Raymond, like most Venezuelans loves "arepas." The staple of the "Bolivar Republic" is made from corn flour and is like a thicker pita bread consumed at every meal. "I haven't had an arepa in months," he says full of longing. Corn flour is cheap to produce and has always been very inexpensive. Herein lies the crux of the Venezuelan economic crisis.
I was supposed to fly to Cuba yesterday. Hurricane Irma had other plans. Most of downtown Havana was under water and so my flight to Havana from Turkey via Caracas never made it to Havana. Great! Venezuela during an economic crisis, a financial columnist's dream detour!
As an accidental tourist with only a day to spare, I got right to work. Supermarkets in upper class neighborhoods. Bodegas in the slums. I saw whatever I could see, thanks to my cabbie Raymond, lover of arepas.
Back to the corn flour crisis. The problem is the government has set the price of corn flour at approximately 1 Bolivar per kilo. The actual price to produce corn flour is thousands of times higher. The news reports of long lines all over Venezuela for food sounded like "fake news" to me. The pictures appeared exaggerated, the network correspondents too hammy. The country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world was poor? The people hungry? "Come on," I thought.
When you land in Caracas you notice the currency exchange office is curiously shuttered. There are no ATMs in sight. The official rate of exchange is listed as 10 Venezuelan Bolivars per U.S. dollar. A quick google search yields many rates. Five thousand Bolivars per dollar. Seventeen thousand. Twenty-two thousand. Every news report ages at light speed in this atmosphere of hyperinflation.
I get in a cab and ask Raymond to exchange dollars for Bolivars. "How many dollars?" he asks. "Five." "I can exchange $4" he says. He hands over a wad of cash, 80 thousand Bolivars. Apparently the exchange rate is somewhere near 20 thousand Bolivars per dollar. Back to corn flour. Remember the government wants producers to sell their corn flour for 1 Bolivar. Retail. That's $0.0005. One-twentieth of 1 cent. Anyone who sells government regulated goods at higher prices is punishable by hefty fines and jail time. Supply never meets demand. No corn flour has been sold in Venezuela in months. The pictures of empty shelves are true, but only for government regulated products. Everything else is available just very expensive compared to local salaries.
This week the government increased government salaries to a minimum of 350,000 Bolivars or about $17. The cap at withdrawals, however, is 10,000 Bolivars a day. This means long lines at ATM machines because cash in the bank is a depreciating asset. If you have cash, you spend it now.
At the pump you pay less than a cent for gas. A meal at an expensive restaurant costs $3. A visit to a supermarket is quite interesting. At the "Magdalena Supermercato" there were two security guards stationed per aisle. Goods have replaced currency as a means of transferring payment. The long lines at supermarkets are only for goods that are government regulated. The police and military are everywhere. Armed robbery is common. The streets are deserted after dark. Food lines are carefully patrolled. "Almost everyone in line is buying to sell," says Raymond as we pass a bread line. News of food that is regulated, like bread, spreads. An instant food line forms. Hundreds of people buy bread for 1 Bolivar or less and turn around and sell the same loaf for 20 Bolivars or more for those that missed the line.
Not all are suffering, however. Government insiders are borrowing heavily from government banks in Bolivars. Converting them to U.S. dollars at the official rate of 10 Bolivars to $1. Converting 0.005 percent of the dollars they get for Bolivars, paying off their debt, pocketing 99.995 percent of the loan, and starting off the entire process all over. Billionaires are made every day in today's Venezuela.
This crisis won't last long. It can't. My solution? Venezuela is oil-rich. State you will sell oil in Bolivars in three months time without specifying a price. An immediate reversal of the exchange rate will occur. A month later, sell a barrel of oil for 17,500 Bolivars. The exchange rate immediately becomes 350 Bolivars to the U.S. dollar. Minimum wage jumps to $1,000 a month. Prices stabilize if they haven't already ahead of the announcement. Corn flour is produced again.
Those who hoarded Bolivars are suddenly ultra-wealthy. Print new currency, specify a window for exchange into the new currency. Investigate people that bring trillions of Bolivars in cash to exchange, everyone else becomes well-off over night. Goods flow freely into the country. Modify the exchange rate as necessary. If the elites who stand to lose the most don't remove the president first, problem solved. If.