Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is predictably unpredictable. No one’s really sure what he’s going to do next, but everyone knows he’s going to do something.
Earlier this week, Chavez announced during a live nationwide television broadcast on his state-run network that the Venezuelan government was taking over the local plants of U.S-based glass container maker Owens-Illinois (NYSE:OI).
Here’s how Chavez made the announcement, according to a transcript: “The expropriation is already ready of this glass company. What’s it called? Owens-Illinois. Expropriate it.”
Chavez, the chief instigator and architect of his own socialist revolution, nationalized Owens-Illinois’ plants under the pretense that the company was “exploiting” Venezuelan workers and “destroying” the South American country’s environment.
The news came as a complete surprise to Owens-Illinois, a Fortune 500 company and the world’s largest maker of glass beverage containers. Perrysburg, Ohio-based Owens-Illinois took in $7.1 billion in revenues in 2009 and earned $169 million. Major customers include Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD), H.J. Heinz (NYSE: HNZ), and SABMiller.
Company officials said in a statement they learned of Chavez’s decision only after it was broadcast on television. “We were surprised to learn of this decision and we are prepared to work with government officials to better understand the situation,” the company said.
Executives said yesterday that Venezuela was expected to take over the company that morning.
Owens-Illinois has operated in Venezuela for 52 years and has two plants that make bottles mostly for beer and soft drinks. Its stock dipped about 9% after Chavez’s announcement late Monday, but has since bounced back
Christopher Manuel, an analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets in Cleveland, said the nationalization of Owens-Illinois’ plants by Chavez is the second significant hit to that company's Venezuelan operations.
Chavez’ decision earlier this year to devalue the country’s currency has cut into Owens-Illinois’ earnings, Manuel said.
As other companies -- notably Exxon-Mobil (NYSE:XOM) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) -- have discovered, there’s little recourse once assets are nationalized. The local government is required to provide equitable compensation, and disputes can be taken to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a unit of the World Bank Group. But that process can take years, according to Manuel.
“Socialism and capitalism don’t tend to work well together,” the analyst said.
Manuel said he’s hard pressed to imagine any U.S. companies making new expansion efforts in Venezuela at the moment.
As for those firms that were doing business in Venezuela before Chavez came to power in 1999, they’re out of luck if Chavez turns his nationalistic attention toward them.
The far-left leaning Chavez has stepped up nationalizations since his party suffered a setback in legislative elections on Sept. 26. Owens-Illinois is just one of several international companies the Chavez-led government plans to take over.
Luis Fleischman, an expert on Chavez and an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Florida Atlantic University, said the aggressive moves by Chavez were predictable in the wake of the damaging elections last month.
“Every time he loses, or there is even a perception that he’s lost power, he becomes like a wounded animal that becomes even more dangerous,” said Fleischman, who is writing a book about Chavez’ impact on South America.
Fleischman said Chavez thrives politically when the international community expresses shock and outrage at his latest moves.
“There is an illusion that Chavez can’t do these things, but he’s done this sort of thing in the past. You can’t assume that he’s a rational actor. Often what he does doesn’t make sense economically. He’s crossed the line already on a number of economic and political issues. His is not necessarily a rational or pragmatic government,” he said.
The idea isn’t necessarily to further the economic interests of Venezuela, but rather to strengthen Chavez’ political support. Indeed, companies like Owens-Illinois and others that Chavez has nationalized contribute significantly to Venezuela’s economy by employing thousands of workers and making improvements to the country’s infrastructure.
Chavez, according to Fleischman, is willing to take actions that go against national interests in order to firm up his own political power and advance the socialist revolution he’s overseeing.
“It’s highly symbolic. He’s showing his power. It sends a strong message not only to Venezuelans but also to the outside world. He’s showing his determination,” said Fleischman.
Chavez has become increasingly aggressive in his nationalizing efforts in recent years, taking over an estimated 350 companies since 2007, according to media reports. Since taking power over a decade ago Chavez has made no secret of his desire to consolidate private assets under state control to further his ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’
But in most cases when an international company has been appropriated, the Venezuelan government has compensated the parent company. Analysts are expecting the same results with Owens-Illinois, which is one reason the stock hasn’t tanked.
Another is that just 5% of Owens-Illinois’ 2009 net earnings were generated in Venezuela, according to a research note by Morningstar analyst Thomas Mullarkey.
“We are optimistic that in the coming years, O-I will be able to work out a settlement agreement with the government for at least a meaningful fraction of the company’s Venezuelan asset base,” Mullarkey wrote.