Venezuela Is Heading for a Soviet-Style Collapse

posted by Jay Weber - 

via BY ANDERS ASLUND / FP


Venezuela is not the first developed country to put itself on track to fall into a catastrophic economic crisis. But it is in the relatively unusual situation of having done so while in possession of enormous oil assets. There aren’t many precedents to help understand how this could have happened and what is likely to happen next.

There is, however, at least one — the Soviet Union’s similar devastation in the late 1980s. Its fate may be instructive for Venezuela — which is not to suggest Venezuelans, least of all the regime of Nicolás Maduro, will like what it portends.

Venezuela has been ailing ever since the decline in oil prices that started in June 2014, and there is no reason to think this trend will shift anytime soon. Energy prices move in long quarter-century circles of one decade of high prices and one decade of low prices, so another decade of low prices is likely. Similarly, the biggest economic blow to the Soviet Union was the fall in oil prices that started in 1981 and got worse from there.

But the deeper problem for the Soviet Union wasn’t the oil price collapse; it’s what came before. In his book Collapse of an Empire, Russia’s great post-Soviet reformer Yegor Gaidar pointed out that during the long preceding oil boom, Soviet policymakers thought that they could walk on water and that the usual laws of economic gravity did not apply to them. Soviet policymakers didn’t bother developing a theory to make sense of their spending. They didn’t even bother paying attention to their results. The math seemed to work out, so they just assumed there was a good reason.

This is as true of the current Venezuelan leaders as it was of the Soviet leaders. The Venezuelan government, though it doesn’t claim to be full-fledged in its devotion to Marxism-Leninism, has been pursuing as absurd an economic policy mix as its Soviet predecessor. It has insisted for years on maintaining drastic price controls on a wide range of basic goods, including food staples such as meat and bread, for which it pays enormous subsidies. Nonetheless the Venezuelan government, like the Soviet Union’s, has always felt it could afford these subsidies because of its oil revenues.

But as the oil price has fallen by slightly more than half since mid-2014, oil incomes have fallen accordingly. And rather than increase oil production, the Venezuelan government has been forced to watch it decline because of its mismanagement of the dominant state-owned oil company, PDVSA.

And now Venezuela seems intent on repeating the Soviet folly of the late 1980s by refusing to change course. This is allowing the budget deficit to swell and putting the country on track toward ultimate devastation.

The Soviet Union in its latter years had a skyrocketing budget deficit, too. In 1986 it exceeded 6 percent of GDP, and by 1991 it reached an extraordinary one-third of GDP. Venezuela is now following suit. The Soviet Union used its currency reserves to pay for imports, but when those reserves shrank, the government financed the budget deficit by printing money. The inevitable result was skyrocketing inflation.


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