Not Jumping Off a Bridge
January 22, 2007
By Robert Alan Feldman
In a recent piece, my colleague Steve Roach has pointed out the impact of the recent decision by the Bank of Japan not to raise rates, and has highlighted the problems this raises for its independence. In particular, he views the BoJ decision as having caved in to political pressure. He sees this as a sign that Japan, under PM Abe, is reversing course and becoming re-dominated by the ‘old guard’.
In my view, however, the BoJ action has nothing to do at all with old guard dominance. Indeed, the people in the LDP who are most vocal against the BoJ are mostly Koizuimi supporters, like LDP Party Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa, METI Vice Minister Kozo Yamamoto, etc. If anything, this ‘new guard’ wants to see (a) rational economic decision making by a central bank, based on rules-based methods; and (b) a fiscal monetary mix that supports growth. Nakagawa himself cites the case of what Greenspan did under Clinton. That’s new guard. Moreover, one of the sharpest critics of BoJ rate hike talk has been former minister Takenaka, and he is about as new guard as you can get.
To say that the BoJ has caved into political pressure and lost independence also misrepresents the question. We should care first about good policy, and second about independence. As Neitzsche said, “The most fundamental form of human stupidity is forgetting what you were trying to do in the first place.” Monetary policy, according to the Bank of Japan Law, is supposed to aid “the healthy development of the national economy, through price stability”. The law says nothing about normalization. So, the BoJ did the right thing, both economically and legally. One should not criticize the BoJ for doing the right thing. A metaphor clarifies the issue: If a person is about to jump off a bridge and a police officer stops him, one should not criticize the jumper for a lack of independence because he was dissuaded. Nor should one criticize the police officer for compromising the independence of the jumper. The real problem is why the jumper wanted to jump.
The fundamental issue of BoJ credibility has nothing to do with the government criticizing it for incorrect policies. The issue with BoJ credibility is that it ignored the policy framework that it established last March. The BoJ does not have a convincing case that rate hikes are necessary now. It is not just the government that the bank has yet to convince. It is the markets too. Note that even the BoJ’s critics, such as Mr. Yamamoto, gave very high marks to the BoJ’s new policy framework last March. (The issue of inclusion of 0 as the bottom of the price stability range is the only major problem.) The BoJ has the framework it needs to implement good monetary policy. It is just not using it. Last December, Governor Fukui and other BoJ officials launched a charm campaign to convince markets that rates hikes were necessary, but the campaign failed. In this sense, the decision to leave rates on hold shows that it is listening.
The deeper question is the depth of the economic analysis and thought that underlies the BoJ decisions. Often overlooked is the crucial issue of fiscal-monetary coordination. Japan still has large fiscal deficits (although much smaller than a few years ago) and intergalactic government debt levels. It also faces an aging population and an intense need for capital accumulation. Interest rate levels must be set with these issues in mind. That is why the BoJ law set “healthy development of the national economy” as the BoJ’s goal. Where does the BoJ stand on the fiscal-monetary coordination issue?
At a recent luncheon speech, Governor Fukui was asked about his stance toward fiscal-monetary coordination. He said, basically, “We do not need any.” His reasoning was that the lag structures on fiscal and monetary policy are so different that coordination is unworkable. I have serious doubts about this, at least in the timeframe that applies to healthy development of the national economy. Of course, if we are talking about quarter-to-quarter adjustments, the governor is right. But what Mr. Nakagawa and others have in mind is a multi-year framework, in line with the fiscal reform plans. So, in my view, Governor Fukui was really answering another question, and did not address the real issue.
As Steve said, the BoJ’s credibility as an institution has been damaged by this incident. But these wounds are self-inflicted. They can be healed if the BoJ returns to its own framework and acts accordingly. As the BoJ works toward this, the lesson for investors is clear: Look at the fundamentals, not at the rhetoric.
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January 22, 2007
By Richard Berner
| New York
Two growing disconnects are clouding the US economic outlook. The first is probably temporary: Official economic statistics suggest that a healthy economic rebound began in the fourth quarter, while survey-based data paint a significantly more subdued picture. Do government statistics overstate the economy’s strength, are the surveys lagging behind, or is the truth somewhere in between? The second disconnect could be more lasting: Gains in employment and hours worked have been robust, while the underlying economy seems less so. Is the economy growing faster than the data portray, is the trend in productivity much weaker than we think, or is there another explanation?
The resolution to these two disconnects matters for investors and the Fed. Exceptionally warm weather may have temporarily boosted economic activity, so a “payback” as the weather turns more seasonable could help reduce the gap between the data and business surveys. But even after such adjustment, the risks now seem tilted toward stronger and more sustainable growth rather than a weaker pace. An additional re-rating of growth expectations would further undermine hopes that the Fed would ease monetary policy any time soon.
Likewise, resolving the productivity puzzle may not comfort either investors or the Fed about inflation prospects. Retrospectively stronger economic growth could help explain why growth in hours last year ran at about twice the growth of the population. Such revisions to output would push productivity back towards its trend. But they also would depict an economy growing well beyond its potential, thus threatening higher inflation by reducing slack in both product and labor markets. Alternatively, if output is in fact being accurately measured and the trend in productivity is actually lower, there isn’t much slack in product markets judging by the “output gap” — the gap between actual and potential GDP. With growth now possibly moving back above trend, the combination would still put the Fed on heightened alert to watch for signs that inflation and inflation expectations might rebound, and escalate the odds of Fed tightening. Neither outcome is in the price.
Our economic outlook has emphasized three key themes. First, strengthening overseas demand would, for the first time in two decades, consistently contribute to US growth. Second, healthy gains in jobs and incomes would support consumer outlays. Third, the housing recession still has yet to hit bottom, because the mismatch between housing supply and demand points to further declines in housing construction. In addition, questions about the downturn in Detroit have lingered given the flat trend in vehicle sales. The result: A ‘two-tier’ economy that would ultimately morph back to sustainable growth when the housing and automotive recessions ended.
There’s no mistaking the growing and relatively broad-based strength in recent official statistics — strength that echoes the themes outlined above but that exceeds what was implied in our two-tier view of the economy. For example, the trade gap in goods and services has narrowed for three consecutive months, implying that net exports contributed about 1½ percentage points to fourth-quarter growth and could also add to the first-quarter advance. Defense spending also seems to have run at a stronger-than-expected (15% annualized) clip. Incoming data on consumer spending have prompted us to boost our Q4 estimate of that key component to 4.4% and carry plenty of momentum headed into the first quarter. Construction activity has also exceeded expectations in November and December, with the drag from housing partly offset by increases in commercial and government outlays. As a result, we raised our tracking estimates of fourth- and first-quarter real growth from a below-trend 2½% in each period to 3% and as much as 3½%, respectively (our tracking estimates update monthly published forecasts with inputs from incoming data; see “Is the ‘Growth Recession’ Over? Global Economic Forum, January 8, 2007).
In contrast, while consumer sentiment has improved, business surveys are still in the doldrums. The NFIB’s small business survey turned down in December. January surveys like those from the New York and Philadelphia Feds have shown little improvement, and our own business conditions index slipped to 38% in early January (see “Business Conditions: In the Doldrums,” Global Economic Forum, January 12, 2007). We estimate that the ISM manufacturing diffusion index also slid in January.
I think balmy weather in November, December and early January does help explain the discrepancy between our upbeat growth estimates and gloomy survey results, but in my view, it’s not the whole story. The aberration was real: Heating-degree days in December fell 14% below the ten-year norm for that month. To be sure, the heat wave probably also depressed consumer spending on utilities. But I suspect that December’s 42.1% leap in multifamily housing starts, construction employment and the workweek, and even the essentially flat average reading on single-family starts in November and December benefited from the weather (fundamentals would have suggested significant declines in the latter). We can’t quantify the extent of the weather impact, and a clean read is unlikely for at least a couple of months, but we think investors should look for a coming “payback.”
However, three factors tilt growth risks higher. Some surprises have come in areas largely unaffected by weather, such as net exports. Production cutbacks are making inventories, even outside autos, look lean again. And the persistent further decline in energy quotes may not significantly reverse even as winter returns, offering a tonic to US and global growth.
The productivity puzzle is evident in both surveys of employment. First, we estimate that hours worked rose by 1.9% over the four quarters of 2006, while nonfarm business output rose by an estimated 3.6% — and those estimates don’t account for the annual recasting of nonfarm payroll and hours data, which may lift the growth rate of hours further. The implication: Productivity rose by only 1.7%, well below the 2½% that we think is the underlying trend. Moreover, measured by the household survey, and adjusted for conceptual differences with the payroll canvass, employment rose by 2.3% over the past year. As a result, even though labor-force participation expanded significantly, the jobless rate declined by ½ percentage point over that period to 4½%. Rules of thumb like “Okun’s Law” predicted that the unemployment rate would have been static with nonfarm output growing at trend.
San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen in a speech last week suggested three explanations for this disconnect (“The U.S. Economy in 2007: Prospects and Puzzles,” January 17, 2007). One is that employment is a lagging indicator and will slow following the economy. That could be, but the economy began to slow last spring, and I doubt the lags are that long. A second is that potential growth (in terms of nonfarm output) is actually lower than the 3½% or so that we think is the trend. That’s also possible, but Yellen’s third alternative seems a more likely explanation: Output may be growing faster than the data show. The ¾ percentage-point gap between real gross domestic income and GDP over the past year hints that measured GDP understated actual output growth.
As I see it, another explanation seems most likely of all: A below-trend, cyclical productivity undershoot is underway as job growth finally catches up with the economy — an undershoot that balances off the significantly above-trend gains in productivity in the early stages of the current expansion (see “The Coming Productivity Undershoot,” Global Economic Forum, March 20, 2006). Trend productivity growth is roughly 2½%, which is good news for long-run inflation prospects. But Corporate America’s hiring discipline, aimed at correcting the hiring excesses of the 1990s, yielded a 3.2% average annual gain in productivity in the first three years of this expansion — or 0.7% above the trend. In my view, there’s no reason why the second three years shouldn’t show productivity averaging 1.8% — or 0.7% below the trend.
It’s also possible that a combination of some of these factors is at work. Regardless of the cause, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that labor markets are tight. In addition, while product markets may have some slack, it is slight. As a result, we think that there are lingering upside risks to inflation. The best news for investors is that the Fed’s anti-inflation resolve will keep inflation expectations in check, suggesting that any further cyclical rise in inflation won’t last long.
For their part, investors may note that the backup in real yields and fading hopes for Fed ease already discount some of the economic rebound in the data. So any “payback” in economic strength could trigger a mini rally within a trading range for long-term bonds. But uncertainty about the productivity trend should keep the Fed and investors wary.
There’s a third disconnect, one between benign market conditions and economic uncertainty. Clients at our MacroVision workshop last week expressed a bullish consensus — one that, in Steve Roach’s words, “expects interest rates, currencies, and oil prices to remain in relatively narrow ranges. Although a modest widening in credit spreads is anticipated, little threat to the liquidity cycle is envisioned. This was viewed as an equity-friendly climate -- especially for US stocks” (see his dispatch, “Foolproof”). As I see it, you don’t have to be a crotchety bear to be mindful of risks against that backdrop. The signal-to-noise ratio in upcoming economic statistics may be low in coming weeks. Combined with the fundamental crosscurrents in the ‘two-tier’ economy, in energy and in politics, volatility in the data may stir a parallel pickup in financial market volatility. Another market-economy disconnect may loom.
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January 22, 2007
By Stephen S. Roach
| New York
MacroVision -- our annual deep dive into the burning issues in the markets and the global economy -- offered nothing but optimism for 2007. Risks were banished to the distant tails of the probability spectrum, with the all-powerful liquidity cycle expected to cushion all but the most wrenching of shocks. Sure, markets will correct from time to time, but the MacroVision crowd felt any such downdrafts should be ignored. Dips were thought to be buying opportunities -- whether for commodities, equities, credit, or emerging markets. The endgame was nowhere in the realm of possibility. Out-of-consensus views were presented with low conviction.
MacroVision is a unique two-step process. On the first day, we conduct a series of thematically-driven workshops for our worldwide team of economists and strategists. On the second day, we bring a broad cross-section of our clients into the debate -- representing multiple constituencies from the institutional investor base (fixed income, equities, and currencies), corporates, government officials, and a scattering of overseas participants. We start out with a broader menu of content choices on the first day and then narrow the debate for the client sessions. The trick in our approach is what we call “macro triangulation” -- the examination of each topic by 2-3 distinctly different groups of individuals. We have been conducting this exercise with our internal teams for over a dozen years, and this is the sixth year we have added the client piece to the equation. I know of nothing like it in our business. The magic of MacroVision comes alive in our synthesis sessions, where we compare and contrast the insights and market conclusions that arise from multiple groups probing the same issue or problem from very different angles.
MacroVision 2007 focused on three topics -- liquidity, commodities, and protectionism. There can be no mistaking the dominance of the liquidity cycle in nearly all of our discussions. It was viewed as the ultimate buffer of the macro system -- a cushion that was likely to remain very much in place over the one-year time horizon we were contemplating. The reason -- persistent low inflation. Barring a major upside breakout to inflation, our own team, as well as our clients, saw only limited interest rate pressures in 2007 (see accompanying table). The upside to policy rates was judged as minimal -- with the Federal Reserve expected to hold the funds rate steady at 5.25%. The Bank of Japan’s stunning reversal on its normalization-based policy approach was viewed as lending further support to this conclusion. That was thought to be great news for global carry trades that were providing support for a wide range of risky assets -- from corporate credit to emerging market debt. Under a baseline scenario of only modest monetary tightening for 2007, along with expectations of only limited pressures at the long end of yield curves, the MacroVision crowd came up with a very bullish prognosis for world financial markets. Given the ample stock of liquidity that is currently sloshing around the system and the related conclusion that a wrenching withdrawal of liquidity should be assigned a low probability, there was more optimism than I have ever encountered in one of these conferences. Absent a major turn in the global liquidity cycle, went the argument, bullish market outcomes were viewed as largely foolproof.
We all agreed that liquidity is one of the most mentioned, but least understood, constructs in the financial market debate today. Sure, it’s everywhere, but what really is it? In our internal strategizing, we broke down the liquidity story into two distinctly different sessions -- one focused on metrics and the other on implications. This reflects our collective view that this debate needs to be better grounded in an empirically verifiable construct. Only then can we tell if, and when, the liquidity cycle is likely to turn. Despite our noble intentions, we did not come up with a unique definition of a measurable gauge of global liquidity. We recognized that there are both quantity and price dimensions to the story -- with the former including a combined measure of money and credit, derivatives, and foreign exchange reserves and the latter a hybrid measure of inflation-adjusted policy rates and spreads -- both within yield curves as well as across borders and between assets. We also felt that price metrics were more appropriate barometers of liquidity in developed markets, whereas quantity metrics might be more applicable in emerging markets. The trick, of course, is to put all these diverse pieces together in the form of a single gauge of global liquidity. For us, this is work in progress. But that conclusion, in and of itself, points to a powerful insight into the state of the global liquidity cycle: In a world of incremental shifts in the inflationary underpinnings of monetary policy and asset prices, macro conclusions on liquidity are likely to be more subjective than objective.
On that basis, the MacroVision assessment of the state of global liquidity gives an unequivocal green light for financial markers and for increasingly asset-dependent economies around the world. We don’t believe in the “coincidence of fundamentals” that would justify rock-bottom spreads in a variety of very different risky asset classes. Nor do we think it’s an accident that such a powerful risk appetite would occur at the same time that volatility has plunged in traditional equity, bond, and currency markets. These are all very visible manifestations of the powerful correlations of a liquidity-driven risk-extension trade -- by far the most awesome force at work in world financial markets today. The MacroVision consensus was convinced that this was likely to remain the operative outcome over the course of this year.
There was broad agreement on the other two topics as well -- commodities and protectionism. The MacroVision consensus viewed the commodity super-cycle as largely intact and felt fears of protectionism were overblown. Our discussions were quick to unmask the most important assumption that both of these debates had in common -- a bet on the irreversible mega-trend of globalization. This was identical to the conclusion that came out of our Lyford Cay discussions a couple of months ago (see my 13 November 2006 dispatch, “The Teflon of Lyford”). With nothing likely to stop globalization, went the argument, the MacroVision consensus was virtually unanimous in conceding that there was no risk of protectionism currently embedded in the price of financial assets. In that case, of course, an adverse shift in trade policies could deal the markets a very serious blow. Globalization was also viewed as the glue that would push commodity prices to higher highs and even push predictable dips to higher lows -- validating the basic premises of the ever-popular super-cycle. Differentiation was stressed, however, as we probed deeper into the commodity story. The group believed that an important mix shift could occur over the next year, with gains moving away from oil and other hard commodities such as metals into the softer agricultural commodities. Corn and water came up as the most interesting soft commodity plays -- the former for its connections to alternative sources of energy (i.e., ethanol) and the latter as a potential bottleneck to globalization.
The MacroVision consensus has a pretty good track record. In last year’s sessions, both our internal and client groups were on the right side of a generally bullish bond market, while our client consensus was very accurate in its prognoses of oil prices and US equities. While both groups nailed the further deterioration in the US current account deficit, they missed the understandably tricky currency connections -- failing to appreciate the strength of the euro and the weakness of the yen. But the MacroVision 2006 consensus was spot on in picking the best-performing asset class -- emerging market equities.
Looking out over 2007, both our internal and client groups are in fairly tight agreement. Interest rates -- both short and long -- as well as currencies and oil prices are expected to remain in relatively narrow ranges, and a modest widening in credit spreads is anticipated. But, as noted above, the staying power of the all-powerful liquidity cycle is expected to contain any damage. This is viewed as a distinct positive for equities -- especially the outlook for US stocks. Indeed, almost half the clients picked the S&P 500 as the best-performing asset over the next 12 months -- nearly double the second choice, emerging-market equities. In this instance, our clients were far more optimistic than our internal macro practitioners -- who looked for the US market to fluctuate around present levels.
I remain very much on the other side of most of these bets but have to concede the power of the liquidity-driven conclusion to many of the arguments -- especially in light of the low-inflation conclusion that remains central to my own baseline case for the world. Even so, I fear the MacroVision and the market consensus is far too sanguine on the globalization debate -- presuming that market forces can forever continue to trump political pressures. As I have stressed for several months, I suspect a pro-labor shift to the political Left in many major countries of the developed world is likely to be a much bigger deal than most suspect. Don’t get me wrong: I would not characterize my baseline macro view as an anti-globalization bet. I just think the political factor is likely to be increasingly important in translating this into a two-way debate -- a risky possibility for markets that have made a one-way bet on globalization.
At the same time, I also believe that China is serious in its current cooling-off campaign. I expect it to be surprisingly successful in slowing down an overheated -- and commodity-intensive -- investment sector. If I’m right, that could prove to have far more challenging implications for the demand side of the commodity super-cycle than most expect.
In the end, the excesses of the liquidity cycle remain the rising tide that lifts all boats. As I conceded recently, absent a meaningful turn in the liquidity cycle, I suspect the markets will continue to trade away from the stresses and strains implied by my global rebalancing call (see my 16 January dispatch, “The Growth Machine”). In the parlance of MacroVision 2007, my concerns have all but been banished to the remote confines on the ever-distant tail of the markets’ probability distribution. All alone in a foolproof macro climate -- a crotchety bear could hardly ask for more.
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The Risk of Abundance
January 22, 2007
By Gray Newman
| New York
For years, Latin America suffered as growth was regularly punctured by crises that brought down currencies, economic models and heads of state. Today, thanks in part to a period of unprecedented Chinese demand which in turn has boosted prices for commodities and contributed to a prolonged bout of above-trend global growth, the region has been enjoying a level of abundance which it has rarely seen. The upshot: serial debtors are in a race to extinguish their external debt and are producing record surpluses in balance of payments and on the fiscal front, as growth turns up and inflation, in some cases, is falling to its slowest pace in more than half of a century.
Stability brings complacency
Last week we argued that while we were upbeat about the prospects for the region in 2007, the new-found stability represented a significant challenge for Latin America’s long-term growth prospects: stability, we argued, was a breeding ground for complacency (see “Latin America: Stability Brings Complacency” in Global Economic Forum, January 15, 2007). The darlings of the region — Brazil and Mexico, which have both produced super-sized returns for investors in the past year — are both at risk of complacency. While we are more upbeat on the prospects for stronger growth in Brazil this year than in Mexico — because Brazil has significantly more room to reduce interest rates in 2007 — both need a stronger investment platform and that means changes in the regulatory environment, improved infrastructure and a healthier public sector. And on that front, the signals have been mixed.
In the case of Brazil, a long-awaited program of economic reform measures was postponed repeatedly in late December and, while the final program is now set for release on January 22, it does not appear that Brazil’s policymakers will make much, if any, progress in reforming Brazil’s fiscal quandary which includes an inadequately funded social security program and an ever-increasing spiral of current expenditures and tax burden.
Meanwhile in Mexico, the new administration failed in its first round against powerful domestic interests: a proposed 5% tax on soft drinks — this in a country which has the highest soft drink per capita consumption of the globe’s leading brand and an alarming rise in diabetes — was voted down in the Senate. Mexico needs to boost public investment and do so while weaning itself off of its addiction to oil revenues which last year accounted for 37% of all fiscal revenues. While I would be careful in not reading too much into this first defeat, it should serve a warning that the new administration is likely to find that it will have few allies if it pursues a more aggressive reform agenda. Years of strong convergence inflows have robbed Mexico’s policymaking class of a sense of urgency on the reform front. I am skeptical that Mexico’s new administration will be able to beat its ‘convergence curse’.
A new round of nationalism and populism
Complacency, however, is not the only threat to the region’s stability: Latin America is experiencing a new round of nationalism and populism which could produce an even more spectacular crisis for the region. In the first 15 days of the New Year, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, announced plans to nationalize much, if not all, of the country’s telephone, electricity and oil industries while proposing changing the country’s name to the ‘Socialist Republic of Venezuela’. On January 15, Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, was sworn in and promised to work with Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales to create a new alliance among South American nations. Correa and Chavez are expected to sign a series of new energy accords including plans for joint exploration of crude. Meanwhile, bond holders are still waiting to see what Correa’s plans are to renegotiate Ecuador’s debt: he characterized most of Ecuador’s debt as “illegitimate” and promised to end central bank independence and prepare the country for “21st century socialism” in a speech to the nation following his inauguration. What is perhaps most remarkable about the new administration’s stance is that it is coming when growth is rebounding and oil prices — despite the recent correction — have provided the fiscal coffers with ample resources to service the debt.
While investors are trying to decipher exactly what Venezuela’s nationalization and Ecuador’s new debt stance will look like, the new round of nationalism and populism can also be seen in a host of somewhat more mundane measures in the region. Brazilian authorities announced this past week that they were suspending a federal highway concession program, even while holding up the prospects of concessions to the private sector in other areas. Meanwhile, faced with rising tortilla prices, Mexico’s new president promised to “take all measures” within his reach to stop the escalating prices. While Mexico’s president added that his administration was not in the business of fixing tortilla prices, it didn’t take long for politicians to call for a new set of price controls on tortillas, milk and other basic staples. Admittedly, while suspending a road concession in Brazil or railing against rising tortilla prices in Mexico are hardly on the same plane as the talk of nationalizations and socialism in Venezuela and Ecuador, both suggest that Latin America’s abundance of recent years has brought not only stability, but also complacency and a dose of populism and nationalism.
Upbeat in 2007, but beyond …
I am still upbeat on the prospects for the region’s largest economy in 2007. Perhaps nowhere in the emerging markets is the case for a reduction in rates stronger than in Brazil. Inflation in Brazil has plummeted even as real rates have fallen by much less. And that should set Brazil up for an important bout of monetary easing in 2007 as real rates begin to decline at a pace previously reserved for nominal rates. We are forecasting the Selic interest rate to fall to 11.25% by the end of 2007 and to fall further still in 2008. With real rates set to fall to their lowest level in decades, Brazil’s growth should surprise on the upside, in our view.
Even in Mexico, where we expect growth to slow — as the economy suffers from the absence of election spending which likely provided a major stimulus to the economy in 2006 along with an unusual mix early last year of strong US growth and high oil prices — we still expect low inflation to produce a dramatic extension of the yield curve, the rebirth of mortgages and credit to those who had long been beyond the reach of financial intermediaries. That trend should continue uninterrupted in 2007 and provide a significant cushion to a slowing export-based manufacturing sector.
But Brazil and Mexico are showing limited signs of dealing with today’s abundance to build the conditions for sustainable growth. The good news is that neither country has fallen into the excesses of past upturns in the region. The current cycle has not produced the ballooning trade and current account deficits fueled by consumer spending seen in the past, nor widening fiscal deficits nor the spectacle of central banks burning through reserves to prop up woefully overvalued currencies. With Mexico and Brazil’s fiscal and monetary houses in better order today than in decades, neither is at much risk in 2007 even if global growth surprises on the downside. But their medium-term prospects leave much to be desired.
Both need reforms to boost revenues to fund important increases in public investment in health and education and increased infrastructure financing. In Brazil’s case, the funding needs to come as public revenues are reoriented; in Mexico’s case, an overall boost in revenues needs to be accompanied by a much more efficient public administration. What concerns me the most, however, is that Latin America’s new-found stability seems more likely to impede rather than to bolster a new wave of much-needed micro reforms to improve competitiveness and potential GDP growth.
While Mexico and Brazil are battling complacency, an even more threatening struggle is going on in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. An abundance of inflows has engendered a new round of nationalism and populism. And the longer that Latin America continues to enjoy favorable terms of trade and healthy global demand — both of which we expect to continue in 2007 and 2008 — the longer the nationalists and populists can gain ground. With Venezuela and Argentina at the top of the list of the fastest-growing Latin American economies, their example runs the risk of creating an even more serious challenge for Brazil and Mexico. Now is not the time for complacency.
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