You don’t need to be an economist to recognize the sad, self-destructive pattern of Venezuela’s financial collapse. If you’ve ever had a friend or family member gripped by gambling addiction or a drug problem, you’ve seen it. You know where this typically ends.
At the pawnshop.
Last week, Goldman Sachs acquired $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued by Venezuela's state oil company at just 31 cents on the dollar, paying $865 million for the securities. Now Venezuela is looking even more desperate, offering $5 billion worth of bonds at 20 cents on the dollar through a Chinese brokerage, according to the Wall Street Journal, whose reporters have been tracking the country’s attempts to secure emergency cash.
That is the kind of financing typically available to people with trembling hands trying to negotiate through bulletproof glass.
The latest sale would raise $1 billion in cash but leave Venezuela on the hook for more than $11 billion in payments through 2036, according to this calculation by the Caracas Chronicles blog. The hugely discounted bonds are so obscure that apparently they’re being sold through some sort of unusual, off-market arrangement, further underscoring their risk.
How did the country with the world’s largest oil reserves end up in this trash-strewn dark alley? Middling petroleum prices don’t come close to explaining it.
It’s a whole stewing miasma of mismanagement. Currency controls that produced the world’s highest inflation rate. Capricious, ill-advised nationalization schemes. Oceanic corruption. An endless spending binge on Russian weapons, gasoline subsidies and grandiose infrastructure projects that went bust. Those are just a few reasons.
Really, Venezuela’s most expensive habit appears to be its addiction to credit, no matter what the cost.
In recent years, President Nicolás Maduro has faithfully met the country's debt service obligations to its paymasters in Manhattan and Beijing while sharply cutting back on imports of food, medicine and other essentials. The ostensibly socialist government has literally allowed Venezuelans to go hungry while keeping the foreign fat cats fat. The humanitarian costs are devastating.
But Venezuela has been falling behind on payments to China and Russia, too. Oil-backed loans from the two allies have provided Venezuela with more than $55 billion in the past decade, but the Maduro government's once-vaunted oil industry is falling apart.
At least Wall Street still appears confident it'll get paid.
Maduro's financial desperation is making bizarre bedfellows of Venezuela’s revolutionaries and some of global capitalism’s most prominent brands — including Goldman Sachs.
The firm’s much-criticized acquisition of the Venezuelan state oil company bonds, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, truly pushed the region’s traditional ideological alignments into an upside-down universe where red was green.
With the government beating back demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons on a near-daily basis in Caracas, Venezuela’s pro-business opposition leaders have been blasting Goldman for allowing profits to guide its decision-making.
“Goldman Sachs decided to make a quick buck off the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” Julio Borges, leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, wrote the company an open letter, adding that he would recommend “to any future democratic government of Venezuela not to recognize or pay off these bonds.”
Bloomberg News quoted unidentified company officials as saying they had not completely vetted the purchase, having acquired the bonds through a third party.
But the deal was so toxic to Maduro opponents that White House officials even badmouthed it to Reuters, saying they wished Goldman Sachs would “think morally about what they’re doing.” Critics have denounced the firm as trading in “hunger bonds.”
Venezuela hasn’t yet sold its kidney: approximately $10 billion in reserves that is nearly all that’s left over from the decade-long oil boom enjoyed by the late leader Hugo Chávez. He preferred keeping the country’s savings mostly in gold bullion rather than greenbacks so that liquidating it would not be easy.
It may be only a matter of time before Venezuela empties the vault. The deeply unpopular Maduro, who took over after Chavez in 2013, appears to have no economic recovery plan beyond a vague hope that oil prices will suddenly shoot upward.
Venezuela’s few remaining foreign companies are fleeing. Industrial output has collapsed. The resource-rich country’s farms are growing less and less food despite spreading hunger.
Maduro needs to keep paying the salaries of the Venezuelan security forces battling protesters, and the only way to do that is to keep going back to the pawnshop. For a government trying to make it through one month at a time, the loans are problems for another day. Or someone else’s to worry about.
“Venezuela is borrowing at loan shark rates, as if they were going out of business and had no intention of paying these bonds back,” said Russ Dallen, managing partner at the brokerage Caracas Capital, which tracks Venezuela’s bond market.