With an inflation rate at 56% and a scarcity index (percentage of goods available) of 28% over the last year the Venezuelan economy has been suffering the effects of policies implemented in the last decade. Starting in 2003, president Hugo Chavez put in place stringent currency controls. Originally, this was intended to address the severe crisis brought by a major strike of the oil industry. However, after a decade, this control remains in place, pegging the country’s exchange rate to the U.S. dollar and limiting the amount of local currency, the Bolivar, that Venezuelans are allowed to exchange.
Coupled with currency controls, governmental control in Venezuela has included imposing strict price controls for the products within the basic foods basket. Instead of making basic products more accessible, this has actually distorted prices. Hence, this has translated into widespread scarcity and an underground parallel market where basic foods are sold at prices much higher than the government established price.
Both of these policies have not produced the intended results. In the last decade, economic controls have profoundly curtailed the incentives necessary for businesses to produce and import goods. This has crippled the economy in severe ways. While the economy has become highly dependent on imports to supply almost 80% of consumer products, lack of hard currency makes this very complicated to achieve.
These policies are the culprits of the Venezuelan economy being rated as “repressed” by the Index of Economic Freedom. This rating has remained unchanged since 2004. What does this mean? Well, falling within this rating means that corruption is high, and that business, labor and fiscal freedoms are severely curtailed by an interventionist and centralized government. While Venezuela holds the biggest oil reserves in the world, out of all South and Central American countries, it ranks second to last in economic freedom.
These dire economic circumstances have forced many producers to close shop or move their operations to neighboring countries. The difficulty of operating is primarily caused by their inability to access hard currency. Since the only entity allowed to sell USD is the government, businesses are at the mercy of lengthy bureaucratic processes, unless they are willing to pay up to ten times the price of the local currency. But they would not be able to sell their product at a competitive market price due to price controls. Catch 22.
In addition to currency issues, the countless expropriations of private property and interventionist practices by the national government substantially elevate the risk of investing or running a business.
For instance, in November 2013, the government undertook several electronic stores (one of them a national chain equivalent to Best Buy) and forced them to charge what is deemed by the government as fair prices. This eventually was extended to other rubrics, forcing many to close down shop, or simply remain open until their current inventory ran out. Moreover, in January, the government passed the Fair Price Law, which sets a maximum percentage of profit that businesses are allowed to add to their prices.
The picture remains grim as protests that started in February to denounce shortages, among other things, continue unabated. The government has promised to ease some of these controls to allow shelves to be restocked and businesses to reopen their doors. However, as of today no substantial changes in economic policy have been put in place.
– Sahar Abi Hassan