What a Real Economic Collapse Looks Like – The Slow Death of Venezuela

Hey, millennials, which socialist nation is about to implode? Did you guess Venezuela? Because its Venezuela.

Food Line
This is what a bread line looks like in the 21st Century.

For those less in the know about what is happening to Venezuela, the country is nearing a total economic collapse, brought about by a decade and a half of total mismanagement by an old-school socialist dictator entirely in keeping with the historical context of South America.

51fPoJuD0OL
The author of this book is completely serious. I mean it.

Once hailed as a hero by such famous radicals as author Tariq Ali and professional curmudgeon Naom Chomsky, Hugo Chavez was the ideal socialist leader for a number of people who would never have to live under his dictatorial reign. Chavez nationalized oil companies and provided extensive programs for Venezuela’s extensive poor. But more than a decade on, and three years following his death Venezuela’s luck has seemingly run out.

Chavez’s hand picked replacement, President Nicolás Maduro, has kept on with Chavez’s well established tradition of blaming all of his nation’s problems on the United States since he took office in 2013. But the reality is that Venezuela has been a victim of it’s own poor planning and it’s outcome entirely predictable.

Having made the cornerstone of it’s economy the export of oil, the nation has suffered greatly for three reasons. First, Dutch Disease, or the result of a rising value of a domestic currency as a result of selling an extensive natural resource. Put simply, nations that sell a lot of oil tend to have a petro-currency, which makes domestic manufacturing less competitive on the global stage.

Mideast Israel Palestinians
On Hugo Chavez, Chomsky said that “for the first time, the country is using…energy resources for its development…in construction and health.”

Second, cronyism; Chavez was old school in his commitment to creating a personality cult around him. Positioning himself as the savior of the poor he did many things to try and improve the lives (and earn the love) of Venezuela’s many impoverished people. But in the course of that he also removed anyone who might be his opposition. From the standpoint of the management of Venezuela’s oil reserves it has meant poor production and no new investment. Oil production fell 25% in the time Chavez ran the country.

Bloomber Venezuela

The last reason is of course the price of oil. As oil prices fell the fragility of the economic system made itself obvious. Today Venezuela is broke and the look of total economic collapse is depressing and scary. Inflation is out of control. Some estimates say inflation will hit 189% this year, while the IMF thinks it will be 720%. To fight the growing poverty, which is now 76% and up from 55% in 1998, the government has hiked the minimum wage by 30%; the twelfth such hike since President Nicolás Maduro took office. Real wages fell last year by 35% and their currency has lost over 90% of its value in two years.

Bolivar vs Dollar

The people of Venezuela now face a frightening prospect that any economic recovery will be decades away, and that the policies followed by their socialist government have made them an outlier from the largely positive trends that have been improving life across many developing nations. But this is not about hypothetical future problems, but current issues. There is no food in Venezuela, no toilet paper, no basic necessities and no prospect for reversing course. In January this year the government told people they would have to begin producing their own food, a follow-up from governments telling farmers that they would have to sell their food to the government at pre-determined prices.

Global Poverty
Global rates of poverty have collapsed and now sit at under 10%. Sadly this isn’t the case for Venezuela. (Read the article here)

Unsurprisingly, none of this bodes well for Venezuela’s population. Violence is a real potential and people are wondering when (or if) Maduro will step down, and whether a government change can occur without violence. So far he has resisted and despite the recent loss of congressional elections he still holds sway over the judiciary and economic appointments. In fact his current economic czar doesn’t believe in inflation. No really.

Archer mem

 

All this leads to some disquieting truths, most important of which is that economic realities catch up to everyone. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the so called “End of History” there has been a growing warmness to socialism by a generation who has never experienced it. Venezuela is a good reminder that bad economic policies are always bad, and the economic challenges we all face, be it poverty, damaging wealth inequliaty, globalised manufacturing or predatory banking do not resolve themselves magically with a flip of the switch and friendly socialist rhetoric. Instead those problems must be solved within the system, not by destroying it.

Ninjutsu Economics – Watch the Empty Hand

First, an apology that we have been on a break from our website. Over the last month we’ve had lots going on that has distracted us from doing our regular writing, but we’re back now for the rest of the summer!

Since 2008 there has been two great themes in investing. One, is the search for yield, or income, from safer investments. The second has been the imminent arrival of a rising interest rate environment which threatens to gobble up everyone’s money. If you aren’t too familiar with monetary policy or even how low interest rates work on the economy, don’t worry. What you need to know is this:

In really bad economic times Keynsian theory states that the government should help the economy by creating inflation through stimulus spending and keeping borrowing rates low. This is often done by printing large amounts of money. The availability of cheap money has an inflationary effect on the market, and the economy is believed to rebound more quickly than it would have if it had simply let businesses fail and people be laid off work.

The flip side is that many believe printing money can lead to serious and even extreme hyper-inflation (not entirely unfounded) that in the long term can be extremely detrimental to the financial health of people. This is the fundamental tension in modern economics that is nicely summed up in the below parody video of John Maynard Keynes vs F.A. Hayek. Should markets be steered or set free? Or put more bleakly, should economies be allowed to collapse or should they be saved in the midst of an enormous financial meltdown?

In the past few years there has been an enormous amount of money printing going on (Keynsian) but at the same time governments have been trying to reduce their debts and deficits (Hayek). But the money printing has many people worried. The printing of billions of dollars globally has many inflation hawks declaring that the end of America is nigh, that the currency will soon be worth nothing and that the older traditional economies are doomed to fail. This concern has seeped into the general consciousness to a great degree and it’s not uncommon for me to get questions about whether the United States is on the verge of some new financial collapse.

I tend towards the contrarian angle however, and encourage you to do the same. So much energy and time has been focused on the threat of inflation, few seem to be watching the encroaching danger from deflation.

What’s deflation? It’s like inflation only much worse, since no one knows how to fix it. Deflation is a self fulfilling prophecy where a decreasing supply of circulating money leads to a drop in general prices for everything (this includes labour and products). On the surface that doesn’t sound too bad, but since people tend to earn less in a deflationary environment your existing debt tends to become ever more burdensome. In the same way that the collapse of the American housing market made many homes less valuable than the mortgages on them, deflation just does it to the whole economy. Japan has been in a deflationary situation for nearly 20 years, with little sign of relief. Even last year’s introduction of the unprecedented Abenomics has yet to produce the kind of inflationary turnaround that Japan is in such desperate need of.

When I look to Canada (and more specifically Toronto) I tend to see many of the signs that deflation looms in the shadows. Borrowing rates are incredibly low, largely to encourage spending. Many small retail spaces sit empty, squeezed out by  rising lease costs. Manufacturing sectors in Ontario continue to suffer, while wages remain stagnant. Canadians are currently sitting with record amount of debt and most growth in Canadian net worth have come through housing appreciation, not through greater wealth preservation. In other words, the things that contribute to a healthy economy like rising incomes and a growing industry base are largely absent from our economy. The lesson here is that when it comes to markets, we should worry more about the issues we ignore than the ones we constantly fret over. It’s the hand you don’t watch that deals the surprising blow!