Thursday, June 05, 2008

Want to see how out of whack the Venezuelan economy is? Head to Subway's 

This blog has long maintained that the Venezuelan government is causing serious problems for the Venezuelan economy by, among other things, allowing the Venezuelan currency to become very overvalued relative to other currencies.

This overvaluation is very harmful in that it makes Venezuelan exports uncompetitive on world markets, increases incentives for people to import goods rather than produce them locally, and stymies domestic industry (recall from a previous post manufacturing has slowed a measly growth rate of 1.3%).

But how can anyone know if the Venezuelan Bolivar is indeed overvalued relative to say the U.S. dollar and if so by how much? Simple. Head to the nearest Subway sandwich shop and see how their Venezuelan prices compare to their U.S. prices for the same product (The Economist magazine used to do this using McDonalds but I don't normally eat there so Subway's it is).

In the U.S. I normally get simple turkey and cheese sandwich and this costs about 7 US dollars.

So in a walked to a Subway's shop in a Venezuelan mall and ordered the exact same thing - a simple sandwich and a soda.

The price? As you can see from the receipt it was 32 Bolivares Fuertes:

At the exchange rate of 2.15 BsF per US dollar this comes to $14.88 !!!!!!

At first I thought they must have made a mistake ringing up the order. But on reviewing it they did it exactly right - a regular sandwich with extra meat and cheese and a large soda - just as I always get in the U.S. (by the way look carefully at the receipt - the freaking soda alone set me back 3 dollars!). At that point, with no other alternative I just laughed.

So the bottom line is the exact same product produced in what should be a lower cost country (after all, labor, supplies, real-estate, should all cost less in Venezuela than in the U.S.) costs twice as much as it costs in the United States.

This implies that the Venezuelan currency is somewhere around 100% overvalued. Given that a recent economic analysis said the Venezuelan currency was 70% overvalued this probably isn't far off the mark.

Now, you could say that this is a totally frivolous and silly comparison - who cares how much some American fast food chain charges in Venezuela compared to the U.S.?

True. Sandwich costs don't mean that much (although given that all other prices in Venezuela such as food, hotels, clothing, etc are similarly out of whack I doubt many gringos will be getting on planes to go vacation in their).

But this is in fact indicative of prices throughout most all of the Venezuelan economy. An overvalued currency serves to make the prices of all Venezuelan products much higher than those of goods in other countries.

And while sandwiches might not matter as they aren't a trade able good in the next post I will show this exact same phenomena with a Venezuelan produced tradeable good. And that certainly won't be a laughing matter.


Stupid Chavistas and an opposition that doesn't even believe its own polls 

Continuing on from the post of the other day we see that when it comes to economics the Venezuelan government is indeed clueless. Witness this advertisement:

Here the government brags that Venezuela grew 4.8% last quarter while the U.S. only grew .1% and the European Union 1.4%.

Where to begin on this one? Well, lets even ignore the little details like the U.S. is practically in a recession because a real estate bubble just burst whereas Venezuela has record high oil prices that should be propelling its economy forward.

Lets just consider the fact that both Europe and the United States are already developed areas where the great majority of the population has a very high material standard of living whereas in Venezuela most people are, by comparison, poor.

So wouldn't it behoove Venezuela to grow at a very high rate for several decades to try to catch up? And isn't it a little disconcerting that they can't manage to grow at a high rate even with the one thing that dominates their economy going through the roof?

Apparently not to the morons in charge of government propaganda.

Now to the opposition.

Did the example set by the PSUV inspire them to set up their own primaries to choose candidates? No.

Does the fact that the constitution actually REQUIRES primaries make them decide to hold them? No.

But they have come up with an alternative method. When not making back room deals to pick candidates they will be using three pollsters to determine who is most popular and select that person as the candidate.

Cool. Lets just abolish elections and go by opinion polls!!!!

Anyways, what is even funnier about this is who they decided to choose as the polling firms - Ivad, Consultoras 21, and Datanalisis. If you haven't followed Venezuela very closely you might not know this but at least two of those firms, Ivad and Datanalisis, have often been accused of being "Chavista", or incompentant, or overly friendly to the government by virtue of their often releasing polls showing that Chavez is highly popular.

Further, strident opposition pollsters Keller and Associates and Hinterlaces, who often get huge play in the opposition media for their polls showing Chavez is generally unpopular and has declining support, are left out.

In other words, for making propaganda firms like Keller and Hinterlaces are fine, but when the opposition needs results it can depend on it turns to the firms which they have disparaged for years for being "pro-Chavez".

In summary, at least some Chavistas are stupid enough that they believe the government line about the economy being fine and are willing to publish advertisements revealing their stupidity and gullibility.

The opposition on the other hand may lie a lot and make a lot of propaganda but when push comes to shove they aren't so dumb that they actually believe their own propaganda.

Chalk one up for the opposition.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Some good news, and some very bad news 

First the good news:

This past Sunday Venezuela's largest political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV for its acronym in Spanish, held internal primaries to choose its candidates for the regional and local elections coming later this year.

In a very high turnout for any type of primary, 2.5 million Venezuelans voted out of about 6 million who are members, at least on paper, of the party.

By the rules of the primary to win you had to get more than 50% of the vote or be ahead of your nearest opponent by at least 15%. If neither of those conditions were met then the party leadership would choose among the top three vote getters.

To many people's surprise most candidates outright won their primaries. That is, the vast majority of candidates put forth by the PSUV this November will have actually been chosen by the party rank and file rather than named by the party leadership.

Making these primaries all the more interesting and authentic is the fact that those favored by the big guy (i.e., Chavez) didn't always win. For example, Henri Falcon is currently the mayor of Barquisimeto and has been out of favor with Chavez for some time. Yet he put himself forth as a pre-candidate to compete for the governorship of the state of Lara as the PSUV candidate. Given that he is widely popular among the base he handily defeated Chavez's preferred candidate by 75% to 25%.

Further, some former big fishes in Chavismo couldn't manage to win their primaries. For example, both former Communications Minister and party bigshot William Lara and former tax agency head Vilma-Mora couldn't win their primaries outright. Given that no-one else did either in their cases they could still be chosen to be the PSUV candidates. However, even the fact that they couldn't win their primaries by themselves is a blow to their status within the party and weakens them as candidates.

Of course, these primaries where far from ideal. They suffered from several deficiencies, the main ones being the extremely brief time period for the campaign and the somewhat related lack of clearly defined programatic differences between the candidates. Having a campaign of less than a month simply doesn't give enough time for most people to aquaint themselves with the positions and backgrounds of the various candidates.

Further, actual discussions/debates often tended to be superficial. There were panel question and answer sessions on national television for most of the candidates but these discussions left a lot to be desired. But in the case of the candidates to be mayor of Caracas they were asked things like how they would help implement socialism and resist imperialism. No one on the panel thought to ask them what they would do to help clean up the city as if fighting off invading Yankees was a more likely job for the new mayor than getting garbage picked up would be.

The one worthwhile question put to the candidates was what they would do to combat corruption. In responses that would have made Hillary and Barack proud all the candidates either ignored the question and started talking about socialism again or gave hopelessly vague and meaningless answers.

However, despite these shortcomings these primaries certainly are a step foward. In fact in what is an increasingly gloomy prognosis for Venezuela's future they are one of the only bright spots. For one of the very few times in all of Venezuela's history the membership of a political parties chose that parties candidates rather than the mini-dictators at the top doing it.

And now that the PSUV has established this precendent it is almost guarenteed they will have to continue with it and have all their future candidates chosen this way too. Once people are given the right to make decisions for themselves they don't easily give that right up.

Finally Venezuela may have a truly democratic political party. Certainly no opposition political party is doing anything like this - rather they still are all run top down with the people bankrolling the party making all the decisions.

There is no small irony in that. Opposition supporters have for years derided Chavistas as sheep who blindly follow their leader. Yet those "sheep" just went out and voted in the candidates THEY wanted, Chavez be damned. One can only wonder when opposition supporters will stop being so sheepish and start demanding some democracy in the political parties they belong to.

And speaking of the opposition, their attitude towards this primary has been rather curious. Rather than applaud them they condem them as a waste of government resources as they were carried out by the electoral authority, the CNE.

That complaint seems silly. Why shouldn't the government help political parties hold their primaries? It is something mandated by the constitution and something that benefits society so they should be happy to fund it.

It would be understanble that they complain if only the PSUV's primaries were funded and not theirs. But given that the opposition parties aren't being assisted by the CNE simply because they aren't holding any primaries themselves they are hardly in any position to complain.

Finally, the opposition should stop bitching about some of their candidates having been excluded from running due to having committed legal transgressions that preclude their candidacies. After all, the Venezuelan constitution is very specific in saying that all candidates for office must be chosen by internal elections of the parties they belong to. Given that the PSUV is the only party that currently meets that requirement if the constitution were strictly adhered to they should be the only ones on the ballots and ALL the opposition candidates should be banned.

Therefore the opposition would do well not to insist too much on the letter of the law being enforced.

Now to the bad news:

The Venezuelan Gross Domestic Product numbers for the first quarter of 2008 came out and they were, too put it mildly, not good. Overall growth was a lame 4.8%. This is a marked drop-off from the growth rates of previous years which have been around 8 or 9%.

Further, that such a bad performance comes amidst a huge oil boom and oil is the prime mover of the Venezuelan economy simply serves to show how badly the Venezuelan economy is being managed right now. Even countries such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic which are actually HURT by high oil prices are seeing faster growth.

But it gets even worse. When the GDP numbers are broken down by sector the most important sector for any economy, and certainly for one of a under developed country trying to progress, manufacturing, grew an abysmal 1.3%. There is no way Venezuela is ever going to improve with its manufacturing sector growing at a rate even less than its population growth!!

For quite some time it has been pointed out by economists, this blogger, and, yes, the opposition, that some of the governments nefarious economic policies, such as an overvalued exchange rate, would harm the manufacturing and export sectors. Well now the chickens have come home to roost as this pathetic number on manufacturing shows.

Of course, not all sectors of the economy did so poorly. Those favored by the stupid and shortsighted government policies had highly positive numbers with imports being up 13% and communications up 17.6% (Venezuelans LOVE their cell phones). That neither of those indicators does much of anything to help Venezuela seems lost on the people who set Venezuelan economic policy.

But more on what is the driving force behind the economic train wreck awaiting the Venezuelan economy in coming posts...

In the meantime, just remember that these numbers really suck and they, far more than anything being done by "imperialism" or Bush or the Venezuelan opposition are likely to prove Chavismo's undoing.


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