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.

Argentina: The Downside of Gradualism

By Arturo C.  Porzecanski*

Tortoise heads down a dirt path surrounded by greenery

Towards Turtle Path / Maxpixel / Creative Commons

President Mauricio Macri made a surprise announcement on May 8 that his government would seek financial support from the IMF to enable the country to “avoid a crisis like the ones we have faced before in our history” – essentially, an admission that time may be up for his policy of gradualism in dealing with the legacy of populism.  Sources in his administration expressed confidence that Argentina could obtain some $30 billion in “precautionary” loans at low interest rates and with few strings attached as an alternative to more borrowing in the international capital markets at higher and rising rates.  His finance minister, Nicolás Dujovne, and other members of the economic team departed Buenos Aires for Washington, DC, that same evening to formalize the request at IMF headquarters and to meet with a top Trump administration official at the U.S. Treasury.  After an initial round of friendly conversations, the parties agreed to meet again starting on May 14 to initiate a negotiation process that they acknowledged would take several weeks.

  • Macri blamed downward pressure on the Argentine peso (despite drastic hikes in short-term interest rates and the sale of one-tenth of hard-currency official reserves), on tighter monetary conditions and on volatility abroad at a time when the government must still raise money internationally to finance its large fiscal deficit.  “The problem that we have today is that we are one of the countries in the world that most depends on external finance, as a result of the enormous public spending that we inherited and are restoring order to,” the President stated.
  • The decision to turn to the IMF surprised observers because it came at an unusually early point in the country’s financial cycle.  Argentina’s central bank still has about $55 billion in international reserves, the equivalent of some 10 months of imports, or three times the amount of foreign-currency government debt maturing in 2018.  Also, foreign investors by no means have slammed the door on Argentina’s face, though admittedly the government probably could not sell another 100-year dollar bond like it did last June, raising $2.75 billion from die-hard optimists.  Argentina in the past, like most other countries, has generally turned to the IMF only in desperation once they were unwelcomed by Wall Street and their vaults were almost bare.
  • The onus placed by Macri on deteriorating financial conditions abroad was also surprising.  After all, the U.S. Federal Reserve has barely begun its monetary tightening process: the overnight fed funds rate, currently around 1.7 percent per annum, is still below U.S. inflation of 2.1 percent, so it has yet to enter positive territory.  Moreover, U.S. bond yields now in the vicinity of 3 percent for 10-year Treasuries, are up from 2.3 percent a year ago but have merely bounced back to a level they were at as of end-2013.  And the financial markets’ “fear” index VIX, a measure of expectations implied by options on the S&P 500 index, has fluctuated in the teens, which while higher than last year’s mostly single digits, remains very far from the range of 30 to 80 seen during prior episodes of extreme risk aversion in the financial markets.

 President Macri’s announcement did not have the favorable intended effect on confidence and market behavior, as evidenced by the peso remaining under downward pressure in the three business days that followed.  Despite renewed central bank intervention to boost the currency, it now takes almost 24 pesos to buy a U.S. dollar when it took fewer than 16 pesos to do so a year ago – a loss of about one-third in the currency’s purchasing power.  One reason is that Macri’s blaming adverse developments abroad for his currency’s woes rings hollow with investors, given how very slowly his administration has moved to reduce a fiscal deficit running above 6 percent of GDP since 2015; how much debt (around $100 billion) he has taken on in just a couple of years; and how timid his central bank has been in its attempt to bring down inflation running at about 2 percent per month.  And the other reason is that it quickly became apparent that any loan from the IMF will come with strict conditionality attached, because Argentina’s request was routed to the Fund’s regular, “stand-by” window – and not to its easier-access, precautionary lending window for highly creditworthy borrowers.  The Fund spelled out its economic policy advice for Argentina in its December 2017 “Staff Report for the 2017 Article IV Consultation,” and it calls for a more assertive reduction in the fiscal deficit, especially by cutting government spending, and for supply-side reforms it called “indispensable” to support economic growth, raise labor productivity, attract private investment, and enhance the country’s competitiveness.  These are all recommendations that fly in the face of President Macri’s gradualist approach to defusing the economic minefield left behind by his populist predecessor, Cristina Fernández Kirchner, and will therefore paint his government into a politically fragile corner.  We are witnessing the demise of Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism.

 May 14, 2018

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

 

Brazil in 1999: The Impact of Rigid Labor Regulations

By Jennifer P. Poole and Rita Almeida*

The outside of a building in Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment in Brasília. / Grupo Vestcon / Creative Commons

During Brazil’s currency crisis and devaluation in 1999, stringent implementation of labor regulations hindered, rather than enhanced, manufacturing plants’ recovery and workers’ wellbeing – an important lesson to keep in mind in current debates in many countries.  In an article published in the May 2017 Journal of Development Economics (JDE), we examine the implications of global economic integration through international trade on local labor markets during that critical period in 1999.

  • Many economic policymakers agree that reforms in the latter half of the 20th century, such as liberalizing trade relations and encouraging foreign investment, have been powerful drivers of efficiency gains, income growth, and consumer choice around the globe. At the same time, however, there is agreement that – as firms adapt to a more competitive global environment – the gains are often accompanied by short-term costs for workers in terms of unemployment and income risk.  Policymakers have to weigh the broad economic benefits from globalization and technological change, on the one hand, against workers’ opportunities and security on the other.

A micro-econometric estimation analysis of detailed, confidential, and proprietary micro-data sets – collected in part while visiting the Brazilian Labor Ministry – reveals a causal impact of trade reform on employment.  Brazil’s policy environment of strict labor market regulations (e.g., hiring and firing costs), coupled with its dramatic trade liberalization and currency devaluation, make it a particularly appropriate setting to study the implications of globalization on employment opportunities in a middle-income country.  As in many countries, much of the de jure labor market framework was established on a national basis in Brazil (in the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988), but de facto labor regulations – the varying levels of implementation through labor inspections, fines, and other processes in different locales – are heterogeneous.

  • Administrative data on the enforcement of labor regulations during the 1999 currency crisis, a shock to trade openness, show that the way trade affects employment largely depends on the stringency of de facto labor regulations that companies face. The impact of the currency devaluation – widely predicted to expand employment by facilitating access to foreign markets and weakening import competition – was less significant in plants facing strong labor enforcement than in those facing more lax enforcement.  The findings suggest that stringent labor regulations limit job creation and lower productivity gains.
  • Not only was the efficient reallocation of labor in response to shocks inhibited by strict de facto labor market regulations; rigid enforcement also restricted the within-plant potential for productivity gains. The data reveal that regulations, for example, may limit plants’ ability to introduce new goods or investment in more complex production technologies that might have higher value-added.  The burden of having to retain unproductive workers, making plants less able to compete, is another possible explanation for weak productivity gains.

Previous research – arguing that weak enforcement leaves regulations ineffective – ruled out the possibility of labor regulations as an explanation for slow labor adjustment to trade reform.  But our research shows that flexible regulations maximize the gains of reforms such as trade liberalization.  As middle-income countries continue to face a globalizing and technologically advancing world economy, their strict labor market policies, limiting adjustment and reallocation, may have potentially distortive, unintended consequences.  The trade-off between job security, on the one hand, and productivity and growth is already one of the most prominent public policy debates worldwide.  Regulations designed to protect workers may actually further reduce employment as costs increase.  Countries must show flexibility, while enhancing education and training programs, to benefit fully from changes driven by the global economy.  As populist, protectionist policies gain influence in the world, policymakers should know that increasing the flexibility of de jure regulations will allow for increased job creation and thus offer broader access to productivity gains.

March 7, 2018

*Jennifer Poole is Assistant Professor of Economics, School of International Service, and Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics and the CESifo Research Network.  Rita Almeida is a Research Fellow at the World Bank and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.  Their article is titled “Trade and Labor Reallocation with Heterogeneous Enforcement of Labor Regulations.”

Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

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

Latin America: End of “Supercycle” Threatens Reversal of Institutional Reforms

By Carlos Monge*

Monge graphic

By Eduardo Ballón and Raúl Molina (consultores) and Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge (National Resource Governance Institute, América Latina), from Minería y marcos institucionales en la región andina. El superciclo y su legado, o las difíciles relaciones entre políticas de promoción de la inversión minero-hidrocarburífera y las reformas institucionales, Reporte de Investigación preparado por NRGI con colaboración de la GIZ, Lima, Marzo del 2017. See blog text for high-resolution graphic

Policies adopted in response to the end of the “supercycle” have slowed and, in some cases, reversed the reforms that moved the region toward greater decentralization, citizen participation, and environmental protection over the past decade.  Latin American governments of the left and right used the commodities supercycle to drive growth and poverty reduction at an unprecedented pace.  They also undertook institutional reforms aimed at improving governance at large.

  • Even before demand and prices for Latin American energy and minerals began to rise in the early 2000s, some Latin American countries launched processes of decentralization (Colombia and Bolivia); started to institutionalize mechanisms for citizens’ participation in decision making (Colombia and Bolivia); and built progressively stronger environmental management frameworks (Colombia and Ecuador). Peru pressed ahead with decentralization and participation at the start of the supercycle, and when it was in full swing, created a Ministry of the Environment.
  • Implementation of the reforms was subordinated by governments’ overarching goal of fostering investments in the extractive sector. Indigenous consultation rights in Peru, for example, were approved in the second half of 2011, but implementation was delayed a year and limited only to indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.  President Ollanta Humala, giving in to the mining lobby, claimed there were no indigenous peoples in the Andes and that no consultations were needed around mining projects.  Local pressure forced a reversal, and by early 2015 four consultation projects on mid-size mining projects were launched.

These reformist policies have suffered setbacks since the decrease in Asia’s and particularly China’s appetite for Latin American energy and minerals has caused prices to fall – and the value of exports, taxes, and royalties, and public incomes along with them.  The latest ECLAC data show a decline in economic growth and a rebound of poverty both in absolute and relative figures.  The gradual fall in the price of minerals starting in 2013 and the abrupt collapse in oil prices by the end of 2015 reversed this generally favorable trend.

The response of the governments of resource-dependent countries has been “race to the bottom” policies, which included steps backward in fiscal, social, and environmental policies.  Governments’ bigger concern has been to foster investments in the new and more adverse circumstances.  In this new scenario, the processes of decentralization, participation, and environmental management have been negatively impacted as local authorities and citizens’ participation – as well as environmental standards and protocols – are perceived by companies and rent-seeking public officials as obstacles to investments.

  • Peru’s Law 30230 in 2014, for example, reduced income tax rates, weakened the oversight capacity of the Ministry of the Environment, and weakened indigenous peoples’ claim public lands.

The correlation between the supercycle years and the progress and regressions in reforms is clear. (click here for high-resolution graphic).  During the supercycle – when huge amounts of money were to be made – companies and government were willing to incorporate the cost of citizen participation, decentralization and environmental standards and protocols.  But now, governments are desperate for new investments to overcome the fall in economic growth and extractive rents, and extractive companies are not willing any more to assume these additional costs.  Those who oppose the “race to the bottom strategy” are fighting hard to restore the reforms and to move ahead with decentralization, increased participation, and enhanced environmental management, to achieve a new democratic governance of the territories and the natural resources they contain.

April 7, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

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Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

Argentina: The (Un)Fulfilled Promises of an Election Year

By Ernesto Calvo*

ArgentineCongressCC

Palace of the Argentine National Congress / Andresumida / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

As the 2017 mid-term election approaches, both Argentine voters and party elites see a gloomy present and a bright future. With only seven months until the October 22 election, the economy still shows few signs of recovery. Patience is running thin in Congress, among governors, and with organized labor – but it seems to be never-ending among voters.

  • For over a year, surveys have shown that a majority of voters perceive their personal economic situation as dire. In survey parlance, each month voters perceive that they are worse off than in the previous month. Yet, to the surprise of specialists, a majority of voters also expect the economy to improve in the next month. Indeed, voters seem as willing to credit the current administration of President Mauricio Macri for its policy choices as they are unhappy with the economy.
  • The opposition is betting its future success on the dismal economic outlook: high inflation, stagnating wages, and lack of growth. The government expects voters’ optimism, the raw expectation of future growth, to carry the day. The increasing gap between current perceptions and future expectations has baffled specialists. The only possible result, many confide, is either a rude awakening for the administration or a real change in the pace of economic growth.

Both parties suffer from divisions. Former President Cristina Fernández’s Front for Victory still carries most support among Peronists, although many fear that a Senate victory by their leader in the Province of Buenos Aires will ensure a divided party in the election of 2019. Peronist dissident Sergio Massa is still running outside the party, and few anticipate any grand-coalition before 2019. The other traditional party, the UCR, remains on life support after a decade of mishaps, and is only a minor partner of President Macri’s party, Republican Proposal (PRO), in the government coalition. Meanwhile, the incumbent PRO has yet to decide their strategy to form Provincial alliances and nominate its candidates.

As the election nears, it is unclear whether voters will hold the government responsible for their current economic malaise or will still believe in PRO’s capacity to deliver a better economy. Voters have one leg in a bad economy and another leg in the promise of a better tomorrow. They are, in the words of the Herald Editor J.G. Bennet, “Like a stork by a frog pond, they are as yet undecided which to rest upon.” Eventually, one of the two legs will have to go up, for either the government or the opposition – but not both – to celebrate on Election Day. Regardless, the mid-term election may provide little information as to who the real winner is. With no presidential candidates on the ballot, no important gubernatorial races to publicize, and only one important Senator on the line (that of the Province of Buenos Aires), the signal will be unclear. If the government does extremely well, it may gather a third of the House vote, all provinces considered together. If the government performs badly, it may get a quarter of the House seats. As the election approaches, it would seem that the only measure of success or failure would be whether the government coalition, Cambiemos, wins first, second, or third place in races for the National Senators of the Province of Buenos Aires. More troubling yet, it is unlikely that the result of the election, whichever it may be, will clarify the choices faced by voters, the future of the Peronists, or the likelihood of a steady government coalition after 2017.

March 9, 2017

*Ernesto Calvo is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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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*

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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.