Mexico: Gambling That Austerity Will Be Enough

By Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid*

Mexico City's Paseo de La Reforma

Mexico City’s Paseo de La Reforma / Flickr / Creative Commons

While continuing to emphasize his goal of reversing neoliberalism in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is pursuing a budgetary policy with austerity – not much-needed fiscal reform – as his top priority, at least for 2019-20. In his inauguration speech last December, AMLO repeated campaign themes deriding the neoliberal policies implemented in Mexico since the mid-1980s, blaming them, as well as rampant corruption, for the country’s slow growth, rising inequality, and widespread poverty. Since then, however, the President’s speeches on economic policy and his Secretary of Finance’s main policy documents have stated that all public-sector operations will be subject to strict austerity.

  • They have indicated that 1) there will be no fiscal reform in the first three years of the administration; 2) fiscal revenue will not increase this or next year as a proportion of GDP; and 3) in this period, the public sector will not incur additional debt. In other words, the implementation of AMLO’s proposed social and economic programs will depend on the availability of public revenues subject to the strict constraint of no additional resources through public borrowing or any tax reform. The government has made sharp cuts to government personnel and wages and eliminated various public entities, including ones created to attract foreign investment and tourism.

At the same time, AMLO plans to change the composition of public expenditures significantly to accommodate his top-priority projects, among them Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (a massive transfer of $180 per capita for an ambitious, and, in many ways, welcome apprentice program for up to 2.3 million youngsters); Sembrando Vida (planting a million trees); Adultos Mayores; and investment to put in place a Maya Train, building from scratch a new crude oil refinery in Dos Bocas, and revamping an airport in Santa Lucía.

More in line with AMLO’s stated intention of overturning neoliberalism, what Mexico really needs is a profound fiscal reform – strengthening public revenues, modernizing public investment strategies, and strengthening its development banks – to foster growth and equality with long-term debt sustainability and greater countercyclical capacity. It is a paradox that the new government chose to commit itself to a severely austere budget, reflected in cuts in public expenditures and an increased primary fiscal surplus.

  • The decision to refrain from tax reform, coupled with drastic austerity, imposes acute limits on the new administration’s ability to strengthen and modernize infrastructure, reduce income inequality through fiscal tools, or strengthen its capacity to act in a countercyclical way – not to mention alleviate major lags in the socioeconomic conditions of the poor population. The IMF, OECD, World Bank, ECLAC, the Centro de Investigación Económica y Presupuestaria (CIEP), Grupo Nuevo Curso de Desarrollo (UNAM), and many local think tanks have systematically underlined that Mexico’s tax revenues as a proportion of GDP are extremely low. According to the estimates of UNAM, CIEP, and others, those revenues are at least six percentage points short of what is needed to meet long-standing needs in infrastructure, health, pensions, education, and overall social security and protection concerns. By reducing the bureaucratic apparatus and public-sector wages virtually across the board, the administration runs the risk of further weakening the state’s technical capabilities in some key areas of public policy and thus undermining its ability to correct course.
  • The underlying reasons for the new government’s commitment to austerity seem to be more political than economic. It has stated that a significant amount of resources can be freed up by abating the rampant corruption, and it apparently believes that before implementing fiscal reform, the government must prove to the citizens that it can deliver efficiently, effectively, and with honesty. Whether there will be sufficient achievements in terms of economic growth and inclusion and in eliminating impunity to convince the middle and upper classes to accept a progressive fiscal reform three years from now is an open question, but the answer will determine Mexico’s economic growth path and progress in the reduction of inequality, poverty, and corruption, and perhaps too its social stability and the viability of its democracy in the future.

April 16, 2019

*Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid is a professor of economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.

Argentina: From Gradualism to Shock Therapy

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri announced yesterday to deal with the sharp depreciation of the Argentine peso and acceleration of inflation in the past couple of months are a belated but entirely appropriate effort to stem the country’s massive capital flight.  His administration intends to lower government spending and reimpose taxes on exports to reduce the fiscal deficit faster than envisioned in May, when a three-year economic program was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is in addition to a previously announced government hiring freeze and cuts to subsidies for electricity and other services.

  • Specifically, the goal now is to minimize the public sector’s financing requirement for 2019, limiting it to rolling over debt maturities coming due plus borrowing $15 billion mostly from the IMF, World Bank, and Latin America’s development banks (CAF and IADB), to cover the interest payments coming due next year. All told, the fiscal deficit contraction that would be achieved between 2017 and 2019 is equivalent to about four percentage points of GDP, compared to the previously pledged 2¾ percent of GDP in savings embodied in the IMF program.
  • In return, Macri’s government has requested the IMF to speed up disbursements under the $50 billion loan facility, which had envisioned a $15 billion up-front payment in June, made on schedule, plus installments of about $3 billion per quarter through June 2021, depending on performance and need. The Fund’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has instructed IMF staff to work with the Argentines to reach a rapid conclusion of discussions to present to the Executive Board for approval.

Macri’s announcement was an admission that what had been advertised in May as a strictly “precautionary” loan must now be amended to provide emergency financing full-throttle.  While a number of emerging-market currencies have come under downward pressure in recent months, the sell-off in Argentina is only comparable to that in Turkey: both the Argentine peso and the Turkish lira currently buy about half as many U.S. dollars as they did at the start of the year (now 100 pesos = $2.60 vs. $5.40 then).  The currency downdraft has dragged Argentine stocks and bonds down when measured in dollar terms; the probability of a debt default in Argentina, as deduced from bond yields, currently ranks highest of all in the emerging markets but for Venezuela, in default since late 2017.

  • Last December, the central bank of Argentina (BCRA) committed itself to achieving an inflation rate of 15 percent during 2018, but prices rose more than that just in the first six months of the year. Given the cost-push pressures unleashed by the peso’s sharp depreciation since May, Argentina would be lucky to end the year with inflation cumulating less than 40 percent.  The patent failure of monetary policy to stabilize the currency and curb inflation thus far will probably be hotly discussed during the government’s negotiations with the IMF.  Last week the BCRA hiked its target interest rate to 60 percent from 40 percent in early August, which is more than double the level that prevailed through May.  Chances are that the IMF will pressure the central bank to keep interest rates significantly above expected inflation until the fever breaks.

We wrote in mid-May that we were witnessing in Argentina the demise of President Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism in tackling the poisoned inheritance left after 12 years of populism under presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.  Now we are beholding the embrace of “shock therapy” in fiscal and monetary policies by the Macri administration.

  • Macri and his economic team keep blaming adverse circumstances, such as the worst drought in 30 years, which has delivered the poorest harvest since 2009; risk aversion among investors because of the tightening of U.S. monetary policy; and uncertainty generated by the “corruption copybooks” scandal involving Kirchner government officials and construction industry businesspersons. Their diagnosis is patently wrong.  Despite the poor harvest, Argentine export earnings through July have increased in the best performance in several years.  The tightening of U.S. monetary policy has been very gradual and well telegraphed in advance; it has not caused problems in prudently managed countries.  And the recent scandal is tarnishing Macri’s opposition in the legislature and has not reached the scope of the “carwash” scandal in Brazil.
  • Macri and his team are reaping what they sowed. In 2016-17 they claimed that they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose precious seats in midterm congressional elections and end up as lame ducks.  And then, after Macri’s party Cambiemos did well in the October 2017 contest, they claimed that in 2018-19 they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose the presidential elections in October of next year.  Up until February, local and foreign investors were willing to give the Macri administration the benefit of the doubt, but then they got impatient, started to pare their positions especially in short-term government bonds, and subsequently decided to exit on a large scale when the central bank failed to tighten monetary conditions sufficiently to keep the peso from depreciating rapidly.

September 4, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

U.S.-Mexico: Trump’s Misguided Approach to NAFTA Renegotiation

By Robert A. Blecker*

Three people stand at podiums with flags behind them

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Mexican Minister of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo (L to R) participate in the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations in Washington, DC in October 2017. / State Department / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Trump has characterized NAFTA as a “win” for Mexico and a “loss” for the United States; his administration is currently working on a renegotiated “deal” that would allegedly reduce the U.S. trade deficit and recapture lost manufacturing employment, but his nationalistic approach fails to recognize the fundamental causes of both U.S. and Mexican economic problems.  In fact, NAFTA was a huge success for President George H.W. Bush and his administration, as it achieved their fundamental goal of enabling U.S. corporations to make products in Mexico with low-cost labor – without fear of expropriation, regulation, or other loss of property rights – and export them to the United States duty-free.  The Mexican government went along because it thought NAFTA would bring in desperately needed foreign investment and provide a growth stimulus, while U.S. and Canadian workers rightly feared that they would lose jobs as a result.  While much discussion has focused on which country “won” or “lost” in NAFTA, that is the wrong way to evaluate a trade agreement.  The two key criteria for judging the accord are which sectors, groups, or interests won and lost in each country, and how it, in conjunction with other policies, has affected long-term growth, development, and inequality in each.

  • Under NAFTA, U.S.-Mexican trade in goods and services has grown exponentially, reaching $623 billion (with a U.S. deficit of $69 billion) last year. However, NAFTA (along with other causes and policies) has contributed to worsening inequality in both the United States and Mexico.  Less-skilled U.S. workers definitely lost, with wage losses up to 17 percent in local areas most exposed to NAFTA tariff reductions.  In Mexico, although consumer gains from trade liberalization were widespread, upper-income groups and the northern region benefited the most.  Real wages for Mexican manufacturing workers have stagnated since 1994.  Labor shares of national income have fallen in both countries since the late 1990s.
  • Domestic policies, exchange rates, financial crises, and the impact of China can make the impact of NAFTA difficult to identify, but effects in some sectors are clear. Mexico gained jobs in automobiles and parts, appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, and seasonal produce.  The United States gained in basic grains, soybeans, animal feed, and paper products.  Although about a half million jobs in automobiles and related industries have “moved” to Mexico, total U.S. job losses in manufacturing (5 million since 2000) have been much more affected by China and technology than by Mexico.  What Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric ignores is that U.S. companies capitalized on these dislocations to raise their profit margins and increase their bargaining leverage over workers and governments both within North America and globally.

Trump’s aggressive posture about NAFTA exploits political discontent with these sectoral effects and the overall worsening of inequality, but the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)’s key demands in the renegotiation appear unlikely to remedy either problem.  USTR Lighthizer is focused on protection for the auto sector, by requiring higher U.S. content (or higher wages for Mexican auto workers), and on changes to dispute resolution procedures that would favor investment in the United States instead of in Mexico.  At best, these measures could bring back a small number of U.S. jobs; at worst, they could make some U.S. industries less competitive (if costs increase).

All of this debate in the United States ignores the fact that NAFTA has been a huge disappointment for Mexico.  Although export industries like automobiles have prospered, the gains to domestic sectors of the Mexican economy have been limited, resulting in sluggish growth (only 2.5 percent per year since 1994, far below the 7.6 percent achieved in East Asia) and leaving millions in poverty while millions more emigrated to the United States.  Of course, other policies and events (including Chinese competition) played into these outcomes, but NAFTA (and related liberalization policies) didn’t turn out to be the panacea for the Mexican economy that then-President Carlos Salinas promised in 1993.  Yet, in the short run the Mexican economy remains highly dependent on foreign investment and exports to the U.S. market, so Trump’s demands for a revised NAFTA and his threats to withdraw are undermining Mexico’s current economic prospects.  Instead of following Trump’s nationalistic approach, the three NAFTA members should focus on making all of North America into a more competitive region with rising living standards for workers in all three countries.  This would start with policies at home, such as public investment in infrastructure, education, and R&D, that could foster industrial growth, along with redistributive measures like higher minimum wages consistent with each country’s economic conditions.

May 11, 2018

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

The Caribbean After the Hurricanes: What Path for Recovery?

By Daniel P. Erikson*

A group of man clear debris

Residents and volunteers begin clearing debris from Hurricane Irma on St. Maarten. / NLRC / Flickr / Creative Commons

This fall’s historically fierce hurricane season reminds us once again that the Caribbean remains extraordinarily vulnerable to natural disasters – especially in the lucrative tourist sectors – and needs to move beyond tourism.  The services sector in the Caribbean may serve as an important source of economic growth, but only if the region begins to take advantage of opportunities in banking and financial services; call centers and information and communication technology; off-shore education and health services; and transportation.

  • While the impact of Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria in U.S. states like Texas and Florida has received wide attention, the small island nations of the Caribbean have also been left to contend with extensive damage to infrastructure and loss of life that has resulted in thousands of newly homeless and dozens of deaths. Irma struck the tiny nation of Antigua and Barbuda as a peak-strength Category 5 storm, and Prime Minister Gaston Browne estimated that 95 percent of the properties on the smaller island of Barbuda were destroyed.  Irma then raked across the U.K. territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos, the French territories of St. Bart’s, Guadeloupe and St. Martin (including the Dutch half of St. Maarten).  Cuba also suffered as the storm swept across its northern coast and ravaged the third-largest city, Camaguey.  Then, just as Hurricanes Jose and Katia rattled the islands only to retreat as minor threats, Hurricane Maria strengthened into a Category 4 storm that ravaged Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with winds exceeding 150 mph, devastating local infrastructure and knocking out the power grid, possibly for months to come.

Clearly, the focus of the near-term will be relief and recovery efforts, as these small islands seek to cope with the enormous damage.  But rebuilding a stronger and more diversified service sector may offer the best path towards a sustainable and much-deserved recovery for the people of the region.  Several years ago, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, asked me to assess what steps the Caribbean islands could take to diversify their economies away from an over-reliance on tourism to create a more sustainable future.  The lessons of that study, Beyond Tourism: The Future of the Service Industry in the Caribbean, remain relevant today.  The bottom line:  Expanding the competitiveness of the Caribbean services sector beyond tourism is a way to draw on regional strengths and broaden the basis for economic growth.

The hurricanes have dealt a tragic and costly blow to the Caribbean, but the reconstruction efforts may also provide an opportunity to build back stronger and more resilient economies.  While the damage is still being assessed, it is already clear that the lives of tens of thousands of people who live on these islands will never be the same and that property damage will extend into the billions.  The recent damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria will likely jolt those figures substantially higher, while some of the smaller, remote islands hurt by earlier storms may be uninhabitable for weeks to come.  French President Emmanuel Macron and the King of the Netherlands traveled to the region to show solidarity with their afflicted citizens, while the United States deployed teams to assist in disaster relief and deployed over $1 million in aid to the smaller affected islands – and is beginning to launch a major relief effort in Puerto Rico as well.  Once the challenges of treating the injured and assisting with basic human needs are met, much of the early reconstruction effort is likely to focus on rebuilding tourist infrastructure.  This will be necessary, but not sufficient, to create a full recovery.  Caribbean leaders have increasingly recognized that developing globally competitive services industries offers one way to retain high-skilled workers and mitigate the risk of external shocks to the tourist sector. During the Obama administration, Vice President Biden made a major effort to deepen U.S. investments in the Caribbean’s energy sector, and new sources of financing through the Inter-American Development Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and private U.S. companies could similarly lead to a major push to modernize services-related infrastructure throughout the islands.  Future storms cannot be prevented, but a more diversified services sector will help the islands to navigate the challenge of reconstruction more effectively.

September 28, 2017

* Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies in Washington, DC, and previously served as a White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama Administration.

China, Latin America, and the New Globalization

By Andrés Serbin*

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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.

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.

Challenging Assumptions about Supercycles in Peru and Latin America

By Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge*

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A Southern Copper Corporation train heading towards the Peruvian mines of Toquepala and Cuajone. / David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

The commodity-fueled “supercycle” that has propelled Latin American economies for the past decade and a half is ending, but careful analysis of other ongoing cycles will help countries cushion the blow.  ECLAC economist Jean Acquatella has identified four significant global cycles in which Latin America has actively participated as a raw materials exporter through the 20th and 21st centuries: U.S. industrialization; post-war European reconstruction and Japan’s industrialization; the post-1973 OPEC-driven oil boom; and, most recently, urbanization and industrialization in Asia, especially China.  During this fourth cycle – considered a supercycle because of sustained record levels of commodity prices and demand – resource-rich countries in Latin America experienced high growth rates, fiscal abundance, and a decrease in poverty rates as well as an increase in social conflict over the extraction of natural resources.  Slower Chinese growth has since reduced global demand and prices for the region’s minerals and energy, but the impact has been less severe than at the end of previous cycles.

  • José de Echave, of CooperAcción, has emphasized the need to differentiate the recent supercycle from what he terms the “extractive boom,” which started in the early 1990s as a result of the privatization of state mining and hydrocarbons assets and pro-market legislative reforms. His analysis indicates that the extractive boom will outlast the supercycle as long as large-scale projects mature and pro-investment policies continue in place.

The concessions, investments, production and fiscal rent during the past decade and a half in Peru and other countries indeed point to other cycles, some of which have enduring momentum.  Peru has experienced a “concessions cycle” for exploration activities; “investment cycles” as a result of privatization of state assets in the ‘90s and as a result of successful explorations and increased demand and prices starting in 2002; “productive and export cycles” as a result of investments; and a “fiscal cycle” of abundant public revenue.  Several cycles will obviously decline, but the country’s pro-investment policies remain in effect.  The new government of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is deepening policies started under former President Humala: reducing corporate income taxes, making environment compliance less onerous, and curtailing the oversight capacities of the Ministry of the Environment.  Investments made in the last five to ten years are, in many cases, only now beginning production.  Thus, as contradictory as it might sound, Peru is poised to double its copper production in the next five years.

The complex differences between “extractive booms” and “supercycles” have deep political implications.  The end of a supercycle could mean a substantial reduction in social conflict between local populations and extractive enterprises and government, but the current “race to the bottom” driven by pro-investment policies could fuel new tensions.  The Las Bambas project in the South Andean region of Apurimac, Peru, illustrates the point.  New legal procedures adopted in 2014 easing approval of environmental impact assessments (EIA) have allowed the Ministry of Energy and Mines to approve substantial changes in the project’s design and EIA without informing the local population and authorities, generating a violent local social reaction.  Available data shows analogous phenomena underway in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.  The implications will vary for each country, of course, but careful analysis is needed if state policies and civil society activism are to be on solid ground.

October 11, 2016

Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge are Program Associate and Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

 

Can Latin America Escape the Middle-Income Trap?

By Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider*

challenges logo (revised)2

Photo Credit: Inter-American Development Bank / CLALS / Edited 

Most literature on the “middle-income trap,” widely understood as a core obstacle to sustained development in Latin America, focuses solely on economic dynamics and understates the importance and challenges of political coalition-building.  That literature, largely generated by economists in academe and international financial institutions, argues convincingly that in Latin America, as well as Southeast Asia, once countries achieve some degree of success in economic development, they get stuck.  They are unable to compete with low-cost producers in traditional sectors – initial development success brings higher wages and other costs – while they also have failed to gain the capacity to compete with developed economies in frontier industries, where technological capabilities and productivity levels are far higher.  These analysts stress that Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico – or for that matter Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – need to build on their achievements over the past half century in order to make the leap into the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations.  They highlight the trap’s proximate origins in productivity slowdowns and recommend policy solutions that focus on improving human capital through investment in education and vocational training.  But identifying problems and potential solutions does not explain why leaders fail to adopt the solutions.  In other words, it’s not clear from existing writings why the trap is actually a trap.

The literature does not acknowledge that fundamental political obstacles, especially lack of effective demand and pressure for these solutions, are at the heart of the problem.  As is evident from the history of failed programs to improve education and R&D, political will to invest in such public goods is in short supply.  Politicians are rarely willing to forgo the short-term political benefits of satisfying entrenched interest groups for the long-term developmental benefits of creating institutions capable of helping the broader citizenry to upgrade its capacity for technology absorption.  A core reason for this lack of political will is the weakness of the societal constituencies that might demand the necessary policies and effective institutions.  Our research indicates that relations among key societal actors in middle-income countries are less amenable to building the consensus that economists advocate. In a recent article, we argue that the same conditions that facilitated or accompanied movement to middle-income status – such as foreign investment, low-skilled and low-paid work, inequality, and informality – have generated political cleavages that impede upgrading policies and the construction of institutions necessary to implement them.  This fragmentation is why the trap is a trap. Three lines of fragmentation are key:

  • Big business is divided between foreign and domestic firms. The former can undertake productivity-improving measures in-house and/or at their home headquarters, whereas local firms tend to focus in non-tradeable services and commodities whose demand for better training and R&D is lower than in manufacturing.
  • Labor is fractured between formal and large, growing informal sectors. Enjoying longer job tenure and on-the-job training for specific skills, formal workers have little interest in broader skills development.  Informal workers, on the other hand, constantly shift jobs and would prefer investments in vocational institutions offering general training.
  • These societies remain overall less equal and, as is now well known, inequality undermines the will and capacity to provide broad public goods such as quality universal education and support for technology development.

 Pro-growth coalitions of various types have been key to productivity improvements in now-high income East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan.  The fact that these countries had stronger (and more autocratic) governments does not preclude developing or building on such coalitions in countries with messier political systems and weaker bureaucracies.  First, leaders can build on sectoral pockets of high productivity, such as aquaculture in Chile, wine in Argentina (and rubber in Malaysia).  Second, international and regional institutions can help supplement demands for skills by supporting programs that focus on technical and vocational institutions that actually meet and are linked to employers’ needs.  Third, organizations such as the ILO can promote business associations that represent the local firms for whom collective technical training and R&D are especially important.

August 22, 2016

* Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider teach political science at Emory University and MIT, respectively.

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