November 4, 2009

BCVSA and The Exchange Rate that Must Not Be Named

Quico says: Two and a half years ago, when Chávez announced PDVSA would start manufacturing shoes and selling beans and I wrote this snarky little post about the acute outbreak of role confusion in Venezuela's institutions, I could not have imagined that the trend would reach the extremes it has. As the decade comes to a close, Venezuela faces a macroeconomic reality that is bizarre on so many levels that it seems almost normal that our oil company is now, effectively, our Central Bank.

It all goes back to this blog's favorite hobby horse: the dual foreign currency market.

Your economics textbook will tell you that a country's Central Bank is the public entity charged with issuing the nation's currency and preserving its value. Operationally, that usually translates into a mandate to fight inflation by keeping the money supply from growing too much, too quickly.

But in a port economy like Venezuela's, where the vast bulk of consumption goods are imported, inflation is driven as much by the price of foreign exchange as by the absolute amount of money in circulation. The reason is easy to grasp intuitively: if you eat a lot of imported rice at $1 per kilo, and the price of that dollar rises from Bs.2 to Bs.4, you've just imported 100% rice inflation via the exchange rate.

Which is why, in import-dependent economies like ours, managing the foreign exchange market is one of the Central Bank's main tools as it seeks to control inflation. After all, if you want to control the price of dollar-denominated goods, you would be well advised to control the price of the dollar.

Enter Venezuela's Alice-in-Wonderland exchange-rate system, where the gap between government-speak and reality gets wider every passing year. While the Central Bank controls the official exchange rate, this rate is increasingly irrelevant to the Venezuelan economy. Everybody knows that in Venezuela, the price of imported goods tracks the Voldemort Exchange Rate - you know, the one that must not be named.

Which makes the Central Bank an ever more marginal player in the management of the Venezuelan economy: its control extends only to the de mentirita exchange rate, not to the real one.

Over time, even the nullities that govern us were forced to come to grips with the obvious: that prices in Venezuela are highly sensitive to an exchange rate that's not supposed to exist. The policy of wishing it away was not sustainable. The catch is that there wasn't an evident way to intervene the other market without acknowledging its existence.

To come to grips with the no-kidding exchange market, the authorities needed to find some highly opaque, politically docile institution with lots and lots of dollars on hand that it could spend off-budget and off-adult-supervision and with an upper management greedy enough to jump at the chance to manage the Voldemort market...and, well, in Venezuela that brief describes just one entity.

For months now, PDVSA has been more or less openly intervening the parallel dollar market, sporadically stepping in to keep the Voldemort Rate from climbing too high. But...that kind of macroeconomic management is supposed to be the Central Bank's job...ergo, PDVSA is, in all but name, the new Central Bank: BCVSA.

What we have in Venezuela is an all-but acknowledged dirty float, a system where the government accepts that the currency's fluctuations are beyond its control but nonetheless steps in now and then to manipulate the exchange rate.

The problem with this - aside from the whole "illegal", "unconstitutional," yada yada boring counter-revolutionary stuff people like me always write - is that it's insanely, incredibly opaque. Billions of dollars are at stake in a market that the government actively fosters and periodically intervenes, but whose existence it can't acknowledge.

Maybe a "self-loathing float" is a better description: what we have here is a heavily meddled with float that the government refuses to even talk about, subject to interventions it sure as hell won't let anybody audit. The truly remarkable thing would be if such an extraordinarily cash flush, deliriously opaque arrangement didn't breed a mass of corrupt practices.

Take a moment here to think through the possibilities. If you have the inside information to accurately time the fluctuations of the Voldemort Market, you suddenly put yourself in a position to make genuinely obscene amounts of money off of that information. Say you know that BCVSA plans to intervene tomorrow, selling $200 million to operators to take 20 cents off of the Voldemort rate. You just go to your bank, borrow some dollars, use them to buy bolivars, sit tight, and sell the bolivars tomorrow, when each of them is 20 cents more valuable. Then you pay back your bank and you pocket the difference. Money for nothing and chicks for free, no risk involved.

Sure, 20 cents may not sound like much, but do this kind of thing on a big enough scale and you can make millions and millions of dollars. Which is why I'm convinced that every time the secret dollar ticks up or down 20 cents, another batch of Bolivarian millionaires is made.

Now, imagine you're working in BCVSA and you're in a position to directly decide when you're going to step in to inject dollars into the Voldemort market. In that situation you're not just able to profit for yourself handsomely, but you're also in a position to make or break fortunes all around you.

One call to your friend with that tip and you've turned him into an instant millionaire. The same call, recorded by spies in Miraflores, earns the Executive Power the unwavering loyalty of the civil service reaping the benefits of the Revolution's discretion.

That's the stuff power is made of in the Chávez era.

There is simply no way a system that works on such levels of secrecy and opacity and that handles the kinds of sums BCVSA handles is anything less than writhing, heaving cesspool of corruption. The benefits from diving in are too strong, and the disincentives are practically non-existent.