Latin America remains an economic mosaic that is difficult to generalise, but optimism is strongest where economies are most exposed to US and China’s markets.
Roy Buddle, regional head of Americas at Grant Thornton International Ltd, says: "Each country is confronting its own set of challenges, but the major factor driving success for Latin American and Caribbean economies is going to be the continued success of the US."
Across the region, mid-market businesses are markedly more optimistic after confidence fell dramatically in H1 2019. Economic optimism increased by 14 percentage points (pp) with 65% of businesses confident about the economic outlook due primarily to a new US-China trade deal.
Ignacio Munyo, a business consultant, at Grant Thornton Uruguay adds: "The reduction in global interest rates and the expectation of rate cuts from the US Federal reserve combined with a soft rise in commodity prices is boosting optimism for export-driven companies. Low-interest rates help fund big budget deficits, and most of LATAM countries currently have."
Local political volatility still dominates despite easing uncertainty
While economic uncertainty declined to 58% from 61% in H1 2019, Latin America still has the highest levels of uncertainty after Africa.
Argentina bucked the regional average with the number of businesses citing economic uncertainty as a concern jumping 7pp to 79% after a year which saw devaluation of more than 100% and almost 60% inflation. Munyo says: "Argentina faces a key macroeconomic challenge in its public debt management coupled with the recovery of economic activity. To restore economic confidence among investors – which will be critical for GDP growth – a deal with both the IMF and investment funds needs to take place first."
Meanwhile, in Chile, often looked upon as a beacon of stability in the region, business leaders were unnerved following mass civil unrest. Soon after, Columbia saw similar rioting and political disquiet.
Importantly, though, uncertainty retreated slightly in the region's major economies. In Brazil, the number of businesses concerned by uncertainty eased 2pp to 60%, and in Mexico, the figure was down 10pp to 44%. Munyo says: "Brazil's minister of the economy, Paulo Guedes, has shifted the country to more market-friendly policies which has resulted in stronger confidence levels, though partially dependent on China's performance. Mexico benefits from the strong US economy figures combined with better perspectives on the US-China trade deal but has also to deal with internal political uncertainties."
Investment in technology shows businesses modernising
Businesses in the region expect to increase investments across most categories. Technology and R&D investment remain high in Brazil, with 66% of businesses planning to increase technology spending over the next 12 months continuing an upward trend since Q4 2017. In Mexico, while investment in technology expectations eased by 2pp, R&D expectations were up 10pp from H1 2019 (see our report, Mexico: an enduring business hotspot). Buddle says there is an appetite for practical and pragmatic expertise and experience to embed effective technology solutions into their businesses.
Technology-driven improvements in business processes are helping to keep costs contained. Technology is also playing a role in the modernisation of business models and strategies which is aligning them to more developed economies.
The technology factor also has an impact on skills and labour costs. Munyo says: "The gig-economy has allowed companies to improve their profit margins through automating processes that push down low productivity employment costs. All these issues are critical in a region with strong rigidities in the labour market.”
Exposure to continuing growth in the US will underpin further economic growth in the region. However, considerable risks remain across local economies, and mid-market businesses in this region will have to continue with their signature resilience in the most challenging of circumstances.
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