Chavez Plays Double or Nothing

Until yesterday, investors in Venezuelan telecom CA Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela (NYSE: VNT  ) had been feeling pretty good about their stock. The company, known colloquially as "CANTV," is Venezuela's only NYSE-listed firm. Its shares rose nearly 60% between January and April of last year, and they were widely expected to continue moving higher on rumors that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim might make a bid for control. And then disaster struck.

In a wide-ranging speech yesterday, President Daffy Duck -- er, Hugo Chavez -- of Venezuela asserted a need for the state to take control of certain "strategic sectors" of the economy. Now, oil investors are already familiar with this story, so presumably the prices of Venezuelan-invested oil majors such as BP (NYSE: BP  ) , ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) already have the "daffy dictator risk" priced into their securities. Few people, however, had been predicting a Chavez march on the utilities sector.

In a nutshell, that changed yesterday when the Venezuelan president asserted his intention to nationalize the nation's utilities. In response, AES (NYSE: AES  ) , which owns local electric powerhouse Electricidad de Caracas, has taken a 6% hit to its share price over the last two days. CANTV, which Chavez mentioned by name as a nationalization target, took an even more serious hit. Since Friday's close, the shares are already off by 38%.

The real tragedy, though, is that even after the stock's run-up last year, CANTV was still looking like quite the attractive investment. Over on the discussion boards at the Fool's premier international investing forum, Motley Fool Global Gains, our own TMFWysocki was suggesting that CANTV's strong free cash flow, "tiny P/E of around 6," "huge dividend yield of 16.7%," and "miniscule debt-to-equity ratio of 1.6%" made the stock a primo investment prospect.

No more. Thanks to the grasping hands of the Latin King, it now appears that CANTV will be absorbed into the same state that, over the last six months, has managed to destroy 54% of the value of its own currency, the Venezuelan Bolivar -- despite record world oil prices that have Russia's ruble and Canada's dollar climbing to new heights. I fear the same fate will now befall CANTV.

And as for CANTV's shareholders, they've already been ruined.

Venezuela isn't the only nation that's bent on reclaiming its economy's crown jewels at a discount. For an even more sordid (not to mention more disingenuous) tale of state-sponsored theft, read:

Want to learn how to invest internationally, but minimize the risk of getting robbed by your money's host? That's our goal at Motley Fool Global Gains. Want to find out more? Great. We've got free trials on offer for the first million respondents.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Fool has a globe-trotting disclosure policy.

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