Debt is suffocating the economy, but where did the money go? 

By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

The government of Mexico has a new problem on its hands: what to do with the burgeoning ranks of state governors, current or former, that are facing prosecution for fraud or corruption. It’s a particularly sensitive problem given that most of the suspects belong to the governing political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico uninterruptedly from 1929 to 2000. It returned to power in December 2012 with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto. And it clearly hasn’t changed its ways.

Some of the accused governors were so compromised they went on the run. In the last few weeks, two of them, Tomás Yarrington, former state governor of Tamaulipas, and Javier Duarte, former governor of Veracruz, were tracked down. Yarrington, accused of laundering proceeds from drug trafficking as well as helping Mexico’s Gulf Cartel export “large quantities” of cocaine to the United States, was ensnared by Italian Police in the Tuscan city of Florence. He faces possible extradition to the United States.

Yarrington’s successor as governor of Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernández, a fellow PRI member who is also accused of close ties with narcotraficantes and money laundering, has not been seen in public since last June.

As for Duarte, he was caught this week by police in Guatemala. Like Yarrington, he wasn’t exactly laying low. Among the accusations he faces is that of buying fake chemotherapy drugs, which were then unknowingly administered by state-run hospitals to children suffering from cancer. He and his cohorts purportedly pocketed the difference. He is also alleged to have set up 34 shell companies with the intention of diverting 35 billion pesos (roughly $2 billion) of public funds into his and his friends’ deep pockets.

In just about any jurisdiction on earth, $2 billion is a substantial amount of money, even by today’s inflated standards. But in Mexico, where neither the super rich (accounting for a very large chunk of the country’s wealth) nor the super poor (accounting for roughly half of the population) pay direct taxes of any kind, it’s a veritable fortune.

And when the country’s public debt is already growing at an unprecedented pace, rampant corruption becomes a serious problem.

In the year 2000, Mexico had a perfectly manageable debt load of roughly 20% of GDP. Today, it is almost two and a half times that size. Last year alone the Mexican state issued a grand total of $20.31 billion in new debt, the largest amount since 1995, the year immediately after the Tequila Crisis when the country received an international bailout to rescue its entire banking system from collapse and to make whole the Wall Street investment banks that had gone all in on Mexican assets.

To make matters worse, much of Mexico’s new debt is in foreign-denominated currencies. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the total amount of euro and dollar-denominated debt it issued rose by 46%. Unlike debt issued in pesos, Mexico’s central bank cannot just print dollars and euros to bail out bond holders or inflate away the debt. This debt must be serviced the hard way.

In recent years, Mexico’s public debt has mushroomed in order to make up for lackluster growth, a weakening peso, much lower global oil prices, and the dwindling contribution to government coffers of the country’s erstwhile sugar daddy, Pemex. The state-owned oil giant has itself been systematically plundered dry by its burgeoning ranks of senior managers and administrators, the untouchable, unsackable leaders of the oil workers’ union, all closely aligned to PRI, and legions of Pemex contractors.

Between 2008 and 2016 Pemex’s contribution to the government’s tax revenues shrank from 40% to 13%. During roughly the same period (2009-2016) its debt grew 187%, to nearly $100 billion. Its pension liabilities amount to 1.8 trillion pesos (roughly $90 billion). The losses and debt keep growing in tandem, while its production and reserves are shrinking. The company was already bailed out once last year.

The more Pemex’s financial health declines, the larger the shortfall in public finances and the faster Mexico’s public debt will grow.

The really twisted part? The more the debt grows, the more opportunities the country’s corrupt politicians will get to feather their nests. It’s not like there’s much deterrent. In recent years only 17 of 42 serving or former governors suspected of corruption have been investigated, according to a study by María Amparo Casar, executive president of the advocacy group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. Before the latest rash of detentions, only three of them ended up in prison.

“The decades of impunity have generated a level of shamelessness we’ve never seen before in Mexico,” Max Kaiser, anti-corruption director for the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), told the New York Times. The excesses are more public than ever and have brought Mexicans to the verge of bankruptcy.

Mexico’s debt continues to grow at a much faster pace than its economy, whose growth is forecast to slow this year to 1.5%, compared to last year’s 2.4%. In February Mexico’s top auditor, the Federal Audit Office (ASF), warned that Mexico’s debt situation was just a step away from becoming unsustainable. A number of states are already facing bankruptcy, including Duarte’s Veracruz.

Last August, Standard & Poor’s lowered the outlook for Mexico’s sovereign bonds from stable to negative and saw “an at least one-in-three possibility of a downgrade over the next 24 months.” Mexico’s foreign currency sovereign credit rating, which is what matters with bonds denominated in a foreign currency, at BBB+, is just three notches above junk. A downgrade would raise the cost of borrowing, pushing Mexico’s finances even closer to the brink. In the meantime, the plunder must go on. By Don Quijones.

When it comes to debt, everything is relative, especially if you don’t have a reserve-currency-denominated printing press. Read…  Is Mexico Facing “Liquidity Problems?”

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