Sunday, 12 October 2008

Global Depression: So What about Latin America?

In the midst of the financial turmoil that has swept ominously across North America and Europe, news how this may affect Latin American economies – traditionally so dependent upon the state of the U.S economy – has been somewhat hard to come by in the British press.

Nevertheless, last week’s The Economist did have an article highlighting the numerous pessimistic scenarios that may be played out in Latin America as a result of the financial turmoil in the world’s credit markets – “Keeping their fingers crossed”. True to its right-of-centre, pro-market editorial line it predicted that the “badly behaved” economies (i.e. overly statist and anti-neoliberal), such as those in Venezuela and Argentina, are the one that are most vulnerable.

Their vulnerability stems not so much from the lack of credit available to them, but their overreliance on commodities: Venezuela on oil, Argentina on agricultural produce. The belief being that a downturn in the world economy would naturally lead to a slump in commodity prices.

Other Latin American countries look set to be hit by a decline in commodity prices as they have fallen to the age-old temptation of overspending when times have been good and consequently saving little for when times worsen. Bucking the trend, as is so often the case when it comes to perceived sound economic management, is Chile where its copper stabilization fund should insolate the economy from a slump in copper prices.

Fortunately for the likes of Brazil, Colombia and Peru – “the well-behaved countries” in The Economist’s tinted eyes – their trade surpluses and balanced budgets, records of year-on-year growth, and lack of dependency on the increasingly limited sources of foreign credit should offer their respective economies the means to avoid the recession that has so often followed in the wake of U.S. downturns.

But all isn’t rosy in the case of Mexico, and indeed with most Central American and Caribbean nations. By remaining so dependent on US markets and remittances from relatives working in the US, the severity of the economic crisis facing the US will have the inevitable effect of casting a long murky shadow over their economies. Perhaps this will nail home the argument that despite the lure of the US market Latin American nations can only benefit from diversifying trading partners, increasing regional trade and so on.

In the aftermath of all this financial mess it seems likely – especially if the Democrats retake the White House – that all proposed free trade agreements with Latin America are to be put firmly on hold; furthering the need for Latin America to look towards China and the rest of Asia.

Despite the relative upbeat tones, The Economist makes sure to hammer home that it will be the Bolivarian following of Chavéz et al and their economic populist policies that have most to fear from the global credit crunch.

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