New Yorker: Low oil prices put Venezuela in a bind

The New Yorker quotes Harvard economist and former Venezuelan government official Ricardo Hausmann’s cautionary words about Venezuela’s budget situation in the face of plummeting oil prices.

As Girish Gupta writes:

Serious concern remains that Venezuela will eventually default on some of the more than seventeen billion dollars it is due to pay in the next three years, or that its economic problems will lead to political crisis. Many industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals to small retailers, are fighting for a limited supply of hard currency in Venezuela, which means that, so long as the current climate prevails, the country will be presented with decisions about whom to pay. “The problem in Venezuela is that they’re playing a game of musical chairs, and there aren’t enough chairs for all the players,” Hausmann told me. “My piece clarified to Wall Street the magnitude of the musical chairs.”

Some 96 percent of the nation’s foreign currency pours in from oil revenues, and falling crude prices mean the government, led by Hugo Chavez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, might not be able to provide as many services to the public as it did when oil exceeded $100 a barrel. For instance, the government subsidizes gasoline purchases for citizens — it costs only a few pennies for them to fill up their tanks — and this benefit costs the treasury some $12 billion a year.

Further cuts to services could mean more unrest in Venezuela. As Gupta writes:

Earlier this year, Maduro faced the biggest anti-government unrest the country has seen for a decade, but, even so, he denies that Venezuela is yoked to global oil prices. “The price of oil can go down to forty dollars a barrel and I guarantee to the people all of their rights: for food, education and life,” he said on state television in mid-October, adding that he expected oil prices to rise again. OPEC, however, does not seem keen to cut output.