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Posted on August 15, 2012
Rio de Janeiro’s annual carnival in full swing. Brazil has pumped £42bn into its economy.Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
The cash machines in Santiago are running out of money, but it is not a run on the banks; shoppers in Chile are simply spending peso notes faster than the automated tellers can provide them. New skyscrapers are rising up in Bogotá to create the office and retail space needed by a growing economy. Mexico – the new darling of foreign investors – is outstripping GDP forecasts. Brazil, which overtook the UK as the world’s sixth biggest economy last year, has just announced a $66bn (£42bn) stimulus plan in addition to the money it will splash out in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.
The economic mood music in Latin America for most of this year could hardly have been more of a contrast from that of the EU, mired in financial crisis, depressed by austerity, and dipping back into recession.
Latin America is now being retuned, as most nations expect slower but still solid growth, and some prepare to tap extensive reserves to spend their way out of a global downturn.
Their ability to withstand the coming storm will have long-term implications for perceptions of a region that was until recently a byword for financial turbulence, irresponsible spending and whimsical policies. Recently, many of the region’s governments have been praised by the UN, IMF and World Bank for building strong reserves and maintaining generally low levels of public debt.
This gives them more scope to open the fiscal stimulus taps when the economy starts to flag, as Brazil did on Wednesday with the announcement of a R$133bn (£42bn) stimulus package. If they can avoid the worst impacts of the international crisis without sinking into debt – as most nations here did in 2008 – it would reinforce a growing reputation for prudent economic management.
Several strong years of growth in the strongest performing economies have created a visible momentum. In Santiago, soaring housing prices, hundreds of new restaurants and thickets of cranes on the skyline suggest the Chilean economy has coasted through the early stages of the latest crisis. Car sales soared so high last year that at one point the government ran out of licence plates and was forced to issue cardboard substitutes while hastily stamping out another round of metal license plates.
With an estimated GDP growth this year of 4.5%, plus hefty government reserves, Chile is prepared to weather potential fallout from Europe. “We have a pretty comfortable position to face challenges in 2012,” budget director Rosanna Costa told reporters in Santiago this year. The government sits on an estimated $14bn stabilisation fund that can be used to stimulate the economy via public works projects or cash infusions, as needed.
Peru is also enjoying steady expansion, while Venezuela, buoyed by oil sales and a pre-election spending binge by Hugo Chávez, is expected to grow by more than 5%, though its ability to pay its bills will depend on high oil prices.
There are some significant exceptions to these trends. Argentina’s economy has ground to a halt in the wake of the nationalisation of local assets owned by Spanish oil company YPF, indicating the still strong influence of global financial markets in Latin America.
Even so, the region is expected to grow by 3-4% this year – a bonanza compared with the depression that afflicts the Latin nations in the old world. Portugal, Spain and Italy were among the worst-performing nations when the EU announced this week that the GDP of the eurozone fell 0.2% in the latest quarter.
The contrasts are striking. While Spain has been begging for bailouts, Juan Carlos Echeverry, the finance minister of its former colony Colombia, this year boasted his government “didn’t need more revenue”. Thanks to rising rates of inward investment, falling unemployment and annual growth of 4.5% for more than a decade, his state’s finances are thought to be in good shape to withstand the fallout from Europe.
Although the mood has darkened in recent months, new symbols of affluence are being built. Colombia is erecting its tallest skyscraper, the 66-storey BD Bacatá building, which will house a shopping mall, office space and up-market apartments.
The Spanish property tycoon behind the project, Venerando Lamelas, said he was moving with the times. “The European market is not doing well. Latin America is very important and within Latin America the best market is Colombia,” he told a local newspaper.
Others are following the opportunities across the Atlantic. Gonzalo Rodriguez recently gave up his job in Spain as a bond-market trader and moved to Brazil to work for an energy company designing power transmission lines for wind farms.
“I’m not earning as much here as I did in Spain, but I’m thinking five years ahead,” the 25-year-old said in Copacabana. “There is 100% more growth potential in Brazilian energy than in Spanish banks. There are lots of talented people in Spain not finding jobs. Here, it is the opposite. They don’t have enough qualified people.”
Such optimism will be tested in the months ahead. Brazil has been hit harder than any other country by the downturn overseas – particularly weakening Chinese demand for commodities. It is likely to grow more slowly this year – about 2-3% – than any of the other big regional economies, prompting President Dilma Rousseff to unveil Wednesday’s hefty stimulus package.
Unlike in the past, however, it has the money to spend. Brazil’s international reserves have swollen from $38bn in 2002 to more than $370bn, which is a substantial war chest to fend off global crisis.
“In years past, when the world sneezed, we caught pneumonia. That’s no longer the case,” Rousseff said this year. “I can assure you, Brazil is 100%, 200%, 300% ready.”
Many economists question whether Brazil and the region as a whole will prove as resilient this time. Strong demand from China for soy, oil, copper and other commodities helped Latin America coast through the 2008-09 crisis. This time, with China slowing, it will have to dig deeper into its reserves. Although government finances are far stronger than they were in the 80s and 90s, the big question is whether it has invested enough in human capital.
“Important jobs here in Brazil are now being filled by Europeans, especially from Spain and Portugal,” said Nelson de Sousa, a finance lecturer at management school Ibmec. “We have not put enough into education and training. That is our great difficulty and one that is very different from the problems faced by Europe.
“The Brazilian government spends a lot, but badly. Dilma is aware of that, but there is a big difference between knowing what to do and being able to do it.”
If she – and other leaders in the region – succeed, however, a lot more than the Olympic torch may pass this year from Europe to Latin America.