LATIN AMERICA'S MONEY CRUNCH: VENEZUELAN PRICE CONTROLS LEAD MARKETERS TO HESITATE

By Published on .

CARACAS-Price and exchange controls, imposed late last month to avert an almost-certain financial meltdown, are continuing to freeze foreign investment, imports, privatization and ad spending here.

President Rafael Caldera's controls were instituted June 27 following five months of turmoil that saw the country's currency, the bolivar, lose more than half its value.

Since Jan. 1, the bolivar has fallen from 106 to the U.S. dollar to 200 to the U.S. dollar this summer, with most of the decline coming since May. The freefall has been marked by Venezuelans converting $3 billion in bolivars to U.S. dollars to invest safely in other countries and a 40% plunge in imports, according to government figures.

With growing unemployment combined with economists' predictions that inflation will hit 90% this year and the gross national product will dip 3%, marketers here are holding off ad spending, waiting to see if price controls will rein in the runaway economy.

"Advertisers have decided to wait for at least two to three weeks to see what the new system brings," said Elena Rodriguez, advertising manager for Business Venezuela, the country's largest English-language magazine.

She estimates ad revenues for her publication as well as the industry as a whole have plummeted more than 80% since 1993.

"Everything has been affected," she said.

Justus O'Brien, managing director of Leo Burnett Venezuela, said he expects a drastic reduction in ad spending.

"If history is any guide, price and exchange controls here have always had a negative effect on advertising," he said. "Price controls, for example, lead many companies to cease production."

The imposition of currency controls also throws into quesion the government's ambitious privatization program, begun in 1991. That program started out with Viasa, the state airline being privatized along with Cantv, the state phone company. But since the economy went into a tailspin, the effort has slowed noticeably-only one privatization is scheduled for this year, down from six in 1993.

Import procedures are also in doubt. Ships are lying off the Venezuelan ports waiting for regulations to be announced before they unload cargo. There are also concerns that foreign investors may be prohibited from repatriating their profits in excess of the value of their intitial investment.

"Who's going to want to invest $1 million in Venezuela if you can only take out $1 million?" groused a local businessman.

One ad category is alive and well, however-banks are advertising to reassure consumers of their solvency. And for good reason.

Since the country's largest bank, Banco Latino, collapsed in January and was refloated under state ownership, at least eight others have gone belly up. Six have come under government control and reopened, but two haven't. That has led to some panicky consumers being cut off from their funds.

Josefina Ramirez, a travel agent, is one. Ms. Ramirez left her 3-month certificate of deposit at Banco Metropolitano after the government promised it wouldn't be compromised. The day the CD came due, the bank shut down.

"What can I do?" she asks. "I believed what the government said."

Banco Union, the country's fourth largest, is mounting an ad campaign to convince the public it is financially sound.

The TV, radio and print campaign features well-known singer Simon Diaz, who admonishes his compatriots that "This is a good country, our country, and we should defend it together."

The commercial, created by Pegaso Publicidad, ends with Mr. Diaz comparing the bank to a sturdy old tree.

In this article:
Most Popular