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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 CARACAS 001595 SIPDIS ENERGY FOR CDAY AND ALOCKWOOD HQ SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR POLAD TREASURY FOR MKACZMAREK NSC FOR DRESTREPO AND LROSSELLO USDOC FOR 4332 MAC/ITA/WH/JLAO AMEMBASSY BRIDGETOWN PASS TO AMEMBASSY GRENADA AMEMBASSY OTTAWA PASS TO AMCONSUL QUEBEC AMEMBASSY BRASILIA PASS TO AMCONSUL RECIFE E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/12/23 TAGS: ECON EFIN VE SUBJECT: Venezuela: Banco Bicentenario Opens, But is the Banking Episode Over? REF: 09 CARACAS 1553; 09 CARACAS 1537; 09 CARACAS 1509 09 CARACAS 1491 CLASSIFIED BY: DUDDY, AMBASSADOR, DOS, AMB; REASON: 1.4(B), (D) ¶1. (C) Summary: President Chavez officially inaugurated Banco Bicentenario on December 21, thus effectively re-opening three of the eight banks the Venezuelan government (GBRV) has taken over or shut down since November 20. The National Assembly also passed changes to the banking law to triple the amount of deposit insurance, with the new limit applied retroactively to depositors in the two banks in the process of liquidation. If the episode of interventions is indeed over, the GBRV will have increased its share in the banking sector, gained an important foothold in the insurance industry, and taken over a number of other companies, particularly in the food processing and distribution sector. While the exact origin of the episode remains unclear, it appears to have resulted from a combination of a power struggle among GBRV officials and insiders and the precarious financial situation of the banks themselves. A major question mark remains Banco Federal, a medium-sized bank owned by opposition businessman Nelson Mezerhane. Chavez and Mezerhane recently traded barbs, with Mezerhane claiming forces associated with the GBRV were conspiring to bring down his bank and Chavez characterizing Federal as "having had grave problems." End summary. New Steps in an Ongoing Saga ¶2. (U) President Chavez launched a new state-run bank, Banco Bicentenario, on December 21. Bicentenario is essentially the union of Banfoandes, a pre-existing public bank, with Central, Bolivar, and Confederado, three of the eight banks the GBRV has taken over or shut down since November 20 (refs A-D). Depositors in these four banks, who have not had access to their money since November 30 (for Bolivar and Confederado) or December 4 (for Central), can now transact business normally. Taking figures provided by the Superintendency of Banks (Sudeban) for commercial and universal banks, the banks composing Bicentenario represented 5.3 percent of the banking sector by assets and 9.5 percent by deposits as of November 30 (the latest statistics available). The extent to which depositors have withdrawn or will withdraw their money remains to be seen, although there were no reports of long lines at Bicentenario branches on December 21. ¶3. (U) On December 15 the National Assembly approved modifications to the banking law that, among other things, will increase the deposit guarantee offered by the Fund for Guarantee of Deposits and Banking Protection (Fogade) from 10,000 bolivars (Bs; USD 4,650 at the official exchange rate) to Bs 30,000, an amount requested by President Chavez. This increase will apply retroactively for a limited period of time to depositors in Canarias and and Banpro, the two banks in the process of liquidation. Banks' contributions to Fogade will also be raised from 0.5 to 1.5 percent of deposits as maintained at the close of each semester. (Note: For these changes to become law, President Chavez must sign the modified law and it must be published in the Official Gazette. To the best of our knowledge, it has not yet been published. President Chavez recently said he might seek further changes to the law. End note.) Is the Episode of Interventions Over? ¶4. (C) Whether this episode of interventions is over remains a question mark. There are several other small banks and financial institutions which fit the pattern of the eight banks intervened in CARACAS 00001595 002 OF 003 the sense of being weak financially and having been taken over recently by individuals allegedly close to the government. Two pending purchases, that of Inverunion by Gonzalo Tiraldo and Banco Federal by Jose Zambrano, have reportedly been rejected by Sudeban. Most but not all financial sector analysts and participants Econoff has contacted continue to believe the episode poses no systemic risk to the sector given the small sizes and weak reputations of the banks involved, in comparison with the strong fundamentals of most of the larger banks. One dissenting voice is that of xxxxxxxxxxxx reputation) and an outspoken critic of GBRV policies. xxxxxxxxxxxx called Econoff December 17 to report that, according to information he had received, several medium-sized or large banks (or their owners) were putting dollar-denominated assets into collateral accounts in Florida in return for emergency loans in bolivars. ¶5. (C) Banco Federal remains a major question mark. As reported previously (ref A), Federal, a medium-sized bank accounting for 3 percent of the sector by assets, is considered weak by several experts, has been subject to several runs, and reportedly even received an emergency loan from the GBRV. Adding to the intrigue, Federal's owner, opposition businessman and minority owner of opposition TV station Globovision Nelson Mezerhane, recently traded barbs with President Chavez. In an interview published in local daily El Mundo December 17, Mezerhane claimed "active laboratories" that included "people with ties" to the GBRV had disseminated rumors about Federal's health in an attempt to instigate runs. Chavez lashed back in a December 19 broadcast, characterizing Federal as a bank "that has had grave problems," ordering an investigation into what Mezerhane said, and cautioning that "the time in which public institutions help private banks like Federal is over." In an interview published December 20 in local weekly La Razon, opposition economist Jose Guerra claimed former Vice President and GBRV insider Jose Vicente Rangel was seeking to bring down Federal, partly out of bitterness at the fall of his business associate Pedro Torres (who led the group that owned three of the intervened banks). What Initiated the Episode in the First Place? ¶6. (C) With over a month having passed since the initial interventions, a number of theories have sprung up to explain why the GBRV chose to act in the way it did and at the time it did. Many observers believe President Chavez ordered the initial interventions as the culmination of a power struggle taking place among GBRV officials and presumed insiders. Theories on the protagonists in this presumed power struggle abound, however. We have heard variations such as Diosdado Cabello vs. Ricardo Fernandez and Jesse Chacon; Ali Rodriguez and representatives of the traditional left vs. Ricardo Fernandez and members of the military clique; and President Chavez vs. selected inner circle members and insiders with their own political projects. An intriguing tangent is that an alleged report by Cuba's intelligence service plays a role in several of these explanations. Other observers believe the GBRV's hand was forced by the terrible financial situation at the intervened banks, with President Chavez preferring to take action before the problems worsened and well before parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2010. Whatever the origins of the episode, our contacts credit President Chavez with seeing the interventions as an opportunity to trumpet anti-corruption credentials by sending the message, as one of our contacts put it, of "I put bankers in jail." Changes in the Financial Sector and Business Landscape CARACAS 00001595 003 OF 003 ¶7. (C) The intervention episode has to date led to several changes in the financial and business landscape that are worth noting. First, the GBRV has increased its share in the banking sector by at least five percentage points. With the opening of Banco Bicentenario, public banks will comprise roughly 20 percent of the sector by assets and 25 percent by deposits. Second, the GBRV has acquired an important foothold in the insurance sector with the associated takeover of Seguros La Previsora and intended formation of state-owned Bolivariana de Seguros (ref B). (Note: As of June 2009, La Previsora was the fourth largest insurance company in Venezuela with market share of 8.3 percent. End note.) Many contacts, including xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbelieve the GBRV will consolidate the insurance accounts position to exert greater control over private medical services providers. Finally, GBRV takeover of Ricardo Fernandez's companies in the food and food distribution sectors will further the shift toward GBRV control in those sectors. (Note: It is still unclear from GBRV statements if the takeover of Fernandez's companies will be temporary or permanent. We would not be surprised if it were the latter. End note.) Comment ¶8. (C) As we suspected when it began on November 20, much about this episode remains obscure. We are not surprised that there are conflicting explanations for how the episode started, though it seems clear internal power struggles played a key role. What is still a mystery to us is why the GBRV has not yet used this episode as an excuse to take over Banco Federal, thus taking an important asset from Nelson Mezerhane. While we would have expected the GBRV to have taken it over several weeks ago if it indeed it was going to, the exchange of barbs between Mezerhane and Chavez certainly keeps the possibility alive. Perhaps the GBRV has not moved to take Federal because it fears systemic implications: in a clear reference to Federal, respected economic consultancy Sintesis Financiera wrote in a recent report that "concerns will rise and markets will destabilize if interventions reach larger banks owned by individuals perceived to be at odds with the government." There could certainly be other explanations, however. End comment. DUDDY