It was almost exactly two years ago when a cash-strapped Venezuela quietly conducted its first, little-noticed gold-for-cash swap with Citigroup, as part of which Maduro converted part of his nation's gold reserves into at least $1 billion in cash courtesy of the US bank. As Reuters reported then, the motive was simple: convert $1 billion of the country's gold into much needed dollars to fund imports and keep the economy from sinking. However, instead of selling the gold outright, a move which would have been met with a firestorm of protests from political opponents and allies alike, Maduro merely leased it to Citi instead.
Specifically, Venezuela provided 1.4 million troy ounces of gold to Citi in exchange for cash. And while Venezuela would have to pay interest on the funds, it got the key benefit of being able to maintain the gold as part of its foreign currency reserves. After all, the gold was "merely rehypothecated", if only on paper, the actual physical gold would be transferred to an unknown vault of Citi's choosing where it would become an asset effectively controlled by the bailed out US ban (there was a brief scare last July when Citi warned it would close the account of the Venezuela Central Bank, which prompted us to ask if Citigroup was about to confiscate $1 billion in Venezuela gold).
While it is still unknown if Citi did in fact confiscate a substantial chunk of Venezuela's sovereign gold, what is worth noting is that even just two years ago, Venezuela was in far better economic and social shape than it is currently, which ultimately prompted Maduro's choice of picking a swap instead of an outright sale of the country's gold. Now, however, with hyperinflation rampant, with daily protests, many of which turn violent and deadly, and with the opposition set to unleash the "mother of all protests" on Wednesday even as Maduro has ordered the army to take to the streets, the president has far fewer qualms about preserving even the illusion of stability at this point. What he does need, however, is access to dollars, be it to pay Venezuela's creditors, provide funds to the cash strapped state-owned energy company PDVSA, or simply to pay the army which is the only thing keeping the nation away from a revolution, and Maduro from facing a deadly endgame.
Which is why Maduro is about to do what he did two years ago, only on a vastly greater scale, and perhaps simply sell Venezuela's gold outright.
That is the allegation made by Venezuela’s opposition, which according to Bloomberg has reached out to Wall Street banks to dissuade them from helping Maduro sell Venezuela's $7.7 billion in gold reserves (as of February) With Venezuela's foreign reserve hoard rapidly declining, gold now represents one of its most valuable assets; total foreign reserves stood at $10.3 billion on Monday, near a 15-year low
The letter sent by the opposition-led congress on Monday to top US banks, warns that Venezuela is going to try to stave off default by seeking to swap its gold reserves into cash, and any investment bank that helps will be effectively “supporting a government recognized by the international community as dictatorial." Furthermore, lawmakers also approved a measure today that they say would nullify any government debt issuance, as well as any debt swaps and pledges of gold as collateral, not explicitly approved by congress.
“The national government, through the central bank, is going to try to swap gold held as reserves for dollars to stay in power unconstitutionally,” according to the letter signed by National Assembly President Julio Borges. “I have the obligation to warn you that by supporting such a gold swap you would be taking actions favoring a government that’s been recognized as dictatorial by the international community.”
Lawmaker Angel Alvarado, a member of the National Assembly’s Finance Committee, said the letter has gone to banks including Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp.
Meanwhile, as Maduro rides a wave of anger over triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of basic staples, investors are trying to determine the odds that the country will continue servicing its debt amid a dollar shortage worsened by the collapse in oil prices.
And speaking of Maduro, on Tuesday evening, speaking on state television the president said he would make declaration later Tuesday. “I will reveal tonight the right wing’s complete plans for the coming days and I will make a special declaration so the republic is alert,” Maduro said, adding that supporters should be alert to “defeat the coup d’etat and intervention.” And then, moments ago, Maduro accused opposition leader Borges of calling for a coup.
As a reminder, we reported yesterday that Maduro has ordered the army into the streets as the insolvent nation braces for what the opposition has vowed will be the "mother of all protests" on Wednesday.
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow's protest, or Maduro's upcoming gold lease or sale, one thing is certain: Hugo Chavez, who spent the last years of his life repatriating Venezuela's gold is spinning in his grave.