatory policies. Indeed, the pedigree of exchange controls can be traced back to Plato, the father of statism. Inspired by Lycurgus of Sparta, Plato embraced the idea of an inconvertible currency as a means to preserve the autonomy of the state from outside interference.

So, the temptation to turn to exchange controls in the face of disruptions caused by hot money flows is hardly new.  Tsar Nicholas II first pioneered limitations on convertibility in modern times, ordering the State Bank of Russia to introduce, in 1905–06, a limited form of exchange control to discourage speculative purchases of foreign exchange.  The bank did so by refusing to sell foreign exchange, except where it could be shown that it was required to buy imported goods.  Otherwise, foreign exchange was limited to 50,000 German marks per person.  The Tsar’s rationale for exchange controls was that of limiting hot money flows, so that foreign reserves and the exchange rate could be maintained.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

This brings me to Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Many thought Prof. Hayek hurt his case because he was extreme. What nonsense. Just consider the Wall Street Journal’s reportage from Caracas about the real concerns of foreign airlines that have funds locked up in Venezuela. And then reflect on the following insightful analysis from the Road to Serfdom:

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference.  Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty.  It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Hayek’s message about convertibility has regrettably either been overlooked, or thought to be too extreme. Exchange controls are nothing more than a ring fence within which governments can expropriate their subjects’ property. Open exchange and capital markets, in fact, protect the individual from exactions, because governments must reckon with the possibility of capital flight.

Socialism in Venezuela, like Socialism Everywhere, Means Shortages

After 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution is finally reaching socialism’s signature achievement: shortages of toilet paper. The Washington Post reports:

CARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display.

Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.

“This is so depressing,” said Maria Plaza, 30, a lawyer, an hour and a half into her wait….

Why is it always toilet paper? I understand why a poorly coordinated economy isn’t likely to produce complicated goods like cars (see the Soviet Lada, the East German Trabant, or the gleaming 1950s American cars still in use on the streets of Havana) or computers. But how hard is it to produce toilet paper? Not that toilet paper is the only thing in short supply:

Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.

Meanwhile, as long as you can blame the Americans, the capitalists, Snowball, or Emmanuel Goldstein, you can retain the support of at least some of the people:

“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.

“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.

The regime takes credit for what it can, making sure that

products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”

The queues in front of the stores should carry the same symbol.

Venezuela’s House of Cards

The story of the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar, can be summed up with the following phrase: “From bad to worse”—over and over again. Yes, the ever deteriorating situation in Venezuela has taken yet another turn for the worse.

In a panicked, misguided response to the country’s economic woes, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has requested emergency powers over the economy. And the Maduro government recently announced plans to institute a new exchange rate for tourists in an attempt to quash arbitrage-driven currency smuggling.

These measures will likely prove too little, too late for the Venezuelan economy and its troubled currency, the bolivar. Indeed, the country’s economy has been in decline since Hugo Chavez imposed his unique brand of socialism on Venezuela.

For years, Venezuela has sustained a massive social spending program, combined with costly price and labor controls, as well as an aggressive annual foreign aid strategy. This fiscal house of cards has been kept afloat—barely—by oil revenues.

But as the price tag of the Chavez/Maduro regime has grown, the country has dipped more and more into the coffers of its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and (increasingly) the country’s central bank.

Since Chavez’s death, this house of cards has begun to collapse, and the black market exchange rate between the bolivar (VEF) and the U.S. dollar (USD) tells the tale. Since Chavez’s death on March 5, 2013, the bolivar has lost 62.36% of its value on the black market, as shown in the chart below the jump.

Sovereign Currency Populism versus Dollarized Populism

Venezuela and Ecuador both have left-wing populist governments that have benefited tremendously from record high oil revenues. Both governments used those revenues to significantly increase public spending. However, there is a critical difference between these countries: while Venezuela has its own currency (the so called “strong Bolívar”), Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 2000. That means that, no matter how fiscally irresponsible the Ecuadorean government, it can’t print money to pay for its spending.

The result: Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in Latin America whereas Ecuador has one of the lowest rates in the region.

Price Controls: A Troubling Trend in Latin America

Argentina, Venezuela, and now even Ecuador have all embraced an unfortunate, if familiar, economic craze currently sweeping the region – price controls. In a wrong-headed attempt to “suppress” inflation, the respective governments have attempted to fix prices at artificially low levels. As any economist worth his salt knows, this will ultimately lead to scarcity.

Consider Venezuela, where the government sets the price of a number of goods, including premium gasoline, which is fixed at only 5.8 U.S. cents per gallon. As the accompanying chart shows, 20.4% of goods are simply not available in stores.

While price controls ostensibly keep the prices of goods on official markets low, they ultimately lead to empty shelves, depriving many consumers access to essential goods (such as toilet paper). This, in turn, leads to “repressed” inflation – given the price controls that exist, the “true” rate of inflation is held down, or repressed through Soviet-style government intervention. As the accompanying chart shows, the implied annual inflation rate for Venezuela (using changes in the black-market VEF/USD exchange rate) puts the “repressed” inflation rate at 153%.

Likewise, Argentina is facing a similar dilemma (see the accompanying chart).

In addition to scarcity and repressed inflation, price controls can lead to unintended political consequences down the road. Once price controls are implemented it is very difficult to remove them without generating popular unrest – just consider the 1989 riots in Venezuela when President Carlos Perez attempted to remove price controls. 

Hopefully, Ecuador – which, thanks to its dollarization, is experiencing an annual inflation rate of only 3% – will see this folly and abandon its expirement with price controls.

If countries like Venezuela are really interested in keeping inflation under control, they should follow Ecuador’s lead – simply junk their domestic currencies and “dollarize”.

Chavez: The Death of A Populist … and His Currency?

Although Hugo Chávez, the socialist presidente of Venezuela, has finally met his maker, the grim reaper is still lingering in Caracas. As it turns out, Chávez was not the only important Venezuelan whose health began to fail in recent weeks: the country’s currency, the Venezuelan bolivar fuerte (VEF) may soon need to be put on life support.

In the past month the bolivar has lost 21.72% percent of its value against the greenback on the black market (read: free market). As the accompanying chart shows, the bolivar has entered what could be a death spiral, which has only accelerated with news of Chávez’s death.

 

Shortly before his death, Chávez’s administration acknowledged that the bolivar was in trouble and devalued the currency by 32%, bringing the official VEF/USD rate to 6.29 (up from 4.29). But, at the official exchange rate, the bolivar is still “overvalued” by 74% versus the free-market exchange rate.

The Day After the Election in Venezuela

Unfortunately there was no upset in yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela. Hugo Chávez handily won another six-year term with 54% of the vote. Despite running an inspiring campaign that at some point seemed to threaten Chávez’s rule, Henrique Capriles came up short with 44%. The vote was clean, even though the election wouldn’t be considered fair in any mature democracy.

What happened? It seems clear that Chávez was able to mobilize his people to the polls. Despite the mismanagement of the economy, the spike in crime, the crumbling infrastructure and widespread corruption, many Venezuelans still like Chávez. And he made sure to buy their love this year by increasing public spending in the last 12 months by 30% in real terms. Others might not like him, but still feel compelled to vote for him. Over 8 million Venezuelans receive some kind of permanent income or handout from the government. The regime wasn’t subtle letting them know that those goodies would be gone if they voted for Capriles. The Economist reported on the intimidation faced by an important segment of these voters:

Some public employees—whose ranks have more than doubled under Mr Chávez to over 2m—have been obliged to fill out forms saying exactly where they will be voting. Like the election ballots, these forms require a signature and a thumbprint: the implication that the government will monitor how they vote does not need to be spelled out.

This is certainly a heartbreaking defeat for the opposition. There is no doubt that Chávez will continue to lead Venezuela down the authoritarian path. However, this election has created a credible opposition leader who, unlike opposition candidates in the past, will have a prominent voice in national politics, especially as the economic and social conditions deteriorate markedly as they are sure to do. If Chávez really is terminally ill with cancer, as is very likely, then the stature of Capriles will continue to grow as the next leader of Venezuela.