By Daniel Bases
CARACAS -- In socialist Venezuela, there is a rare whiff of optimism among private sector investors who think the presidential vote in October 2012 may see a united opposition defeat Hugo Chavez.
Chavez's battle with cancer has increased speculation his campaign to retain control of the South American OPEC nation of 29 million may be curtailed.
That has offered a glimmer of hope to Caracas's once vibrant stock exchange, now an apparition of its former self after Chavez's 13-year socialist revolution.
The systematic takeover of major companies and a government attack on brokerage houses -- a handful of investors were sent to jail after raids last year -- has killed investor interest and cut available shares to trade.
"I have never received more calls about the Venezuelan stock exchange in the last 10 years as I have in the last four months ... since Chavez's cancer news," said Russ Dallen, head of Caracas Capital Markets.
"These companies have value, established clientele, foreign operations. They may be in a bad neighborhood but they still have worth," said Dallen, who noted many still pay dividends.
Chavez supporters say his policies are a long overdue way to redress Venezuela's unfair wealth distribution, relinquish the elite's grip on resources, and bring services like free healthcare and schooling to shantytowns.
Those policies were less favorable for the Caracas bourse. Its market capitalization dipped to $3.98 billion at the end of 2010, at the official exchange rate of 4.3 bolivars to the U.S. dollar.
The exchange has since risen to $5.18 billion at the end of September because of a market rally.ROAD TO PERDITION
For now, most major companies listed on Caracas's exchange no longer trade and market capitalization is still well below the $7.46 billion just before Chavez took power in 1999 with his self-styled revolution.
"I believe that revolution is for one man and one name and the name is Hugo Chavez. If Hugo Chavez is not in power, all the problems can be solved," Manuel Alonso Rebareda, president of the Caracas Stock Exchange told Reuters in an interview.
The 63 percent increase in the benchmark IBC stock index so far this year is widely dismissed because of its puny transactions, both in number and volume, with only 17 trades in September worth $1.76 million.
Nationalization in 2007 of the Electricidad de Caracas, the main electric utility; CANTV, the main telecommunications company; and in 2008 the cement sector, cut the vast majority of trading volumes, perhaps as much as 90 percent, said Nelson Ortiz, president of the exchange from 2000-2007.
"There is no volume in the market for any, even small foreign investors to get into this market," he said.
"If Chavez is in or out, the key question is whether the socialization deepens or do we go back to a market economy? If they move toward more market-friendly policies we will see a rally," said Ortiz, who now works as an economic and financial consultant in Venezuela.FOR THE BRAVE
The biggest question in Venezuela is whether Chavez survives his cancer, a vote, or both.
It has piqued the interest of investors both at home and abroad after his flamboyant and indomitable image cracked with the disclosure that a baseball-sized tumor was removed in June from his pelvic region by Cuban doctors.
This new element has given opposition candidates, who swear unity after a February primary, and those in favor of capitalism, hope that 13 years of socialism may end.
In the last week Chavez has hit the airwaves and made surprise inspections at local military barracks in his folksy man-of-the-people manner, breaking into song at every turn.
At the end of September, JPMorgan Securities sent clients a note highlighting some companies with exposure to Venezuela that could benefit from the potential for regime change.
"A successful opposition primary in February could foster market enthusiasm for political transition," said the note, obtained by Reuters.
Canadian-based mining companies with significant, if not all their assets in Venezuela, such as Rusoro Mining , Crystallex , and Gold Reserve top this list.
Houston-based oil exploration company Harvest Natural Resources , has nearly 60 percent of its assets in Venezuela, according to the JPMorgan note.
Despite this list of 12 companies, major international fund managers and investors remain extremely skeptical about Venezuelan stocks. That is because the market is so small and because of the fear of more nationalizations.
"The main reason we don't want to be there, as buyers of equity, is that there is literally no equity market left. It has been destroyed. Nothing trades," said Geoffrey Pazzanese, portfolio manager at Federated Global Investment Management in New York.
"Can it be worse? No. But can it be better? Yes. It will take 10 years, but they have oil, good geographic location and a sizable educated class, even with the poverty," he said.
That is in contrast to the credit market where the government maintains an unsullied track record of paying its high yielding debts to international investors. A high rate of issuance is underpinned by high oil prices. Unless prices suffer a sharp prolonged drop, the ability to pay exists.CAN'T FIGHT THE POWER
The desire for companies to list exists as well, says Rebareda, 54, the optimistic father-of-four who was elected to a two year term as president of the exchange in April.
Roughly 40 companies have come to the exchange inquiring about listing shares, Rebarada said.
He is one of the lucky brokers who did not find themselves entangled in a crackdown on brokerages over currency trading. Some are too afraid of arrest to speak to a journalist.
Companies in the services sector, construction, heavy industries, oil and energy want to list, he said, but are too afraid to do so given government rules can change on a whim.
"No listings this year,
but in case the rules change, there are many companies coming to the exchange in need of working capital," said the former fighter pilot, who also holds degrees in law and civil engineering.
In November last year, Chavez announced the government would open a state-run stock and bond exchange, describing it as a blow against "vampire" capitalism.
Rebareda says there are no plans to merge the two exchanges and doesn't know much about the government's initiative because "I don't believe in that project." REUTERS
(Additional reporting by Marilyn Briones; Editing by Andrew Hay) Click here to read this report in Spanish