August 20, 2009 / 6:27 PM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 3-Venezuela economy shrinks for first time in 5 years

(Adds finance minister comment)

CARACAS, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s economy shrunk for the first time in over five years in the second quarter, after a government-driven consumer boom petered out and the global recession finally bit South America’s biggest oil exporter.

The OPEC nation’s gross domestic product contracted 2.4 percent in the three month period, with most of the fall in the oil sector, which was down 4.2 percent.

The downturn will aggravate the impact of Venezuela’s inflation which, at 13 percent so far this year, is one of the highest in the world.

The contraction comes “after 22 consecutive quarters of growth, and more than a year after the impact of the global financial crisis negatively affected the economic performance of most countries in the world,” the bank said in a statement.

On the upside, Venezuela’s current account showed a surplus of $2.2 billion in the quarter, after two periods of deficit. The capital account also showed a surplus, of $1.2 billion.

Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said economic growth was”perfectly recoverable,” but did not say how quickly.

“We have had much harder falls and we have recovererd,” he said on state television.

High public spending by President Hugo Chavez during an oil bonanza meant even the poor had some money to burn, spurring a five year shopping spree defined by double digit growth. But the boom ended abruptly in the April-June period.

Clearly expecting a contraction, the government said last week it has prepared an economic stimulus that is waiting for Chavez’s approval and is expected to tackle a weakening local currency and encourage investment. It will be the second attempt to kick-start the economy this year.

Rodriguez hinted the measures could affect the already tightly controlled banking sector, which he accused of speculation.

Since 2007, Chavez has radicalized his program, fully embracing socialism and nationalizing most of the nation’s industry including several huge oil projects owned by foreign companies.

The economy grew 8.4 percent in 2007, but in a sign his spend-and-nationalize model was running out of steam, it slowed to 4.8 percent last year despite an average oil price of $87 per barrel and a peak of $147.

Venezuela finances were hard hit when oil prices plummeted from a record of $147 per barrel a year ago to about $30 at the start of 2009.

“(The data) confirms expectations that Venezuela is sufferring from what’s going on abroad, and that the government is very concerned that the model is not sustainable in the long term, but at the same time it is relatively modest,” said Maya Hernandez, an economist with HSBC.

Venezuela’s fall has not so far been so hard as that of countries such as Mexico, whose economy was 10.3 percent smaller in the second quarter, after shrinking 8 percent in the first quarter.

Chavez in February cut Venezuela’s budget, reduced the average oil price estimated in the budget, raised sales tax and authorized more borrowing to avoid a fiscal deficit.

“What they need is a stronger fiscal stimulus. This is especially true with inflation falling, in Venezuela and world wide,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist with the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In 2008 Venezuela’s inflation reached 17 percent by July and was 31 percent at the end of the year. (Reporting by Caracas Newsroom; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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