Global crisis could roil Latin American’s vital resource export markets

By Daniel Merolla , AFP

BUENOS AIRES–The global economic crisis is worrying officials in Latin America, who fear the effects of a decline in demand for the region’s raw materials, particularly from China, analysts said. As the biggest customer for Latin America’s raw materials and commodities, China spends billions of U.S. dollars per year as the biggest customer for unprocessed goods, from copper to gold to soybeans. But China may be less eager to purchase Latin American commodities to fuel its industrial machine amid global economic uncertainty, experts say. The first signs of possible trouble came last month, which saw precipitous declines in the price of wheat and corn, which each fell by 23 percent, and the price of soybeans, which declined by 19 percent. The price of copper, for which Chile is the world’s biggest exporter, has plummeted by some 25 percent. The crisis “has already affected us,” said Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera. “Over the past few weeks, the price of copper has lost approximately one (U.S.) dollar, or about 25 percent of its value,” he said recently. “It is clear that the region is vulnerable with respect to global demand, no one is going to escape the crisis currently going on in Europe or in the United States,” said Rodrigo Aguilera, an expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit. The European Union is the world’s biggest buyer of Chinese exports, worth about US$380 billion in 2010, and analysts fear a collapse in demand which could trigger a loss in demand for raw materials by Chinese factories, including exports from Latin America. A report published last week by the Fitch ratings agency also noted the slower economic activity in China, which it said could have an impact on revenue for the countries of Latin America, which could lead to a monetary or balance of payments crisis. China’s rise in bilateral trade with Latin America is the greatest of any region in the world — an astonishing 18-fold increase over the past decade, thanks mostly to exports of raw materials from the region including minerals and foodstuffs. China also in recent years has become Brazil’s largest trading partner, overtaking the United States, and in 2010 was the largest investor in the South American giant, pumping in some US$30 billion. For China, Brazil is an important source of raw materials — oil, iron ore and soybeans account for 80 percent of Chinese imports and 90 percent of its investments in the largest Latin American economy. But the export of manufactured products, which most economists say is the cornerstone of healthy economic development for emerging countries, is beginning to stagnate. Belen Olaiz of the Abeceb economic institute in Buenos Aires said it is “difficult to predict what that magnitude of the impact will be.”

But she was heartened that in his estimation so far that the drop in demand for primary materials from Latin America so far has been relatively slight, “considering the magnitude of the global economic crisis.”