Latin America/Caribbean

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The Americas’ Migration Caravan Careening

2018 December 10 by

The Americas’ Migration Caravan Careening

With the recent US and Brazil elections in part fought on immigration policy the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue and partners issued separate reports on Venezuela and Central America flight with original economic and financial recommendations alongside traditional diplomatic and humanitarian ones. Caracas’ rarely updated official statistics acknowledge inflation will exceed the IMF’s 1,000,000% prediction, as 2.5 million or more than 5% of the population have already left for neighboring or overseas destinations, especially Colombia and Peru. Decades ago the roles were reversed when more democratic and wealthy Venezuela was host to refugees from armed conflict and human rights abuses. The Colombian influx along the border is now 5000/day and they have been granted temporary protection and education and work access. An earlier wave was mainly trained professional, but the latest are poor and middle class citizens escaping widespread hunger, violence and economic collapse. With these conditions, an estimated $1 billion in remittances is literally a lifeline, an amount just above the $900 million bond repayment from the state oil company in October to avoid formal default and Citgo operations seizure following creditor US court judgments. Around 350,000 Venezuelans have sought asylum worldwide as persecution victims but the rest should not be deported under the Cartagena Declaration which allows broader circumstances, according to the analysis. Brazil Chile, Ecuador and Peru also authorize temporary visas and public services use, but asylum claims are badly backlogged and another system has yet to emerge to “regularize” status.

 Arrivals often have urgent food and medical needs which the UN and other donors are unable to fund, and sleeping on the streets without shelter aggravates their plight. Columbia has started to implement infrastructure and social support for its own internally displaced under the rebel peace accord, but cost and political resistance currently prevent extension to refugees. Caribbean islands in contrast never signed treaties or operate under foreign law, so Trinidad and Tobago and Curacao do not offer safe haven. The paper urges common processing standards and burden-sharing, and an immediate aid conference led by the Inter-American Development Bank which can mobilize novel private sector funding. It foresees pilot bonds in these host established emerging markets where local and foreign investors could receive refugee community utility income streams and tax incentives in possible structures. Venezuela regime asset seizure for corruption and mistreatment could also feature in the mix, and tap expertise from a dedicated World Bank program for targeting proceeds.

In Central America, and the Northern Triangle El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in particular migration overwhelmingly to the US has doubled to 4.5 million the past two decades. Insecurity due to crime and extortion is a chief driver as well as lack of formal private sector work given the commodity and unskilled labor-based economic model, a separate document argues. Nicaragua is again a source with battles between the Ortega government and protesters, but the regional flow may be in secular decline as increased deportations under stricter Trump Administration policy join with improved domestic business outlooks in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and elsewhere. The research advocates increased financial sector focus on this population from conventional banks to specialized credit providers and investment funds, so that an intermediary and product caravan matches the human one.

Latin America’s Smaller Election Turf Battles

2018 November 5 by

Election attention this year and next in major regional markets Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina has also prompted an investor scan of under the radar contests throughout less followed locations from Central America to the Southern Cone. Previously assumed outcomes are often in doubt as voters express desire for serious change against an anemic economic growth backdrop even with partial commodity export rebound. In Bolivia President Morales may run for a fourth term after the constitutional court cleared the way, with the opposition perennially divided. Growth may meet the 4.5% target at the cost of runaway credit expansion and dual fiscal and current account deficits. Loose liquidity has combined with an overvalued currency in the IMF’s view, but the 5%-plus budget and balance of payments gaps respectively eliminated public employee bonuses and international reserves. Government debt is 40% of GDP and the Morales administration continues to siphon state bank deposits for infrastructure and social spending. The Dominican Republic is gearing up for 2020 polls with President Medina in contrast facing legal hurdles to another run. Ratings agencies maintain sovereign “BB” grades with a stable outlook despite lack of fiscal reform momentum, since tourism and remittance-backed growth is in the 5% range. The island was added as a fractional component in JP Morgan’s local bond index and it recently switched Chinese diplomatic ties from Taiwan to the mainland to open a big foreign aid and investment channel. Energy-stoked inflation remains a threat with the central bank policy rate over 5%, and oil imports also contribute to a small 1-2% current account deficit offset by solid remittance flows from the US which should support the peso around 50/dollar.

Uruguay’s presidential election is this year, and second quarter growth was just half a percent on export and tourism fallout from Argentina’s crash, exacerbated by exchange rate overvaluation. Earlier drought hit agricultural output, and a railway connecting Montevideo with other key stops may not be completed as planned. Inflation will stay close to 8% through 2019, and despite a primary surplus the budget shortfall is 3% of GDP. Paraguay in comparison is on track to near 5% consumption and fixed-investment driven growth, at half its neighbor’s inflation rate at 4%. Costa Rica’s fiscal plan to lower the 70% of GDP public debt is under debate after an early year Moody’s downgrade. It would introduce value added and adapt capital gains taxes, and add individual and corporate income levies. Civil service wages may be capped on 3% growth, as the government resorts to stopgap borrowing to address strike grievances. Inflation is also 3% with currency depreciation as the central bank tries to prevent a fall to 600/dollar. Panama uses the greenback, and its MSCI frontier stock market component was down almost 40% through the third quarter. Canal volume was solid despite the global trade standoff, and the budget is relatively balanced as opposed to sizable deficits in previous years. Growth should come in at 4% with slowing construction, but the Cobre Panama project should go ahead after negative Supreme Court decisions complicating it amid the private banking reputation hangover from the “Papers” revelations which damaged regional political leaders.

Colombia’s Brimming Border Insecurities

2018 September 11 by

Colombian shares led Latin America with a 10% gain through July, as President Duque took office on a pledge to rework the FARC rebel peace pact, as members of their new political party won parliament seats. He refused to consider a similar accord with the rival ELN until they abandon violence, as his sponsor former President Uribe was forced to resign from the Senate to face charges of aiding paramilitary gangs. President Santos finished his term with abysmal opinion ratings on perceived guerilla negotiation economic policy mishandling, with growth stuck at 2-3% on a chronic current account gap and public-private infrastructure partnerships slow to materialize. However before leaving he granted temporary residence and work permits to half a million Venezuelans roughly doubling the internal population, and covered health costs while appealing for international assistance. The US chipped in $60 million for humanitarian support to the region now hosting 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees, with experts predicting the number to double as President Maduro further squeezes the opposition and economy after narrowly escaping a drone attack. The assassination bid delayed new currency issuance as existing denominations cannot keep pace with estimated 1,000,000% year-end inflation, according to the IMF. The government long ago stopped updating statistics, but the fiscal deficit may be 30% of GDP and foreign reserves may be totally exhausted beyond minimal external debt and essential import payments. The sovereign could be removed from the JP Morgan benchmark index on both default and future tradability risks, as existing US Treasury Department curbs could imperil restructurings for new paper. Any workout will bump against parallel sanctions against Russia’s state energy giants with controlling stakes in oil fields, as well as Chinese bilateral lending in the $50 billion range. An IMF program is off the table since the socialist regime renounced relations over a decade ago, although Colombia with a backup credit line has requested a dedicated refugee facility which could partner with the World Bank’s concessional middle-income country pool for this purpose.

The UN Refugee agency urges that designation so that asylum and protection treaties signed by neighbors apply, with the 30-year old Cartagena declaration designed for Central America’s war exodus potentially a cross-border cooperation model. Latin America’s safety nets and infrastructure are more advanced than in other developing regions hosting displaced groups, with Colombia also able to share funding and service experience from handling its 15% relocated domestic population. Chile and Ecuador could also be eligible for the World Bank’s discount window, and the Inter-American Development Bank could establish an umbrella fund to meet objectives in a comprehensive framework, as recommended by the proposed Global Compact on Refugees. The US Agency for International Development head recently visited Colombia to underscore crisis priority, as the new unified Finance Corporation moves through congressional passage to modernize the bilateral toolkit. OPIC’s investment ceiling will double to $60 billion as it is equipped to take equity stakes alongside existing debt and risk guarantees. It could help launch refugee-specific pilots to prepare for a time when Caracas’ leadership will shift ideological for diplomatic and investor solidarity as stagnation and starvation drone on relentlessly.

Haiti’s Refueled Rage Resignation

2018 August 21 by

Haiti’s Prime Minister Lafontant resigned before a legislative no-confidence vote as violent protests erupted over a 40% fuel price hike President Moise’s government introduced under the six-month old IMF staff monitored program. The unrest is estimated to cost 2% of GDP, equivalent to projected growth improvement this fiscal year, as the restored police force with the exit of UN troops last year struggled to quell the rioting. Subsidies take one-tenth of public spending and the wealthy receive a large share, and adjustments intend to free cash for social and infrastructure needs. Venezuela’s $300 million bilateral aid for these purposes disappeared with its economic catastrophe, and the President has been unable to deliver on the promise of “shovel ready” projects since winning office with only 20% electoral turnout. The petroleum discounts also encouraged smuggling to the Dominican Republic on the same island, and the President’s party could not beat a censure motion in parliament with its political weakness. He also vowed steady electricity supply, and the Fund in a June visit noted reduced state monopoly losses with the budget deficit shaved to 2%of GDP despite Hurricane Matthew rebuilding costs. Double-digit inflation was already forecast before subsidy withdrawal, and the current account gap will rise on higher capital and consumer goods imports amid flat FDI and remittances. Officials have backtracked on the original plan to maintain tourism inflows in particular at risk if commercial destruction continues. They are expected to unveil a smarter package in content and communications to pave the way for renewed IMF credit, after the previous facility expired with prolonged presidential poll standoff. Haitians granted temporary US protection after fleeing in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake are due to be deported soon, and the Trump Administration has not targeted the government for additional aid like in the Northern Triangle of Central America where families escape corruption and security threats in waves. Nicaragua may join El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the epicenter as President Ortega unleashes a crackdown on opponents including the church claiming human rights abuses and unpaid social security benefits.

Cuba is contending with its own popular backlash as it moves to recognize private property under a constitutional redraft, but published hundreds of pages of new rules for business operation and taxation. The non-state sector comprises thousands of restaurants, taxis and other product and service providers that employ 15% of the work force. Owners must now open a special bank account for income tracking, and additional bureaucracy will slow consolidation trends that could potentially pose competition to government companies. A non-Castro is at the helm for the first time since the revolution but has yet to articulate a detailed economic platform, as technocrats appear sidelined from major posts. Both Port au Prince and Havana after absorbing aid blows from Caracas will reassess relations with Brazil after October elections there, with the major candidates offering thin foreign policy views. Former President Lula, who championed their cause, remains in prison on embezzlement and the contenders are focused on law and order and economic recovery issues at home, after a massive truckers strike and indicators pointing to possible recession repeat after a fresh team tries to lift the air of resignation.

The East Caribbean’s Test Tube Tsunami

2018 August 14 by

With continued economic and banking strains the past decade in the six island East Caribbean Currency Union, with a joint central bank and currency peg, an IMF working paper applied stress tests to model major shocks on the interconnected financial system, which revealed that a regional crisis could trigger the collapse of half its lenders. Bad credit is down from the peak but still one-tenth the total and provisioning lags while good deposit growth has created excess liquidity. The sector averages 150% of GDP, with St. Kitts and Nevis and Montserrat at double the proportion, and Grenada, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda at or below the norm. The 35 institutions are evenly split between local and foreign-owned, mainly from Canada. Interbank exposure has dropped in recent years, but sovereign debt holdings are 15% of assets in some members and close ties are common with non-bank credit unions, insurers and pension funds. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines they control 10% of deposits, and wholesale withdrawal carries risk. These relationships are not simulated in the disaster scenarios with the paucity of information and data, and the exercise also excludes global groups that would depend on their parent for support in the absence of separately-capitalized area subsidiaries. The East Caribbean Central Bank has limited lender of last resort capacity and deposit insurance is lacking. After calculating isolated bank failure and severe individual country and regional output contraction that could result from tourism scares or natural disasters, the research finds that 10 institutions would be insolvent in the direst case, as undercapitalization and heavy public debt portfolios play out. The results are an additional warning to foreign frontier bond investors after serial restructurings in Grenada, and planned haircuts and swaps now in neighboring Barbados. If an IMF program accompanies the workout as in Jamaica, the process can be further complicated and lengthened with authorities there conducting two exchanges over the course of consecutive arrangements. In the broader region, calls have circulated for sovereign wealth fund formation to act as contingency buyers, as the latest Invesco survey of the field identifies 2% emerging market debt allocation. It points out that equity and alternative investments in turn are fast expanding categories, as managers look to increase returns after mixed records the last decade.

According to fund trackers retail and strategic investor bond outflows accelerated at the end of the first half, and are larger than during the Taper Tantrum five year ago. ETFs are 15% of the former, and dedicated manager cash positions remain steady at under 5%. Even though sovereign wealth vehicles as a group may level off in the near term, Norway and others maintain big exposures at 15% of the fixed income bucket. Foreign ownership of local bonds stands at a 25% average, and frontier name participation in Central and Latin America, like Costa Rica and Ecuador, may be stretched in the view of major market-making firms. In mainstream instruments technical indicators suggest excess weightings in Mexico, Russia, South Africa and Indonesia as the respective regions endure practical stress tests the IMF may help cushion in financial and research terms.

 

 

Argentina’s Rough Repeat Reentry Paths

2018 July 13 by

Argentine stocks and bonds tried to recoup big losses at mid-year after turning again to the IMF for a 3-year $50 billion standby program, and gaining readmission to the MSCI core index starting next May following capital market modernization steps. Massive portfolio outflows began in April to shake the peso, and the central bank proved unable through intervention and interest rate hikes to halt double-digit decline against the dollar and its head resigned with Fund recourse. Local and foreign investor lack of monetary policy confidence was apparent for months after inflation persisted at above target 25% and a neutral to easing stance was pursued nonetheless. Fiscal credibility was also in question with likely overshoot of the 3% of GDP deficit goal on spending plans ahead of 2019 elections, with President Macri widely expected to eye a second term. With access to multilateral credit lines, including from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, he can meet the $20 billion external financing hump over the next year and a half, but near-term growth is set at less than 1% under ambitious budget and exchange rate blueprints. They envision a primary surplus and subsidy and provincial transfer cuts, and regular $5 billion incremental boosts to $25 billion in net reserves while steering inflation toward 20%. Central bank autonomy will be reinforced under new legislation, and the Treasury will conduct continuous currency auctions as domestic bond LEBAC stock is reduced. The policy rate will rise to 40% by year end for peso stability and then can relax for slight depreciation against the dollar, assuming pass-through inflation is on track toward moderation and fourth quarter union wage settlements do not upset the mix. Austerity will combine with agricultural drought for technical recession, and Brazil’s outlook as a leading export destination has soured at the same time, with the pre-election 2018 growth forecast recently halved to 1%. A baseline scenario projects no commercial borrowing except through public-private infrastructure projects, as buybacks retire more expensive debt. The current account gap will remain high over the medium term, but level off at 4% of GDP with import compression, according to initial calculations.

Brazil as well fell from grace as stocks went negative through May, as the central bank defended the real through swaps after a long respite and the benchmark rate cutting cycle bottomed. A national truckers strike over increased fuel costs tested investor patience over smooth inflation and political transitions. A large fiscal adjustment is need to restore the primary surplus and social security solvency and cap ballooning public debt, and Lula whose administration bequeathed the mess, remains the presidential favorite while in prison on a corruption conviction. Right winger Bolsanoro and leftist Silva are next, each with 15% in opinion surveys, but “none of the above” respondents are an unprecedented chunk. The candidates attack establishment taint and pledge wholesale reform but have been careful not to propose draconian spending curbs and state enterprise privatization to appeal to swing and young voters. In the balance of payments FDI at 3% of GDP has more than covered the current account hole, but a market-unfriendly election result could interrupt the inflow and unleash corporate remittances to tarnish that silver lining.

 

 

 

 

 

Barbados’ Motley Default Crew Crucible

2018 June 25 by

After her party’s sweeping election victory taking all seats in parliament in a repudiation of the government’s economic mismanagement, including failure to modernize sewage treatment as it leaked into tourism spots, Prime Minister Motley bowed to the inevitable with an intended IMF program and debt restructuring. Last year’s emergency fiscal plan showed meager results as ratings agencies kept the near default CCC sovereign grade, and commercial banks were forced to raise bond exposure on incremental central bank deficit financing withdrawal. Two thirds of the debt is domestic, but international bond prices almost halved following her announcement with the likelihood of a haircut coupled with thin liquidity. Analysts shifted course after originally predicting the Jamaica model would be followed and spare foreign obligations. Its bonds and stocks have languished too this year, with the latter down 5% on the MSCI frontier index. Trinidad’s component in contrast was up 10% through May on higher energy export value, although it is at risk from Venezuela’s mass exodus with Tobago just a short boat trip away. Both neighbors are at least growing unlike Barbados, where output shrank half a percent on an annual basis into the poll period. The Fund in its latest Article IV report projected 1% medium term expansion with the reported 135% of GDP gross debt, reserves at less than two months imports, and “lingering uncertainty.” The current account gap remains at 2-3% as planned hotel and oil facility privatizations are delayed. The 2017 adjustments were geared toward tax increases while state enterprise reform lagged, according to the review. Government borrowing was almost half of GDP the last fiscal year and bank minimum allocation was hiked to one-fifth of deposits in January as private sector credit was flat. Bad loans are in high single digits and profitability is minimal, but capital adequacy at 20% of assets is a shock absorber. The public wage and pension bills are crushing and job and benefit cuts are overdue and social safety nets must also be better targeted in the future, the Fund observed. Fifteen companies and funds receive most of the transfers which are almost 40% of total spending, and the national social security scheme runs large arrears and has disproportionate government bond holdings.  The insurance sector is stagnating, offshore business registration should be more closely monitored, and the longstanding currency peg may be in question with evidence of overvaluation, it added.

The Caribbean does not feature as a preferred venture capital destination in the latest industry statistics and rankings compiled by EMPEA, which had Asia and Latin America ex-Brazil in the top 5 spots. The former took 90% of Q1 $7 billion fundraising, and disclosed transactions for the period were a record $17 billion. E-commerce deals were one-third the total, with fintech just behind as a popular play. Impact investment vehicles gathered $200 million through a half-dozen offerings, although 80% of LPs surveyed specifically weigh environment and social factors in allocation. Emerging markets represent one-tenth of global subscriptions and 15% of company activity, while private equity penetration rates remain negligible at under 0.5% of GDP across the geographic range.

 

Venezuela’s Refugee Wave Window (Financial Times)

2018 May 24 by

Emerging market fund managers still investing in Venezuela are no longer just focused on debt restructuring scenarios heading into May elections in the wake of self-inflicted economic collapse, as over 1 million migrants and refugees have already fled to neighboring countries to roil their financial markets with prospects of millions more to come, according to a study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Over 500,000 Venezuelans are in Colombia in advance of the presidential race there, 250,000 each are in Ecuador and Panama, and 150,000 in both Chile and Peru, and 50,000 in Brazil. Latin American stock markets outperformed rival regions on the MSCI index through the first quarter, but the influx’s humanitarian and fiscal costs have yet to fully register.

The UN refugee agency officially declared a crisis and called on regional governments and international development lenders to exercise individual protection and share the funding load. The Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank are gearing up for infrastructure and social support, but established  public-private sector arrangements like the cross-border Latin America Integrated Market (MILA) stock exchange between Colombia, Chile and Peru could also create specific capital market instruments to foster refugee employment and business creation upon arrival.

Colombia has an estimated 50,000 Venezuelans daily pouring into border towns like Cucuta to meet daily food and health needs or to stay indefinitely. In addition, it has an unresolved legacy of internal displacement as the peace accord negotiated by outgoing President Santos with the guerilla FARC goes into effect, under the general principle of exchanging army demobilization for peaceful civilian return with promised job training. However the fiscal rule in place limits the deficit to 3% of GDP this year, and the front-runner in the end-May presidential contest, Ivan Duque from ex-President Uribe’s party. has signaled a harsher stance toward former rebels. The current account gap is at the same level placing pressure on the sovereign rating, despite higher foreign direct investment in the oil industry. Growth and inflation are in the 3% range, as central bank easing is set to continue. A second round runoff is predicted with more centrist opponents who have tried to co-opt Duque’s business-friendly platform, and forced migration will be likely sidetracked as a priority during the leadership transition as headline movements demand action.

Chile is host also to Haitians who fled the poorest nation in the hemisphere after the 2010 earthquake and subsequent hurricanes, and moved further south after deportation efforts in Brazil in particular. It has traditionally attracted seasonal low-wage workers from neighboring countries, but a permanent presence has posed cultural and labor market challenges. President Pinera, in his second term, promises to revamp the economic model in a free-market and socially-responsible balance, in part to salvage his popularity which previously suffered under an image of wealthy elitism. Refugees outside Santiago seek employment in the copper mines with keen competition and few protections, and like the middle-class students protesting under the previous administration seek wider university access for advanced education and skills. With 3.5% predicted GDP growth and negligible inflation, the solid investment-grade credit rating is intact, but Chile will be a test case for a future “melting pot” demographic and productivity engine.

Peru was the Andean stock market champion with a 10% first quarter gain as President Kucyzynski, implicated in the continent-wide Odebrecht scandal, resigned and was replaced by a technocrat successor and cabinet. Amid the political jockeying before his departure, plans to deepen MILA exchange ties, originally described to MSCI when it threatened frontier index demotion, were shelved and asset managers expect new President Vizcarra and his team to restore momentum. Ecuador takes in the Pact’s largest Venezuelan group after Colombia, and intends to reenter the MSCI frontier gauge and consider new local and global financing sources as President Moreno breaks with his socialist predecessor on fiscal discipline and investor compatibility. He plans to again tap global bond markets and renegotiate Chinese debt terms, and may even consider an IMF program to smooth fundamental and structural shifts including on refugee absorption.

As the international aid and diplomatic communities mobilize to address the systemic Venezuelan exodus, financial markets looking for fresh impetus could act with the same urgency to adapt solutions. On the MILA, listed companies could readily issue securities aimed at local and overseas buyers to expand refugee-related capital, hiring and supplier relationships benefiting host economies. Unlike governments and development lenders, this platform could  generate longer-term commercial flows so far absent in the” burden-sharing” mix, and offer a more optimistic prosperity prescription to shape the regional debate

Latin America’s Perverse Political Parade

2018 April 28 by

Latin America topped Q1 main stock market results with Peru and Brazil roughly tied with 10% gains, as the President finally bowed to congressional will and public anger at his consulting for disgraced construction firm Odebrecht and resigned, with the moderate vice president assuming the term’s remainder. The move ended months of political standoff and maneuvering and the departure may not protect PPK from judicial prosecution as he must stay in the country for now. Elsewhere Central America kicked off the election season with an unexpected cliffhanger in Costa Rica between the “two Alvarados,” one from the ruling party and the other an evangelist entertainer. The former won the second round with a minority in parliament which will continue to frustrate long-promised fiscal reforms to pare the 60% of GDP public debt. Government salaries take half of revenue, and popular opinion has turned against democracy with only 60% backing on the heels of scandals such as around questionable Chinese cement imports. El Salvador also had legislative and municipal polls in March with an almost 60% abstention rate, with the opposition Arena alliance ahead of the FMLN in power, which suffered its worst defeat since inception. The outgoing mayor of the capital Bukele was not on the ballot, but is tipped as the frontrunner in next year’s presidential run. The incumbent Sanchez Ceren has disappeared from view on rumored illness as GDP growth slugs along at 2% amid increased murder and poverty levels. In Cuba non-democratic next generation transition is also underway as Raul Castro hands over the nominal mantle to Vice President Diaz-Canel in his late 50s, who is a career Communist functionary with unknown economic policies. US tourism is down under stricter Trump administration travel curbs, with less than 5 million visitors in 2017. Havana in turn has cracked down on private sector business, which accounted for over half a million jobs by last count, but coders have found a place with European outsourcing, according to reports.

Mexico was flat for the period amid continued bickering over NAFTA 2.0, with about one-third of the 30 chapters completed and negotiations overshadowed by Washington’s steel and aluminum tariff decision hitting Canada. The latest rounds have been stuck over hot button national content, dispute resolution and expiration clauses with the US Trade Representative pushing for “creative solutions.” Inflation has eased to 5.5% with an eventual 3% target, as new central bank chief Diaz de Leon is on shock watch and prepared to raise the benchmark rate and peso intervention ahead of July’s presidential contest. Although retail sales are weak, manufacturing has been healthy with the PMI at 55 and real wages are up. Leftist-populist candidate AMLO is ahead at this stage with a 40% voter preference as backlash against the main parties’ corruption and security failures. He has downplayed past radical approaches to wealth redistribution and drug cartel relations, and repositioned as a competent economic manager who would scrap the proposed $15 billion Mexico City airport upgrade as wasteful. Conservative PAN standard bearer Anaya had been in second position with charisma and age drawing young and independent support, but now faces allegations of suspect real estate deals. The stock market itself has come under insider trading doubts as the regulator examines patterns in financial group listings, but punishment is rare as impunity likewise lingers in that culture.

Latin America’s Ineluctable Election Elevation

2018 March 22 by

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.