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Latin America's growth prospects high, which could give Florida a boost

MIAMI — In the past few years, you could draw a line at Panama and say that economies north of that imaginary boundary were struggling and those to the south were doing well.

With a few exceptions, one popular analysis still holds up: Countries linked to the faltering U.S. economy, such as Mexico and those in Central America and the Caribbean, have shown slower growth, and commodity-rich countries whose trade is tied to Asia, especially China, have outpaced their northern neighbors.

But with jitters about the eurozone crisis spreading, fears that a Greek default may still be in the cards and the possibility of a slowdown in the Chinese economy, questions loom for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most of the region's economies will post respectable economic gains this year, but 2012 could be challenging if global demand slackens and commodity prices fall.

"The European crisis will end badly, and there will be some impact but not as much" as the old days when a global slowdown would push the region into a downward spiral, said Victor Manuel Rocha, former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia and now a senior international business adviser in the Miami office of Foley & Lardner.

"What happens in China is more important to Brazil than what happens in Europe," Rocha said.

Latin America also is better prepared to handle an economic storm than it was in 2008. Not only has the region learned lessons from that crisis, but many countries have built up their international reserves and continued economic reforms. That's especially true for countries blessed with iron ore, copper, oil and vast expanses of land for production of the soybeans, wheat and cattle that China buys.

"This time around, China itself looks more likely to suffer a significant slowdown," with its own debt and manufacturing bottlenecks as contributing factors, said Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, former British minister of state and chairman of the global affairs practice at FTI Consulting.

Economic problems in the United States and Europe may be as profound as 2008, he said. "It's a much more tricky and difficult global situation."

But offsetting that, Malloch-Brown said, is the "tremendous addition of domestic demand" in Latin America.

With more people entering the middle class and increasing consumption, Latin economies have more of a cushion to sustain themselves during a rough patch.

Indeed, purveyors of luxury goods have found a favorable market in recent years.

Miami-based Porsche Latin America, which has 42 dealerships that cover 26 countries, is expanding and has seen substantial growth this year in its three biggest markets: Brazil, Mexico and Chile.

Porsche expects to add four or five dealerships in the region in 2012, said Matthias Brueck, chief executive of the regional office. It also will enter the Honduran market this year and Bolivia next year.

But that doesn't mean there aren't problems in some countries from escalating inflation to investor jitters to rampant violence by drug cartels, in the case of Mexico.

Malloch-Brown said it is possible trade and investment will pick up in Mexico in 2012 — "if there is some quieting of the level of insecurity and violence."

Argentina seems to be a study in contradictions. Despite economic growth that is expected to be among the highest in Latin America this year and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's overwhelming victory in last month's election, analysts aren't particularly sanguine about the Argentine economy.

While Fernandez recently raised the minimum wage by 25 percent and increased welfare payouts, Argentina hasn't made payments on its foreign debt since it defaulted in 2001.

It also faces mounting inflation, steady capital flight and a widening budget deficit. "I think we're seeing the beginning of a major economic crisis in Argentina," Rocha said.

The United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean is now predicting economic growth of 4.4 percent for the region this year, down from an earlier estimate of 4.7 percent. It predicted in late summer that the value of regional exports would grow by 27 percent. Despite global uncertainty, Rocha said, "Latin America is about to experience the best decade (2010-2019) in 50 years. Why? The game is now in the emerging economies."

This summer, during a meeting of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that "this can and should be the decade for Latin America."

But after a decade of record growth in many South American countries, there are signs of popular discontent, such as the massive student marches in Chile and Colombia and the recent indigenous protests in Bolivia. Pressure is increasing for an equitable distribution of the fruits of economic success.

"Latin America and the Caribbean governments should build on recent achievements to address both short-term and long-term challenges such as diversifying their economics, carrying out fiscal reform and giving their citizens better public services," said Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

"Latin America has a lot of work to do," said Claudio Loser, chief executive and president of Centennial Group Latin America, an advisory firm, during a recent visit to Miami. "If it doesn't do its homework in terms of domestic policies, it will fall behind."

$126 billion

Florida's total international merchandise trade in 2010

$75 billion

Florida's international merchandise trade in 2010 with just Latin America and the Caribbean

28 percent

Florida's take of the total U.S. trade with Latin America and the Caribbean, more than any other state

Latin American trading partners

Here's a look at how three important Latin American trading partners are expected to fare:

BRAZIL: Brazil continues to be Latin America's darling, with vast mineral wealth, food crops that feed hungry Asians, a growing middle class and recent deep-water oil discoveries. The upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics have spurred a slew of infrastructure projects.

Last month, nearly 200 Floridians participated in a trade mission to Brazil organized by Enterprise Florida and led by Gov. Rick Scott. President Barack Obama's March trip to Brazil also highlighted the growing economic importance of Latin America's largest economy and the need to give it more attention. China shot past the United States as Brazil's main trading partner in 2009, occupying a position the United States had held since the 1930s.

But after brisk growth in 2010, some economists now peg Brazil's economic growth for 2011 at 3.2 percent, and the government has labored to keep inflation in check. Inflation reached a six-year high of 7.31 percent in September.

COLOMBIA: Colombia is expected to see a record level of exports and foreign direct investment this year as the nation continues to burnish its image as an increasingly safe and strategic place to do business. The nation's tough-on-crime policies have brought the homicide rate down 50 percent in the past decade, and new trade agreements with Europe, Canada and the United States have made it a hot spot for corporations.

The free trade agreement with the United States alone is expected to boost annual revenue by $30 billion a year and create 300,000 jobs in this Andean nation, as tariffs on more than 80 percent of all exports and imports between the two nations are phased out.

Colombia's exports to Europe have always been minimal — about 3 percent — so it's not expecting to get hit by the crisis. But as Colombia's peso has appreciated almost 40 percent in the past five years and labor costs have increased, the country is losing its ability to compete on price alone.

VENEZUELA: As Venezuela gears up for presidential elections in October 2012, the state is ramping up public spending in what should be a de facto stimulus for the private sector. The government's centerpiece is a program to build more than 135,000 homes by the end of next year. It claims 25 percent of the construction has been carried out by the private sector.

Venezuela's Central Bank also says the country is on target to see growth of 5 percent and inflation of about 20 to 22 percent.

But many in the nation of 27.6 million say government control over and meddling in the private sector are spooking investors and making it hard for companies to survive. Fedecamaras, the nation's largest business group, says government price controls have led to a scarcity of raw materials for the construction sector. It predicts the country will likely fall short of its building goals.

>>FAST FACTS

Florida's top trading partners (2010)

1. Brazil: $15.9 billion

2. Colombia: $7.6 billion

3. China: $7.4 billion

4. Japan: $6 billion

5. Switzerland: $5.5 billion

6. Venezuela: $5.4 billion

7. Chile: $5.4 billion

8. Costa Rica: $5.2 billion

9. Dominican Republic:

$4.9 billion

10. Mexico: $4.2 billion

Source: Enterprise Florida

Latin America's growth prospects high, which could give Florida a boost 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 3:31am]

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