Latin America’s major nations are hoping that 2017 will be the year that they finally recover from the lingering impact of weak commodity prices. For the fourth consecutive year, Latin America’s exports contracted in 2016, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), using detailed data for 24 countries in the region. In 2016 Latin American and Caribbean exports fell by approximately $50 billion, or 6%. The value of exports was expected to reach $850 billion for 2016, a lower rate of contraction than the 15% drop suffered by the region in 2015. This latest annual decline was due primarily to declining sales to the United States (down 5%) and to the region itself (an 11% contraction), and, to a lesser extent, declining exports to China (down 5%), the rest of Asia (a 4% drop), and to the European Union (minus 4%).

Latin America
By Heraldry [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Latin America

Leaders in Latin America are also pondering what impact incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies will have on the region’s economic growth and global trade in 2017. During his campaign, Trump advocated imposing protectionist barriers on U.S. imports of Latin American goods, which could potentially thwart the region’s attempts to boost exports to earlier, healthier levels. Another uncertainty facing Latin America is how Trump’s economic strategy will impact the value of the U.S. dollar.

The U.S. dollar will appreciate for two reasons, predicts Wharton management professor Mauro Guillen, who is also director of The Lauder Institute. “One reason is that interest rates are going to go up. A second reason is that the U.S. economy is probably going to do better than others,” he notes. The rise of the dollar will be “bad for countries that are commodity exporters, because commodity prices will tend to go down — and short-term capital flows are likely to hurt countries like Brazil or Peru or Chile,” Guillen says. However, “contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mexico will do well because of the stronger dollar, while South America is going to be in a lot of trouble for the same reason.” Unlike the major nations of South America, Mexico is not a commodities exporter, but a major exporter of manufactured goods such as automobiles and electronics. “Mexico competes against China, but South America supplies China.”

But while “an acceleration of demand, particularly in the United States and in China, could sustain exports” from Latin America to the U.S. and China, “the resurgence of trade protectionism” in the United States “could bias the forecast,” according to Paolo Giordano, coordinator of the IDB report, and the principal economist of its integration and trade sector.

Another major issue is the ultimate impact of any changes in U.S. policy toward China, which is now the most important trading partner for several countries in Latin America. “That is a huge issue for some countries in South America,” notes Guillen. If China starts growing a bit faster, despite changes in U.S. trade policy, the results will be positive for South American commodity exporters, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia. “But if it does not, then South America is going to have continuing problems…. If China doesn’t grow as much, as has been the case for the last three or four years, those countries will suffer because China has become their most important customer.”

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mexico will do well because of the stronger dollar, while South America is going to be in a lot of trouble for the same reason.”–Mauro Guillen

According to the IDB report, “The prospects for a reversal of the downward trend in 2017 are associated with a scenario in which commodity prices continue to improve, and intraregional trade recovers. Those countries whose real exchange rates have depreciated could also harness greater price competitiveness to stimulate [manufactured goods] sales and diversify their export baskets.”

A New Path for Brazil?

Brazil, the largest economy in the region, has sunk into the worst recession in its modern history amid low prices for key exports, high inflation, relentless political turmoil and depressed confidence levels. In annual terms, industrial production fell 7.3% in October, a larger drop than the 4.7% decrease recorded in September, and a five-month low. According to Barcelona-based LatinFocus Economics, Brazil’s economy should exit recession in 2017 after falling 3.4% in 2016. “However, the pace of recovery is likely to be meager amid austerity measures and modest external conditions.” The consensus of economists polled by LatinFocus projected Brazil’s GDP growth at 0.8% in 2017.

Widespread declines were recorded nearly across the board in fall 2016 in 22 of the 26 categories surveyed by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The categories that declined the most were the production of mining and quarrying, coke, oil products and biofuels as well as food products. Annual average growth in industrial production improved from minus 8.7% in September, but only to minus 8.4% in October.

Felipe Monteiro, a professor of strategy at INSEAD and a senior fellow at Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, notes that Brazilian analysts were aware that 2016 would be a year of “a lot of uncertainties,” because of the “big issue of impeachment” of President Dilma Rousseff, which ultimately occurred in August. “We were hoping that we would see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we got some sense of resolution — that things would move forward after the impeachment [of Rousseff],” Monteiro says.

“If China doesn’t grow as much, as has been the case for the last three or four years, those countries will suffer….”–Mauro Guillen

But a second period of crisis followed later in 2016, culminating in a scandal involving construction giant Odebrecht, S.A., which now “puts Brazil again into another tunnel with a lot of uncertainty about how long it will take to resolve, and how many people will be implicated,” Monteiro adds. As of mid-December, more than 70 of Odebrecht’s executives, including family patriarch and Chairman Emilio Odebrecht, his jailed son and former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, had agreed to make plea statements that have been received by the Supreme Court to validate them as evidence.

The good news for Brazil in 2017, says Monteiro, comes from two considerations: First, Brazil’s current economic team is more pro-business than Rousseff’s populist aides, and “it is doing the difficult things that have to be done to put the economy back on track.” Brazil’s economic austerity plan was approved in December, outlining measures to freeze expenses for the next 10 years. “It is painful but necessary,” Monteiro notes. “Despite all the weaknesses of the current government, they managed to approve it. This plan gives more hope that the economy will go back on track, [although] we are far from a resolution of the political fight.” Moreover, as it moves forward after Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil has remained on a democratic path, “with no rupture — and no censorship. So, for a young democracy like Brazil, as painful as it is, this should give us some encouragement.”

Although the future of U.S.-Mexico relations came into question following Trump’s surprising election victory, his win did not create the same level

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