Venezuela’s trade confronted with the international financial crisis

An earlier article on this blog looked at Latin America’s trade on the eve of the present international financial crisis and at the implications of this trade pattern for policy to confront this crisis. The present article, within that overall context, looks at the specific situation of Venezuela’s trade.
However the issue of trade cannot be considered separately from other aspects of the unfolding international financial crisis in formulating an adequate policy response. It is therefore worth quoting the general points made regarding Latin America in the earlier article as these apply equally to Venezuela:
‘First, and most fundamental, is that in the international recession private investment will sharply decline or collapse. This is the most important mechanism that will drive the economy deep into recession. Therefore the most fundamental aspect of confronting the economic crisis is that a programme of state investment must be undertaken in order to maintain the overall level of investment in the economy. Such state investment programmes should have both an immediate counter-cyclical objective of preventing a decline in demand in the economy, that is a directly Keynesian aspect, and a strategic one of improving the efficiency of the economy. For this reason, in many cases, the most fruitful forms of investment are in infrastructure.
‘Second, the core of the present international economic crisis is within the financial system. In most countries in the world, including in the US, a programme of nationalisation of banks and financial institutions is therefore being carried out – Citigroup, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley etc.
‘Third, due to the financial crisis, private funding to large enterprises will be squeezed – as seen in the bail out of the US and other countries car industries. Governments are intervening to either take large shareholdings in, or fully nationalise, such companies in return for the financial assistance necessary to sustain them during the downturn.
‘Fourth, due to the financial crisis, private banks will drastically reduce or cease to lend to small and medium enterprises. Therefore new mechanisms, frequently bypassing private banks, must be developed in order to sustain lending to small and medium businesses.
‘Fifth, due to the financial crisis, mortgage lending for housing will severely contract or dry up – in the UK, for example, new mortgage lending has fallen by 80 per cent and a similar process is taking place in the US. This in turn will create a crisis in the house building industry. New mechanisms of lending for housing must be created and strong state intervention in the housing construction industry must be undertaken.
‘Sixth, while such programmes of state investment are geared up it is vital to prevent a decline in demand in the economy by maintaining the living standards and purchasing powers of the population. This should be done, in order to protect the strained position of companies’ finances during the recession, without placing an extra wage costs on enterprises – this may be achieved by measures such as reduction in sales tax or increase in state benefits.
‘Seventh, despite these measures unemployment, particularly due to the situation in the private sector, will rise. Measures of job creation and protection of the unemployed must be reinforced or put in place.
‘Eighth, the international recession has already led to a decline in commodity prices, including oil, which will create decreases in revenues to state budgets. However under conditions of recession all countries are expanding their budget deficits in a Keynesian fashion and therefore there must not be equivalent cuts in state spending to any decline in revenue.
‘It is evident from this list of key measures to deal with the international economic crisis that the policies of the Venezuelan opposition would be catastrophic, and are completely out of line with those being pursued in all other countries, as the opposition seeks to weaken, rather than strengthen, the role of the state in the economy. In all countries in the world a great expansion of the role of the state in the economy is taking place in order to confront the international financial crisis. The policies of the Venezuelan opposition would, therefore, greatly worsen the problems of Venezuela in meeting current international economic problems.
‘Within the overall context outlined above a very important place is occupied by the question of international trade. One of the most important factors leading to the deep economic depression after 1929 was the collapse of international trade. A decline in world trade would also further severely depress the price of commodity exports, including oil, which would greatly increase the budgetary problems of Venezuela. Venezuela, and Latin America as a whole, therefore have a great interest in maintaining international trade during this international economic crisis.’
This article examines overall parameters and objective possibilities of Venezuela’s trade within that overall context of the unfolding of the international economic crisis.
The overall features of Venezuela’s trade may be succinctly summarised. Concerning exports, Venezuela continues to be heavily dependent on exports to industrialised countries and to the US in particular. There has only been, if at all, some marginal shift away from this and the change remains extremely limited. This is the weak point in Venezuela’s trade both strategically and immediately in confronting the international financial crisis. It is impossible in the very short period of time, which is measured in months, available to confront the economic crisis to diversify Venezuela’s export structure sufficiently to compensate for the decline in the value of demand for Venezuelan exports that will come from the US – i.e. no alternative markets for exports can be found quickly enough to compensate for the decrease in US demand. It therefore follows that a programme to counter the economic crisis, in terms of demand, must centre on boosting Venezuela’s domestic economy.
In the field of imports the situation is much more satisfactory. The policy pursued by president Chavez regarding Venezuela’s imports is both in line with the main trends of the development of the world economy in the last period, which is for an increasing share of world trade to come from developing countries, and with the goal of Latin American integration. Trends in the structure of Venezuela’s imports are, therefore, positive both from the strategic point of view and from the more immediate one of confronting the international economic crisis.
Taking exports and imports together the structure of Venezuela’s trade has, therefore, improved during the last ten years. Ten years ago Venezuela was essentially exporting its oil to the US and importing goods from the US. That is, in essence, Venezuela was exchanging oil for US goods.
Such a non-diverse trade structure was both unhealthy in itself and left Venezuela dangerously exposed to developments in the US economy – a danger clearly revealed in the present situation as the centre of the current world economic crisis is in the US. Today, on the contrary, Venezuela is essentially exporting its oil to the US but importing goods from Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia. Therefore in the new trade structure Venezuela is essentially exchanging its oil for goods from Latin America and the Caribbean and from developing Asian economies – the fact that this exchange, in terms of monetary flows, goes via the US should not obscure the essential reality of Venezuela’s new, healthier, trade pattern.
Venezuela’s trade has therefore both developed in line with the main trends in the world economy and is much better structure than it was ten years ago – the key remaining weakness, which will play a negative role in the financial crisis as noted, is the continuing dependence on exports to the US which will take a substantial time to correct.
These trends will now be considered in greater detail.
Considering first the structure of Venezuela’s imports, as is shown in Figure 1 there has been a long term trend for an increasing share of Venezuela’s imports to come from developing countries. This trend started well before President Chavez came to power. Under President Chavez the existing trend has somewhat speeded up but it was not created under his administration.

Figure 1

In 1980 86.4 per cent of Venezuela’s imports came from already industrialised countries and only 13.5 per cent from developing countries. By 2007 56.0 per cent of Venezuela’s imports came from developing countries compared to 43.0 per cent from already industrialised countries. Imports from developing countries overtook those from already industrialised countries for the first time in 2006.
Turning to more detailed trends for Venezuela’s imports by area, these are shown in Figure 2. Imports from Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole have overtaken imports from the US – although the US remains Venezuela’s single largest source of imports from a single country. In 2007 26.6 per cent of Venezuela’s imports were from the US compared to 42.8 per cent from other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Figure 2

Turning to imports from individual countries, in 2007 26.6 per cent of Venezuela’s imports come from the US. The largest country sources of Venezuela’s imports, after the US, are shown in Figure 3. The largest sources of Venezuela’s imports after the US are from Colombia – 13.5 per cent, Brazil – 9.6 per cent, China – 6.7 per cent, and Mexico – 3.1 per cent.
In addition to imports from Latin America and the Caribbean, Venezuela’s imports from developing Asian countries were also rising relatively strongly and by 2007 represented 11.4 per cent of Venezuela’s total imports.

Figure 3

Imports from the European Union have declined from 30.3 per cent of Venezuela’s imports in 1989 to 11.7 per cent in 2007. Imports from other areas are very small.
The overall trend of Venezuela’s imports is therefore clear. The most important source of Venezuela’s imports has now become Latin America and the Caribbean, supplemented by an important increasing trade with developing Asian countries. This is in line with general world trends and is economically normal and healthy – as well as being in line with the goal of Latin American and Caribbean integration.
Turning to exports, analysis is complicated by a long term trend, which predated President Chavez’s election, for an increasing proportion of Venezuela’s exports to be categorised as for ‘non-specific destinations’ – the proportion so categorised increasing from 0.1 per cent of Venezuela’s exports in 1985 to 23.8 per cent in 2007. Statistically this produces a tendency for the reported share of Venezuela’s exports to all specified areas to reduce. To deal with this statistical distortion figures have been calculated both for percentages of Venezuela’s total exports (i.e. the total including exports to ‘non-specific’ destinations) and for the percentage of exports to specified destinations. As will be seen, the detailed export figures differ depending which measure is taken but the fundamental trends to do not alter.
As may be seen from Figure 4, whether total exports are taken, or exports to specified destinations, there is no trend for an increasing share of Venezuela’s exports to go to developing countries in the way that there is one for its imports to come increasingly from developing countries. The share of Venezuela’s exports going to countries that are already industrialised has therefore not fallen.

Figure 4

Considering this in more detail, Figure 5 illustrates the well known fact that Venezuela remains highly dependent on exports to the US.

Figure 5

This trend is not quite as adverse for the overall trade situation as it may appear at first sight if the diversification of imports is taken into account. If monetary flows are ignored, and the actual exchange of commodities taking place is considered, in essence Venezuela is now exchanging its exports of oil for imports of goods from developing countries – although this exchange is taking place via the intermediary of the financial flow of the purchase of oil by the US. While this situation is not satisfactory it is a considerable improvement over the previous pattern whereby Venezuela depended for both exports and imports on trade with the US.
Nevertheless this situation of export dependency on the US is undoubtedly dangerous for Venezuela’s economy strategically – as it revealed clearly by its consequences in the current international economic crisis.
The centre of world financial crisis is in the United States, and the US economy is moving into severe recession. Under those circumstances there will be a very significant reduction in US demand for Venezuelan oil in terms of the value purchased and very probably also in physical volume. Its dependence on the US for oil exports therefore constitutes an undoubted considerable danger for Venezuela both strategically and within the immediate financial crisis. This justifies the stated goal of the Venezuelan government to move away from excessive reliance on exports to the US. But it is clear that this goal cannot be achieved quickly and certainly not in time to seriously mitigate its adverse consequences in an international economic crisis that has already begun.
Considering possibilities for diversification of exports the percentage of Venezuelan exports to individual industrialised countries and areas are shown in Figure 5. As may be seen, Venezuela’s exports to both the European Union and Japan have been persistently falling as a percentage of its total exports. The share of the European Union in Venezuela’s total exports fell from 18.9 per cent in 1980 to 7.7 per cent in 2007. The share of Japan in Venezuela’s total exports fell from 3.5 per cent in 1980 to 0.5 per cent in 2007. These long term trends confirm the dependence of Venezuela on oil exports to the US and also indicates that the European Union and Japan are cannot be serious alternative markets for diversification of Venezuela’s oil exports.
Turning to Venezuela’s exports to developing countries these are shown in Figure 7, for the percentage of exports going to specified destinations, and in Figure 8 for the percentage of total exports. Again the detailed figures will be seen to differ with the different classifications but the fundamental trends remain identical.

Figure 6

As may be seen, the percentage of Venezuela’s exports going to developing European countries, to the Middle East, and to developing countries in Eastern Europe is extremely small. The percentage of Venezuela’s exports going to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean is significant but has been falling significantly – in 2007 40.4 per cent of Venezuela’s exports to specified destinations were to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean whereas by 2007 this had fallen to 21.3 per cent. Venezuela’s exports to developing Asian countries has been rising but is still low – the percentage of Venezuela’s exports to specified destinations going to developing Asian countries rose from 0.6 per cent in 2000 to 5.1 per cent in 2007.

Figure 7

The only developing countries to which Venezuelan exports have significantly increased are Cuba, essentially in exchange for health and other services, and China – Cuba now accounts for 3.9 per cent of Venezuela’s exports to specified destinations and China for 4.1 per cent. Given its extremely large and rapidly growing economy, the second largest in the world in real terms, there is considerable potential in principle for Venezuela to increase exports to China – China is now the second largest individual country market for Venezuelan exports although exports to this market are still so far only one tenth of the size of the US one. The fact that Venezuela faces the Atlantic and not the Pacific is also a limiting factor on oil exports to China.It is therefore clear that while great progress has been made is a more satisfactory structure of imports great difficulties exist for Venezuela in diversifying exports and this will be a medium and long term process.
To summarise again while Venezuela’s trade situation is not satisfactory considerable progress has been made in improving its structure of Venezuela’s trade. However, while such progress is important strategically it is necessary to be extremely realistic when considering the possibilities flowing from trade in regard to the present international economic crisis. It will not be possible to diversify Venezuela’s exports in the short term sufficiently to compensate in the field of international trade for the severe recession that is developing in the US. The main emphasis in a programme to confront the international financial crisis for Venezuela must therefore be stimulation of its domestic economy.

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