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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Low Oil Prices And China Pull The Rug From Under Latin America

Low Oil Prices And China Pull The Rug From Under Latin America

When China sneezes, the world gets a cold.

The world’s second largest economy is suddenly looking unstable, with economic growth slowing, the stock markets gyrating, and a surprise currency devaluation having taken worldwide markets by surprise. That could be bad news not just for China, but for a lot of countries that depend on exporting to China.

China’s phenomenal growth over the past two decades led to boom times for other countries as well. China is a voracious consumer of all sorts of commodities – oil, gas, coal, copper, iron ore, agricultural products, and more. For countries exporting these goods, the run up in commodity prices since the middle of the last decade has been extraordinary.

Nowhere is that more true than in Latin America. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Colombia have enjoyed strong economic growth rates because of China’s rapid expansion. Related: Germany Struggles With Too Much Renewable Energy

But the boom times are over. Latin America is getting hit with a double whammy: the collapse in commodity prices and the sudden economic turmoil in China.

Low oil prices are hurting Latin America’s exporters. Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex has already slashed its budget for the year, cutting spending from $27.3 billion to $23.5 billion. Pemex has also borne the brunt of government spending cutbacks. And the much-anticipated first auction of Mexico’s offshore oil resources following a historic liberalization of its energy sector produced disappointing results, as low oil prices scared away bidders.

Brazil has fared worse. Compounded by a colossal corruption scandal, Brazil’s Petrobras is drowning in debt as oil prices have plummeted. In late June, Petrobras announced it would slash spending by one-third, divest itself of billions of dollars in assets, and it lowered its long-term oil production target to just 2.8 million barrels per day (mb/d) by 2020, down from a previous target of 4 mb/d.

But no oil producer is in deeper trouble than Venezuela. The Maduro government needs oil prices well over $100 per barrel for its budget to breakeven, and it was struggling even before the collapse in oil prices. Venezuela is suffering from the highest inflation in the world, a crime rate that could be the worst in the Americas, and ordinary people are struggling to find basic foodstuffs and household items. Related: Oil Markets Coming To Grips With Prices Remaining “Lower for Longer”

Venezuela has stayed afloat with the help of Russian and Chinese loans. The country has borrowed more than $37 billion from China, and pays back part of the loans with at least 600,000 barrels of oil per day.

However, things could get worse for Latin America. Already hit with falling commodity prices (especially oil), China’s sudden slowdown could further dampen Chinese demand for Latin American commodities. In fact, the slowing Chinese economy, the recent currency devaluation, along with the appreciating dollar (in part due to forthcoming interest rate increases), have all caused the currencies in Latin America to fall this year. Colombia’s peso is off by 21 percent against the dollar so far this year, Brazil’s real is down by about one third, Chile’s peso has lost 12 percent, and Mexico has seen its peso fall by 10 percent.

For these countries, commodity exports represent a larger share of their economies than other countries, so China’s devaluation and the stock market plunge – which fell by 6 percent on August 18 – present real economic threats. “These headwinds have really concentrated on Latin American currencies,” Nick Verdi, a foreign-exchange strategist for Standard Chartered Bank, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.

Still for much of Latin America, China’s problems will probably cause some economic headaches, but most countries can weather the storm without too much trouble. Venezuela, on the other hand, is facing a real crisis. Related: A Key Tool For Energy Investors

Venezuela’s GDP is expected to fall by 7 percent this year, and its foreign exchange has dropped to just $15.3 billion, a 12-year low, according to the FT. Moody’s predicts there is a greater than 50 percent chance that Venezuela will default on its debt in 2016. Oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue, so the crushingly low prices are bleeding the government dry.

There are no easy choices for Maduro’s government, and short of a dramatic rebound in oil prices, which most analysts aren’t entertaining, Venezuela’s economy is in for a rough ride over the next year.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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