Saturday, May 08, 2010

Even Chavez doesn't buy Venezuelan products 

Want to see a clear example of why Venezuela is not developing? Take a look at the beginning of this video:

Chavez shows off his shiny new Blackberry cellphone and asks rhetorically why he shouldn't he have one.

As is often the case with so much of the discussion around issues in Venezuela the question is incorrectly framed. He questions why he should be accused of having a capitalist product when in fact a Blackberry is neither capitalist nor socialist but simply a device, or technology.

He is correct about that, but he entirely misses the point. A Blackberry may be neither capitalist nor socialist but in Venezuela's case buying one is most definitely anti development.

How so? Because for Venezuela to progress as a country it must develop its own industries and technologies and not simply import everything.

In recognition of that Venezuela even set up a cellular telephone assembly plant with Chinese assistance. To the greatest extent possible all resources devoted to cellphones in Venezuela should be put into building up that plant, expanding its technology and production, and having more of its components produced in Venezuela. To further that goal, cellphone imports should be restricted to the greatest extent possible with very high tariffs, or banned outright.

Apparently, that is not happening as Venezuelans buy hundreds of thousands or even millions of Blackberrys. And none other than the President himself has scarce dollars spent on purchasing an expensive imported phone for himself rather than supporting local industry.

Following Chavez's lead Venezuela will never develop.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

Yeah, but it's not South Korea or Tawain or China either. 

Today Mark Weisbrot wrote yet another interesting article on Venezuela's economic situation - this time entitled "Venezuela is not Greece":

With Venezuela's economy having contracted last year (as did the vast majority of economies in the Western Hemisphere), the economy suffering from electricity shortages, and the value of domestic currency having recently fallen sharply in the parallel market, stories of Venezuela's economic ruin are again making headlines.

The Washington Post, in a news article that reads more like an editorial, reports that Venezuela is "gripped by an economic crisis," and that "years of state interventions in the economy are taking a brutal toll on private business."

There is one important fact that is almost never mentioned in news articles about Venezuela, because it does not fit in with the narrative of a country that has spent wildly throughout the boom years, and will soon, like Greece, face its day of reckoning. That is the government's debt level: currently about 20% of GDP. In other words, even as it was tripling real social spending per person, increasing access to healthcare and education, and loaning or giving billions of dollars to other Latin American countries, Venezuela was reducing its debt burden during the oil price run-up. Venezuela's public debt fell from 47.5% of GDP in 2003 to 13.8% in 2008. In 2009, as the economy shrank, public debt picked up to 19.9% of GDP. Even if we include the debt of the state oil company, PDVSA, Venezuela's public debt is 26% of GDP. The foreign part of this debt is less than half of the total.

Compare this to Greece, where public debt is 115% of GDP and currently projected to rise to 149% in 2013. (The European Union average is about 79%.)

Given the Venezuelan government's very low public and foreign debt, the idea the country is facing an "economic crisis" is simply wrong. With oil at about $80 a barrel, Venezuela is running a sizeable current account surplus, and has a healthy level of reserves. Furthermore, the government can borrow internationally as necessary – last month China agreed to loan Venezuela $20bn in an advance payment for future oil deliveries.

Nonetheless, the country still faces significant economic challenges, some of which have been worsened by mistaken macroeconomic policy choices. The economy shrank by 3.3% last year. The international press has trouble understanding this, but the problem was that the government's fiscal policy was too conservative – cutting spending as the economy slipped into recession. This was a mistake, but hopefully the government will reverse this quickly with its planned expansion of public investment this year, including $6bn for electricity generation.

The government's biggest long-term economic mistake has been the maintenance of a fixed, overvalued exchange rate. Although the government devalued the currency in January, from 2.15 to 4.3 to the dollar for most official foreign exchange transactions, the currency is still overvalued. The parallel or black market rate is at more than seven to the dollar.

An overvalued currency – by making imports artificially cheap and the country's exports more expensive – hurts Venezuela's non-oil tradable goods' sectors and prevents the economy from diversifying away from oil. Worse still, the country's high inflation rate (28% over the last year, and averaging 21% annually over the last seven years) makes the currency more overvalued in real terms each year. (The press has misunderstood this problem, too – the inflation itself is too high, but the main damage it does to the economy is not from the price increases themselves but from causing an increasing overvaluation of the real exchange rate.)

But Venezuela is not in the situation of Greece – or even Portugal, Ireland, or Spain. Or Latvia or Estonia. The first four countries are stuck with an overvalued currency – for them, the euro – and implementing pro-cyclical fiscal policies (eg deficit reduction) that are deepening their recessions and/or slowing their recovery. They do not have any control over monetary policy, which rests with the European Central Bank. The latter two countries are in a similar situation for as long as they keep their currencies pegged to the euro, and have lost output six to eight times that of Venezuela over the last two years.

By contrast, Venezuela controls its own foreign exchange, monetary, and fiscal policies. It can use expansionary fiscal and monetary policy to stimulate the economy, and also exchange rate policy – by letting the currency float. A managed, or "dirty" float – in which the government does not set a target exchange rate but intervenes when necessary to preserve exchange rate stability – would suit the Venezuelan economy much better than the current fixed rate. The government could manage the exchange rate at a competitive level, and not have to waste so many dollars, as it does currently, trying to narrow the gap between the parallel and the official rate. Although there were (as usual, exaggerated) predictions that inflation would skyrocket with the most recent devaluation, it did not – possibly because most foreign exchange transactions take place through the parallel market anyway.

Venezuela is well situated to resolve its current macroeconomic problems and pursue a robust economic expansion, as it had from 2003-2008. The country is not facing a crisis, but rather a policy choice.

Sure, Venezuela isn't Greece. But then again, most Venezuelans probably which that it were - they envy the higher Greek standard of living, freedom to travel, and freedom from crime.

So while this is actually a fairly good article by Dr. Weisbrot it once again brings up a conceptual failing, not only on his part but one that others make as well. And that is that doing slightly less bad on growth numbers than already developed countries like those of North America, or Europe, or east Asia means that Venezuela isn't doing too poorly. That is wrong. Venezuela is a poor country that needs very high growth rates - anything else constitutes failure.

Clearly, Venezuela is failing.

Of course, Dr. Weisbrot is becoming a little more clear in his criticism of the Venezuelan government's economic policy errors. He is now willing to call the overvalued currency (and do note, he still thinks it is overvalued - he is probably right) Venezuela's biggest "long term mistake".

I can only guess at what HE thinks the reasons are why the Venezuelan government has followed such a mistaken policy for so many years.

In any event, until such time as the Venezuelan government itself comes to the realization that this has been, and continues to be, one big mistake, this is all an academic discussion. Venezuela will continue to be left further and further behind by others, with dire consequences for the well being of its citizens.


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