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The Trade Numerologist: Latin America’s Trade Slump

12 Mar 2018 John Miller

After China registered the biggest expansion of global trade capacity in world history last decade, the 2010s were supposed to belong, at least in part, to Latin America. Chile and Peru marched on their way to becoming copper powerhouses. Argentina ramped up beef exports. Brazil emerged as the world’s most important emerging economy, and a leader of the Doha Round of world trade talks.

Instead, Doha failed, and the bright promise of the region’s trade fortunes has dimmed somewhat. Latin America has suffered from lower commodity prices, lukewarm private investment, higher trade barriers and changes in Chinese economic policy and practice. It’s been hurt by companies pulling back from creating so-called “global value chains” that link mines, fields, plants and ports around the world.

But Latin America’s problems are not isolated-- and a careful look shows that its issues are emblematic, and revealing, of a general sluggishness in global trade since the financial crisis. And there is also the hope of even more trade cooperation with China.

Trade in Latin America “contracted in the last three years at an annual average growth rate of 2.7%, driven by very weak imports, in contrast to other regions, which eked out broadly stable import values,” the International Monetary Fund noted in a paper published last year. The trend is incarnate in the downward-sloping trend in Argentina, the region’s third biggest economy, after Brazil and Mexico

Argentina, total trade, 2012-2017

2012: $147.1 billion

2013: $148.3 billion

2014: $132.7 billion

2015: $116.5 billion

2016: $113.8 billion

2017: $125.3 billion

In addition, the Fund said, the region has suffered from “the slump in commodity prices, the corresponding wealth effect through currency depreciation, and recessions or below potential growth” in big economies, the IMF noted. The region is particularly vulnerable to changes in resource prices. Mining-related commodity exports, mostly copper, make up over half of Chile’s exports for example.

Chile’s top exports, 2017

Copper $17.6 billion

Ores, including of copper $17 billion

Fruits, nuts $4.8 billion

Fish $5.3 billion

Wood pulp $2.6 billion

Wood $2.2 billion

Beverages $2 billion

Inorganic chemicals $1.6 billion

Meat $1.4 billion

Pearls, precious stones $814.4 million

Chile and Peru represent two of the world’s top three copper producers, and Brazil is the third-biggest iron ore producer. They’ve been hurt by China moving toward a model based more on consumption than on massive infrastructure projects that use a lot of steel and copper.

Brazil total trade, 2012-2017

2012: $465.7 billion

2013: $481.8 billion

2014: $454.3 billion

2015: $362.6 billion

2016: $322.8 billion

2017: $368.5 billion

Mexico has suffered less than Brazil and Argentina, partly because it has benefitted from its proximity to the U.S., and its membership in the North America Free Trade Agreement. In the first 11 months of 2017, Mexico did $495.6 billion total trade with the U.S., compared to $74.9 billion with China. By comparison, in 2017, Brazil did $74.8 billion of trade with China, and only $51.7 billion in trade with the U.S.

Mexico total trade, first 11 months, 2012-2017

2012: $682.3 billion

2013: $689.8 billion

2014: $729.7 billion

2015: $713.2 billion

2016: $694.5 billion

2017: $758 billion

Latin America has also been hurt by another phenomenon affecting global trade: the tapering off of so-called “global value chains.” In the first two decades, global corporations built supply chains that made products by connecting factories, plants and ports in different countries. “During the 2000s, intermediate goods from emerging economies joined global production processes at a faster pace than those from advanced economies,” the IMF noted.

However, companies are changing their ways, partly because of the expansion of China’s internal economy. “Imports of parts and components in total exports decreased from 60% in the mid-1990s to 35% in 2015 as Chinese firms substituted from foreign inputs to domestic inputs,” the IMF said. “This trend reflected a sharp reduction of transport and communication costs in the interior of China relative to the rest of the world, leading China’s coastal regions to source relatively more inputs from the Chinese interior.”

The biggest Latin American economies, especially Brazil, were important leaders in the trade liberalization rounds of the 1980s and 1990s that culminated in China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. The average global tariff fell to 5% in 2015 from 12% in 1995. Now that movement has stalled. Brazil, for example, has maintained an average, and relatively high, tariff rate of 8% in the last 10 years.

In addition, the number of non-tariff barriers like health and safety, and labeling standards, a Latin American specialty, has been increasing. Brazil has 1,800 non-tariff barriers, the “highest number” in the world, according to the IMF.

Because of its size and leverage, China has been better than other countries at cutting red tape and opening markets for its countries. The percentage of Brazil’s trade that is with China has been increasing.

Pct of Brazilian trade with China, 2012-2017

2007: 8.3%

2008: 9.8%

2009: 12.8%

2010: 14.6%

2011: 15.9%

2012: 16.2%

2013: 17.2%

2014: 17.2%

2015: 18.3%

2016: 18.1%

2017: 20.3%

That number is likely to keep going up. China has been boosting investment in Latin America. Last year, in Brazil alone, it made over $20 billion of deals, including in power plants and ports. At a recent meeting between China and the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean states, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi promised a “strategy of mutual benefit and shared gain.”

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email tradenumerologist@gmail.com with comments and questions.

The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit’s unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas database, the world’s most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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