Pension Scandal Shakes up Venezuelan Oil Giant

Reuters
August 17, 2011

Venezuela received an enviable honor last month: OPEC said it is sitting on the biggest reserves of crude oil in the world — even more than Saudi Arabia.

But the Venezuelan oil industry is also sitting atop a well of trouble.

The South American nation has struggled to take advantage of its bonanza of expanding reserves. And a scandal over embezzled pension funds at state oil company PDVSA has renewed concerns about corruption and mismanagement.

Retired workers from the oil behemoth have taken to the streets in protest. Their beef: nearly half a billion dollars of pension fund money was lost after it was invested in what turned out to be a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme run by a U.S. financial advisor who was closely linked to President Hugo Chavez’s government.

The fraud case centers on Francisco Illarramendi, a Connecticut hedge fund manager with joint U.S.-Venezuelan citizenship who used to work as a U.S.-based advisor to PDVSA and the Finance Ministry.

Several top executives at PDVSA have been axed since the scandal, which one former director of the company said proved Venezuela under Chavez had become “a moral cesspool.”

Pensioners are not the only ones still wondering how such a large chunk of the firm’s $2.5 billion pension fund was invested with Illarramendi in the first place.

The question cuts to the heart of the challenges facing PDVSA, one of Latin America’s big three oil companies alongside Pemex of Mexico and Brazil’s Petrobras.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries issued a report last month showing Venezuela surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest holder of crude oil reserves in 2010.

PDVSA is ranked by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly as the world’s fourth largest oil company thanks to its reserves, production, refining and sales capacity, and it has been transformed in recent years into the piggy-bank of Chavez’s “21st Century Socialism.”

The timing of the scandal is not good for Chavez: the charismatic, 57-year-old former coup leader underwent cancer surgery in Cuba in June and is fighting to recover his health to run for re-election next year. He needs every cent possible from PDVSA for the social projects that fuel his popularity.

MULTI-TASKING

The company does a lot more than pump Venezuela’s vast oil reserves. Tapped constantly to replenish government coffers, PDVSA funds projects ranging from health and education to arts and Formula One motor racing. From painting homes to funding medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, the restoration of a Caracas shopping boulevard and even a victorious team at the Rio carnival, there’s little that PDVSA doesn’t do.

Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who now heads the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego, points to the occasion when PDVSA senior executives turned down invitations to a regional energy conference at the last minute back in May, saying they were too busy because of PDVSA’s leading role in the government’s “Gran Mission Vivienda” project. It aims to build two million homes over the next seven years.

“In poorly-managed societies, national oil companies tend to be the most efficient organizations, so the government gives them more work to do, instead of letting them focus on being better oil companies,” Davidow told industry executives in the ballroom at a luxurious La Jolla hotel.

That’s the kind of criticism that Chavez, who has nationalized most of his country’s oil sector since he was elected in 1999, says is rooted in a bankrupt “imperial Yankee” mind-set.

He purged perceived opponents from PDVSA’s ranks in response to a crippling strike in 2002-2003 that slashed output, firing thousands of staff and replacing them with loyalists. Since then, the company has endured one controversy after another.

There was the “maleta-gate” affair in 2007, so-called after the Spanish word for suitcase, when a Venezuelan-American businessman was stopped at Buenos Aires airport carrying luggage stuffed with $800,000 in cash that U.S. prosecutors said came from PDVSA and was intended for Cristina Fernandez’s presidential campaign in Argentina. Both Fernandez and Chavez denied the charge.

There have also been persistent allegations by industry experts and international energy organizations that Venezuela inflates its production statistics — which PDVSA denies — and a string of accidents, including the sinking of a gas exploration rig in the Caribbean last year and a huge fire at a giant oil storage terminal on an island not far away.

In a big blow to its domestic popularity, tens of thousands of tons of meat and milk bought by PDVSA’s importer subsidiary, PDVAL, were left festering in shipping containers at the nation’s main port last year, exacerbating shortages of staples on shop shelves. Opposition media quickly nicknamed the subsidiary “pudreval” in a play on the Spanish verb “to rot” – “pudrir”.

In an apparent damage-limitation exercise after the pension scandal, five members of the PDVSA board were relieved of their duties in May, including the official who ran the pension fund. They were replaced by Chavez loyalists including the country’s finance minister and foreign minister.

Gustavo Coronel, a former PDVSA director in the 1970s and later Venezuela’s representative to anti-graft watchdog Transparency International, said the fraud had been going on right under the noses of the PDVSA board.

“What this scandal shows is that Venezuela has become a moral cesspool, not only restricted to the public sector but to the private sector as well,” he wrote on his blog.

“Money is dancing like a devil in Venezuela, without control, without accountability. Those who are well connected with the regime have thrown the moral compass by the side Venezuelan justice will not move a finger. Fortunately, U.S. justice will.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY

U.S. investigators say Illarramendi, the majority owner of the Michael Kenwood Group LLC hedge fund, ran the Ponzi scheme from 2006 until February of this year, using deposits from new investors to repay old ones. He pleaded guilty in March to multiple counts of wire fraud, securities and investment advisor fraud, as well as conspiracy to obstruct justice and defraud the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He could face up to 70 years in prison.

By those outside the circles of power in Venezuela, Illarramendi was seen as one of the “Boli-Bourgeoisie” — someone who was already wealthy but grew much richer thanks to the “Bolivarian Revolution,” named by Chavez after the dashing 19th century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. In one widely-circulated image, Illarramendi is seen overweight and balding, wearing a dark blue overcoat and clutching a blue briefcase as he left federal court in Bridgeport, Connecticut after pleading guilty.

An ex-Credit Suisse employee and Opus Dei member in his early 40s who lived in the United States for at least the last 10 years but traveled frequently to Venezuela, Illarramendi is on bail with a bond secured on four U.S. properties he owns.

He was close to PDVSA board members and Ministry of Finance officials, but is not thought to have known Chavez personally. The son of a minister in a previous Venezuelan government, Illarramendi did enjoy some perks — including using a terminal at the capital’s Maiquetia International Airport normally reserved for the president and his ministers, according to one source close to his business associates.

His sentencing date has not been set yet, but a receiver’s report by the attorney designated to track down the cash is due in September. In June, SEC regulators said they found almost $230 million of the looted money in an offshore fund.

That was just part of the approximately $500 million Illarramendi received, about 90 percent of which was from the PDVSA pension fund, according to the SEC.

PDVSA has assured its former workers they have nothing to worry about, and that the money will be replaced. But what concerns some retirees are allegations the company may have broken its own rules for managing its pension fund, which should have provided for more oversight by pensioners.

A representative of the retirees should attend meetings where the use of the fund is discussed, but no pensioners have been called to attend such a meeting since 2002.

PDVSA’s investment in capitalist U.S. markets may seem to be incongruous given the president’s anti-West rhetoric, but the scale of such transfers is not known, and the investment options for such funds at home in Venezuela are sharply limited, not least by restrictive currency controls.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told Reuters that Illarramendi only had an advisory role with PDVSA, and that it ended six years ago. So quite how he came to be managing such a big chunk of the pension fund is a hotly debated topic. Ramirez said the pension fund had been administered properly, and that the losses were of great concern to the company.

In July, PDVSA boosted pension payments to ex-employees by 800 bolivars a month, or about $188. The government also allocated nearly half the income from a new 2031 bond issue of $4.2 billion to the company’s pension fund — probably to replenish deposits lost in the scandal.

Still, ex-PDVSA worker Luis Villasmil says his monthly stipend barely meets the essentials for him, his wife, a diabetic son and a niece. One morning in April, he rose early and met several dozen other PDVSA retirees to march in protest to the company’s local headquarters in Zulia, the decades-old heartland of Venezuela’s oil production.

“I never thought we would be in this situation,” the 65-year-old told Reuters with a sigh. “I think PDVSA should show solidarity with the retirees and pay their pensions whatever happens because it is responsible. But that’s not the heart of the issue, which is to recover the money if possible.”

Ramirez, who once proclaimed that PDVSA was “rojo rojito” (red) from top to bottom, says the firm’s 90,000 staff have nothing to worry about. “Of course we are going to support the workers,” he told Reuters in March. “We will not let them suffer because of this fraud. We have decided to replace it (the lost money) and to make ourselves part of the lawsuit (against Illarramendi).”

ORINOCO FLOW

The latest scandal comes at a time when observers are focused on the future of PDVSA, given Chavez’s uncertain health, next year’s election and OPEC’s announcement on reserves.

The producer group said in July that Venezuela leapfrogged Saudi Arabia last year to become the world’s no.1 reserves holder with 296.5 billion barrels, up from 211.2 billion barrels the year before.

“It has been confirmed. We have 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves … we are a regional power, a world power,” Chavez said during one typical recent TV appearance, scribbling lines all over a map to show where planned refineries and pipelines to the coast would be built.

The new reserves were mostly booked in the country’s enormous Orinoco extra heavy belt, a remote region of dense forests, extraordinary plant life and rivers teeming with crocodiles and piranhas.

And there lies the rub. Not only is the Orinoco crude thick and tar-like, unlike Saudi oil which is predominantly light and sweet, it is also mostly found in rural areas that have little in the way of even basic infrastructure. It costs much more to produce and upgrade into lighter, more valuable crude.

So hopes now rest on a string of ambitious projects that Venezuela says will revitalize a declining oil sector, eventually adding maybe 2 million barrels per day (bpd) or more of new production to the country’s current output of about 3 million bpd, while bringing in some $80 billion in investment.

The projects are mostly joint ventures with foreign partners including U.S. major Chevron, Spain’s Repsol, Italy’s Eni, Russian state giant Rosneft and China’s CNPC, as well as a handful of smaller companies from countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Belarus. Even after the nationalizations of the past, investors clearly want a seat at the Orinoco oil table.

In June, Ramirez announced new funding for Orinoco projects this year of $5.5 billion through agreements with Chinese and Italian banks.

The question remains: will PDVSA have the operational capacity required as the lead company in each project, and will it be able to pay its share?

“Processing that extra heavy crude requires a lot of capital and equipment, and the climate is not good for that at the moment,” said one regional energy consultant who has worked with PDVSA and asked not to be named.

There may be billions of barrels in the ground, but the pension scandal will only underline the risks going forward for foreign companies with billions of dollars at stake.

“Markets Like Totalitarian Governments”

Zero Hedge
March 4, 2011

Wall Street’s shadow king, Blackrock’s Larry Fink who manages over $3 trillion, and is the world’s biggest asset manager, appeared on Bloomberg TV in an interview with Erik Schatzker, and the first thing he said is that the “market likes totalitarian governments.

Blackrock's Larry Fink

 

” That one statement explains everything one needs to know about the market performance over the past two years: there has hardly been a time in the past century when all the globalized regimes supporting stock markets and asset prices have been more “totalitarian” by Fink’s, or any other definition, than they are now. And while the plutocracy may welcome the advent of the Communist States of Iosif Vissarionovich Bernankestein, the common folk, as they always do, ultimately revolt violently against any such attempt at supreme government.

Zero Hedge regular Mike Krieger was quick to proclaim his condemnation: “This is how these elites think.  Even if markets did like totalitarian governments HUMANS DON’T.  This guy is pure scum and is exactly what is wrong with America and its policy today. This is also the guy that told us to buy dollars and treasuries yesterday…” But such are the ways of a dying ponzi regime. Everyone knows the end is coming and is inevitable. And while Wall Street’s self-anointed masters of the universe believe they will be able to avoid the ultimate unwind, they are wrong. Just like Gaddafi is finding out first hand right about now.

Larry Fink on the markets today:

“I believe the market has shifted from euphoria, from August through late January and now we are at a moment of reflection. I think this period of reflection will be sustained for some time.”

Larry Fink on whether he is a buyer or seller:

“If you believe that markets are efficient, some of that uncertainty has been priced in already. We’ve had an increase in oil; there has been no increase in demand in oil. It is that risk premium that has been priced into the marketplace. We’ve had a reduction in equity prices worldwide, especially in the emerging world, where everyone was so bullish one year ago and now money is being poured out of it. ”

“If you believe that all this noise, uncertainty will produce a better outcome, it is probably a buying opportunity. If you think the noise will create a more troublesome world, it may cause some developed economies to revert back into a recession, then we will have rough going for the next year.”

“I am more in the camp that this uncertainty will create a great amount of volatility, the marketplace is pricing this in, and if the market has a setback in terms of prices, I would be a long-term buyer.”

On Treasuries:

“I don’t think an 80 basis point increase in interest rates is a bear market. We have a possibility of rising rates. The outer limits could be 4.40%, on the ten-year. The market knows that the Federal Reserve will be completing its QE2 program by June. The markets are efficient. A lot of this is priced in.”

“We believe rates will creep up. We’re not calling that a bear market. The other issue we need to focus on…We all spend time focusing on the Treasury market but in the United States, we’ve had a collapse in the outstanding of debt.  Corporations, individuals have really pared down their debt. The amount of outstanding debt in America has shrunk…You cannot look at just the Treasury market alone. If you encompass all the cash sitting on the side and you look at how much debt reduction we have seen in the credit markets, I believe there will be a ceiling of how high rates can go. What can throw that out is if we start experiencing a persistence in inflation…If you believe we will have creeping, rising inflation over the next two years, of course interest rates will have to go higher.”

“Inflation will be more moderate. Until I see a labor market that is more robust and until I see factory utilization to be larger, I think inflation in this country will be more muted than what we see other countries.”

Larry Fink on whether he is a buyer of Treasuries:

“If rates creep up over 4%, I would be incrementally buying interest rates.”

“I would definitely be lengthening [duration]. I believe inflation may be a problem in the short run but in the long run, not. You would want to buy if the yield curve shifts upward on the longer end and take advantage of that. If your views of inflation is short, the long end will do the best.”

On European sovereign debt crisis:

“I don’t think [the European debt crisis is over].  I think we will have more volatility there. We still have not addressed the Greek problem. We are in the midst of reviewing what is happening in Ireland. We still have the banking system in Europe which is undercapitalized. You had the governor in Italy saying his banks need more capital. Spain and other countries are saying their banks may need more capital. You put this idea in, the need for more capital to the financial system plus the sovereign credit difficulties, which would probably cause a reduction in capital. We will still have more volatility out of Europe. It will probably be a negative trend.”

“I’m a big buyer of the U.S. dollar here.”

On reports that BlackRock is teaming up with KKR, Warburg Pincus, and others to buy Citi Financial from Citigroup:

“I don’t comment about market rumors…I will say, we do a lot of things for clients….Yes, we are not getting into the consumer-lending business. One should assume that if we are involved in this, it would be on behalf of clients, not for our balance sheet.”

On BlackRock making deals:

“It is not our intention to do another large deal. I don’t see a need for it. Whether regulators are inhibiting us or not, we have said publicly we are happy with our business model as it is today. We made to fill-in acquisitions in different countries or may do an acquisition for the BlackRock technology business, BlackRock Solutions. But it is not my intention to be doing anything large-scale.”

“I remind people and regulators that 100% of our business is a client-serviing business. We are in agent in all our businesses. This is not our capital. This is not our balance sheet. We don’t have leverage. What caused the credit crisis was leverage. We are a different animal. We are only an agent.”

On the Middle East:

“Saudi Arabia is probably the most troublesome country to answer. I think the government will manage the situation properly. They have offered a big infusion into the economy. It is a very wealthy economy with huge oil reserves and huge reserves. It is a very large population in the Gulf region. It is the largest population in the entire Gulf region. That is what produces the uncertainty. The world is dependent on their 8-9 billion barrels per day.”

“That is an uncertainty we have to factor in. If there is uncertainty around Saudi Arabia that produces a slowdown of oil production, then we will have severe issues in this world. That is probably one of the most difficult issues that we are facing today.

“In the short run, you could see oil prices going north of $150 if you had that type of oil shock. It could be $200 at any one moment. My view would be that this would be managed over a course of a period of time.”

On China:

“They are more uncertain. They are the biggest producer of products in the world today. We’re very much dependent on China. It is a similar way we are dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil.”

“I am very concerned about China. China has done a magnificent job about engineering its economy…They have 300-400 million people living at substandard levels. They are in the outer regions outside the river delta valley. They are in many ways minorities and Muslims. They want change…China, because of the size of its population and because the imbalances of standard of living in the country, is an issue. They have done a good job of navigating this but we should put that in as a factor of risk going forward.

“I am more worried about equities today because of this uncertainty. Five-six months ago, I said our economy is better than we thought it would be. I would argue today that we think the economy is better today than it actually is. The enthusiasm has increased dramatically. I think the market is pausing. We need to see how this all plays out. I am quite constructive on Northern Africa, that this will be played out in a positive way. In the short run, democracies are dirty and messy and we could see moments of time in which that uncertainty is a negative uncertainty.”