Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Venezuela’s Private Sector Anxious to Invest if PDVSA Builds Confidence

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Recent discussions when in Caracas and Maracaibo have made clear that as soon as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, the strategy of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) became “pragmatism” in the face of “necessity.” 

My August 29 AQ Web Exclusive described PDVSA’s scramble for production by enlisting the private sector and by meeting the tough new constraints on loans imposed by Beijing and major foreign oil companies. 

Several Venezuelans, on condition of not being quoted as they do business with PDVSA, related a consistent picture differing only in amount of detail: PDVSA has had to allow delivery of loans directly to large joint ventures (JVs) with major foreign oil companies, surrendering much operational management.  To guarantee timely payment and repatriation of profits, PDVSA delivers oil produced to a third party for marketing abroad, with proceeds put in offshore accounts with JV partners. [1]

But for a near-term production boost, “re-invigorating” tens-of-thousands of mature fields is crucial.  Venezuelan oil executives and analysts generally say investments must begin in a few months, yielding new production six to 12 months thereafter.  And, most feel the state has dollar wiggle room to muddle on for another one to two years.

For example, the Central Bank was given the right to inspect the books of PDVSA, its subsidiariesand social funds—finding perhaps $24 billion in off-budget funds,[2] while controlled prices and/or taxes could also be raised.  But this assumes no big shocks such as natural disasters, mass demonstrations against food and medicine shortages, inflation, insecurity, or prolonged blackouts.

The devastated private sector is clearly anxious to provide goods and services as PDVSA proposes (to cut its dollars spent for imports) and to invest in the mature fields PDVSA is offering (which means finding foreign investors when PDVSA cannot). Two leaders of the private sector, unwilling to be quoted due to the sensitivity of discussions with PDVSA, stressed separately that the key problem blocking cooperation with PDVSA, as discussed in regional conferences and privately with PDVSA President Rafael Ramírez, is a deep “lack of confidence” after years of expropriations and non-payment.  To overcome this, the schema for oil sales by a third party is to pay investors offshore for mature-field JVs that involve a domestic and a foreign investor, thereby building confidence via structural guarantees.  Improving contract terms must also be addressed. 

Meanwhile, one common theme while speaking with insiders in Venezuela is that mature-field re-invigoration is lucrative, and returns rather rapid.  A national private sector leader stressed that many Lake Maracaibo fields offered by PDVSA don’t even need production enhancement but were simply “turned off” when nationalized.

Naturally, the risks of doing business with a Bolivarian PDVSA are hotly debated.  However, as a skeptical veteran entrepreneur told me, “They have no choice; if they don’t work with PDVSA, things will go straight to zero.” That is, a PDVSA collapse is also collapse for business and the nation’s future, regardless of who next sits in the presidential palace.

[1] See also, “Venezuela raises $51 billion in loan-for-crude deals,” Platts Volume 91 / Number 174 / Wednesday, September 4, 2013, by Mery Mogollon.

[2] “Venezuela Ogles Hidden Billions as BofA Says Buy: Andes Credit,”  Bloomberg, 2013-08-09, by Corina Pons and Nathan Crooks

Tags: oil, PDVSA, Venezuela
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