GLOBAL ECONOMY

As Donald Trump rises in election polls, Mexican economy feels the squeeze

People stand outside an exchange house advertising the sale of U.S. dollars at the rate of 19.90 Mexican pesos per dollar in Mexico City, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. The Mexican currency reached the psychological barrier of 20 pesos per dollar, and analysts and commentators cited the role of the U.S. presidential campaign. (Photo AP Photo / Marco Ugarte)

People stand outside an exchange house advertising the sale of U.S. dollars at the rate of 19.90 Mexican pesos per dollar in Mexico City, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. The Mexican currency reached the psychological barrier of 20 pesos per dollar, and analysts and commentators cited the role of the U.S. presidential campaign. (Photo AP Photo / Marco Ugarte)  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Mexico faces a long list of structural problems, most of them familiar: depressed oil prices, declining foreign investment, and stagnating wages for low-income workers among them. But in September there is something new that has rattled investors and disrupted markets.

And his name will be on ballots across the U.S. this November.

Throughout his campaign for president, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump has blamed Mexico and Mexican immigrants for a number the United States’ ills, among them violent crime, drugs and the loss of jobs.

And as Trump’s U.S. poll numbers grow, it has put the squeeze on Mexico’s economy.

Over the past year, international fund managers have pulled a lot of money out of Mexico, a wave of capital flight that intensified this month.

While Trump’s poll numbers against Democrat Hillary Clinton rose in the first two weeks of September, some $220 million in fund money moved out of Mexican assets.

Cameron Brandt, director of research at EPFR Global, a Massachusetts-based advisory firm that specializes in tracking investment fund flows, told FNL, “There does seem to be a rough correlation between Trump's popularity and fund flows. When Trump was losing ground, we saw some money coming back to Mexican equity funds.”

“Mexican equity funds began to rebound as Trump's poll numbers got worse,” he added. “In the last two weeks … it has gone back to outflows.”

The exodus of investment is exacerbating a broader set of problems that is weighing down Mexico’s economy and dragging down the value of the peso. The exchange rate hit an all-time low last Tuesday of 19.91 pesos to the dollar. In early trading on Monday, it wasn't faring much better, thanks in part to reports of an imminent downgrade of the country's bonds. It was trading at 19.84 pesos to the dollar.

There also seems to be a negative correlation between Trump’s performance in the pools and the value of the peso, as sources like Bloomberg, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported.

Ricardo Aceves – a Barcelona- based economist who covers Latin America for FocusEconomics, a boutique research company – told FNL, “Donald Trump is advancing in opinion polls and having an impact on the peso. Trump is quite protectionist on trade. He said he'll try to renegotiate NAFTA.”  

This year Mexico has seen declines in foreign loans to the country’s private sector, a drop in oil and mining production, as well a dip as automobile exports to the US, an unfortunate confluence of trends that has put downward pressure on Mexican GDP growth and also exacerbated the decline in the peso’s value.

In theory, a weak currency should be a boon for exports, but in practice, especially for low-income families who work in Mexico’s massive informal economy, a weak peso translates into higher prices for imported goods such as light bulbs, sneakers and electronics.

As people trade for dollars and speculative investors bet against the peso, Mexico’s currency falls further, causing more uneasiness, and exacerbating the sell-off. Trump is definitely playing a role, but he is just one of many problems Mexico’s economy has to confront.

“It's hard to disentangle because Mexico isn't doing so well, and the government is showing some signs of fatigue,” Brandt added.

Mexico’s economy contracted in the second quarter, the first decline reported in three years.  Overall, Mexico’s GDP is expected to grow by a disappointing 2.1 percent in 2016, a rate that is well above the regional average but not high enough to assuage residents who are frustrated with years of underwhelming growth.

Although inflation has remained low, the producer price index, a measure of wholesale prices used to gauge business costs, has increased steadily, leading to a drop in new purchases of machinery and equipment.

One thing Mexico has going for it is that, so far, 2016 has been a rough year for most of Latin America.

Venezuela is among the worst managed economies on the planet, Brazil is struggling through a recession and Argentina is working through a painful restructuring process. Mexico continues to be seen as an under-performing but stable economy.

But the closer Trump gets to the White House, the more investors worry about holding assets south of the border.

Mexico sends 80 percent of its exports to the U.S. Trump has vowed to re-negotiate NAFTA and slap punitive tariffs on Mexican exports, which would have a disastrous effect on Mexico’s economy.

As would Trump’s plan to deport millions of undocumented Mexican migrants. Despite decades of promoting export-oriented manufacturing and a recent push to attract energy sector investment, the largest source of foreign currency for Mexico’s economy is still the remittances sent home by migrant workers in the U.S.

Remittances totaled more than $13.1 billion in the first six months of the year. What’s more, Central Bank data shows that as the peso has weakened, migrant workers have increased transfers from the U.S. to take advantage of the strong dollar.

Mark Schaltuper, Global Head of Country Risk at BMI Research, a New York City-based investment advisory firm, told FNL, “I think he's having a substantial impact. There is genuine concern about the policies that will be enacted [if he’s elected].”

Hillary Clinton and Trump will hold their first debate on September 26. Mexicans, no doubt, will be watching intently. A solid performance by the GOP candidate could lead to further sell-offs of Mexican assets.

BMI Research’s Mark Schaltuper explained, “[Trump’s election] would be disastrous – and not just for the peso. Mexico's exports are dependent on the U.S.”

Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @NathanielParish and Instagram: @nathanielparish.

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