Two Congressmen are raising alarm about that showing they don't understand how the market works
If Venezuela defaults on its debt obligations, it could result in Russia taking control over U.S. refining assets, leading to more Russian “control over oil and gas prices worldwide,” which would “inhibit U.S. energy security, and undermine broader U.S. geopolitical efforts.”
That is the warning from two members of Congress, Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and Albio Sires (D-NJ). The two Congressmen sent a joint letter to the U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, requesting his attention on the matter. A bipartisan group of six U.S. Senators also requested a response from Secretary Mnuchin on the matter.
They cite the fact that Russia’s government-backed oil company, Rosneft, gave Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, a $1.5 billion loan. As collateral, PDVSA offered up 49.9 percent of Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil company. Citgo owns three refineries in the U.S., along with pipelines and retail gas stations.
The Congressmen are worried that if PDVSA defaults, Rosneft will seize the U.S.-based refineries. “The Russian government could readily become the second-largest foreign owner of U.S. domestic refinery capacity,” which would be “to the detriment of U.S. interests,” the Congressmen wrote. “[W]e remain deeply concerned over the implications for U.S. national security.”
The concerns are rather odd. What exactly would “the Russians” do with the three refineries? The Congressmen seem to be suggesting that somehow Rosneft would conspire to restrict gasoline production to drive up prices in an effort to somehow weaken U.S. national security or the American economy.
This is silly. While Rosneft is state-owned, it is also a company that would rather not lose a ton of money. Even if Rosneft somehow gained control of Citgo’s refineries, restricting gasoline production might provide some discomfort for U.S. motorists in the region, but it would be financially ruinous to the Rosneft-controlled refineries.
"The Russians can't hold the U.S. hostage," John LaForge, head of Real Assets strategy at Wells Fargo, told CNN. The three refineries are also a drop in the bucket as far as U.S. gasoline production is concerned. "Other refineries would love to pick up the slack,” LaForge added. Undoubtedly, Rosneft would rather operate the refineries just like anybody else, which is to say, selling gasoline in order to make money. Russian control of Citgo’s refineries would not threaten U.S. national security.
It is hard not to conclude that the Congressmen are engaging in a bit of bluster and Russia fear-mongering, not coincidentally at a time when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow and U.S.-Russian relations are deteriorating. So, there isn’t much to see here.
While this ongoing development is rather trivial to U.S. interests, the stakes could not be higher for Venezuela.
The country is in the midst of a multi-year economic meltdown, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
PDVSA has a $2.5 billion debt payment due this week, and at the time of this writing, it appears that the company will be able to meet that obligation. The state also has nearly $500 million in sovereign debt payments falling due. Cash is running out, but the Venezuelan government, for better or worse, has prioritized meeting bond payments at all costs.
The state has roughly $10 billion left in cash reserves before this week’s payment (although some of that is reportedly not in cash, but in gold), and billions more in coupon payments to meet later this year. A default this week doesn’t appear likely. But it is not a given that Venezuela makes it through 2017 without a default, a missed debt payment, or some sort of debt restructuring.
According to the credit-default swap market, investors are pegging the odds of a Venezuelan default within the next six months at 41 percent, a jump from just 34 percent in March.
And, as the two U.S. Congressmen worried about the situation wrote in their letter, the state’s and PDVSA’s assets are indeed on the line. The immediate spark to the latest political crisis was the government’s negotiations with Rosneft to offer them a stake in Venezuelan oil fields. Last month, when the Congress objected, the Supreme Court – which is controlled by the ruling party – tried to neuter the legislature. That resulted in the mass protests that are still unfolding. The Venezuelan government is desperate to sell off some oil assets in order to raise cash.
The situation in Venezuela is dire, and deserves U.S. – and global – attention. But Russian control of U.S. refineries is hardly the main story here.