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Chavez propaganda tool for sale as crisis worsens

First Published      Last Updated Aug 21 2014 11:47 am

Caracas, Venezuela • A decade ago, Hugo Chavez started using Venezuela's Citgo Petroleum Corp. to provide heating oil to the poor in the United States to spread his socialist message. His successor is now seeking to sell the company to stem the South American country's deepening economic crisis.

State-owned producer Petroleos de Venezuela wants at least $10 billion for Citgo, its U.S. refining and distribution arm, company president and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said Aug. 5. Since energy news agency Argus first reported the potential sale July 24, Venezuela's bonds have plunged an average 5.9 percent, the most in emerging markets after Argentina's defaulted debt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The planned sale highlights the increasing financial stress faced by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked replacement, in a country where a dwindling supply of dollars has left shortages of everything from basic medicines to toilet paper, as well as the world's highest inflation rate. Citgo, which has had a recognized brand presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years with about 6,000 gas stations, has also given bondholders confidence they could seize its assets to recoup their money if Venezuela ever defaulted.

"Making motions towards selling these assets signals two things: a liquidity problem within the government and deterioration in the quality of the bonds," Bianca Taylor, a sovereign analyst at Loomis Sayles & Co., which oversees $210 billion, said by telephone from Boston. "In the case of a default there will no longer be those assets."

An official for the state oil producer known as PDVSA, who asked not to be identified because he isn't authorized to speak publicly, declined to comment on the potential divestment of the company's Citgo assets.

Ramirez told reporters on Aug. 5 that Citgo is worth more than $10 billion and that PDVSA has received offers for the Houston-based unit's assets, without providing details on the value of the bids.

"Their value is much, much more," he said.

Argus reported July 24 the government has received offers in the range of $10 billion to $15 billion. PDVSA acquired a 50 percent stake in Citgo in 1986 and has been its sole owner since 1990, according to Citgo's website.

Citgo has a refining capacity of 749,000 barrels a day at its three refineries in Texas, Illinois and Louisiana, markets more than 600 types of lubricants and has 48 petroleum product terminals, three fully-owned pipelines and six jointly owned pipelines. It also operates the sixth-largest U.S. retail gasoline chain through locally owned and operated locations, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Since Maduro succeeded his late mentor Chavez in March 2013, the economy's stagnation has deepened as currency controls crimped imports and factories shut down.

The economy will probably contract by as much as 1 percent this year and next, according to the International Monetary Fund. Annual inflation reached 61 percent in May after the government in March carried out its biggest devaluation since the introduction of currency controls in 2003.

On the black market, the bolivar has lost 56 percent of its value in the past year, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the rate on the Colombian border.

With Venezuela's foreign reserves close to an 11-year low of $20.3 billion, the country has lacked the dollars to pay for imports, triggering shortages of basic goods. Street protests against the government earlier this year left at least 43 people dead.

The sale of Citgo suggests the government's finances are worsening, according to Francisco Rodriguez, an economist at Bank of America. "The news of the planned Citgo sale is negative and has become a catalyst for people who are negative on Venezuela to start selling," he said by phone from New York.

Steffen Reichold, an emerging-market economist at Stone Harbor Investment Partners, which manages around $63 billion of assets, said that while the sale of Citgo would reduce the number of assets bondholders could seize in a default, the move would bolster Venezuela's finances.

"The potential sale could improve the liquidity position quite a bit," he said by telephone from New York.

Reichold said Stone Harbor holds Venezuela's bonds.

Selling Citgo would also prevent companies that have sued Venezuela over contract disputes and expropriations from seizing its U.S. assets as compensation, Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a note to clients Aug. 1.

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