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Venezuela’s asset seizures raises concerns for other sectors

Venezuela's seizure of a General Motors auto plant has created concerns that assets in other sectors of the economy could be seized by authorities.

GM last week announced it would cease operations in the South American country after claiming a General Motors Venezolana (GMV) plant in the industrial hub of Valencia was illegally seized.

"The seizure was granted and enforced in total disregard of GMV's right to due process, causing irreparable damage to the company, its 2,678 workers, its 79 dealers (the country's largest service network with more than 3,900 workers), and to its suppliers," the company said in a statement.

"GMV strongly rejects the arbitrary measures taken by the authorities and will vigorously take all legal actions, within and outside of Venezuela, to defend its rights."

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech as pro-government demonstrators hold a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on March 9, 2017.
Carlos Becerra | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech as pro-government demonstrators hold a rally in Caracas, Venezuela on March 9, 2017.

Yet GM may have to wait to achieve legal recourse. Venezuela has more than 20 pending cases at the World Bank's arbitration court, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

"Despite Venezuela's formal withdrawal from the ICSID on 25 July 2012, and the government's strong nationalist rhetoric, the country has at least 24 bilateral investment treaties (BITs), which remain effective and still guarantee compensation through arbitration procedures," Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, told CNBC via email.

"Delays in payment had been, until recently, more likely than non-payment, and the administration had so far proved willing to settle with foreign investors, but less so with domestic investors. But as the economy continues deteriorating dramatically non-payment risks following expropriation and arbitration cases are significantly escalating."

Moya-Ocampos says the risk of asset seizures remains high in the near-term outlook and may intensify as the economy deteriorates under President Nicolas Maduro. He added that firms which halt production or are accused of hoarding or price speculation are at risk from expropriation.

"Companies operating especially in the food, basic goods and oil services sector are particularly vulnerable. But in general terms, most companies operating in Venezuela are exposed to being seized due to nationalist populist ideological reasons, if they are legally declared strategic for economic and social development or if somehow are linked with supporting opposition groups," he said.

Reasons for the GM plant seizure are not clear, according to global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. Local reports claim the order was issued by civil court in relation to a 17-year lawsuit between General Motors and a dealership, while other reports state it was an attempt to remove union workers occupying the facilities.

However, Grant Sunderland, Latin America analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, doesn't think this move will lead to a new wave of property rights violations.

"The seizure of unproductive assets is a common practice under the ruling PSUV government," he said in a research note.

"While we do not expect this episode to trigger an escalation in expropriations, the latent threat of asset seizure will maintain Venezuela in the extreme-risk category of our Respect for Property Rights Index for the foreseeable future."

One sector least likely to be affected by seizures is oil and gas, according to Sunderland.

"This is because the cash-starved Maduro government has to maintain a positive relationship with potential investors looking to increase their stake in existing joint ventures."

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