If Venezuelan oil minister Eulogio del Pino seems more than a little harried these days as he trudges from Moscow to Riyadh in search of a deal to trim oil production, it is understandable.
Mr. del Pino, a media-shy engineer who also heads the troubled state oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela SA, is on a desperate mission. Without a co-ordinated reduction of supply by fellow members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and key non-members such as Russia, crude prices are likely to remain weak and Venezuela's prospects even bleaker.
Every oil-dependent nation is suffering mightily from the hammer blows inflicted by lower crude prices. But Venezuela was a basket case even before the steep oil slide, with its economy in tatters, inflation skyrocketing and enormous public debt becoming unmanageable.
When it comes to sheer misery, in fact, none comes close to matching Venezuela. Literally.
Venezuela topped the global misery index, which combines inflation and unemployment, by a huge margin in 2015. And estimates drawn from surveys of economists by Bloomberg indicate it will have no challengers again this year, as consumer shortages worsen and price rises climb well into the triple digits. The official jobless rate is likely to remain below 8 per cent, but there are only so many unproductive government and oil-sector jobs to go around.
Among overstretched oil exporters, "Venezuela will probably be the first big domino to fall," Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Harvard Center for International Development, opined in a Financial Times commentary last week.
"Domestically, the most likely scenario is an imminent economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis," Prof. Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister and staunch opponent of socialist President Nicolas Maduro, says. Externally, he sees "the largest and messiest emerging market sovereign default since the Argentine crisis of 2001."
Venezuela faces debt repayments of nearly $16-billion (U.S.) by the end of this year, which exceeds its total foreign reserves. About $3-billion in interest alone is due this quarter, sparking worries about a default – something late president Hugo Chavez did not contemplate at the height of his anti-Western diatribes. But then, Mr. Chavez could count on high oil prices – and large Chinese investments, development loans and other assistance – to help paper over his disastrous economic policies. Oil still accounts for well above 90 per cent of exports. But the steep fall in price has crippled the country's ability to pay for imports of food, medicines and other essentials, making life miserable for officials in other ways.
Caracas, for instance, sends oil to China to cover debt obligations. The price decline means bigger shipments are necessary to meet the interest tab. Even if oil holds steady from here, Venezuela would have to ship the Chinese nearly 800,000 barrels a day, up from just under 230,000 when oil was at $100 (U.S.), Alejandro Arreaza, a Latin America economist with Barclays, calculated in a report last week. He predicts all exports this year will total only $27-billion, a steep drop from $75-billion in 2014.
The government was shipping more than the required amount to Beijing, which was paying market rates for the excess. Now, the Venezuelans face cutting exports to the United States and other paying customers to have enough oil to satisfy the Chinese. The alternatives would be to restructure the debt, boost production or obtain new loans. The Chinese would be happy to provide more money. But the conditions would be more onerous. And there is no chance the Maduro government would ramp up production, even if its problem-plagued oil companies could deliver.
"We think a restructuring is more likely than the disbursement of new money," Mr. Arreaza concluded.
After his meeting with Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi, Mr. del Pino pronounced the discussion "productive." Which does not sound like less production is imminent.
From here, Venezuela's already dismal economic and fiscal outlook will only worsen.