How Will Chavez Move All That Gold?

| Aug. 24, 2011 |

Published by Minyanville

After President Hugo Chávez’s somewhat surprising announcement last week that he would be bringing all of Venezuela’s gold back to Caracas, as well as reorganizing the country’s cash reserves, many have wondered exactly how the maverick leader will achieve the feat.

Chávez has already formally requested the 99 tons of gold that the country holds in the Bank of England, and will add to that the other 112 tons of the precious metal it holds across the world. “We’ve held 99 tons of gold at the Bank of England since 1980. I agree with bringing that home,” Chávez said on state television last week.

However, the actual movement of the cargo, with a value of $12.3 billion, will be one of the biggest physical gold transfers in history, competing with the Spanish government’s movement of 560 tons of gold from Madrid to Moscow in 1936, as General Franco approached.

The gold comes in the form of around 17,000 standard 400-ounce bars which are held in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Switzerland. The repatriation of gold, and the reorganization of the country’s foreign reserves, is ostensibly political, with Chávez wanting to end the “dictatorship” of the US dollar. Practically, however, the move is thought to be an attempt to counter any forthcoming sanctions following Venezuela’s frequent expropriations of foreign companies.

However, the task itself may prove too Herculean to handle. While billions of dollars worth of gold is transferred every day, very little of it is physical. “The market in physical gold is tiny and largely comprised of nutcases,” says Reuters’ Nick Rizzo.

Since there is such a high value of gold to be transferred, it could not all be done in a single trip as no insurer would be willing to underwrite the journey. Traders have suggested that 40 or so trips would be necessary. “It’s going to be quite a task,” one gold banker told the Financial Times. “Logistically, I’m not sure if the Central Bank realizes the magnitude of the task ahead of them.”

There are a number of options at the Venezuelan authorities’ disposal. One is to transport the gold in a number of trips, all insured at market value. Another would be to transport the gold using the country’s own resources, such as the Navy. Or Chávez could “get clever,” suggests Felix Salmon of Reuters, by noting that gold is fungible.

“People are actually willing to pay a premium to buy gold which is sitting in the Bank of England’s ultra-secure vaults,” writes Salmon. “So why bother transporting that gold at all?” The Venezuelan gold could be sold to a third party who would then promise to provide Caracas with an agreed amount of the metal by a certain date. There would be no requirement that the gold come from the vaults where the Venezuelan material was once held.

Chávez, as per usual, has taken the facetious route as he counters concerns that Venezuela’s Central Bank doesn’t have the vault space to hold all of the gold. “If there isn’t enough room to store the gold in the Central Bank vaults, I can lend you the basement of the Miraflores presidential palace,” he said.

The president is back in Venezuela after completing a second round of chemotherapy in Cuba. He claims now to be free of cancer, thanking his doctors: “The first doctor is named Jesus of Nazareth, the highest of healers. The second is Fidel (Castro) and the third is the medical (team),” Chávez told Venezuelan state television.

The Economist has lambasted Venezuela’s economy, dubbing its policies “medieval,” in a piece focusing on the country’s soaring inflation which runs at 25.1% over the last 12 months. The pending Law for Fair Costs and Prices is designed to force prices to be set by the government, which will take production costs into account. These controls would add to already existing ones, widening the range of products they apply to.

The move is being criticized across the board, says the London magazine. It cites Heinz Dieterich, a Mexican-German academic who was until recently a supporter of Chávez. He has called the law the product of “hallucinations,” adding that the medieval idea of “just price” was “a phantasmagoric projection like God or the Holy Spirit.”

In the late 1980s, the government in Venezuela of Jaime Lusinchi brought in similar legislation. The Economist points out that within the first three years, annual inflation rose from 16% to 40%, eventually topping 100%.

“Changing and arbitrary laws, price and exchange controls and other distorting and unpredictable economic measures have undermined private-sector investment and hurt productivity,” said Standard & Poor’s on Friday, as it lowered Venezuela’s sovereign currency rating once notch from BB-minus to B-plus, with a stable outlook.