Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 15:36 UK

Latin America: Set for economic cold?

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

The dramatic falls in Latin America's stock markets on what is already being called "Black Monday 2" have reignited concerns about how well-placed the region is to withstand the global financial crisis.

Stock traders at the  iBovespa future index pit during the morning session in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 29 September
Nerves were frayed during Monday trading in Sao Paulo

Monday's falls in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Chile were all greater than the last one-day big decline in mid-September after the announcement of the collapse of the US bank, Lehman Brothers.

The Merval Index in Buenos Aires, for example, dropped 8.7%, the worst fall in six years. Sao Paulo's stock market fall of more than 9% was the worst in nearly a decade, as was Santiago's. Mexico City's drop was the worst since 2000.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil has changed his tune. Previously, he had said Brazil had little to fear from a US economic crisis.

Now he is stepping up his criticism, and blamed the irresponsibility of sectors of the US financial system and what he called "the casino erected by the American economy".

However, Lula continues to insist that Brazil is well-placed to cope with the crisis.

So just how exposed is Latin America? Analysts say there is no doubt that the region's economies are still better-equipped than in previous years to absorb the effects of the international crisis.

Countries like Mexico and Brazil have much lower public debt compared to the 1980s and 1990s, the years of Latin America's debt crisis.

Most countries in the region also have higher reserves and a more diversified export base.

However, there are concerns about three main issues:

The reduction in international credit

The fall in demand from the US, and a US-led global recession

The possible drop, or volatility, in the price of Latin America's commodities.

So far, no Latin American banks have gone bankrupt. But there are fears that a general tightening of international credit lines or a rise in interest rates could feed through to local banks, particularly those which are local branches of international banks.

This would adversely affect everyone from small businesses to exporters seeking credit. It is worth remembering that one major factor behind the region's generally strong economic growth, which has been between 4% and 6% in the last three years, has been the boom in credit in recent years.

Remittances

A downturn in the US economy would most affect those economies closely tied to the US, like those of Mexico, Central America and Colombia.

About 80% of Mexico's exports go to the US, so any problems in the US economy are bound to affect growth.

The country's heavy dependence on the US is regarded as the single most important reason why official projections of growth this year have been revised downwards to 2.5%, one of the lowest in Latin America.

Mexico would also be hit by a drop in remittances sent back by Mexican workers in the US, and a drop in tourism. Remittances from the millions of Ecuadoreans living in the US and Europe would also be affected by a general global recession.

The impact of any fall in the price of Latin America's commodities will vary according to the country. Currently about 45% of the region's exports are basic commodities, while the rest are manufactured goods.

Exports of primary products like soya, iron ore and metals are concentrated in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

They would be particularly affected by a downturn in demand from China, which is already vulnerable to a recession in the US economy and the ensuring drop in demand for China's exports.

Analysts say Latin America's poor will also be badly affected. The global financial turmoil will be another obstacle - along with the food-price inflation - to maintaining the recent drop in Latin America's poverty rate.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), about 35% of the continent are poor, or close to 200 million people.




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