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In Global Economic Crisis, Mexico Is Resilient

New America Media, News Report, Louis Nevaer Posted: Feb 06, 2009

Editor's Note: When the New York Times reached out to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for a $250 million loan to keep the newspaper afloat, it became clear to the world what Mexicans already knew: Mexico had been able to avoid the worst of the U.S. economic crisis. Mexico's stock market fell 23 percent in 2008, the "best" performing major index at a time when the U.S. markets fell 38 percent. Here's how they did it.

MERIDA, Mexico The economic crisis sweeping the globe has spared no nation, but some are showing remarkable resilience. Mexico's economic performance, for example, has shown tremendous strength. When the U.S. Federal Reserve extended a loan of $30 billion each to the central banks of Brazil, South Korea, Singapore and Mexico, Mexico did not touch those funds. It simply reinvested them in Treasury bonds, leaving them in accounts in New York.

This is no accident. It stems from prudent economic policies implemented after the December 1994 devaluation of the Mexican peso that sent the economy into a tailspin. At that time, President Ernesto Zedillo had been in office a few days, and his entire agenda was thrown into disarray by the crisis.

The Clinton administration had to issue an emergency $50 billion loan - which Mexico paid back ahead of schedule and with interest - and the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, helped craft a recovery program. It was a painful adjustment as budgets were slashed, fiscal restraint was implemented across the board, and the Mexican people saw their investments and savings diminish.

That was 15 years ago, and the lessons learned the hard way are now paying off: Mexico's stock market fell 23 percent in 2008, the "best" performing major index at a time when the U.S. markets fell 38 percent and Russian markets collapsed by an astounding 70 percent.

Last fall, some feared that the Mexican economy would not be able to escape the turmoil engulfing the United States, and the Mexican peso fell almost 30 percent vis--vis the American dollar. It has since recovered, although it has suffered a 20 percent devaluation since the economic crisis began last summer. These currency fluctuations reflect the fact that, because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, neither Mexico nor Canada have "decoupled" from the U.S. economy.

There are several reasons for Mexico's economic resilience. One is the fiscal restraint that Zedillo initiated and that his successor, Vicente Fox, continued.

Fox, a former corporate executive, made significant strides in eliminating Mexico's foreign debt. Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderon, has kept spending in line, even as revenues have increased. When disaster struck, Mexico had a balanced budget, almost no foreign debt and rising federal revenues, allowing it to intervene to stabilize prices.

Mexico also dodged the housing speculation that brought its neighbor to its knees. Mexico's financial system has always been stringent in extending credit. Americans roll their eyes at the bureaucracy this entailed - two forms of ID are required to open a bank account in Mexico; when customers request checks, they have to pick them up at the bank, where their signature and ID are verified; credit card applications must be made in person at the financial institution, and not over the phone or through unsolicited mail-in applications. As a result, "identity theft" is almost non-existent in Mexico, and it was nearly impossible for a housing bubble to emerge there.

Another factor is the windfall oil profits despite the sudden drop in oil prices. When oil peaked at $147 a barrel last summer, there was disbelief around the world: Would it shoot up to $200 or fall back? The conventional wisdom was that $100 a barrel for oil was the new reality going forward, and there was a frenzy to lock in prices through futures contracts. Mexican officials at Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly, didn't believe that price was sustainable; their economic models indicated that, with slacking demand due to the recession, a price range between $60 and $80 was "sustainable." Other countries - most notably Venezuela and Russia - were more ambitious, and reckless. Both countries let spending explode, believing that they could finance anything they wanted. The economies in both countries today are in freefall.

Mexico, by comparison, was prudent, saving the oil windfall, and Mexican traders implemented a strategy that hinged on the price of oil falling below the $60 to $80 range. "They're great traders," Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp., said of Pemex futures traders. "If the economy continues to slow, they're looking like geniuses."

The world economy has more than slowed: It has hit a wall. And Mexico is collecting $90 to $110 per barrel today, for oil that is trading in the $38 to $45 range at the beginning of 2009. Having hedged its exports, Mexico is getting a premium, and a significant windfall that will total several billion dollars this year, enough to sustain social spending without massive federal deficits.

Will this be enough to prevent Mexico from slipping into recession in 2009? Probably not, but the fact that it has managed to escape a debilitating slowdown - the United States is in its 14th month of official recession - suggests that whatever economic slowdown there is will be relatively mild, considering the global situation.

"The U.S. needs to show some proof they have a plan to get out of the fiscal problem," Ernesto Zedillo told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week. "We, as developing countries, need to know we won't be crowded out of the capital markets, which is already happening."

Related Articles:

Mexican Middle Class Fuels Ascendance of Greater Mexico

Food Crisis Reverses Middle Class Trend in Latin America

Managing Your Money, Oaxacan Style

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