CARACAS, Venezuela—With an unstable political regime and a history of seizing private property, Venezuela would seem an unlikely place for U.S. companies to buy commercial real estate.
Yet companies including satellite-television provider DirecTV, DTV +0.67%cosmetics maker Avon Products Inc. AVP -0.10% and insurer Marsh Inc.MMC +0.75% have been snapping up office buildings here.
The reason: A Venezuelan ban on money leaving the country has stuck foreign companies with no way to get their cash home. As accelerating inflation and the threat of currency devaluations risk eroding the value of cash holdings, companies increasingly see real estate as the best place to park their money.
"The risk of losing hard-earned profits has made the companies take creative steps," says Rubén González, a senior partner at real-estate firm Binswanger Venezuela. "Real estate that maintains its value is the preferred option."
And in a twist peculiar to controlled economies like Venezuela's, a disparity between the official and actual exchange rates promises to raise the value of the properties.
While the deals illustrate the bind for profitable foreign companies here, the purchases have fueled a property miniboom in this otherwise neglected capital and elsewhere in Venezuela.
Before leftist President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1999 and later began to seize property, the country was popular as a regional headquarters for multinational companies, thanks to its solid infrastructure, sophisticated legal system and proximity to the U.S. About 500 U.S. companies conduct business here, according to the U.S. State Department. Many are reluctant to abandon decade-old investments such as factories and business remains brisk in certain sectors, such as electronics and household and personal-care products.
Yet the capital controls enacted a decade ago by then-President Chávez have left foreign corporations with $8 billion to $12 billion in profits trapped here, according to estimates by economists and consultants. Meanwhile, exchange controls restrict access to dollars, so companies must hold their money in Venezuela's currency, the bolívar fuerte. With inflation running at an annual rate of more than 40% and banks paying less than 10% on deposits, companies need ways to maintain the value of their earnings.
Buying gold is an option, but the process can be complex and officials frown on the practice. High-yielding Venezuelan government bonds carry some risk, given the country's political uncertainty and expanding budget deficit. Real-estate agents say buying residential property to rent to employees and others has limited appeal because laws heavily favor tenants over landlords.
Periodic currency devaluations are the greatest risk to keeping bundles of cash in Venezuela. The most recent one, in February, slashed the official value of the bolívar to 6.3 to the dollar from 4.3. The devaluation cut the value of individual and corporate savings accounts by 30%. Companies including General Motors Co.GM +0.18% and Procter & Gamble Co. PG -0.18% were forced to book charges of around $200 million apiece.
Socialist President Nicolás Maduro, who was elected in April, has taken modest steps to increase access to dollars so companies can pay for imported parts and supplies. But there is little sign the administration will ease capital controls more broadly.
Such hurdles have polished the allure of commercial real estate, though companies still run the risk that such assets could be seized by the government down the line.
"Investing in fixed assets is the best of a bad bunch of options," says David Rees, an economist at Capital Economics in London.
Last year, ahead of the widely anticipated bolívar devaluation, DirecTV paid the equivalent of $32.5 million for a 6,500-square-meter Venezuela headquarters in the central El Rosal neighborhood of Caracas, according to public records. (A thousand square meters is about 11,000 square feet.)
DirecTV has about $420 million in cash in Venezuela valued at the official exchange rate, Bruce Churchill, president of the company's Latin America operation, said in a recent call with analysts. DirecTV is "always looking for opportunities to use that cash locally," he said.
Commercial real estate typically is based on dollars, though transactions are conducted in the bolívar.
Other companies also bought property before the devaluation. Avon purchased 4,000 square meters in a glass-and-concrete office building for the equivalent of $13 million and Marsh, a unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos., bought 1,700 square meters in the H-P Tower for $5.5 million to use and lease out. GM's GMAC unit bought an office for its own use in the central La Mercedes area for $10 million. And Iveco, a truck maker owned by Italy's Fiat Industrial SpA, FI.MI -1.86%purchased a 3,500-square-meter shopping center in Caracas for $13.5 million.
Representatives for the companies declined to comment.
Such purchases and a dearth of desirable office complexes in Caracas have sent prices surging in the capital's business district, which real-estate agents call "the Golden Mile." It stretches from the El Rosal area, near the Guaire River, northeast to the sloping, leafy Altamira neighborhood.
Space in the Golden Mile runs about $4,500 a square meter, up from about $2,800 a square meter in 2008, converted at the widely used unofficial dollar exchange rate, according to Vegas, Gonzalez & Asociados, a real-estate research firm.
Like many transactions in Venezuela, the value of the real-estate deals are calculated at the unofficial rate. As dollars have gotten scarce, that has been on the rise, jumping to around 35 bolívares to the dollar from 20 bolívares in the past year, helping to boost resale values. Properties are valued on company books at the formal exchange rate of 6.3 bolívares to the dollar, however.
Analysts say that the country's political and economic situation means foreign companies' earnings will remain trapped well into the future.
"As a result of either the internal divisions in the government, the pressures from interest groups or the lack of conviction, the pragmatists have not been able to pass reforms," says Barclays PLC economist Alejandro Grisanti.
Write to Sara Schaefer Muñoz at email@example.com
Venezuela Property Boom Gets Fueled by U.S. Companies - WSJ.com