By Yasser Abdih
There was a time when U.S. central bankers worried that inflation was too high, and they tried to bring it down. Now the opposite is true: the Federal Reserve is concerned that inflation has remained stubbornly low, and it’s trying to boost prices. The reason: persistently low inflation raises the risk that prices will actually start to decline, a dangerous condition known as deflation. That’s bad news because it makes people less willing to borrow and spend—anticipating lower prices, consumers will put off spending—and could also lead to a fall in wages. (more…)
Following a rough start at the beginning of the year, both external and domestic conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean have improved. But the outlook for the region is still uncertain.
Commodity prices have recovered since their February 2016 trough, but they are still expected to remain low for the foreseeable future. This has been accompanied by a brake—or even a reversal—in the large exchange rate depreciations in some of the largest economies in the region.
The rapid increase in Latin American corporate debt—fueled by an abundance of cheap foreign money during the past decade—has contributed to an increase in corporate risk. Total debt of nonfinancial firms in Latin America increased from US$170 billion in 2010 to US$383 billion in 2015. With potential growth across countries in the region slowing, in line with the end of the commodity supercycle, it will now be more difficult for firms to operate under increased debt burdens and reduced safety margins.
In this environment, Latin American firms are walking a tightrope. With external financial conditions tightening, the walk towards the other side—notably through adjustment and deleveraging—while necessary, has become riskier. After making good progress, the crossing has also become more perilous due to strong headwinds—including slower global demand and bouts of heightened market volatility.
Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean is suffering a double whammy—economic activity has slowed down sharply and the medium-term outlook continues to deteriorate. It is therefore not surprising that policymakers across the region are eagerly searching for ways to revitalize growth.
One answer may be more trade—both within the region and with the rest of the world. Our new study analyzes the export performance in developing and emerging market regions over the past two decades to assess the potential for future export growth in Latin America. We find evidence that most countries in the region “undertrade” compared to what standard models would predict. This has been an entrenched problem for almost a quarter of a century, partly as a result of the region’s geography and a legacy of protectionist policies.
As the U.S. Federal Reserve prepares to raise policy rates for the first time in almost a decade, Latin America is in the midst of a sharp downturn with unemployment on the rise. In this context, many central banks across the region have kept interest rates low to support economic activity. But can monetary policy stay that way as global rates rise? What will the Fed liftoff imply for the region?
Latin America under stress
After a period of strong growth, economic activity in Latin America has slowed sharply. Growth among the six larger, financially-integrated economies—Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay—is expected to be negative this year. With heightened financial market pressures and limited policy space, the credibility of policy makers is being seriously tested. In this challenging environment, policy-makers in these six countries face some difficult questions: how to strike the right balance between smoothing the adjustment and strengthening credibility? What role should fiscal policy play in this new, uncertain and rapidly evolving environment?
These and other questions will be addressed at the Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru next week. As we prepare for these meetings, we offer our thoughts on some of the pressing issues for Latin America.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, monetary and fiscal policies were used aggressively to counteract the effects of the crisis on economic activity. Policymakers look at a number of indicators to guide them in assessing an economy’s level of activity relative to its productive capacity. But trying to figure out the position of the economy in real time is often quite challenging, with consequences for setting policy.
In the case of Brazil in 2011, for example, policymakers estimated in real time that the economy was at a level of output consistent with its productive capacity. Over time, however, the assessment of the cyclical position of the Brazilian economy changed drastically. It had not just been at full capacity, but was overheating. The economy was actually facing inflationary pressures, requiring policy tightening to bring it back to the central bank’s target.
Latin America’s recent economic fortunes highlight the region’s closer economic ties with Asia. China, in particular, has grown into a crucial source of demand for Latin American commodities over the past two decades, providing significant gains to the region. The flip side is that the ongoing structural slowdown of Chinese investment is weighing considerably on the prices of those commodities, and the countries that export them.
But Asia can be much more than just a source of episodic windfall gains (and losses) for Latin America. Like a windmill, Asia could help to power a stronger Latin American economy—by providing an example of successful regional trade integration and through greater direct links across the Pacific that benefit both sides. However, securing these benefits will require clear and realistic objectives, a long-term strategy, and attention to the political and social implications of greater economic integration.