Latin culture is all the rage these days, from Botero sculptures and Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," to burritos and margaritas. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Bolivia is getting in on another Latin craze: the abrogation of contracts.
We refer to President Evo Morales's pronouncement on May 1 -- not a coincidental date -- to tear up Bolivia's agreements with foreign investors in the natural gas industry and take, in his words, "absolute control" of Bolivia's natural resources. Kicking out foreign investors by executive decree sounds a lot like the same authoritarian nationalist populismo that has earned Bolivia the only prominence it has ever enjoyed: South America's poorest nation.
The Morales move shocked markets but not for its originality. The newly inaugurated president is following the lead of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is a knock-off of Argentine strongman Juan Peron. Peron is long since dead but his spirit lives on in his party, which has been the 21st century's trend setter in the assault on property rights. In 2001 and 2002, Argentina's Peronistas reneged on their commitments not only with foreigners but with their own people, declaring a debt moratorium, tearing up utility contracts, confiscating dollar bank accounts and devaluing the peso.
Señor Chávez followed suit after a fashion. He canceled contracts with foreign oil companies last month, demanding that the government oil company be given majority ownership and operational charge of oil fields. New terms offered to investors are also far less profitable. Some have agreed to stick it out, but Exxon Mobil sold its operations and when France's Total and Italy's ENI SpA refused to give in, Mr. Chávez responded by seizing their operations.
Like all fads, this one has its surface appeal. Argentina cleared its balance sheets by sticking it to its creditors and tearing up contracts. Its economy is still growing four years after its theft of private-sector assets, and it may even believe it's gotten something for nothing.
Yet the real predictor of a country's economic future lies in its investment rate. Economists estimate that to achieve steady long-term growth of 3.5% to 4%, Argentina needs an investment-to-GDP rate of at least 23%. To reach 5%, a more reasonable target for a quasi-developed country, it needs 25% investment to GDP. Yet last year's investment rate was a measly 19.8% and today's rate is only 22%. In other words, there are lots of places to put capital these days and few are rushing into Buenos Aires.
It may be that Mr. Morales has been emboldened by the petro wealth of Venezuela. But that country, too, is having trouble sustaining investment in energy production. Thanks to rampant corruption and the government's use of energy profits for buying support for socialism at home and around the region, Venezuela's oil fields are suffering from under-investment. Given an annual depletion rate of 25%, the only thing not clear is how long it will take to run the sector completely dry.
Bolivia to date has had only about $3.5 billion in foreign investment in natural gas, not nearly enough to exploit its vast reserves in the future. Even if Brazil's Petrobras and Spain's Repsol YPF decide to stay and accept the operating terms laid down by President Morales -- including a tax of 82% on natural gas extracted from country's two biggest fields -- new investment is unlikely to be nearly so brave.
Which means Bolivia would become either less productive or highly dependent on state-owned foreign companies from Venezuela or perhaps Russia. Neither option bodes well for the country's sovereignty, much less its prosperity.