A recent internal document from Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA, verifies that they have fallen behind in payments by some $750 million in a Chinese and Russian oil-for-loan program to Venezuela.
The shipments of oil comes at a time when Venezuela is on the brink of running out of money, which could perpetuate social, economic, and possibly political collapse. Further, Russia and China have provided a total of $55 billion in credit to the beleaguered nation; and with oil accounting for the vast majority of Venezuela’s export revenue, this brings on another crisis it is ill-equipped to handle at this time.
Venezuela is already suffering from triple-digit inflation, food shortages reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, and currency devaluation similar to Weimar Germany. Credit rating house Fitch has reports that PDVSA’s default is probable as well. The main reason behind this dire economic outlook is the Maduro administration’s habit of using loans from China and Russia to finance social benefits and infrastructure.
Now that Fitch has provided new insight, along with internal documents showing the operational failures and crippling impact PDVSA struggles are having on Venezuela’s solvency, bigger questions need to be asked by China and Russia moving forward about falling oil prices and geopolitical stability in South America.
As of the end of January, PDVSA still owed both countries’ oil firms close to 10 million barrels of not just crude, but a refined product as well. Currently, shipments from PDVSA are being delayed by at least 10 months, and China’s state-run China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is owed another 3.2 million barrels of crude. According to a daily press briefing by Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang last month: “China has paid great attention to its relationship with Venezuela, and at present, Venezuela’s providing oil to China to repay the loan is basically normal.”
So far the Kremlin hasn’t been outspoken on the matter and allowed Russian state-run firm Rosneft to take the lead since they are also owed $5 billion in oil by Venezuela.
The biggest question for both countries will be understanding the nature of falling oil prices over the short-term, and how that relationship coincides with Venezuela’s financial problems. OPEC now has near 100% compliance on its production cut, but world oil markets still aren’t seeing prices rise sufficiently. That’s because gains are being offset by U.S. shale production that has increased US production to nearly 9 million barrels per day. What this means for Venezuela is that prices aren’t moving upward anytime soon. Ultimately, in a low-price environment, Venezuela will continue having a tough time meeting their oil-for-loans obligations to China and Russia.
Onerous for Venezuela is the looming threat of entering into some type of receivership agreement with both nations. These loans and the subsequent payment structures were entered into when oil was much higher than its current range of $50-60 a barrel. It’s a never ending swirl of hopelessness for Venezuela and the PDVSA, because what they need to be doing is shipping crude to countries such as the U.S. and India who would pay in desperately-needed cash. Instead, with this $55 billion figure hanging over them, they can’t meet their loans obligations.
In the words of Francisco Monaldi, a fellow in Latin American Energy Policy at the Baker Institute in Houston, Texas:
“What falling oil prices mean are heavier debts and the PDVSA is taking a legal risk by postponing cargoes to key customers (China and Russia) and a financial risk if it also delays deliveries to customers who pay by cash. And if the PDVSA can’t meet its obligations to Russia and China, the countries could recover money through projects or assets outside of the oil sector.”
These Chinese and Russian financing mechanisms offer Venezuela and the PDVSA repayment flexibility, so what could have turned into an escalation will more than likely discreetly play out through diplomatic channels. Yet the yield on Venezuelan bonds is 21% higher than benchmark U.S. Treasury bonds, adding further pressure on Venezuela on the issue of who to pay first – bondholders, China, or Russia (for that matter, will they even have the money to pay anyone?). Madura could be presiding over an insolvent failed state this year.
Whatever Russia and China have said in public, or more importantly what they have not said, won’t stay that way much longer. Particularly for Russia, which can ill afford to float billions in loans when its own economy is failing due to sanctions from the Ukraine crisis and lower oil prices. Another pressing question for China and Russia is: What happens if Venezuela defaults on its bonds and oil repayments? Each country would be able to demand prompt payment on defaulted bonds, but then does the Trump administration allow Russia to take over Citgo? Citgo is a U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA; it has pledged almost half of the firm to Russia as collateral.
The most disturbing part of this entire scenario is that there is no need for Venezuela to be in this kind of terrible economic shape. A 1980 Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report ranked Venezuela the 14th-freest economy in the world, with the “highest standard of living in South America.” Moreover, the largest Venezuelan diaspora community resides in the United States, where they are likely to speak fluent English and have some level of college education, according to the Pew Research Center.
Maybe Venezuelans will rise up and do away with the legacy of leftist leaders who have dragged down the fortunes of their country. While Daniel Ortega was again reelected in a landslide victory in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia is now fighting an uphill battle to remain in charge, and impeachment proceedings removed Dilma Rousseff from office in Brazil. What becomes of Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador will be telling, since the citizen’s revolution law prevents him from running for a fourth term. Will he rise again, Putin-like, in future elections?
Corruption and repression have ruined Venezuela. As Latin America moves toward the center-right, one can only surmise that China and Russia will want their loans paid back. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and it isn’t hard to imagine both countries allowing democratic-authoritarians along the lines of Singapore or a centrist, Trump-type of figure to assume power under the guise of rebuilding the economy to pay back their loan obligations. Anything is possible when it comes to billions of dollars, and the looming failed state of Venezuela.