Venezuela’s gold reserves have plunged to their lowest level on record after it sold $1.7 billion of the precious metal in the first quarter of the year to repay debts. The country is grappling with an economic crisis that has left it struggling to feed its population.
The Opec member’s gold reserves have dropped almost a third over the past year and it sold over 40 tonnes in February and March, according to IMF data. Gold now makes up almost 70 percent of the country’s total reserves, which fell to a low of $12.1 billion last week.
Venezuela has larger crude reserves than Saudi Arabia but has been hard hit by years of mismanagement and, more recently, depressed prices for oil. Oil accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings. Despite the recent price rebound, declining oil output is likely to take a further toll on the economy.
The IMF forecasts the economy will shrink 8 percent this year, and 4.5 percent in 2017, after a 5.7 percent contraction in 2015. Inflation is forecast to exceed 1,642 percent next year, fueled by printing money to fund a fiscal deficit estimated at about 20 percent of gross domestic product.
Venezuela began selling its gold reserves in March 2015, according to IMF data. At roughly 367 tonnes, Venezuela has the world's 16th-biggest gold reserves, according to the World Gold Council. In contrast, China and Russia both added to their gold holdings this year, the data show.
Gold prices have risen 15 percent this year. Last year Venezuela's central bank swapped part of its gold reserves for $1 billion in cash through a complex agreement with Citi.
The late president Hugo Chávez had said he would free Venezuela from the "dictatorship of the dollar" and directed the central bank to ditch the US dollar and start amassing gold instead. In 2011, as a safeguard against market instability, Chávez brought most of the gold stored overseas back to Caracas.
The gold swap is another indication the country is desperate for cash. Venezuela and its national oil company PDVSA have some $6 billion to repay in principal and interest payments this year, according to Russ Dallen of investment bank Caracas Capital Markets.Amid fears of default, PDVSA is attempting to restructure some of its debt, sources say.
Seeking to reassure investors this month, Miguel Pérez Abad, Venezuela's economic tsar, told news agencies that the country has reached a deal with its main financier China to extend loans, and that he would further cut imports — even if shortages of basic goods are ravaging the country.
"We have a cash flow problem, but we have sufficient assets for the short-term and will reprofile the debt levels in an intelligent manner. There are various scenarios, and all of the proposals are extraordinary for the bondholders. They have the absolute assurance that their securities are guaranteed," Mr Pérez Abad told Bloomberg. Ecoanalítica, a Caracas-based consultancy, said in a note that "we consider that the payments of external debt is a priority for the executive".