Venezuela Jet Fuel Exports Surge After Airlines Pull Out

  • Airlines suspend flights on economic crisis and low traffic
  • Shipments to U.S. and Europe are highest since January 2016

Cash-strapped Venezuela is tapping U.S. and European air passengers to help pay its debts, even as airlines cut routes to the country.

Exports of jet fuel to the U.S. and Europe more than doubled in April from March, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, show. That may provide some relief to state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, which has $3.2 billion in interest payments and principal maturities due this year, according to Bloomberg data.

Jet-fuel shipments are rising because domestic demand for air travel is falling, said Ehsan Ul-Haq, a London-based director of crude oil and refined products at Resource Economist Ltd. Hyperinflation has made flights prohibitively expensive for Venezuelans, and protests that have left almost 100 dead are keeping foreigners away. The U.S. recommends Americans avoid travel to the country and is weighing sanctions on Venezuela’s top officials and a ban on oil imports.

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“The Caracas airport is considered as one of the world’s most dangerous airports and several countries have warned their citizens against traveling to Venezuela,” Ul-Haq said. “Meanwhile, the Trump administration has threatened Venezuela with sanctions and this could lead to a further dip in domestic demand.”

Jet-fuel exports from Venezuela climbed to a 15-month high of almost 634,000 barrels in April, the latest EIA and Eurostat data show. That’s something of a surprise because Venezuela’s domestic refineries are operating at less than 50 percent of their installed capacity and are suffering from breakdowns and a lack of crude oil to process.

Venezuela needs the money, though.

The probability of the country defaulting on its external bonds is the highest in the world, according to derivatives traders, and the nation’s benchmark 10-year bonds trade at just 46 cents on the dollar. Despite drastically cutting imports of food and medicine to conserve the cash needed to pay bondholders, Venezuela’s foreign reserves have tumbled to a 15-year low of about $10 billion.

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In the past three years, at least seven airlines have suspended routes to Caracas or reduced the number of daily flights in part because they are trying to collect money from the Venezuelan government, which must authorize the repatriation of earnings from ticket sales under Venezuela’s currency controls. Airlines have about $3.8 billion held hostage in the country, according to the International Air Transport Association trade group.

United Airlines Inc. halted daily service from Houston to Caracas this month. American Airlines, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Grupo Aeromexico SAB de CV, Latam Airlines Group SA and Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA canceled routes to Venezuela in 2016. 

“The funds will help, certainly, but at these volumes, I don’t believe this will really move the needle,” said Mara Roberts, a New York-based analyst for BMI Research, said of the jet-fuel exports. “Venezuela has dug themselves into quite a big hole, and it’s going to take something more substantial to help them out at this point.”

The jet-fuel shipments also may not last. Demand for aviation fuel is strong now because of summer holidays in the U.S. and Europe. But the U.S. has plenty of supply: inventories were at a five-month high of 44.6 million barrels in April, above the five-year average, according to EIA monthly data. They have since fallen to 39.2 million barrels in EIA data through the week of July 14.

“I believe U.S. demand is not sustainable beyond the busier summer travel season,” Roberts with BMI Research said. “Also, Venezuela’s refineries are still significantly under utilized due to a chronic lack of maintenance, which means supplies are likely not plentiful at the moment.”

— With assistance by Eduardo Thomson, Andrea Navarro, and Katia Porzecanski

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