By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Ore
CARACAS Dec 16 President Nicolas Maduro's government said on Monday it is revamping Venezuela's decade-long exchange controls by expanding the use of a complementary currency auction system to fight against a rampant black market for dollars.
That would mean more dollars exchanged at a higher price in bolivars and a reduction in transactions at the cheaper official rate - a measure bound to be viewed by some economists as a partial or disguised devaluation of Venezuela's currency.
Currency exchange from tourism in-flows, oil investments, and the central bank's gold purchases will be done via the Sicad auction system, said Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, giving those sectors a rate more favorable than the official one.
"We are opening up channels so dollars can come in not only through oil income but also through other sectors," Ramirez, who is also economy vice president, told reporters.
"Our plan is to defeat the parallel (black) market and make it disappear."
State currency control agency Cadivi sells dollars at the official rate of 6.3. But greenbacks fetch more than 10 times that on the black market as delays and restricted access via Cadivi leave businesses struggling to pay offshore providers.
The Sicad system was created in early 2013 to sell dollars at a rate that has not been officially disclosed but is believed to fluctuate in different auctions at around 12 bolivars.
Ramirez said the auction system would gradually begin to displace Cadivi, which even ruling party officials recognize has lost tens of billions of dollars over the last two years to fake imports by shell companies.
"Eventually, Cadivi will give way to another mechanism and another structure for assigning foreign currency," he said. "Sicad will continue and turn into a definitive mechanism for controlling and handling our foreign currency."
Ramirez said Sicad would bring in $6 billion next year through oil investments, helping address the complaints of oil companies who say high inflation combined with a fixed official exchange rate makes operations prohibitively expensive.
Venezuela's annual inflation rate topped 54 percent in October. The central bank is now almost a week behind schedule in releasing the November figure.
Monday's announcements represent "an incentive to investments in the oil sector because you now get more bolivars for your money," said Alberto Ramos, Goldman Sachs analyst.
"Secondly, they want to divert more transactions away from Cadivi and into Sicad. So in that respect it is akin to a stealth devaluation of the bolivar without the political cost."
Since taking power in April, economic problems have been Maduro's main challenge as he seeks to preserve the socialist legacy of his predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Economists had seen some sort of devaluation as inevitable, but they are always unpopular due to their inflationary impact.
Ramirez echoed calls by other officials for Venezuelans to contemplate higher prices of highly-subsidized gasoline - signaling the state's desire to shore up its finances amid soaring inflation and chronic product shortages.
At $0.01 per liter, Venezuelan gasoline is the world's cheapest.
"We need to have a national discussion as to whether or not we've reached the moment we need to start charging for gasoline," he said, adding the subsidy costs $12.5 billion annually. "This is a major distortion."
Officials have been reluctant to raise the price of gasoline since 1989 due to riots then that were triggered in part by a fuel price hike. There was, however, one adjustment in 1997 without incident.
Years of double-digit inflation have gradually eaten away at the fixed price and create huge losses for state oil company PDVSA. Ramirez pointed out that a consumer can buy 250 liters of diesel for the cost of a soft drink, or 72 liters of gasoline for the cost of a bottle of mineral water.
"It makes no sense whatsoever ... Not even Saudi Arabia has the price we have."
The government says Cadivi was covering more than 90 percent of Venezuelan importers' needs - or about $33 billion so far this year. But private consultancy Ecoanalitica has estimated 30 percent of products are now indexed at the black market rate.
The preferential 6.3 rate for dollars will be maintained for priority sectors such as food, medicines and education.