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A Venezuelan government foreign currency auction for local importers has triggered a de facto currency devaluation, the second in less than 50 days, analysts said.
Venezuela has had strict currency exchange controls since 2003 in an attempt to halt capital flight. Individuals and businesses could obtain limited amounts of foreign currency through the government at an official rate.
But the hunger for dollars and euros persisted, fueling a black market with a much higher exchange rate that by law cannot be published.
The government scrapped a program that exchanged currency at a rate of 5.3 bolivars per dollars because officials said it allowed for "speculation," and dollars wound up on the black market.
Instead, it launched a new plan known as SICAD through which it auctioned $200 million on Wednesday to a group of chosen companies. The government said that 383 companies participated, but did not name them.
Neither did they reveal the sale price of the dollar.
Critics say the auction was a veiled devaluation, and an attempt by the government of acting President Nicolas Maduro to ease a demand for basic goods -- everything from food to office and hospital supplies -- in this import-dependent country ahead of the April 14 presidential election.
"The government did not announce the results of the foreign currency auction because clearly we are facing a new currency devaluation," claimed economist Jose Guerra.
He estimated that the dollars went for around 12 bolivars per dollar, much higher than official rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar.
"This is another devaluation," Caracas Chamber of Commerce chief Victor Maldonado told the privately-owned Globovision TV.
"This also will mean that the costs and prices of the companies will have to be adjusted," fueling inflation.
Finance Minister Jorge Giordani promised to find a way for individuals to also obtain foreign currency through the SICAD program, which he said offers "transparency" in the exchange rate system.
In February, Venezuela devalued the Bolivar by 32 percent against the US dollar, its fifth currency devaluation in a decade.
Investment bank Barclays Capital said in a note that by not announcing the rate the dollars sold at auction, the government was "avoiding the political cost of the announcement of a second devaluation" in less than two months, and with a presidential election looming.
Econometrica head Angel Garcia Banchs said the SICAD program will be used "to carry out more devaluations throughout the course of the year," which will to finance government expenses and help with US dollar debts run up by the state-run oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela.
But Guerra, a former top official at the Central Bank, said SICAD will be insufficient to satisfy the demand of foreign currency in Venezuela.
One effect of a devaluation is to make a country's exports cheaper and thus more enticing to buyers, while another is to cut the deficit, which in Venezuela last year was estimated to be nearly 10 percent of GDP.
The economy grew 5.5 percent in 2012 and inflation was 20 percent, down seven points from 2011 but still the highest official inflation rate in Latin America.
Venezuela is South America's largest oil exporter and has the world's largest proven reserves. Its oil transactions are dollar-denominated, so with any formal or de facto devaluation the bolivar-value of those sales rise, boosting state revenues on paper.
The government says Venezuela produces three million barrels of oil per day, although OPEC says the figure is 2.3 million. Oil production accounts for 90 percent of the country's hard-currency revenue.