Thursday, July 17, 1997

Banking - between mirrors and piglets

Although I have never worked in the banking sector, I do remember, during the latter part of the seventies, being proud about the development of Venezuelan banks. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to anecdotes such as the fact that the most popular software application (i.e. SAFE) for the management of on-line banking operations had been developed in Venezuela. I was also aware of the fact that on-line banking in the country was being applied to a much greater degree than in the United States. I loved to read in the press about the participation of Venezuelan financial institutions in international loan syndications, although while doing so I pondered about the sanity of this participation and had the same ambiguous love-hate feeling as when I flew overseas with VIASA, our flagship airline. Finally, the fact that Venezuelan banks routinely appeared in “The Banker” magazine’s listing of largest banks, made reading this publication in London waiting rooms quite agreeable.

Twenty years later, I cannot but feel somewhat humiliated when I am asked to feel respectful and thankful that we are now to be the beneficiaries of new banking technology that in my humble opinion for the moment merely seems to imply substituting the small mirrors used by the Conquistadores to seduce the continent’s Indians with little plastic piglets.

Let me make it clear that my possible observations as a Patriot about the strategies established by financial Neo-Royalists are certainly not based on the rejection of the presence of foreign banks in general, much less of Spanish financial institutions, which due to their high profile will undoubtedly bear the brunt of humoristic expressions so proper of the Venezuelan populace. On the contrary, I am certain that there is an important place for foreign banks in Venezuela, although I would have liked to see an early aperture of the financial system aimed more at strengthening than at the reconstruction, in the style of the mythical Phoenix, of a system in ruins.

What motivates me is that an excessive praise heaped on the newly arrived foreign bankers, in addition to possibly causing unnecessary damage to the egos of our local bankers (that famous patriotic cry, “Vuelvan Caras”, is already audible in banking circles), clearly tends to confuse the issues and principal causes of the collapse of our financial system.

History can be written in a few words. A series of devaluations, the breach of exchange guarantee contracts, restrictions on offshore positions, obligatory preferential treatment for certain sectors of the economy, minimized participation in the financing of petroleum industry projects and surprising macroeconomic policy decisions such as the application of exorbitantly high real interest rates. All these factors caused a drastic decline in the quality of bank loan portfolios and an erosion of their respective net worth values to a minimum. Responsibility for all these ills lies principally with the Central Government and their main cause is again the fundamental failing of our society, i.e. the excessive concentration of national wealth in the hands of the State.

Each case must by analyzed separately but in general terms, I’m certain that should the United States, the United Kingdom and even Spain have had to suffer through similar catastrophes, the mortality rate would have been the same or higher. Likewise, I’m sure that the future productivity of Venezuelan banks will depend more on the rectification of the State’s actions than on the masterly lessons in banking we may receive from, with all due respect, the Casa Cándido strategists (Casa Cándido is a restaurant in Segovia famous for its servings of roasted piglet).

A better supervision of the banking sector by a professional Superintendency; reasonable norms that regulate the banking activities without strangling it; development of management capabilities that would insure the proper handling of banking crises without multiplying their initial cost; and responsible, professional bankers. All the above certainly must exist in order to head off another financial tragedy in the future, but they are certainly not enough to avoid such disasters.

As long as the size of Venezuelan State is not reduced in proportion to the private sector and the State continues to impose its omnipresent influence over all aspects of national life, the possibility of creating and environment of economic rationality is remote. Without economic rationality there is no way to avoid another financial crisis. Today’s generation of local bankers hopefully has already learned its lesson and I sincerely hope our newly arrived visitors will not have to do so as well.

Daily Journal, Caracas, July 17, 1997