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Don’t Cry for Me… | 10th March 2014

Why trade mistakes are hampering Latin American growth | In the context of the current Ukrainian crisis, the decision by Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, to suspend diplomatic and economic relations with Panama has barely registered. Trade between Panama and Venezuela is relatively small, worth an estimated US$ 1.2bn in 2013. Crude oil, which is Venezuela’s main export with a value of over US$ 2.6bn is not within the top 30 trade sectors between the two countries and therefore, on the face of it, the impact on long term policies to stabilise the Venezuelan economy may be minimal. Trade is highly volatile between Venezuela and Panama and Venezuela is more reliant on its trade with Panama for imports than it is for exports, as Figure 1 shows.

 

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Figure 1 | Estimated exports from Venezuela to Panama and imports to Venezuela from Panama, 2001-2014

Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

(Trade data between Venezuela and Panama contain a large number of zeroes thus data must be seen as indicative)

 

Second, and as Figure 1 also shows, the decision to stop trade with Panama potentially hurts Panama more than it hurts Venezuela. Venezuela was Panama’s largest export partner in 2013, although the US will take over from Venezuela during 2014. This calculation is ill-advised on several counts. For example, Venezuela relies heavily on the US for its oil exports. It is the US’s third largest importer of crude oil; it’s exports to the US of crude oil are ten times higher than for the second largest export partner – Germany. With inflation running at, reportedly, above 50% and with the fiscal deficit running at 16% of GDP, the country needs stability more than anything. Any tension with Panama has the potential to spill over into relations with the US and thereby affect its oil exports. The parallels with Ukraine’s situation are not drawn idly: street protests leading to a new government and increasing tensions with the US pose a risk of sanctions and this would not help Venezuela’s quest for sustainable economic growth.

Second, Venezuela is not amongst Latin America’s top 30 trade partners, and yet it is highly dependent on the region for its trade. As Panama’s canal grows so too will its trade both with Latin America, North America, the Middle East and with Asia-Pacific. Its port-to-port trade with, say Singapore is forecast to grow by 10% in 2014 alone and with Hong Kong by 8%. Any greater political instability in Venezuela will have the effect of destabilising trade between other countries in the region. We are already forecasting substantial drops in the trade between it and many of the Latin American countries and yet it has the scope to act as a trade route through to North America if it keeps its export routes with Panama open.

 

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Figure 2 | Venezuela’s export trade with Latin American countries (2014 values and change on 2013) compared to Panama’s extra regional growth.

Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

 

The fact that its largest export product through Panama is automotives demonstrates how important this trade route is potentially in integrating Latin American and North American non-oil supply chains. Before the lock-down of trade we were expecting Venezuelan exports of cars to Panama to increase by over 18% this year, albeit from a small base.

Venezuela’s exports to Argentina are forecast to grow by over 9% during 2014 but Venezuela would do well to learn from Argentina’s trade track record, especially on restricting trade with other countries. Argentina imposed punitive tariffs on importers in 2011 requiring them to export from Argentina the amount in value terms that they were importing. The effect on trade for Argentina has been to increase export and import volatility since, as illustrated in Figure 3.

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Figure 3 | Argentinian exports and imports, June 2001-February 2014

Source | DeltaMetrics 2014

Since mid-2011 when the first range of additional tariffs were imposed, Argentina’s trade has experienced greater volatility in its trade and in fact, trade seems set on a downward trend. The seasonal swings in trade, which were already greater than pre-financial crisis appear to have been accentuated in the years since with a particularly severe drop in 2011-12 as the tariffs started to take effect.

While Venezuela has not introduced tariffs, it has just suspended its trade with Panama, the lessons from Argentina in terms of regional contagion cannot be understated. Figure 4 is the same chart, Argentinian exports and imports, against the value of the Brazilian Real and shows clearly that the value of the Real in relation to the USD has deteriorated over the same time period.

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Figure 4 | Risk of contagion: Argentina’s trade against the Real per USD exchange rate 2001-2014

Source | DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg

It would be a mistake to say that Argentinian, or even Venezuelan trade directly causes a depreciation of the Real or other regional currencies. However, what Argentina’s economic and trade strategies have done, like other countries in the region, is make markets call into question the robustness and sustainability of economic performance and therefore to make them more bearish on the overall outlook as the collapse in the Peso and its knock-on effects to other Emerging Market currencies in January showed.

Venezuela’s trade is important to the region because of the link with the US and although they are not currently through Panama itself, the risk to that trade comes from geo-politics rather than trade economics. If it continues to suspend trade, then the US may impose restrictions on its imports. This could increase the downside risks to Venezuela’s trade forecast for 2014 and there is a clear risk for further contagion across the region. Perhaps like the Ukraine, this is a crisis that may start small but escalate to something bigger, particularly in economic terms. When it does, remember the lessons from Argentina, and don’t cry for me…..