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Crisis pushes LatAm to IMF

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaks at the World Economic Forum last week.
By Andrew Mayeda and David Biller
Bloomberg

Countries that have been resisting the Washington-based fund may soon have no choice

NEW YORK — After the debt crisis of the 1980s, seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had about as much appeal to Latin American nations as a root canal. The plunge in commodity prices may leave them no choice.

Once favoured by investors for their high-flying resource economies, countries including Brazil and Argentina are suffering from drops in the cost of everything from oil to iron ore and soybeans, along with weakening demand from China and a strengthening dollar. Regional output is set to shrink for a second straight year for the first time since the crisis three decades ago, according to the IMF.

The slump is raising the prospect that some countries may have to seek assistance from the Washington-based fund, whose policy prescriptions are blamed by some for the “lost decade” that followed the crisis.

Last week the IMF revealed that Suriname, a US$5 billion economy on South America’s northern coast, approached the fund to discuss financial support.

“It’s possible that over the next few years you may see some other Latin American countries knocking at the IMF's door,” said Alberto Ramos, chief economist for the region at Goldman Sachs. Venezuela and Ecuador, both of which have seen foreign-currency reserves dwindle amid the oil collapse, are possible candidates, Ramos said in a phone interview.

Brazil, the region's largest economy, may also eventually need to go to the IMF, said Ernesto Talvi, a former chief economist at Uruguay’s Central Bank.

The governments of Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela didn'’ respond to requests for comment. Venezuela’s foreign trade and investment minister, Jesus Faria, said an IMF request is “totally ruled out,” according to comments published yesterday in a local newspaper.

Oil collapse

The IMF is already starting to respond to the oil collapse elsewhere: officials arrived in Azerbaijan this week for talks on providing possible financial aid. There have been no talks with Brazil, Ecuador or Venezuela about IMF financial support, fund spokesman Raphael Anspach said.

An increased IMF presence in Latin America would be controversial. During the 1980s, the fund stepped in to help countries including Mexico and Brazil pay the large debts they’d racked up with foreign banks. But the lender's recommended policies, including budget cuts and deregulation, failed to prevent deep recessions in most places.

The anti-IMF scorn in the region is embodied by the “Monopoly”-style board game “Eternal Debt,” in which players assume the roles of Latin American nations and strive to defeat the multilateral lender.

“The IMF is a much more flexible and a much more useful institution today, but unfortunately the stigma of the past is very much present, and countries that would be well advised to use the fund, like Brazil, probably are not doing it,” said Talvi, director of the Brookings-CERES Latin America program.

Venezuela is at risk because 95 percent of its foreign-currency earnings come from oil exports. The IMF predicts the country's economy will contract 8 percent this year, after shrinking 10 percent in 2015. Inflation is expected to spike to 720 percent, following 2015’s world high of 275 percent, according to the fund.

Discontent over spiraling prices and widespread shortages of everything from milk to cancer medicines helped the opposition wrest control of Congress in December from President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party for the first time in more than a decade. Foreign-currency reserves have dropped more than 35 percent from a 2015 high of US$24.3 billion in February to $15.6 billion.

Unless oil prices recover, Venezuela will be unable to service its debts in the next six to 12 months, said Jorge Mariscal, emerging-markets chief investment officer at UBS Wealth Management, which oversees US$1 trillion in assets.

“The situation is quite dire,” Mariscal said in an interview, adding that he expects oil prices to “creep up” later this year.

The country has borrowed more than US$45 billion from China over the past decade, using the funding for everything from farming to infrastructure and telecommunications projects.

With Venezuela verging on humanitarian catastrophe, the nation needs tens of billions of dollars from the IMF, former planning minister Ricardo Hausmann said in a phone interview.

“In the coming months there will be larger Venezuelan consensus that the crisis is unbearable and they need the support of the international community, and the IMF will lead that effort,” said Hausmann, now director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development.

Brazil is the one economy whose default would be considered a “systemic” event that could spill over into other countries, Talvi said.

The IMF projects Brazil’s gross domestic product will shrink 3.5 percent in 2015, after contracting 3.8 percent last year. The real has plunged 35 percent in the past year, while inflation has risen to almost 11 percent. The country is also mired in political gridlock, with President Dilma Rousseff facing impeachment over accusations she used accounting tricks to minimize the budget deficit.

“Brazil’s trapped on this road with no exit and, eventually, something is going to give,” Talvi said. “You need to solve the credibility problem to be able to borrow at reasonable rates while you do the fiscal repair work and the structural reforms, and I don't think it’s possible to do that in the middle of a political crisis without the support of the international community through the IMF.”

Ecuador should ask the IMF to help restructure its debt and regain access to global credit markets, former Vice President Alberto Dahik said in an interview. However, President Rafael Correa, a self-described socialist revolutionary, is unlikely to ask for help for ideological reasons, he said.

The country has relied on loans from China to help prop up public spending since the government defaulted on about US$3.2 billion of its foreign debts in 2008 and 2009. China delayed promised loans in 2015, forcing the Andean nation to look further afield to finance its budget.

“If you need blood, you've got to go to the blood bank,” Dahik said.

 

@amayeda, @dlbiller

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