Venezuela central bank denies transactions with Wall Street

Venezuela's Central Bank President Eudomar Tovar talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (Reuters)

By Brian Ellsworth CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's central bank president denied on Thursday that the institution is carrying out any transactions with Wall Street banks, a day after a senior government source said it was evaluating a swap agreement involving its gold reserves. Opposition leaders and local media have reported that Venezuela is seeking to boost availability of hard currency through transactions with Goldman Sachs and Bank of America . "With respect to the institutions you've mentioned, the central bank ... is not carrying out any operations with these institutions," Central Bank President Eudomar Tovar said at a press conference in response to a question about the reports. "There are some considerations out there which have come out, but these are unofficial positions, if you will." Asked again by a reporter, he said: "There has been no activity done by the central bank with Goldman Sachs or any institution." Tovar's comments did not appear explicitly to rule out the possibility that such a transaction was being negotiated or could be carried out in the future. He declined to elaborate. Talk of possible deals with foreign banks started when the opposition said last week that the Venezuelan government was negotiating a swap operation with Goldman Sachs involving 1.45 million ounces of gold worth around $1.86 billion. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles also described an operation in which Bank of America would help Venezuela pay off debts to foreign suppliers that have built up due to delays in the nation's currency controls. A senior government source said on Wednesday that nothing was finalized on the gold swap "but if there's an opportunity to do something, it could be done." 'ECONOMIC WAR' Critics say discussion of the operations signals a cash crunch created by the state-driven economic model of price controls and nationalizations ordered by late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in March. Less than two weeks before December 8 local elections, the government of Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro, faces chronic product shortages and annual inflation of close to 55 percent. Maduro says the country is the victim of an "economic war" led by opposition leaders with the backing of Washington. The country's principal business group called on Thursday for greater transparency in the currency control system that, by the government's own admission, lost as much as $20 billion to fraud and over-billing. "We say to the government: We need measures that are not improvised, we need measures that put Venezuelan goods first, we need measures that are not based only on short-term needs," said Fedecamaras President Jorge Roig. He said a range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, autos and airlines, are waiting for the currency control agency to disburse $7.4 billion in hard currency. GROWTH TARGET SLASHED Tovar said the government's 6 percent economic growth target for this year would not be met, insisting there would be growth but without offering a new figure. Data published this week showed Venezuela's economic growth slowing in the third quarter to 1.1 percent, compared with 5.5 percent in the same period of last year. The same data showed the economy grew only 1.4 percent in the first nine months of the year, which Tovar acknowledged puts the current target out of the question. "Undoubtedly, we are not going to grow by 6 percent this year. I can't utter falsehoods ... But we will grow," he said. He denied the country was in a situation of stagflation, which is defined as a period of accelerating inflation with stagnant GDP. Analysts from BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse said in reports this week that based on their calculations, Venezuela's economy was effectively unchanged from the previous quarter - implying stagflation might already be underway. Asked about the quarter-on-quarter growth figures, which the central bank does not publish, Tovar declined to comment. (This version of the story corrects the 2012 third-quarter growth figure to 5.5 percent in paragraph 17.) (Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler)