Enlarging consumer credit in Venezuela
By Sacha Feinman, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- Chaos theory has it that a butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia can cause a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Now there's a new version of that adage: Instability in the Middle East can make it easier for women in Venezuela to get breast implants.

Ultimas Noticias, Venezuela's biggest paper, recently ran an ad for Banco del Caribe featuring two brassieres - one small and plain, the other large and lacy. "What do you desire?" the ad asked. "In just 48 hours, you'll have it."

Thanks to record oil prices, Venezuela is flush with cash. All that excess liquidity has resulted in consumer spending nearly doubling, from $34 billion to $61 billion, between 2003 and 2005. And banks are doing their best to facilitate the process. "It has gotten to the point where banks no longer care what your loan is for," says José Grasso Vecchio, president of Soft-Line, an economic consultancy in Caracas.

Consumer loans are a convenient way for banks to expand and remain profitable in a country with strict exchange controls and relatively low interest rates. "All this money sitting there results in pressure for the banks to make loans in order to make interest to pay their creditors," says Franklin Santarelli, director of Latin American financial institutions at Fitch Ratings.

While most of this lending goes toward the purchase of conventional goods such as new cars - loans for which increased by 230% in 2005, to $1 billion--many people have taken advantage of the process to finance other amenities. "In the past year and a half, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of my clients who are paying with loans," says Dr. Pedro Meneses, a plastic surgeon in Caracas. "The cost of most procedures is relatively low, so the loan doesn't have to be that large - $2,000 will buy you a new pair of breasts." Adds Grasso Vecchio: "We call the whole thing 'fast credit,' though a colleague suggested we call it credi-tetas instead."  Top of page