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Mon, Jan 19, 2009 - Page 10 News List

Venezuela shifts cash reserves as oil prices slide

AGENCIES , CARACAS AND ALGIERS

Venezuela is likely to experience rising inflation and limited financing from abroad when President Hugo Chavez takes control of US$12 billion in international reserves, analysts said over the weekend.

Chavez said on Friday the Central Bank was in the process of handing over 28 percent of its nearly US$42 billion in reserves to the government in a bid to maintain broad social spending as oil prices fall.

Venezuela — which relies on oil for nearly half the government’s budget — has seen world oil prices fall more than 70 percent from July’s record highs.

Former Central Bank director Domingo Maza Zavala warned that Venezuela will have difficulty obtaining international financing as the credit market contracts and its diminishing international reserves warn off investors.

Even though Venezuela’s vast oil reserves work as collateral, international reserves reflect on the country’s ability to repay, he said.

“The guarantee that we can call instrumental is the [international] reserves,” Maza Zavala said. “The bigger these reserves are in relation to external debt, the more confidence international creditors will have.”

Under a reform enacted by Chavez four years ago, the Central Bank is obliged to fix an optimal level of international reserves and turn over the rest to a social development fund known as Fonden each year. Some economists and Bank directors contested the decision, saying it hurts the Central Bank’s autonomy.

Caracas-based economist Pavel Gomez said the remaining US$30 billion in optimal reserves established by the bank may not be sufficient to finance debt payments and dollar-denominated imports if the economic situation deteriorates.

An optimal level of reserves “would probably be much higher this year than previous years,” Gomez said.

Venezuela already has the highest official inflation rate in Latin America — closing last year at 30.9 percent. Many economists expect even greater inflation this year, as the Finance Ministry aims for 15 percent.

Separately, OPEC will consider further cuts to oil production if prices continue to fall, Algerian Energy and Mining Minister Chakib Khelil said on Saturday.

OPEC is set to meet in Vienna in March and Khelil said another reduction in output remained a possibility.

“If there is a downward trend at the time of our meeting on March 15, I am sure that everyone would agree on implementing another reduction in oil output to stabilize prices then increase it later,” Khelil was quoted as saying by the APS news agency.

He said he expected the prices to stabilize at around US$45 before “increasing during the third quarter of the year.”

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