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Venezuela is experiencing food shortages, political crisis, riots in the streets, and… a stock-market boom?
On paper, a massive rally is underway. But a closer look reveals the move is exactly as incongruous — and suspect as an investment opportunity — as it appears at first glance.
The hitch is that Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, is collapsing amid a trend that economists call hyperinflation. In recent history, a similar problem surfaced in Zimbabwe during the depths of the Great Recession, eventually causing the African country to scrap its currency altogether and reboot its economy using the U.S. dollar as a means of exchange.
A dramatically weaker currency distorts the price of everything, including stocks. Thus the apparent boom in Venezuelan stocks is, perversely, more a reflection of the country’s recent woes than a sign of underlying strength.
The Venezuelan economy has been in free fall for more than two years due to a mix of political and market-based factors. In the latter category, we can start with the collapse in 2014 in the price of crude oil, which is Venezuela’s chief export:
The decline in oil revenue in particular has forced a reckoning after years of socialist policies in which President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, the firebrand Hugo Chavez, tried to nationalize or centrally manage large swaths of the country’s economy. That includes Venezuela’s monetary policy, which of late has been to print more and more bolivars in an effort to stimulate spending.
The abundant supply of bolivars, however, makes each one worth less intrinsically. As a result, prices go up as sellers demand more bolivars for the same goods — the definition of inflation.
This has helped push the price of stocks priced in bolivars much higher as well. The Caracas Stock Exchange’s benchmark IBC Index, which tracks 15 major Venezuelan stocks, is up almost 600 percent over the last 12 months, making it the best-performing in the world in nominal terms. Since 2015, its chart looks like this, a classic “hockey stick.”
Of course, if we were to adjust for the drop in the bolivar, the index’s run wouldn’t be nearly so impressive. The problem is that can’t be done precisely because, like Zimbabwe before it, Venezuela’s government has simply stopped publishing regular inflation data this year.
That said, there are several back-of-the-envelope calculations of Venezuela’s inflation available. The country’s opposition political party recently estimated that inflation was 127.8 percent in the first five months of 2017 — a figure many analysts think is conservative.
The International Monetary Fund projected earlier this year that Venezuelan inflation would be about 43,000 percent, a staggering figure. (For comparison sake, keep in mind the inflation rate in the U.S., a stable, major economy, is currently hovering under 2 percent.)
If the actual rate of inflation is anywhere near the IMF projection, or even some multiple of the low estimate by politicians, it would render any recent “gains” in Venezuelan stocks moot. Throw in the socialist regime’s occasionally ambivalent approach to private-property rights in general, and you have a situation that’s hardly inviting for foreign investors.
Cover: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images