Latin American, Caribbean economies navigate through U.S. crisis
BY JANE BUSSEY
The mood was grim in the Buenos Aires offices of Lehman Brothers after the venerable Wall Street firm filed for bankruptcy. Jobs were on the line. But then came word that the Argentine operation would be part of Barclays PLC's acquisition of some Lehman Brothers divisions.
A week of anxiety gave way to celebration, said Hector Cohen, managing director in Argentina.
Just as the Lehman office in Argentina survived, Latin America has shown staying power during the credit crisis that has engulfed the U.S. financial system. Despite rising fears and forecasts predicting an economic slowdown in the region, most Latin American economies have shown resilience amid the U.S. market convulsions.
There are warning signs, of course. Inflation is creeping up, energy and commodity prices have descended from the stratospheric highs of earlier this year and booming imports are outpacing exports, threatening current account surpluses. Poverty, unemployment and underemployment also remain persistently high.
And the U.S. financial crisis is far from over.
''The big risk for Latin America is that the U.S. financial problems and the fallout begin to weaken the global economy,'' said Manuel Lasaga, president of Strategic Information Services in Coral Gables. ``In a worldwide recession, all countries are going to feel the pain.''
Fallout from the U.S. financial crisis, as well as strengthening democracy in the region and security issues, are expected to be among the hot topics at this week's 12th annual Americas Conference. It will be presented by The Miami Herald, Florida International University, the state of Florida and the Inter-American Development Bank, at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables from Wednesday to Friday.
Many factors have helped Latin America and Caribbean countries weather the storm -- at least so far. Stronger economies fortified by tighter government spending, heftier foreign reserves, record exports and steady consumer spending all mean the region is less dependent on global financing than in the past.
Since Eastern Europe and Asia have been the favored destinations of global foreign investment in recent years, hot money did not pour in to Latin America and therefore was not suddenly withdrawn when the market panic overtook financial markets to the North.
The region also is less economically dependent on the United States, having forged stronger ties with other areas of the world. Latin America's exports to the United States, for example, have dropped from 57 percent of the region's total exports in 2000 to 40 percent in 2007. Trade with Asia now counts for almost 10 percent of the region's foreign sales, compared with 4 percent in 2000.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez underscored that point when he arrived in Beijing for a state visit last week, declaring Venezuela was not ''the backyard of the United States.'' He predicted that within four years, Venezuela's crude oil exports to China would triple from the current 360,000 barrels per day to one million barrels per day -- close to the 1.2 million barrels per day currently exported to the United States.
Still, the region is not immune from the strains on its financial markets as stocks plummet, borrowing costs rise and foreign reserves drop as governments try to shore up their currencies.
`LATE TO THE PARTY'
The U.S. credit crisis has battered the confidence of booming Brazil, for example. Eight years after Mexico did, Brazil finally got Wall Street's seal of approval in April when its debt was deemed investment grade. ''It's as if we are arriving late in a big party and when we finally arrive, the party is over,'' said Miriam Leitao, a leading financial commentator for Brazil's O Globo media company.
The central bank in Brasilia has hiked its key interest rate to almost 14 percent, and Brazilian stocks have sunk by as much as 30 percent, more than the New York exchanges.
Still, it is hard to tarnish Brazil's oil luster, its bullish global companies such as iron ore producer Vale and its ability to pull in foreign investors.
The country's quasi-state-run oil company Petrobras has discovered massive offshore oil fields far below the ocean and layers of salt. They could yield five billion to eight billion barrels of oil.
Higher foreign investment, profitable companies and consumer demand helped Brazil create 1.6 million jobs in the formal sector last year and another 1.4 million in the first half of 2008.
Soaring energy and commodity prices have been central to the region's economic recovery since 2003, but the global slowdown and dwindling demand are beginning to take a toll. High nickel prices -- which boosted the Cuban and Dominican economies last year -- have fallen by one-third. Copper is down from a high of $4 a pound to $3 a pound.
What could alter these falling prices would be further weakening of the dollar. Because commodities are priced in dollars, greenbacks' falling value pushes commodity prices up.
Helping the recovery stay on course has been the growth of consumer spending in Latin America with the middle class turning to mortgages and credit cards. From Buenos Aires to Panama City to Mexico City, office buildings and housing construction has been on the rise.
Regional economic growth is forecast to reach 4.7 percent in 2008, according to a late August report from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Per capita income has been growing by 3 percent annually for five years, a recent record in the region.
FIVE BRIGHT SPOTS
The economies of five South American countries are expected to expand at 6 percent or more this year. The Central American nations will grow at an average annual rate of 5 percent, and the Caribbean region will expand at 4 percent, according to the study.
The big exception is Mexico, where economic growth is not expected to rise above 2.5 percent, in part because of the slowing U.S. economy. The United States is the largest foreign market for Mexico's exports, particularly for products manufactured in assembly plants.
''There is going to be more of a slowdown in countries that are tied to the U.S. economy,'' said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. ``But Argentina, for instance, is still growing at 8 percent.''
Fragile economies in the Caribbean have been battered by this season's hurricanes and tropical storms and that is taking a big toll. The United Nations has said the cost of replacing or repairing crops, buildings and the power sector in Cuba could run as high as $4 billion; Cuba itself pegs total damage at $5 billion. In nearby Haiti, damage estimates from four storms top $200 million. Some smaller island nations have yet to put a price tag on damages.
Weaker economic growth in the United States and Europe were already affecting the flow of remittances to countries in the region and this downward trend is likely to accelerate.
Money sent home by undocumented Mexican immigrants fell 2.2 percent in the first half of the year. In Ecuador, remittances fell 7.7 percent in the second quarter.
Many countries in the region rely on remittances not only to maintain the standard of living of the poor and those in rural areas but also as a vital source of hard currency.
Countries can little afford to allow poverty to rise. Despite the half decade of strong growth, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates more than one-third of the people in the region still live in poverty.
Regional policymakers still hold out hope that Latin America and the Caribbean can avoid the worst of the global credit crunch because finance ministers and central bank presidents have taken steps to shield their countries, from increasing foreign reserves to stretching out debt payments and putting aside excess cash in a rainy-day fund.
Chile, for instance, has saved some $28 billion as a cushion against falling copper prices. Collectively, the region's countries have built up giant foreign exchange reserves of nearly $500 billion, three times greater than they had in 2000.
But for Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. credit crisis, massive government bailouts and takeover of financial institutions is fueling a growing debate over free-market economics.
Already governments from Venezuela to Bolivia have rejected the ''magic of the market'' and moved to boost social spending and extend government control over their economies.
But the debate is far from over, and many people in the region view the events unfolding in the United States with more than a touch of irony.
THE ARGENTINA IRONY
A similar financial crisis engulfed Argentina in 2001-2002. Though Argentina has recovered, many people remember the International Monetary Fund pulling the plug on bailouts of the type Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is trying to orchestrate for the United States. Instead, the IMF imposed stringent belt-tightening, sparking an economic collapse.
Economist Sebastian Edwards, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, said, partially in jest, that many Latin Americans might love to see ``the IMF stepping in, humiliating Paulson and [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben] Bernanke, and forcing President Bush to sign a draconian adjustment program.''
But Edwards warned that the countries of the region gain nothing from
the United States' travails: ``This is serious stuff, and will be costly
to everyone, including the Latin American countries.''