Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: China loans to Latin America causing alarm

A new study showing that loans from China’s state-owned banks to Latin America rose by 71 percent last year is drawing alarm bells on both sides of the Pacific.

The study, released last week by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University, says that Chinese banks lent Latin American countries $22 billion last year, and a total of $119 billion over the past 10 years.

Chinese loan commitments to Latin America last year amounted to more than the combined loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, the study says.

Virtually all of Chinese banks’ lending went to raw material extraction-related projects in countries that have a hard time getting loans from world markets, such as Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil. Cash-starved Venezuela alone got 47 percent of China’s state-owned banks’ loans to Latin America last year, it says.

Kevin P. Gallagher, a Boston University professor who co-authored the study with Margaret Myers, told me in an interview that China’s loans to Latin America have been a blessing that has helped the region’s economy grow in recent years. But they have also been a curse that, increasingly, poses risks for both Latin America and China, he said.

Among the downsides for Latin America:

First, Latin American countries — especially Venezuela and Argentina — are becoming increasingly indebted to China. Their debts will be increasingly hard to pay because they have to be repaid in U.S. dollars at a time when their currencies are depreciating.

“These are dollar-denominated debts,” Gallagher says. “With commodity prices going down, economic growth going down, and their currencies depreciating, the risk is that what looked like manageable debt one day may be unmanageable debt the next day.”

Second, Latin America’s China dependence has made the region’s manufacturing industries less competitive in world markets.

In recent years, China’s massive purchases of Latin America’s primary commodities such as copper, iron and soybeans helped Latin America grow at record rates. But it also boosted world commodity prices, causing Latin American currencies to appreciate, and has made the region’s non-commodity exports — such as electronics and textiles —more expensive to sell in global markets.

In 2000, Latin America and China both had 9 percent of the world computer hardware market. But by 2011, Latin America had 6 percent of the world computer market, and China had 55 percent of it, Gallagher said.

“Latin America failed to take advantage of the massive profits from commodity exports to reinvest them into upgrading industrial competitiveness,” he said. “Today, the region is facing low commodity prices and lacks competitive industries.”

Third, China’s loans, which come with very few strings attached, pose significant political and environmental risks. Because they don’t demand recipient governments to follow strict environmental or anti-corruption standards, they can lend themselves to government abuses.

In Brazil and Ecuador, China’s loans to major mining projects are already drawing protests from indigenous people and international environmental groups.

Fourth, Chinese loans are perpetuating Latin America’s dependence on commodity exports, especially in South America, at a time when commodity prices are plummeting.

“It continues to lock in the region’s commodity-centric model, which for decades has made Latin American economies boom and bust. They need to have both commodities exports and industries to raise their standards of living,” he said.

Gallagher, who is also the author of a forthcoming book titled, Saving the China boom, said China’s massive loans to Latin America also have a downside for Chinese banks.

“Chinese banks are over-exposed to Argentina and Venezuela,” he said. “What happens if one of these countries defaults? These loans do not have default clauses, at least not that we know of.”

My opinion: In many ways, China’s massive commodity purchases and investments have been a blessing for South American countries over the past decade.

But there are growing concerns from both economists following China and in Latin America that China’s state-run banks’ loans will leave the region over-indebted and more commodity-dependent than ever.

In Brazil and Argentina, leading private sector associations and independent economists have been voicing these concerns publicly in recent weeks.

The biggest problem with China’s loans is that they have helped generate a culture of complacency in Latin America, which has badly hurt the region’s high-tech and manufacturing exports.

Latin America should welcome these loans, but — as Gallagher said — use them to promote innovation and make their high-tech and manufacturing industries more competitive. Otherwise, loans from China’s state banks will do more harm than good.