Cablegate: Venezuela's Economy in 2010: A Difficult and Uncertain Year
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ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 221514Z JAN 10
FM AMEMBASSY CARACAS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0330
INFO WESTERN HEMISPHERIC AFFAIRS DIPL POSTS
RHEBAAA/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/HQ USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
Friday, 22 January 2010, 15:14
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ENERGY FOR CDAY AND ALOCKWOOD
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USDOC FOR 4332 MAC/ITA/WH/JLAO
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AMEMBASSY BRASILIA PASS TO AMCONSUL RECIFE
EO 12958 DECL: 2020/01/22
TAGS ECON, EFIN, VE
SUBJECT: Venezuela’s Economy in 2010: A Difficult and Uncertain Year
REF: 10 CARACAS 9; 09 CARACAS 1374; 10 CARACAS 27; 10 CARACAS 39 10 CARACAS 35; 10 CARACAS 5
CLASSIFIED BY: CAULFIELD, CDA, DOS, CDA; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)
1. (C) Summary: 2010 is shaping up to be another bad year for Venezuela economically. After oil prices fell in the second half of 2008, Venezuela’s bubble burst and the economy contracted 2.9 percent in 2009. Analysts’ predictions for growth in 2010 range from anemic growth of 1.4 percent to a contraction of up to 3.4 percent. This range reflects a number of key unknowns, including the extent and economic impact of the electricity crisis, how the January 11 devaluation and related changes in the foreign exchange regime play out, the efficiency and effectiveness of what is almost surely to be increased fiscal spending, the pace of President Chavez’s march toward socialism, and the potential for social and political volatility. Mounting economic problems have contributed to a decline in Chavez’s popularity, which is an important reason Chavez agreed to a devaluation that would substantially increase government revenues and permit massive spending prior to the September legislative elections. Chavez is betting that short term measures can delay the long term consequences of his ill-conceived policies. End summary.
2009: The Year the Bubble Burst
2. (C) Venezuela’s bubble burst in 2009. From 2004 through 2008, government spending, fueled by high oil prices, triggered a boom in consumption that led to growth rates of 10.3 percent in 2005 and 2006, 8.4 percent in 2007, and 4.8 percent in 2008. This populist economic model was sustainable as long as oil prices continued to rise and even showed its underlying vulnerabilities when oil prices reached their peak in July 2008. The rapid fall in oil prices from July to December 2008 (from 129 to 32 USD per barrel for the Venezuelan basket) created a serious fiscal problem for the Venezuelan government (GBRV) in 2009, leading it to cut spending in real terms and issue a significant amount of debt. A decline in consumption followed, and Venezuela’s GDP contracted 2.9 percent in 2009. With little incentive for private sector investment in tradable goods, manufacturing was particularly hard hit, falling 7.2 percent in 2009. Only the gradual but steady rise in oil prices over the course of 2009 prevented a bad situation from turning far worse.
Growth Outlook for 2010: Continued Recession or at Best Anemic Growth
3. (C) Forecasts by local and international analysts for GDP growth in Venezuela in 2010 range from 1.4 percent (Ecoanalitica, a local consulting firm) to a contraction of 3.4 percent (the Economist Intelligence Unit). Perhaps the only thing analysts can agree on is that if there is growth it will be anemic, slower than Venezuela’s population growth rate of 1.6 percent. This variation in forecasts does not, as one might expect in an oil economy, come from different forecasts of oil price or production. Most analysts believe the price will be in the USD 70-80 per barrel range for the Venezuelan basket in 2010 and many predict a slight decrease in production (see Ref A for post’s oil sector outlook). Instead, we believe this variation derives largely from different perspectives on unknowns relating to Venezuela’s unique economic and political environment that have an important bearing on the economy. Relevant questions include the extent and economic impact of the electricity crisis (which itself could impact oil production), how the January 11 devaluation and related changes in the foreign exchange system will play out, the efficiency and effectiveness of
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what is almost surely to be increased fiscal spending, the pace of President Chavez’s march toward socialism, and the potential for social and political volatility. The price of oil, of course, will continue to be a determining factor.
GBRV Economic Strategy for 2010: Devaluation and Increased Fiscal Spending
4. (C) Parliamentary elections scheduled for September are shaping up as the key political event for 2010. For this reason, local analysts have long expected increased fiscal spending to be a key part of the GBRV’s economic strategy. Thanks largely to the fall in oil prices and the associated fall in GBRV revenue, fiscal spending appears to have fallen in real terms in 2009 after increasing 111 percent in real terms from 2004 to 2008. PDVSA’s social spending also appears to have dropped significantly in 2009. (Note: These statements are based on GBRV budget figures [including additional credits] for 2009 and PDVSA’s June 2009 financial statement. Off-budget spending from quasifiscal funds plays an important role in GBRV spending but is impossible to measure. End note.)
5. (C) The January 11 devaluation, which will provide a massive revenue boost in bolivars to PDVSA and the GBRV, indicates the importance President Chavez places on increasing spending in 2010 as a means to stimulate the economy and fund his party’s election campaign. As respected local consultancy Sintesis Financiera put it, “Chavez’s decision [to devalue] reflects his judgment that the benefit of making significant amounts of money immediately available to the government to fund the 2010 campaign...outweighs the political cost of being blamed for inflation and recession.” Both Sintesis Financiera and Ecoanalitica estimated the devaluation will provide a net increase in fiscal revenue to the central government in 2010 of approximately Bs 80 billion (the equivalent of USD 30 or 18 billion, depending on which official exchange rate one uses). The GBRV and PDVSA have other mechanisms on which they can rely to close any remaining deficits, including domestic bond issuances for the GBRV and, thanks to a recent legal reform, Central Bank financing for both. In other words, the GBRV will have the resources to significantly ramp up spending in 2010.
6. (C) The devaluation and increased spending are not panaceas for restoring growth, however. We expect the GBRV to increase public sector salaries, to seek to revitalize existing or create new social programs targeted at Chavez’s political base, and to pour money into electoral campaigns. (Note: On January 15 Chavez announced minimum wage increases of 10 percent in March and 15 percent in September. End note.) The impact these measures will have on growth is a major question. As the experience of health program Barrio Adentro indicates (ref B), many social programs are in decline; on the other hand, a pollster recently told Emboffs his company’s data from November 2009 showed a slight uptick in the penetration and perceived effectiveness of social programs, which he attributed largely to a new program targeted at Caracas barrios (septel). While it provides the revenue for a fiscal stimulus, the devaluation will likely increase inflation (thereby putting downward pressure on purchasing power and real demand) and could dampen certain import-dependent economic activity. Confusion related to how the new two-tiered official exchange rate will work may also take a small toll on growth. As noted in ref C, we doubt the change in relative prices brought about by the devaluation will be sufficient to stimulate local production in any significant way.
Controlling Inflation: BCV Intervention and Coercion
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7. (C) The devaluation has caused some local analysts to raise their predictions for 2010 inflation from 30-35 percent to 35-50 percent. President Chavez and his government are clearly worried about the potential for increased inflation and seem to have three strategies for dealing with it. First, by offering a preferential rate for imports deemed essential, the GBRV is hoping to contain price increases in basic goods. Second, the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) has unveiled and begun to implement a long-anticipated strategy to manage the parallel foreign exchange rate (ref D), used by many importers when they cannot get access to one of the official exchange rates. Finally, President Chavez has threatened businesses that raise prices with expropriation, and the GBRV’s consumer protection agency has conducted a well-publicized campaign of “inspections” of businesses suspected of raising prices. Taken together, these measures may well keep inflation at the lower end of the 35-50 percent range, but they also introduce additional distortions, may lead to shortages in some cases, and do not create a more positive climate for investment.
Other Key Unknowns: Electricity Crisis and the March Toward Socialism
8. (C) The two-pronged electricity crisis Venezuela is currently experiencing is clearly having an impact on Venezuela’s economy. Problems resulting from years of underinvestment in transmission, distribution, and new generation capacity have been mounting over the past several years (ref E). On top of these problems, an El Nino-related drought in southeastern Venezuela has forced the GBRV to begin to reduce generation at the hydroelectric dams that supply Venezuela with 70 percent of its power. The GBRV has shut down production lines at energy intensive state-owned steel and aluminum producers and begun to ration electricity throughout the country. We have not seen a credible estimate of the likely impact of this crisis on real GDP, but it could be significant if rains come later or in lesser volume than normal. The electricity crisis is a symbol of the consequences of the GBRV’s economic model, which values spending with direct and immediate political impact over longer-term investment and institution building. We expect mounting infrastructure and services problems in other areas, particularly as state and municipal governments, which provide many services, have seen their budgets progressively cut in real terms.
9. (C) The pace of President Chavez’s march toward socialism will also have an impact on economic growth. State control over the economy is increasing, whether directly through nationalizations or indirectly through increased regulations or measures such as the devaluation (which gives public sector entities access to a preferential rate for imports and thus a further competitive advantage). Given institutional weaknesses and the priority put on political over economic results, increased state control has often translated into lower and/or more inefficient production, as the case of the basic industries in Guayana clearly shows (ref F). Over the past three years, the GBRV has nationalized important companies in the oil, oilfield services, electricity, telecommunications, cement, banking, food production and distribution, and steel sectors, among others. The mostly negative economic consequences of nationalizations across key sectors and other instances of state intervention will continue to play out in 2010, and if Chavez increases the pace of the transition toward socialism the economic impact could be even greater.
A Complex Feedback Loop: the Economy and the Social and Political Situation
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10. (C) Small-scale protests, often related to economic or infrastructure issues, are common throughout Venezuela. According to a political economist who has studied the 1989 “Caracazo”, a more generalized and violent social uprising whose proximate trigger was an increase in gasoline prices, current social, political, and economic conditions are such that more generalized protests are possible today, though he cautioned that there was no way to predict whether (or when and how) they might actually take place. A deepening of the electricity crisis and further contraction of the economy could further heighten underlying social tensions. President Chavez, for his part, is acutely aware of the impact the country’s general economic trajectory has had on his popularity. As evidenced by his decision to terminate an unpopular electricity rationing plan in Caracas and his appointment of Ali Rodriguez as electricity minister, he is obviously concerned about the potential political impact of the electricity crisis. If the electricity crisis deepens and increased spending does not stimulate the economy - or, specifically, reward his supporters - enough to compensate for the negative effects of the devaluation, President Chavez could face more serious political difficulties. Were the opposition more organized and united, he almost certainly would. CAULFIELD