Aberration or design feature?
By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
With Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, mired in its deepest recession for years, with Venezuela perpetually poised on the edge of the abyss, and with Argentina facing a treacherous period of political and economic transition, Mexico is once again drawing the attention of international investors.
The economy could grow as much as 3.5% in 2015, predicts Mexico’s fifth largest bank, Banorte. The OECD expects it to expand by at least 3%.
A Model Economy
In recent years, glowing economic forecasts have become a New Year formality for Mexico. Economists representing international banks and supranational institutions like the OECD and the IMF confidently predict record-breaking annual growth for the year to come, only to spend the rest of the year frantically downgrading their predictions until, by November or December, they’re more or less spot on.
That’s not to say that Mexico’s economy doesn’t have important points in its favor, especially at the macro level. Unlike Brazil and many other Latin American economies, Mexico is not heavily dependent on Chinese demand for its commodities, although the economy has been hit hard by cascading oil prices. And although the peso depreciated by 17% last year, the official inflation rate is still comfortably below the 2% line — compared to over 10% in Brazil. Meanwhile, things are so bad in Argentina that the National Institute of Statistics has stopped publishing official inflation figures altogether. As for Venezuela, the less said the better.
Further north, foreign direct investment continues to pour into Mexico. As the country’s president Enrique Peña Nieto recently boasted, in the first three years of his administration, average annual foreign direct investment was around $31 billion dollars, compared to just $24 billion from 2001 to 2012.
It’s not just the president singing Mexico’s praises. In the latest edition of the World Bank’s Doing Business report – the global benchmark of investment standards – Mexico rose 14 places in the business and investment conditions category, from 53rd to 39th, making it the best placed Latin American country. According to Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa to the G20, Mexico has also outperformed all other OECD economies at applying the institution’s recommendations on regulatory issues.
A Dubious Distinction
In other words, Mexico’s economy is on the path to becoming a model economy — according to many of the world’s most powerful economic institutions. Which begs one question: how is it possible that poverty is more rampant than at any other point this century? Is it an aberration or merely a design feature?
Despite – or perhaps because of – the government’s highly praised economic reforms, including the creation of two ambitious poverty reduction programs, the number of Mexicans living in poverty increased by 2 million over the last three years. According to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL for its Spanish acronym), the main factor in this increase was household income levels, which fell by 3.5% between 2012 and 2014.
This trend seems set to worsen as salaries for Mexico’s poorest continue to decline. According to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), over the last three years, real salaries in Mexico – already among the lowest in Latin America and by far the lowest of OECD economies – lost 9.65% of their purchasing power. This trend has been fuelled as much by rising food prices as by dwindling salaries. Between 2005 and 2014, the price of food in Mexico increased on average by 23.3%, the highest level of any OECD nation. The OECD average was just 8%.
Measured on the basis of income levels alone, the percentage of people living in absolute poverty in Mexico — now a staggering 53.2% — is one percentage point higher today than it was in 1992, giving Mexico the rather dubious honor of being the only Latin American country to have registered a regressive tendency on poverty reduction, according to the OECD.
At the other end of the spectrum, things have never been better. Both the relative and absolute wealth of Mexico’s super rich exceeds, by a long shot, the fortunes of the super rich of most other nations. In 2014, Mexico’s 16 billionaires boasted a combined wealth of $144 billion, equivalent to 11.4% of Mexico’s GDP of $1.26 trillion [Slimlandia: Mexico in the Grip of Oligarchs].
The amount Mexico’s superrich pay in income or wealth tax is derisory, if indeed they pay anything at all. Most have their funds stashed in a tax jurisdictions far, far away, leaving Mexico’s middle classes to pick up the tab. “We have a system that does not tax the rich,” says economist Julio Boltvinik. “The government doesn’t use public spending to stimulate job creation while employing a monetary and exchange rate policy that acts as a brake on economic activity.”
If anything, conditions seem set to get worse for Mexico’s poor and middle classes, as Peña Nieto’s government applies austerity measures in a desperate – and likely forlorn – bid to plug the growing public deficits that it itself helped create.
As WOLF STREET warned in July, Mexico will soon have to learn to live without its fiscal sugar daddy, Petroleos Mexicans (A.K.A. PEMEX), a direct consequence of the government’s much-praised energy reforms. For decades the nationalized company provided a huge chunk — recently as much as one-third — of Mexico’s government revenues. In 2015, its contribution plunged 37%, partly due to crumbling oil prices and PEMEX’s lower production, but also because of the company’s new status as a largely privatized entity having to fight for scraps in a highly competitive, buyer’s market.
To try to plug the fiscal shortfall, the government increased taxes across the board last year, including sharp hikes in the value-added tax (VAT), the most regressive form of tax. It also launched a “special tax” on production and services. In the end the extra revenues it raised from higher taxes were dwarfed by the funds it did not receive from PEMEX. In other words, a new round of austerity — including further tax hikes and reduced public spending, including on poverty-reduction programs — may soon be in order.
Meanwhile, corruption – the ultimate enemy of economic development – reaches from the highest levels of government, business and finance to the lowest levels of public service. Nothing is ever done to tackle it. Nonetheless, investors will continue to flock to the country and economists will continue to praise its government’s reformist ways. Untold billions will pour in and untold billions will pour out, while poverty continues to grow, in the model economy. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.
After false promises, rampant speculation, and furious denials, Mexico’s biggest construction company, ICA, admitted it will default on $700 million of dollar bonds. ICA is among a number of Mexican corporations that have borrowed in dollars and are now getting hit by a strengthening dollar and rising U.S. interest rates. Read… Dollar-Debt Blows up in Mexico, Pushes Biggest Construction Firm toward Abyss