U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

30986371735_f660fc42e9_k

Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

trump-nafta

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

China, Latin America, and the New Globalization

By Andrés Serbin*

31128355276_da6ad8d3a0_k

Chinese President Xi Jinping received a medal of honor from the Peruvian Congress during his tour of South America last month, which included the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima. / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru / Flickr / Creative Commons

In Latin America and elsewhere, the world is undergoing tectonic movements that indicate the birth of a new world order with new rules of play.  For much of the past decade, dynamism in world commerce and finance has been shifting from the Atlantic basin to the Pacific.  While the international economy has shown fragility and the developed economies – particularly the European Union and the United States – have shown slow growth since the crisis of 2008, China and the emerging economies of the Asian-Pacific region have experienced sustained growth.  China, now the second biggest economy in the world, has been the driver of that growth and, according to most projections, is poised to overtake the United States as the biggest.  After several centuries in which power has been concentrated in the West, the emergence of new powers in a multi-polar world will naturally bring about changes in the norms and rules governing the international agenda.

In Latin America and other regions, there is growing awareness of this process – with China and its own version of globalization at its center.  The region has witnessed the paralysis of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States as well as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that he will withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as part of a broader anti-globalization policy.  Trump’s announcement drew two different reactions from participants from TPP country leaders at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima late last month.  One was the express decision to proceed with TPP even without the United States, and the other was a clear receptivity to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s invitation that they join regional economic groups that he is pushing – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

  • Both agreements explicitly exclude the United States and abandon norms customarily pushed in free trade by the West. They emphasize reducing tariffs and give no consideration to labor and environmental regulations and non-tariff measures.
  • They complement China’s “one belt, one road” initiative, a modern-day revitalization of the Silk Road creating trade links between China’s western regions with Russia, Central Asia, and eventually to Europe, developing land and maritime routes along the way. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – an economic and security pact linking China, Russia, four Central Asian nations, and now welcoming India and Pakistan – is explicitly linked to RCEP.

Washington’s pending rejection of TPP eliminates a central part of President Obama’s “pivot” strategy to counter China’s rapidly expanding influence in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, but it also has implications for Latin America and the Caribbean as China moves in rapidly to fill the void left by U.S. withdrawal.  While President-elect Trump has pledged to “renegotiate” NAFTA – which he called “probably the worst trade deal ever agreed to in the history of the world” – China last month presented to Latin America a detailed document proposing a new era in relations with “comprehensive cooperation” in all areas and reaffirming a “strategic association” with the region.  In sharp contrast with the new U.S. President’s views of Latin America, Beijing calls Latin America and the Caribbean “a land full of vitality and hope,” praises the region’s “major role in safeguarding world peace and development,” and calls it “a rising force in the global landscape.”  While some analysts suggest that globalization is slowing if not ending, these developments more strongly indicate that it is rather taking on a new form within a new world order that clashes with the visions and values of the West.  We appear to be transitioning into a world that is genuinely multi-polar with globalization under new rules.

December 13, 2016

* Andrés Serbin is the president of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin American think tank.  This article is adapted from an essay in Perfil, based in Buenos Aires.

What Comes After TPP?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

31117865785_a3bb9a557a_k

President Barack Obama and President Pedro Pablo Kuczynsky at the APEC 2016 summit / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores – Peru / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama administration’s failure to win U.S. approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disappointment for Latin American countries on the Pacific Rim – and such a big opportunity for China to expand its influence that President-elect Donald Trump, despite his theatrical pledge to withdraw from it, might eventually consider rescuing the accord. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima last weekend was the last chance for Latin American leaders to say goodbye in person to President Obama and to mourn the passing – for at least the short term – of his TPP-centered vision for trans-Pacific trade.  In a meeting with leaders of the 11 other TPP countries, Obama tried hard to convince them of “the United States’ continued strong support for trade” despite growing evidence to the contrary.  Both U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, firmly and repeatedly stated opposition to TPP.  The White House continued efforts all the way up to election day (November 8) to persuade the U.S. Senate to approve the deal in a lame-duck session, but the Republican leaders – like Clinton champions of free trade until it became a 2016 campaign issue — slammed the door on it.

With the collapse of TPP, several Asian countries have already signaled a willingness to sign on with China’s own free trade initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which Latin America is not yet part of. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, angry with the United States over trade and other issues, threw his lot with China during a visit to Beijing last month.  (The Philippines, which has also moved aggressively to ally itself with China in recent months, is not in TPP.)  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Trump last week and said his country “could have great confidence” in the President-elect, but he has nonetheless warned his parliament that RCEP will prevail.

  • Latin Americans are also slowly but surely gravitating toward China as trans-Pacific leader in trade. Just days before the Lima summit, Peruvian Foreign Minister Eduardo Ferreyros announced that, while Lima still hoped TPP would become reality, his government has begun talks with China over accession to RCEP. His Chilean counterpart, Heraldo Muñoz, last Friday also expressed preference for TPP but told the Wall Street Journal that his country was leaning toward joining RCEP. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Lima for the summit, was also making stops in Ecuador and Chile. (He’s visited Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela on previous trips.) In an op-ed in Peru’s El Comercio just before the summit, Xi said, “United by the same dream, there isn’t a more timely moment for the deepening of our multidimensional cooperation.”

The APEC forum may have been trying to counter Trump and others’ criticism of the lopsided impact of global trade by issuing a statement – titled “Quality Growth and Human Development” – emphasizing the benefit of global trade to all citizens in all countries. It was certainly in this spirit that the host of summit, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, warned that proponents of trade barriers would do well to revisit the history of the 1930s, singling out for unusually sharp criticism the stance taken by the U.S. President-elect.  On its face, Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggests TPP is totally dead; he’s many times called it a “disaster” being “pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”  Free-traders found a glimmer of hope in an organizational chart reportedly leaked by the Trump transition team last week that listed a former lobbyist from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has strongly supported TPP, as head of his “trade reform” team.   Yet if the new U.S. Administration is going to reengage on TPP, the primary reason would probably be to undercut China’s RCEP initiative.  Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment of both parties believes fervently that the impact of U.S. disengagement with the Pacific Rim would be harmful to U.S. global and hemispheric leadership.  Should those concerns sway the incoming President, he could opt to set aside his caustic rhetoric on TPP, negotiate face-saving adjustments to the accord, and instead focus his tough talk on China. TPP’s flaws may ultimately appear minor and manageable compared to the competing scenario of Latin American governments seeking commercial prosperity through a Chinese-led Pacific economic bloc. That is certainly the hope of most Pacific Rim governments across Latin America, whose alarm at developments in the U.S. already has them eying alternatives across the pond.

November 22, 2016

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

Brexit: Limited Implications for Latin America

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

brexit-image

Photo Credit: Elionas2 / Pixabay / Creative Commons

The June 23rd British referendum result – a 52-to-48 percent vote to leave the European Union (EU) – has roiled the world’s leading financial markets, but contrary to many opinions issued in the referendum’s wake, the economic and financial implications of Brexit for Latin America have been either mild or favorable.  Hard line Brexit statements made earlier this month by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and various rebukes from policymakers on the Continent, have had financial-market repercussions for the pound.  Most notably, sterling has fallen sharply, and it is now down more than 15 percent from its high on the day of the fateful vote, plummeting to three-decade lows against the dollar.

  • The market reaction initially led to a mostly regional (UK and Europe) correction in stock prices. Even this was short-lived: for example, the FTSE 250, an index of domestically focused UK firms, at first dropped by 14 percent but recovered fully by early August – and has since been trading above the pre-referendum level.  Moreover, the UK recession many feared did not materialize, at least not during 3Q16.
  • Financial markets priced in fairly quickly the conclusion that the Brexit shock would lead to greater dovishness among the world’s major central banks. Most relevant to Latin America and the emerging markets (EM) generally, the Brexit helped to persuade the U.S. Federal Reserve to delay its tightening until at least the end of 2016.  While Latin America’s trade and investment ties to Europe are not insignificant, the region’s major economies are far more dependent on the health of the U.S. economy and on the mood in the U.S. financial markets, and secondarily on trends in China.
  • If the UK and the Eurozone had stumbled and were headed for a recession, however, one likely casualty of Brexit would have been a noticeable drop in world commodity prices, with strong implications for the major economies of Latin America. While commodity prices have softened somewhat (non-oil commodities have averaged 2¼ percent lower since the Brexit vote, and oil has traded 7½ percent below), confirmed expectations of loose monetary conditions in the U.S. and Europe during 3Q16 have more than compensated.  This is why most EM stocks, bonds and currencies have rallied, with the parade led by the Brazilian Real (BRL), so far the best-performing of 24 EM currencies tracked by Bloomberg (up about 20 percent year-to-date).

The medium-term implications of Brexit for Latin America will depend on how much “noise” emanates from London, Brussels and other European capitals during the negotiation process (likely, 2Q17-2Q19).  Prime Minister May has now made three statements that define her bargaining position: Article 50 (exit) negotiations will begin by next March; the imposition of migration controls on EU citizens coming to the UK is non-negotiable; and the UK will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  The latter two points mean that Britain cannot remain a member of the single market, and is therefore committed to forging a customized free-trade agreement with the EU, which could sow uncertainty and thus depress economic growth in Europe and beyond.

The most probable scenario – slow and halting Brexit negotiations, with progress hard to achieve until close to the end (in 2019) – will encourage uncertainty and speculation among economic agents and thus will be a drag on economic growth especially in the UK, and much less so in the rest of the EU.  However, it need not generate the kinds of waves that will reach, never mind derail, Latin America’s economic trajectory.  It is much more likely that what does or does not happen in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Caracas or Mexico City, and above all in Washington, DC – courtesy of the Fed, the White House, and the U.S. Congress, in that order – will overshadow just about any headlines generated by the Brexit negotiations in Europe.  There is room for Latin America to clock higher GDP growth numbers in the years ahead when compared to the disappointing regional averages of 1 percent growth in 2014, zero growth in 2015, and a contraction of about -0.6 percent in the current year (as per IMF estimates).  This assumes that the Fed’s tightening is gradual (namely, no more than 0.25 percent increases in the Fed’s target rate per trimester) and that the UK’s divorce proceedings are not overly hostile.  This scenario foresees that creditworthy governments, banks and corporations in Latin America will retain access to the international capital markets on reasonable terms, despite some initial retraction in investor interest ahead of, and right after, the resumption of the Fed tightening cycle.

 October 17, 2016

*Dr. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Can Latin America Achieve Fiscally Sustainable and Egalitarian Social Citizenship?

By Fernando Filgueira*

Uncertain Future

Photo Credit: Jan Tik / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin America is undergoing a profound transformation of its social policies and of the very concept of social citizenship, but the outcome of this process is far from certain.  Electoral democracy, urbanization, increased educational attainment, and increased exposure to new and broader consumption patterns have destroyed the political foundations for conservative modernization.  The turn of the century has witnessed advances in social outcomes and public policies that for the first time provide a true window of opportunity for achieving more productive and egalitarian societies.

  • Decreasing poverty, lower income inequality, improved and expanded employment, and access to transfers and services to popular sectors were made possible by five critical factors: booming prices for Latin American commodities fueled economic growth and employment; stable prices – a positive legacy of the Washington Consensus era – meant that wages and transfers were not undermined by inflation; increased state fiscal capacity and commitment to social policy enabled a doubling in 15 years of real social per-capita expenditure; a demographic dividend, when combined (the young and the elderly) dependency ratios are lowest as a percentage of the population; and improved education access, completion, and credentials, which facilitated enhanced opportunity and increased productivity.

Yet these five advantages will lose steam in the next couple of decades.  Growth will wither as the commodity boom ends and expansionary monetary policy is limited.  Most Latin American economies are facing increased inflationary pressures. Existing tax structures and in some cases productivity levels will not permit social expenditure to increase at the rate of the last 15 years.  The easy phase of the demographic transition (when dependency rates are going down) is or will be over in most countries towards 2025.  Some countries in the region will face the European dilemma of an aging population, but they will do so with a lower GDP per-capita, weaker fiscal capacities of states, and a significantly more unequal income distribution.  While the soft targets of expanded education – primary school and expansion of lower middle school – have been achieved, the tough ones remain: extended coverage in early childhood, completion of high school, quality improvement, and true reduction of inequality of outcome in learning.

  • Five fault lines in Latin American social regimes make these problems a major threat to the sustainability of both social and economic development. A) Women’s incorporation into the labor market remains low (50 percent) and is highly stratified.  B) The absence of a robust state-led care system for early childhood and the persistence of a patriarchal distribution of care burdens undermines a route to development that is both more efficient and egalitarian.  C) Stark contrasts between insiders and outsiders in informal and formal labor markets and access to social protection and cash transfer  systems contribute to an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy that mainly benefits insiders unwilling to be taxed for redistributional public and collective goods and insurance. D) The region’s middle class and new emergent class, moreover, are not willing to increase taxation, since they do not perceive the quality of public goods and collective social services as adequate. And E) the pattern of fertility shows some of the worst patterns in social terms, including that most biological reproduction is left to the poor: Latin American governments do not equalize opportunity early on and through the educational system – which in the most unequal region of the world with diminishing but non-convergent fertility rates – leads to a productivity failure since underinvesting in the poor is underinvesting in the frontier of productivity enhancement.

These challenges will condition the possibility of a new social citizenship and a social investment model based on robust public goods, expansion of merit goods, and universality of entitlements.  It is not enough that elites are no longer able to control the political and economic game through status enclosure and authoritarianism.  In order to craft truly universal social policies conducive to providing inclusion for all, societies must confront narrow corporatism and restricted targeting – and the political economy they sustain.  Contributory models based on formal wages and targeted social policies based on need will not disappear, but they have to take a back seat to a model of basic universalism where access to quality public and collective goods is truly universal, and entitlements in transfers and services are not dependent on need or labor formality.  There have been important advances, such as a marked increase in non-contributory systems of cash transfers in terms of pensions and child-family transfers, but the commodity boom and the rise of the emergent and middle classes that drove them are not permanent.  A coalition that is willing to forgo private spending power in order to enhance quality of life through collective services is needed.  Such a coalition is made conceivable by these political, economic, and social epochal changes, but it is by no means guaranteed.  If reforms do not make it a reality, the promise will be shattered, and the pendulum between failed populism, with state-led “Robin Hood” incorporation attempts, and a technocratic closure of democracy and state bashing, will remain the central and tragic dynamic of the region.**

July 18, 2016

*Fernando Filgueira is a Senior Resarcher at the Centro de Información y Estudios del Uruguay (CIESU) and Collaborating Researcher the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.  He is a member of the International Panel for Social Progress led by Amartya Sen.

**Read the full version of this essay, which is based on research done for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and for EUROsociAL on social policy, labor dynamics, and demographic change.

How Sustainable are Latin America’s Advances on Poverty and Inequality?

By Eric Hershberg

Brazil Contrasts

“Projeto Contrastes.” Photo Credit: Gabriela Sakamoto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The significant decline in poverty rates and income inequality in Latin America over the past two decades – driven by a combination of sustained economic growth and intelligently designed social policies – may slow or even be reversed as economic conditions deteriorate across much of the region.  Poverty had begun to drop in most countries even before the commodity boom accelerated growth rates in South America beginning around 2003.  The “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1990s impacted wage income and employment negatively, but other factors diminished their impact on poverty.  By overcoming profound macro-economic instability, which among other things produced hyperinflation that devastated disadvantaged sectors of the population, the economic adjustments of that period were not entirely regressive.  Moreover, a concurrent shift toward targeted social programs – which redirected subsidies away from less vulnerable segments of the population in order to protect the poorest of the poor.  By 2002, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day had declined 4.6 per cent from where it had been at the beginning of the 1990s, according to the World Bank, while the number living on less than $3.10 stayed flat and actually rose (from 135.6 million to 138.1 million).  Performance varied across countries.  By 2012, after a strong decade of growth and a wave of progressive governments, the progress was much more impressive, with poverty dropping to 33.7 million ($1.90/day) and 72.2 million ($3.10/day).

Inequality declined also – a different challenge in the region that Kelly Hoffman and Miguel Centeno aptly labeled the “lopsided continent.”  Measured by GINI coefficients, income inequality in Latin America, which exceeded that of any other world region at the beginning of the century, grew less pronounced under governments of various ideological proclivities.  A substantial body of research shows that this was a product of two factors.

  • Investments in primary and secondary education, which accelerated during the neo-liberal years, meant lower wage premiums for those with more than basic skills: near universal attendance in secondary school reduced the significance of gaps between workers who had secondary education and those who had little schooling.
  • Innovative social policies – particularly conditional cash transfers – meant that the lower rungs of the income ladder received meaningful transfers from the state, enabling them to narrow the income gaps vis-à-vis less disadvantaged sectors. Less frequently acknowledged was the positive impact of reforms on minimum wage policies and the creation or expansion of non-contributory pensions, both of which were pushed aggressively by several governments associated with the “Left Turns.”  Non-contributory pensions were especially important since the most vulnerable of Latin American aged populations, having spent their working years toiling in the informal sector, had previously lacked any sort of retirement pension.  (Read further analysis of pension reform.)

The region’s slowdown in economic growth and the pressure on public finance brought about by the end of the commodity boom – and the infusion of cash into state coffers that it afforded – raise questions about the sustainability of these advances.  The benefits of investments in education will endure for some time.  Even if education budgets decline, the costs in terms of lower educational achievement would take years to become evident, and it is not at all certain that the funding will decline.  However, the social programs are much more vulnerable, as are the ambitious efforts to increase minimum wages and labor protections more broadly.  Should the economic contraction underway in some countries and on the horizon in others generate an increase in informality, the labor market achievements of recent years could be quickly eroded.   This would impact inequality, and it might soon exacerbate poverty as well.

June 3, 2016

Increasing the Benefits of Trade Agreements

By Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres*

Trade 1993-2016

Source: IDB (Full-sized images at bottom of page)

Latin American and Caribbean countries were major players in global trade liberalization in the 1990s but have since been held back by complex rules, infrastructural obstacles, and the poor flow of information.  The successful conclusion in 1994 of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fueled growth and optimism in the region, but the slow progress of the Doha Round drove the region into the silent tide of regional trade agreements (RTAs), which now govern about half of world trade.  Latin American and Caribbean countries have concluded some 70 RTAs – a far cry from the handful of sub-regional customs unions and free trade areas in place in 1994.  As a result, tariffs applied by Latin American countries have dropped from an average of 40 percent to 10 percent during this period.

Despite these policy advances, Latin America and the Caribbean’s participation in international trade is still limited.  Whereas the region and the developing nations of Asia had a similar share of world trade in 1962 (around 6 percent), Latin America’s global trade share has remained relatively unchanged – and that of Developing Asia has grown to nearly three times its previous size.  Latin America registers lower levels of intra-regional trade – 18 percent – compared to 37% in Developing Asia and 61% in the European Union.  Our research indicates that Latin America and the Caribbean could close this gap through a series of measures:

  • Harmonizing the different rules of origin in the RTAs and the wide array of sanitary, phytosanitary, and technical standards that qualify market access.
  • Improving infrastructure and reducing inefficiencies at border crossings to reduce transportation and logistics costs, which amount to three times more than existing tariffs.
  • Harnessing the power of information and communications technology to reduce costs through one-stop shops and process automatization, such as the trade single windows being introduced in several countries in the region. The cost of information about consumer preferences, market demand, and foreign regulations is the first barrier that potential exporters face.
  • Simplifying and reducing administrative burdens through expedited and secure customs and other trade facilitation measures. Some experts estimate that, worldwide, some 75 percent of delays are due to inefficient processes (compared to 25 percent due to inadequate infrastructure).

The main lesson for Latin America and the Caribbean is that trade agreements are a necessary – but not sufficient – condition to achieve economic development potential.  Increasing companies’ participation in international value chains is key to unleashing trade as an engine for economic growth and poverty reduction.  Trade-driven growth in the region, much of it from South American commodities, enabled a reduction of poverty from 22 percent in 2002 to 12 percent by creating new employment opportunities and the fiscal capacity to fund poverty reduction initiatives such as conditional cash transfers (Mexico’s Programa Oportunidades, for example).  By our calculation, trade facilitation measures such as customs and border simplifications can increase Latin American and Caribbean exports by as much as 15 percent, translating into a 5 percent increase in export-supported jobs that pay almost 20 percent more than jobs at non-exporting firms.  It is within policymakers’ grasp to create the enabling environment for firms to export, especially for the small and medium-sized enterprises that may represent the next generation of exporters.

May 9, 2016

*Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres are, respectively, the manager and principal specialist of the Integration and Trade Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank.  Click here to access the IDB’s new course on trade agreements, and here and here for related studies.

Trade 1993-2016 v2

Source: IDB

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.