Venezuela goes old school

Airlines such as American Airlines and Delta Airlines are sharply reducing the number of flights they are flying to Venezuela at this time.  The problem is that while they like the flying, they can’t get their money out of Venezuela.

Most recently, American Airlines has said it has over $700 million that it cannot retrieve from the greedy hands of Venezuela’s government.  $700 million is a lot of money for any company and even for an airline, that’s a lot of cash. News reports now say that nearly $4 billion (with a “b”) is being restricted by Venezuela due to currency restrictions in place.

Venezuela (and some other countries) are greatly restricting the amount of foreign currency that can leave the country at any one time.  Because of rampant inflation and hyper-inflation induced by socialist movements in such countries, these nations now have a severe problem is coming up with enough “hard” currency to pay their global bills.

That’s significant when it comes to Venezuela because this is a nation that has had a profitable oil export going on for years.  Typically that brings in more than enough foreign currency to balance outflows for most nations.

The worst of this is that as these balances grow in these countries, they look more and more attractive to hold on to.  $4.9 billion is a lot of money to a nation such as Venezuela.  In fact, it’s about 1% of Venezuela GDP.

Think about that for a moment.  For foreign airlines alone, Venezuela is intentionally restricting as much as 1% of its GDP.

How is this done?  The nation devalues its currency strongly and regularly.  An airline such as American Airlines sell a ticket for say, $200, it’s paid for (in Venezuela) in Venezuelan Bolivars at the official exchange rate.   That exchange rate is set by the government.  But the government changes that rate arbitrarily and lower before that money gets to the airline.  Here is a simplified example:

SuperStar Airlines sells tickets in Venezuela for Bs 1000.00 (One thousand Venezuelan Bolivars).  Juan Diaz purchases a ticket and pays in cash Bs 1000.00.  The exchange rate is (officially set by Venezuela) set at 4 Bolivars to $1 US.  The airline collects this money into a Venezuelan bank account in that currency.  Now, periodically, SuperStar Airlines would like to have that currency sent back to its headquarters in the United States.  But the Venezuelan government makes this very difficult to do because it’s a large sum of money.  Basically, this currency has to be sold for dollars and the only place those dollars can be purchased (legally) is the Venezuelan government.

So the Venezuelan government “sells” dollars for an exchange rate that is set at Bs 5 to $1 and suddenly the money that SuperStar Airlines has is now worth much less.

What makes this worse is that the Venezuelan government is maintaining several different exchange rates that are “official” and those are egregiously unfair to the businesses such as airlines operating to and from that nation.  In addition, the government is devaluing its currency more in the exchange rates that primarily effect foreign businesses.  Furthermore, it’s only permitting a trickle of cash to be exchanged and sent out of the country at a time.

This results in a condition where it just doesn’t make sense to fly to Venezuela.  Actually, it doesn’t make sense to do any business in Venezuela and one could be tempted to call Venezuela the Alitalia of countries at this point.  When you can’t make money and take it back home periodically at a rate that allows you to earn a reasonable profit, you just have to stop doing business in that country.

This is what many airlines are doing now.   One thing that the former President (of Venezuela) Hugo Chavez understood was that he needed foreign businesses to do business in Venezuela and he kept this game at a tolerable level.  New President Maduro and his government is not making it tolerable because to do so means they cannot throw money at their citizens to stay in power.

And staying in power is important.

This is very reminiscent of how many nations in South America operated in the 1960′s, 1970′s and 1980′s.  And it killed those economies.  Airlines had to be very creative with how they got money out of those countries legally.  Braniff was very good at this but even Braniff would find itself doing very odd things from time to time.  For instance, its leather seats came from leather from Argentina. That leather was “exported” by Braniff because they had to buy something to take “value” out of the country.  Leather was a  way to get “value” out of Argentina.   Other times, executives would travel to the Latin American country in question, buy financial instruments of various types (often bonds) and then stuff their suitcases with them and come home.  I know this because that is exactly what my father had to do at Braniff more than once.

When an airline gets to the point that it says it is untenable to continue business in a nation, that’s pretty bad.  Airlines will do business with just about anyone if there is money to be made.

I strongly suspect that Venezuela’s response will be that their airline will fly people where they need to go.  Except . . . how will that airline gets its money out of those countries when they use retaliatory measures (allowed) against Venezuela?  This is only one chapter of a multi-story chapter.  Stay tuned for more.




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