Venezuela Banks Still Face Deficit of Trust

Two-thirds of Venezuela's bank assets are now under the government's administration

EVERY time Alberto Barrera goes to the bank, it's with trepidation.

''I always wonder if it's still going to be open or if I can still get my money out,'' says the young salesman for a central Caracas clothing store. ''It's terrible to have that uncertainty.''

Terrible for Mr. Barrera -- and terrible for Venezuela.

But more than a year after Venezuela's worst banking crisis of the century began with the closing of the country's second largest bank, doubts abound that the crisis has yet touched bottom.

''Of course there will be more closings, because right now the crisis is still handling the government, the government is not handling the crisis,'' says Francisco Faraco, a respected banking consultant here.

Banks in Mexico and Argentina are also wobbling. Argentina is reportedly seeking a $3 billion credit line from industrial nations on top of a $4.7 billion loan package from international financial institutions announced March 13.

Last month, the Venezuela government took over three more banks, bringing the total of closed or rescued banks to 16 and placing under the government's wing about two-thirds of the country's banking system in terms of assets. And even though officials insist the rot has now been cleaned out and that the bank closures and rescues are over -- just as they insisted after each new round of closures during 1994 -- almost no one takes the government at its word.

One of the biggest remaining private banks, Banco Union -- Alberto's bank -- only narrowly escaped the recent round of government takeovers when other private banks agreed to help recapitalize it. But many observers doubt the private rescue will work and, justifiably or not, continue to wonder when Union will fall.

Poor regulation

Venezuela's banking crisis resembles the savings and loan crisis that shook the United States in the mid-1980s -- a poorly regulated system failed to control high-risk loans, sky's-the-limit interest payments, cronyism, and corruption. But there's also a big difference: Venezuela's is proportionately even bigger and costlier.

Since the first of the 16 private banks was closed 15 months ago, the crisis has drained the government of $10 billion in bad bank debt and other costs -- a whopping 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Mr. Faraco.

The seemingly unending crisis is also having a much more profound effect on the country. Inflation soared last year to an official 70 percent as the government printed money to pay the debts. Price controls and high interest rates designed to slow the inflationary fires have made private capital scarce, adding to a business slowdown that abetted a 3.3 percent fall in GDP last year. (Excluding the petroleum sector, Venezuela's most important, the fall was closer to 5 percent.)

For this year, the government is projecting growth of 3 percent and inflation of 35 to 40 percent. But analysts like David Anderson, assistant editor of the monthly magazine VenEconomy, say such ''nonsense'' only encourages the lack of public confidence that is making a solution to the banking crisis all the more difficult. ''We think inflation could top 100 percent by the end of the year,'' he says, ''and no one goes along with the 3 percent growth projection.''

Other analysts say the banking crisis must be solved before economic conditions can improve -- but most see little indication that the government is ready to take swift action. ''There seems to be a wait-and-see attitude in the government, as if things might get better on their own,'' says Gustavo Garcia, an economist at the Institute of Advanced Administration Studies in Caracas.

In order to regain public confidence, Mr. Garcia says, the government should publicly classify the country's banks -- those with no problems, those with problems but solvable, and those not viable -- and act swiftly based on that classification.

For his part, Faraco says the banking system still suffers from poor regulation and poor regulatory laws, and from ''very poor-quality banking managers'' who know little about running banks in lean times.

Banking 'thieves'

The government of President Rafael Caldera Rodriguez, whose 13 months in office roughly coincide with the crisis, has so far benefited from public perception that Mr. Caldera is honest. His frequent harangues against the banking ''thieves'' (most of whom have left the country) and their corrupt ways, played well with the public last year. Recent government pronouncements that the country's banking industry will largely be back in private hands in 18 months may have also won some points.

But Faraco says the public now increasingly associates a lack of turnaround in the banking crisis and the economy with the Caldera regime -- and he says signs are growing that the government may try to come up with a new ''scapegoat'' in the form of the international financial system.

''Last year the justification for poor economic results was the corrupt banks, but this year I sense it will be the IMF [International Monetary Fund],'' he says. Venezuela has $1.3 billion in external public debt coming due, but it is unclear how it will be paid without cutting back on planned social spending, which relatively wealthy (by Latin American standards) Venezuela has always been reluctant to do.

Recalling that recently appointed Finance Minister Luis Raul Matos Azocar said in January that Venezuela would pay it's external debt ''according to the ability of our economy'' and not according to a predetermined schedule, Faraco says, ''The arrival of Matos may be the signal we're going towards a confrontation.''

Other sources of financing to pay the country's debts include stepped up privatization, including in the oil industry, and a gasoline price hike, Garcia says. The government subsidizes the price of gas -- cheap gas is considered a national right -- to the tune of about $300 million annually.

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