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By Corina Pons and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Multinational companies are selling their Venezuelan operations at hefty discounts - or even giving them away - as they to seek to escape the OPEC nation’s soaring inflation and chronic supply shortages.
Six firms, including General Mills and oil producer Harvest Natural Resources, have sold operations for as little as half their assessed value on the companies’ books, according to securities filings and interviews with a dozen people knowledgeable about the deals.
One company, U.S. autoparts-maker Dana, last year sold its debt-laden Venezuela operations to a local buyer for no cash compensation. Two multinational corporations - Clorox and Kimberly-Clark - chose instead to abandon their operations here.
Sell-offs by foreign companies could further isolate Venezuela’s economy, which is already reeling from low oil prices and an unraveling socialist system. The fire-sale trend will likely accelerate as the crisis continues to cripple the local operations of more multinational firms, according to two private-sector sources familiar with similar deals in the works.
Firms acquiring such distressed operations, however, could reap huge gains if the country’s economy improves.
Corimon - a Caracas firm best known for production of paint - in May purchased the local operations of Bridgestone Corp, the world’s largest tire-maker. Corimon will continue to produce tires under the Firestone brand.
Carlos Gill, president of Corimon’s holding company, declined to disclose the sale terms but called the timing of the purchase “an opportune moment” for his company.
Bridgestone declined to comment.
The sold-off operations, in some cases, were all but defunct before the deals because of chronic shortages of raw materials ranging from sugar to steel bars, as well as triple-digit inflation and difficulty exchanging a crashing local currency for dollars.
“A company that isn’t operating is a corpse, and the vultures start to circle it,” said Juan Pablo Olalquiaga, president of Venezuelan industry association Conindustria.
SOLD ‘FOR NO CONSIDERATION’
President Nicolas Maduro has blamed the country’s woes on an “economic war” launched by U.S. business elites and encouraged by Washington politicians. Maduro has said companies are intentionally slowing production or hoarding goods to destabilize his government.
The Venezuelan government’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
For years, Venezuela operations generated major revenue for Fortune 500 companies because high oil prices allowed the government to sell subsidized dollars through its exchange control system, boosting companies’ local buying power. But the 2014 oil price crash left Venezuela short of dollars because the country depends on oil for almost all its foreign exchange.
More companies are deciding the country’s challenges now outweigh any benefits. General Mills - owner of locally popular Diablitos Underwood deviled ham - reported in a filing earlier this year that it had taken a $38 million pre-tax loss on the sale of its local unit to an undisclosed third party.
Negotiations dragged on for nine months as the economy tanked, forcing General Mills to steadily lower the price, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the talks. General Mills did not disclose the sale price and declined to comment to Reuters.
Insurer Liberty Mutual said in statement last year that it was selling its local affiliate, Seguros Caracas, to a local entrepreneur, Humberto Gil. One source familiar with the deal described the arrangement as a “gift.”
Gil did not respond to requests for comment on the sale, which still needs approval from Venezuela’s insurance regulator. Liberty Mutual did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2014, Danish conglomerate The East Asiatic Company (EAC) sold its Venezuelan food business, Plumrose, to Liechtenstein-based Valartis Opportunities Fund. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
U.S. auto parts firm Dana said in a 2015 filing that it had sold its local affiliate “for no consideration” to a Venezuelan firm called Manufacturing and Logistics Solutions.
While auto sales soared during the oil-boom era of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, they dropped 80 percent in 2014 as Venezuela’s economy ran into hard times.
Dana sold the company for no payment, though it did secure an agreement that Dana would continue to supply raw materials and that the buyer would assume debts.
“After 49 years here, Dana couldn’t exactly walk away from the company,” said Jose Hernandez, who was on the board of directors of Dana’s local unit and stayed on after the sale.
Some companies did decide to walk away, an unusual move.
Despite mounting losses, companies rarely shut down businesses in Venezuela because they can face government accusations of economic sabotage or have managers imprisoned.
But Cleaning supplies company Clorox and personal hygiene products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark shuttered their operations as their facilities nearly ground to a halt for lack of raw materials.
Clorox, which left in 2014, said in a statement at the time that its Venezuela business was “no longer viable.” Kimberly-Clark suspended operations this year, citing inability to obtain raw materials or hard currency.
Both were taken over by the Venezuelan government and have resumed operations under state control. Jorge Arreaza, Vice President at the time, accused Clorox of setting an “evil example” by leaving. Labor Minister Oswaldo Vera said Kimberly Clark threw “thousands of workers onto the street.”
Both companies declined further comment on their Venezuela exit.
Other companies are writing down the value of their Venezuela operations through an accounting mechanism known a deconsolidation, which could signal that more sell-offs are in the offing.
The maneuver, already used by more than a dozen multinationals, involves a one-time write-off of the entire value of a company’s subsidiaries. It is meant to avoid a constant trickle of balance-sheet losses caused by repeatedly slashing the worth of assets that are valued in Venezuelan currency.
It also creates incentives for Venezuelan buyers to put in bids for local factories and other assets.
Bridgestone, before selling its Venezuela operations to Corimon in May, deconsolidated its Venezuela operations in 2015 and reported an associated loss of $350 million.
Ford Motor Co and Oreo-cookie manufacturer Mondelez International Inc are among those who have written off their assets because of severe operational difficulties.
Ford told Reuters it remains “hopeful that the government will resolve local issues, and we can then begin to support the Venezuelan people with additional production.” Mondelez said it would continue to manufacture products “to the extent that we can locally fund operations and access necessary materials and labor.”
Last month’s sale of the Venezuela operations of Harvest Natural Resources offered a rare opportunity for local investors to gain a foothold in the Venezuela oil industry, which is dominated by state-run firm PDVSA and large foreign energy companies.
PDVSA has for years been delaying payment to business partners, including Houston-based Harvest. Struggling to make up those losses, Harvest in 2013 negotiated a $400 million asset sale with Petroandina Resources Corp, a unit of Argentina’s Pluspetrol Resources Corp, according to a Harvest filing from March.
Harvest Natural Resources said in an August filing that Venezuelan government blocked the deal. Oil Minister Eulogio Del Pino told Reuters in 2015 the government rejected the sale because the buyers did not have sufficient financing capacity.
Harvest declined to comment, but the company said in its filing that the deal’s failure made clear that the government would not approve acquisitions by buyers based outside Venezuela.
The company in October ended up successfully selling its operations to Delta Petroleum, which is owned by Venezuelan businessman Oswaldo Cisneros.
Cisneros did not respond to requests for comment.
Principally known as a telecom magnate, Cisneros is making his first forays in to the oil business this year - and got a considerably better deal that what Petroandina negotiated, according to Harvest filings. Cisneros acquired the assets for$143.2 million, including legal fees and settling of Harvest debts, or about a third of what Argentina’s Pluspetrol had agreed to pay. (Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Christian Plumb and Brian Thevenot)