February 1, 2019 / 2:40 PM / 16 days ago

UPDATE 2-U.S. cracks down on foreigners dealing in Venezuela oil

(New throughout, adds details, background and comments)

By Jessica Resnick-Ault

NEW YORK, Feb 1 (Reuters) - U.S. sanctions will sharply limit oil transactions between Venezuela and other countries and are similar to but slightly less extensive than those imposed on Iran last year, experts said on Friday after looking at details posted by the Treasury Department.

Treasury’s notice makes more explicit that the sanctions restrict foreign entities from doing business with Venezuela using the U.S. financial system or U.S. brokers after April. With most oil transactions conducted in dollars, that is expected to sharply curtail off Venezuela’s efforts to seek buyers around the world.

U.S. officials imposed sanctions on state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, this week, seeking to cut off President Nicolas Maduro’s primary source of foreign revenues.

Most of the Western Hemisphere has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido after Maduro was re-elected in a contest last year widely seen as fraudulent.

“On one hand, the sanctions aren’t as severe as on Iran yet. We don’t ban any country that does business with Venezuela from doing business in the U.S.,” said Robert McNally, president of Rapidan Energy, a Washington D.C. consultancy. “On the other hand, the goal of regime change is explicit and very clear.”

Venezuela sells oil to buyers around the world, including India and Europe, and the country has been seeking buyers elsewhere to replace the roughly 500,000 barrels a day it sells to the United States.

Even before Friday’s notice, European buyers had pulled back on taking shipments from Venezuela due to concerns about how to make payments. Europe may also join the sanctions, experts have said, further constraining options for transporting the crude.

“If a supplier can do so without using the U.S. financial system, then they are not in breach of anything. But find me any market participant that does not,” said an executive at a major trading house.

Spokespeople for Vitol and Trafigura, two of the largest merchant traders in commodities, both said Friday they will comply with all applicable sanctions.

Few alternative buyers are available for the heavy Venezuelan crude oil that is currently shipped to the United States, said Ed Morse, global head of commodity research at Citi Group.

“It’s just not clear that there’s 500,000 barrels a day of upgrading capacity around the world that is freed up to do that,” Morse said.

The large-scale sanctions froze the assets of PDVSA and also require U.S. firms to pay for oil into accounts controlled by Guaido, the country’s opposition party head and self-proclaimed interim president.

The move is part of the broader effort to force out Maduro, who as head of state has presided over a severe economic crisis that has caused millions to flee the country amid hyperinflation and lack of basic resources.

The Treasury’s notice also clarified that holders of PDVSA bonds can only sell that debt to non-U.S. holders, raising concern among some bondholders of the debt, as it limits those who can purchase those bonds. The country’s sovereign debt is not subject to that same restriction.

The price on PDVSA’s debt issue due in 2026 traded at 23.75 cents on the dollar on Friday, while the sovereign 2024 issue was at 29.5 cents on the dollar.

Reporting by Jessica Resnick Ault; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Dilts in New York, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, Susan Heavey in Washington and Julia Payne in London Editing by Jason Neely, Frances Kerry and David Gregorio

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