Financial markets in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico strained to continue early year positive direction, with looming presidential election cycles overwhelming business and economic ones themselves presenting a mixed picture. Argentina’s contest is not until next year, but another term favorite President Macri has run into trouble with his “gradualist” adjustment program initially cheered and now displaying lackluster growth, inflation and FDI results. Labor unions long associated with the Peronist political opposition have gone into the streets to press for annual wage gains above the 15% target, after the price gauge was up 25% last year. The union federation head has been accused of embezzlement, but orchestrated a truckers strike also designed to challenge proposed labor reforms. The central bank’s anti-inflation credibility in turn was eroded after a surprise unexplained interest rate cut which may have been designed to curb peso appreciation with strong foreign portfolio inflows. The government issued $10 billion in external debt through February, and provinces and corporations joined the bandwagon. The carry trade case is still compelling on double-digit yields but the one-way bet will be muted with a volatility dose that the monetary authority could intend. The strategy could be compromised by chronic direct investment weakness, at 1.5% of GDP half the regional average, in the capital account. The infusion is also needed to cover the higher current account deficit as drought ravages agricultural exports, and consumers embark on an import spending binge with restrictions lifted from the Kirchner era. Industrial production was flat in December as a recent construction boom could be over, and the 2017 growth tally will not reach the 3% threshold for bonds’ warrant premium. Investors can point to fiscal deficit progress with subsidy rollback, but balance will remain elusive pending implementation of structural tax and pension changes. The President and his team propose more action in a second term, but social transfer cuts were a wedge issue in the parliamentary polls several months ago, and rival party chamber control supported by opinion surveys against future reductions will be difficult to overcome.
Brazil enthusiasm picked up on a court ruling that former President Lula, the front runner with a commanding lead over right winger Bolsonaro, was ineligible to run with his criminal bribery conviction, but left after he appealed the decision. The pension overhaul narrative was dented too as the Temer Administration, seeking supermajority congressional passage of a constitutional amendment, abandoned the effort in the face of its 5% popular approval. Ratings agencies downgraded to “BB” in response, as the embedded cost of mid-50s early retirement is predicted to swell government debt to 75% of GDP by end-decade. S&P also cited unmet “fragilities” in the federal fiscal framework, including previous state and local authority rescues since they cannot place debt. “Subdued” growth estimated at 3% this year will not alter the budget path, and inflation could also increase over the medium term from current under-target lows. In external accounts the agency praised near elimination of the current account hole, but warns the country has reverted to a net debtor position with private sector borrowing, with total net liabilities over 250% of receipts. Petrobras tops the list with close to $150 billion outstanding, after settling a US class action lawsuit for $2.5 billion on clear shareholder candidate victory.