Showing posts with label hugo chavez. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hugo chavez. Show all posts

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why ‘chiflados’ in Caracas infuriate Colombians

Colombia and Venezuela haven’t always been the best of friends over the last 15 years, since the late Hugo Chavez swept to power. However, here in Bogota, the Oilholic finds relations between the two neighbours at an all time low, largely down to a select bunch of “chiflados oportunistas en Caracas” (loosely translated as opportunistic crackpots in Caracas), who blame everyone but themselves for  the effects their own mad economic policies, say locals.

But first some background – A general election is slated for 6 December in Venezuela with oil nowhere near the three-figure per barrel price the country needs to balance its budget. Regional analysts fear a sovereign default and monthly inflation according to independent forecasts is in double figures as Caracas hasn’t published official data for a while (even the fudged version). Meanwhile, industrial production is in doldrums as the government continues to print money. 

The Venezuelan Bolivar’s official exchange rate to the dollar is VEF6.34, but you’d be lucky if anyone in Bogota or elsewhere in Latin America would be willing to exchange the greenback for VEF635; forget the decimal point! Price controls and availability have played havoc with what Venezuelans can and cannot buy. More often than not, it is no longer a choice in a country that famously ran out of loo rolls last year. So what does President Nicolas Maduro do? Why blame it all on “conspirators” in Colombia! 

Now hear the Oilholic out, as he narrates a tale of farce, as narrated to him by an economics student at the local university, which this blogger has independently verified. With the Venezuelan Bolívar more or less not quite worth the paper its printed on – as explained above – most of the country’s citizens (including Chavistas, and quite a few regional central banks if rumours are to be believed) – turn to DolarToday, or more specifically to the website’s twitter account, to get an unofficial exchange rate based on what rate the Bolívar changes hands in Cucuta, a Colombian town near the border with Venezuela (The website currently puts the Bolivar just shy of VEF800 to the dollar). 

It is where Venezuelans and Colombians meet to exchange cheap price-controlled fuel, among other stuff from the false economy created by Caracas, to smuggle over to Colombia. The preferred currency, is of course, the Colombian peso, as the dollar’s exchange rate to the Bolívar is calculated indirectly from the value of the peso with little choice to do anything else but. 

The final calculation is extremely irregular, as the Colombian peso itself grapples with market volatility, but what the fine folks in Cucata come up with and DolarToday reports is still considered a damn sight better than the official peg, according to most contacts in Colombia and beyond, including the narrator of the story himself. 

So far so much for the story, but what conclusions did President Maduro take? Well in the opinion of the Venezuelan President, DolarToday is a conspiracy by the US, their pals in Colombia and evil bankers to wreck Venezuela’s economy; as if it needs their help! Smuggling across the border and of course food shortages in the country have been promptly blamed on private enterprise players “without scruples” and Colombians, carefully omitting Venezuela’s National Guard personnel, without whose alleged complicity, it is doubtful much would move across the border.

Maduro subsequently closed the border crossing from Tachira, Venezuela to Norte de Santander, Colombia earlier this quarter. He also announced special emergency measures in 13 Venezuelan municipalities in proximity of the Colombian border. The shenanigans prompted an angry response form President Juan Manuel Santos, Maduro’s counterpart in Bogota. Both countries recalled their respective ambassadors in wake of the incident. 

However, in line with the prevalent theme of finding scapegoats, Maduro’s government didn’t stop there. Nearly 2,000 Colombians have been deported from Venezuela, according newspapers here. Another 20,000 have fled back to Colombia, something which President Santos has described as a humanitarian crisis. Santos also chastised Venezuela at the Organisation of American States (OAS) noting that Caracas was blaming its “own economic incompetence on others” (translating literally from Spanish).

The Colombian President might well have felt aggrieved but he need not have bothered. The chiflados in Caracas know what they are. For example, when Venezuela was hit by an outbreak of chikungunya (last year), a disease marked by joint pains and bouts of fever according to the WHO website, the government’s response was as removed from reality as it currently is when it comes to DollarToday and smuggling across the Colombia-Venezuela border.

At the time, a group of doctors west of Caracas calling for emergency help saw their leader accused of leading a “terrorist campaign” of misinformation. With a warrant was issued for his arrest, the poor man fled the country. Close to 200,000 were affected according media sources outside of Venezuela but government statistics put the figure below 26,500. 

Each time economists and independent analysts challenge any data published by PDVSA or INE or any Venezuelan government institution, it is dismissed by Caracas as “politically motivated.” And so the story goes with countless such examples, albeit an international spat like the one with Colombia are relatively rare. Maduro is also miffed with neighbouring Guyana at the moment, for allowing ExxonMobil to carry out oil exploration in “disputed waters” which prompted a strong response at the UN from the latter.

Expect more nonsense from Caracas as the Venezuelan election approaches. However, here’s one telling fact from Colombian experts to sign off with – over the past year the Venezuelan Bolívar’s value has plummeted by 93% against the peso in the unofficial market. Now that’s something. 

The Oilholic tried to change pesos for the bolivar officially in the Colombian capital, but found few takers and got lots of strange looks! That’s all from Bogota for the moment folks as one heads to Peru! Back here later in the month, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!   

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Plaza de Bolívar, Bogota, Colombia © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Iran is miffed at (some in) OPEC?

The talking is over, the ministers have left the building and the OPEC quota ‘stays’ where it is. However, one OPEC member – Iran – left Vienna more miffed and more ponderous than ever. Why?

Well, if you subscribe to the school of thought that OPEC is a cartel, then it ought to come to the aid of a fellow member being clobbered from all directions by international sanctions over its nuclear ambitions. Sadly for Iran, OPEC no longer does, as the country has become a taboo subject in Vienna.

Even the Islamic Republic’s sympathisers such as Venezuela don’t offer overt vocal support in front of the world’s press. Compounding the Iranians’ sense of frustration about their crude exports being embargoed is a belief, not entirely without basis, that the Saudis have enthusiastically (or rather "gleefully" according to one delegate) stepped in to fill the void or perceived void in the global crude oil market.

Problems have been mounting for Iran and are quite obvious in some cases. For instance, India – a key importer – is currently demanding that Iran ship its crude oil itself. This is owing to the Indian government’s inability to secure insurance cover on tankers carrying Iranian crude. Since July, EU directives ban insurers in its 27 jurisdictions from providing cover for shipment of Iranian crude.

Under normal circumstances, Iranians could cede to the Indian demand. But these aren’t normal circumstances as the Iranian tanker fleet is being used as an oversized floating storage unit for the crude oil which has nowhere to go with the speed that it used to prior to the imposition of sanctions.

The Obama administration is due to decide this month on whether the USA will renew its 180-day sanction waiver for importers of Iranian oil. Most notable among these importers are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. US Senators Robert Menendez (Democrat) and Mark Kirk, have urged President Obama to insist that importers of Iranian crude reduce their purchase contracts by 18% or more to get the exemption.

So far, Japan has already secured an exemption while decisions on India, South Korea and China will be made before the end of the month. If the US wanted to see buyers cut their purchases progressively then there is clear evidence of this happening. Two sources of the Oilholic’s, in the shipping industry in Singapore and India, suggested last week that Iranian crude oil exports are down 20% on an annualised basis using November 23 as a cut off date. However, a December 6 Reuters' report by their Tokyo correspondent Osamu Tsukimori suggested that the annualised drop rate in Iranian crude exports was actually much higher at 25%.

Of the countries named above, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been the most aggressive in cutting Iranian imports. But the pleasant surprise (for some) is that India and China have responded too. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Chinese and Indian imports of Iranian crude were indeed dipping in line with US expectations.

When the Oilholic visited India earlier this year, the conjecture was that divorcing its oil industry from Iran’s would be tricky. Some of those yours truly met there then, now agree that Iranian imports are indeed down and what was stunting Iranian exports to India was not the American squeeze but rather the EU’s move on the marine insurance front.

If Iran was counting on wider support within OPEC, then the Islamic republic was kidding itself. That is because the Organisation is itself split. Apart from the Iraqis having their own agenda, the Saudis and Iranians never get along. This splits the 12 member block with most of Iran’s neighbours almost always siding with the Saudis. Iran’s most vocal supporter Venezuela, is currently grappling with what might (or might not) happen to President Hugo Chavez since he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

Others who support Iran keep a low profile for the fear of getting embroiled in diplomatic wrangling which does not concern them. So all Iran can do is moan about OPEC not taking ‘collective decisions’, hope that Chinese patronage continues even if in a diminished way and stir up disputes about things such as the appointment of the OPEC Secretary General.

The dependency of Asian importers on Iranian crude is not going to go overnight. However, they are learning to adapt in fits and starts as the last 6 months have demonstrated. This should worry Iran.

That’s all from Vienna folks! Since it’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen and check-in for the last British Airways flight out to London, the Oilholic leaves you with a view of his shadow on a sun soaked, snow-capped garden at Schönbrunn Palace. Christmas is fast approaching but even in the season of goodwill, OPEC won’t or for that matter can’t come to Iran’s aid while the US and EU embargo its exports. Even cartels, if you can currently call OPEC one, have limits. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Empty OPEC briefing room podium following the end of the 162nd meeting of ministers, Vienna, Austria. Photo 2: Schönbrunn Palace Christmas market © Gaurav Sharma 2012.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On another BP sale, another Chavez term & more

A not so surprising news flash arrived this week that BP has finally announced the sale of its Texas City refinery and allied assets to Marathon Petroleum for US$2.5 billion. A spokesperson revealed that the deal included US$600 million in cash, US$1.2 billion for distillate inventories and another US$700 million depending on future production and refining margins.
Following the Carson oil refinery sale in California, the latest deal ratchets BP’s asset divestment programme up to US$35 billion with a target of US$38 billion within reach. It is time for the Oilholic to sound like a broken record and state yet again that – Macondo or no Macondo – the oil major would have still divested some of its refining and marketing assets regardless.
However, for fans of the integrated model – of which there are quite a few including ratings agencies who generally rate integrated players above R&M only companies – the head of BP's global R&M business Iain Conn said, "Together with the sale of our Carson, California refinery, announced in August, the Texas City divestment will allow us to focus BP's US fuel investments on our three northern refineries."
Things have also picked-up pace on the TNK-BP front. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that BP’s Russian partners in the venture Alfa Access Renova (AAR) would rather sell their stake than end-up in a ‘devalued’ partnership with Kremlin-backed rival Rosneft. On Wednesday, the Russian press cited sources claiming a sale of BP’s stake to Rosneft has the full backing of none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Now that is crucial.

On a visit to Moscow and Novosibirsk back in 2004, the Oilholic made a quick realisation based on interaction with those in the know locally – that when it comes to natural resources assets the Kremlin likes to be in control. So if BP and the Russian government have reached some sort of an understanding behind the scene, AAR would be best advised not to scream too loudly.
Another hypothesis gaining traction, in wake of AAR’s intention to sell, is that instead of being the seller of its stake in TNK-BP, the British oil major could now turn buyer. BP could then re-attempt a fresh partnership with Rosneft; something which it attempted last year only for it to be scuppered by AAR.
There can be any amount of speculation or any number of theories but here again a nod from the Kremlin is crucial. Away from ‘British Petroleum’ (as Sarah Palin and President Obama lovingly refer to it in times of political need) to the British Government which reiterated its support for shale exploration earlier this week.
On Monday, Minister Edward Davey of UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) expressed hopes of lifting a suspension on new shale gas exploration. It was imposed in 2011 following environmental concerns about fracking and a series of minor earthquakes in Lancashire triggered by trial fracking which spooked the nation. In near sync with Davey, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that he was considering a 'generous new tax regime' to encourage investment in shale gas.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Hugo Chavez is back as president of Venezuela for another six year stint. This means it will be another rendezvous in Vienna for the Oilholic at the OPEC meeting of ministers in December with Rafael Ramirez, the crude Chavista likely to be hawkish Venezuela’s man at the table. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles believed in change, but sadly for the Venezuelan economy grappling with mismanagement of its ‘crude’ resources and 20% inflation, he fell short.
On January 10, 2012 when Chavez will be inaugurated for another term as Venezuela's president, he will be acutely aware that oil accounts for 50% of his government’s revenue and increasingly one dimensional economy. Bloomberg puts Chinese lending to Venezuela between 2006 and 2011 at US$42.5 billion. In a staggering bout of frankness, Ramirez admitted in September that of the 640,000 barrels per day (bpd) that Venezuela exported to China, 200,000 bpd went towards servicing government debt to Beijing.
The country's oil production is hardly rising. Just as Chavez’s health took a toll from cancer, national oil company PDVSA has not been in good health either. Its cancer is mismanagement and underinvestment. Most would point to an explosion in August when 42 people perished at the Amuay refinery – Venezuela’s largest distillate processing facility as an example. However, PDVSA has rarely been in good health since 2003 when it fired 40% of its workforce in the aftermath of a general strike aimed at forcing Chavez from power.
Staying with Latin America, the US Supreme Court has said it will not block a February 2011 judgement from an Ecuadorean court that Chevron must pay US$19 billion in damages for allegedly polluting the Amazonian landscape of the Lago Agrio region. The court’s announcement is the latest salvo in a decade-long legal tussle between Texaco, acquired by Chevron in 2001, and the people of the Lago Agrio.
The Ecuadorians and Daryl Hannah (who is not Ecuadorian) wont rejoice as Chevron it is not quite done yet. Far from it, the oil major has always branded the Ecuadorian court’s judgement as fraudulent and not enforceable under New York law. It has also challenged it under an international trade agreement between the US and Ecuador.
The latter case will be heard next month – so expect some more ‘crude’ exchanges and perhaps some stunts from Ms. Hannah. That’s unless she is under arrest for protesting about Keystone XL! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’ or Elle Driver might come after you!
© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: East Plant of the Texas City Refinery, Texas, USA © BP Plc

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

OPEC hawks are back in town (too)!

So the crude games have begun, the camera crews have begun arriving and the Saudis have begun throwing down the gauntlet by first suggesting that OPEC actually raise its output and then indicating that they might well be happy with the current production cap at 30 million bpd. However, hawks demanding a cut in production are also in Vienna in full flow.

With benchmark crude futures dipping below US$100, the Venezuelans say they are “concerned” about fellow members violating the agreed production ceiling. In fact, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expressed his sentiments directly over the air-waves rather than leave it to his trusted minister at the OPEC table - Rafael Ramirez.

For his part, on arrival in Vienna, Ramirez said, “We are going to make a very strong call in the meeting that the countries that are over-producing cut. We think we need to keep the ceiling on production of 30 million that was agreed at our last meeting in December."

Iraq's Abdul Kareem Luaibi, told a media scrum that a “surplus in OPEC supplies” exists which has led to “this severe decline in prices in a very short time span.” Grumblings also appear to be coming from the Algerian camp, while the Kuwaitis described the market conditions as “strange.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Kuwait’s Oil Minister Hani Hussein said, “Some of OPEC members are concerned about the prices and what’s happening…about what direction prices are taking and production.”

However, Hussein refused to be drawn into a discussion over a proposed OPEC production cut by the hawks.

Meanwhile, one cartel member with most to fear from a dip in the crude price – Iran – has also unsurprisingly called for an adherence to the OPEC production quota. Stunted by US and EU sanctions, it has seen its production drop to 3 million bpd - the lowest in eight quarters. Much to its chagrin, regional geopolitical rival Saudi Arabia has lifted its global supply to make-up the absence of Iranian crude in certain global markets.

At the cartel’s last meeting in December, OPEC members agreed to hold ‘official’ output at 30 million bpd. Yet, extra unofficial production came from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait. Say what you will, the Oilholic is firmly in the camp that a reintroduction of individual OPEC quotas to help the cartel control its members’ production is highly unlikely. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo: Broadcast media assembly point outside OPEC HQ, Vienna, Austria © Gaurav Sharma 2011.