Mexico’s AMLO Blasts IMF for Causing Global Crisis, After Fund Takes Aim At His Energy Policy

“The IMF caused social and economic decadence in the world; they and other international financial organisations are responsible for the global crisis.”

An overwhelming majority (64%) of Mexicans support the government’s proposed energy reforms. That’s according to a new poll conducted by Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica. The reforms are currently awaiting a definitive vote in Congress. If approved, they will have a major impact not only on the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed in Mexico but also on Mexico’s relations with other countries, in particular its biggest trading partner, the US. It could also have reverberations across Latin America as governments increasingly seek to take back control of their countries’ natural resources.  

The reforms seek to roll back the privatisation and market liberalisation policies of previous administrations. They will make the future production of lithium, a core component of batteries, the exclusive domain of the government. They will also require that the national grid obtains at least 54% of its energy from public sources and then, as needed, from private ones. 

For obvious reasons, the reforms are not quite so popular among the domestic and international energy companies, banks and investment funds that have poured money into Mexico’s energy market over the past couple of decades. The potential losers include the world’s biggest fund manager, BlackRock, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola and the world’s biggest baker, Bimbo.

As the big vote beckons, pressure is growing on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government to reverse course. On Thursday, (Oct. 28) the US Department of Energy warned that the reforms will fuel a sharp rise in energy prices. Before that, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had called on López Obrador (AMLO for short) to stall some of the reforms, in particular the construction of the Dos Bocas refinery, one of AMLO’s flagship infrastructure projects, in his home state of Tabasco. AMLO’s response, earlier this week, was emphatic

“I do not agree with [the Fund] on its policies. I do not believe in its policies. It has caused economic and social decadence in the world. Those at the IMF and other international financial organisations are responsible for the global crisis(…) We respect them but they don’t have the same influence as they used to.”

AMLO reserved even more opprobrium for the governments that unquestioningly embraced and enacted the Fund’s policy prescriptions:

“The responsibility ultimately lies with the neoliberal governments that went along with these policies… [The IMF] sent their recommendations, their prescriptions. And the governments followed them to the letter.”


Exacerbating Poverty, Inequality and Financial Crises

There’s a lot of truth in what AMLO says. For decades IMF policies have been extremely damaging to economies around the world, particularly in emerging markets, while being extremely beneficial for large owners of footloose capital. Its dogged insistence that crisis-hit countries double down on austerity has exacerbated poverty and inequality the world over. By steadfastly advocating for the free movement of capital as well as a smaller role for the State, accomplished through privatisation and limiting the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits, the Fund has not only exacerbated boom-bust cycles; it has hampered governments’ ability to respond to them.

This is something even the IMF conceded in its 2016 report “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”, as I reported at the time of its publication:

If a country opens its economy too widely, too quickly — as the Fund has been advocating for decades — it can expose itself to some very serious risks. As the report points out, while “neoliberals” often tout the magic growth-fueling properties of unrestrained, footloose global capital, in reality the impact of many flows — especially hot, or speculative, debt inflows — seem “neither to boost growth nor allow the country to better share risks with its trading partners.”
More to the point, the potential threat they pose in terms of increased economic volatility and crisis frequency is huge:
“Increased capital account openness consistently figures as a risk factor in [boom-bust] cycles. In addition to raising the odds of a crash, financial openness has distributional effects, appreciably raising inequality… Moreover, the effects of openness on inequality are much higher when a crash ensues.”
This is precisely what happened to Mexico the last time it suffered a major crash, in 1994, when a sudden reversal of hot capital flows triggered the Tequila Crisis. Over just a few months, the free-floating peso lost almost 50% of its value against the dollar, wiping out the savings of much of the country’s middle class and raising fears that collapsing asset values would push Mexican banks over the edge.
The Crisis threatened to engulf not only most of Mexico’s banks but also a number of Wall Street titans, including Citi and Goldman Sachs. Thanks to the hurried intervention of the U.S. Treasury Department (led by former Goldman co-Chairman Robert Rubin), the IMF, and the Bank of International Settlements, Wall Street’s finest were saved, Mexico’s banks and other assets were bailed out and sold off at bargain basement prices, largely to international investors and other companies, while the Mexican people were lumbered with untold billions of dollars of compounding debt they still service to this very day.

Same Old, Same Old

The IMF may have owned up to some of its errors, if indeed they can be described as errors, but it doesn’t seem to have changed them. In 2019, the fund signed a loan agreement with Ecuador, coincidentally just after the Moreno government had agreed to eject Julian Assange from its London embassy, straight into the outstretched arms of the Metropolitan Police. As reported at the time by Open Democracy, in an article featured on NC, the bill contained a number of provisions that aimed “to weaken and essentially render Ecuador’s capital controls ineffective.” The provisions allowed local elites to yank their money out of the country cost-free, just as happened in Mexico before the Tequila Crisis; they made tax avoidance and speculation easier; and they included regressive taxation measures that placed the lion’s share of the fiscal pain on Ecuador’s most vulnerable. In other words, same old, same old.

Now, AMLO is lambasting the IMF for recommending policies that he says are not remotely in the interest of the Mexican people. In its latest report on Mexico’s economy, the Fund recommended that Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) postpone its construction of the giant Dos Bocas oil refinery in AMLO’s home state of Tabasco, in order to relieve some of the fiscal pressures the government is facing.

“Pemex’s losses are placing a burden on taxpayers and crowding out other more productive uses of fiscal resources,” say IMF economists.

Yet Mexico stands out among its emerging market peers for running a tight fiscal ship during the pandemic. The government’s budget deficit last year was -4.8%, compared to 13.4% for Brazil and 7.1% for Chile. This year it should be around -0.6%, according to the IMF. Even the IMF itself admits that Mexico’s fiscal position is stronger than many of its emerging market peers, largely due to AMLO’s fiscal policy:

The support in response to COVID-19 was notably less than that of emerging market (EM) and regional peers. The authorities have increased resources for health, social (non-contributory) pensions for the elderly, Pemex, and public investment projects, but have restrained spending in other areas. They have sought to tackle tax evasion, which is welcome. Despite the historic downturn last year, these efforts have boosted revenues and the authorities plan to deepen them going forward.

Energy Independence

In other words, Mexico’s government has more than enough fiscal leeway to complete the Dos Bocas oil refinery. It also has a legitimate motive: energy independence.  

Mexico has not built a new oil refinery in the past 40 years. After decades of under-investment many of those that are still standing are in a dilapidated state. By 2017, a year before AMLO became president, they were operating at 51% of capacity, leaving Mexico little choice but to ship its oil to the US and buy it back as gasoline, turning it into the world’s second-largest gasoline importer. Together with Brazil, Mexico accounts for seven out of 10 barrels of U.S. gasoline exports. AMLO wants to change that. 

But doing so is fraught with risk. Many overseas companies could launch investor-state disputes against Mexico for expropriating future profits, using one of the myriad trade agreements Mexico has signed with other jurisdictions, including the USMCA, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the recent trade agreement it completed with the EU. There is also a risk, however small, of capital flight, should investors feel that their money is no longer safe in the country. It could also further complicate Mexico’s unevenly balanced relationship with its biggest trading partner, the US, which buys more than 80% of Mexico’s exports. 

Pemex itself is not exactly in rude financial health. The company has been chronically weakened by a whole host of factors, including severe budget cuts, shrinking oil reserves, chronic mismanagement, lack of vision, lack of investment, negligence, the huge tax burdens the government imposed on the company in the years preceding Mexico’s oil reforms, rampant pipeline theft (though that appears to have declined since 2020) and simple, plain white-collar corruption. It owes more debt than any energy company in the world, and that debt is just one downgrade away from junk status. 

The construction of the Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco is also running well over budget and was recently brought to a standstill by a strike over working conditions and better pay. 

But AMLO is sticking to his guns. At his Monday morning press conference he said:

“[The IMF says]: Mexico’s economy is going well, it’s going to grow 6.2% [this year]. But we recommend that you don’t build the refinery at Dos Bocas. Better to keep buying gasoline from overseas. It’s more profitable.”

This is not the first time the IMF has weighed in on Dos Bocas. In 2020 the Fund urged the government to cancel the construction altogether, which prompted Mexico’s energy secretary Roció Nahle to respond: “For 40 years Mexico was advised to cease investments in infrastructure to  and petroleum products. Over the long term this left us dependent on foreign sources and with an enormous gasoline deficit.”

Earlier this week Nahle tweeted: “Mexico no longer follows the policies issued by the IMF.”

But it still has a $63 billion Flexible Credit Line (FCL) with the Fund, though the government is considering reducing the amount by 20%. Meant merely as a “precautionary measure,” the FCL  has no strings (i.e. no structural adjustment conditionalities) attached — apart from a $170 million annual fee — and is reserved for countries that have a consistent record of applying “solid economic policies”. That’s by IMF standards, of course. For decades the Mexican government has met those standards with aplomb, often to its own detriment. But that appears to be changing.

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  1. Michael C.

    Promising developments, as a few governments of Central and South America work to remove themselves from under the thumb of U.S. controlled and destructive IMF and WB policies. The hope is that as U.S. influence declines, the peoples of the world who have suffered from these extraction and austerity policies will be able to alleviate the poverty these institutions deliberately created. Bravo to ALMO. My hope is tge tge U.S. will not target tge government with its typical machinations.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Why does anybody listen to the IMF anymore? Their main specialty is making countries offers that they can’t refuse. How many countries end up with thriving economies after following their recommendations? (crickets) But one of the worse examples of their advice here is by saying Mexico should delay its construction of a new oil refinery in order to relieve some of the fiscal pressures the government is facing. That is nuts. One of the pressures that the government is facing is by Mexico having to ship its oil to the US and buy it back as gasoline, making it into the world’s second-largest gasoline importer. And this has been going on for about forty years. Unbelievable.

    On an inter sting note, I see how Nick mentions that Ecuador sold out Julian Assange for a boatload of money. But that the provisions of that loan screwed over Ecuador pretty badly by following the normal South American model where it lets its elites ship their wealth out of the country and leaves the poor holding the bag. Poetic justice that. Is there no honour to be found among thieves?

  3. CJH

    I agree with this article. Australian economist Bill Mitchell, a co-author of Modern Monetary Theory, has cited a consistent history of bad advice from the IMF. MMT is a framework designed specifically for monetary sovereign nations. Unlike the IMF, MMT academics like Mitchell have a track record of providing accurate predictions. Another MMT academic, Michael Hudson, predicted the 1994 financial collapse in a speech in Mexico City. “Debts that cannot be paid, won’t be paid,” he predicted. The reaction was so hostile, Hudson had to escape from the auditorium.

  4. Susan the other

    Good for AMLO. The dispute is going to separate into two camps. One national, one global. Hasn’t that been the case for decades now? The IMF claim that Mexico is better served buying gasoline from the US refineries because it is cheaper avoids certain facts. The biggest one being energy independence for Mexico. Which equates these days into stability for Mexico. Cutting back crude exports to the US from 80 to 50% doesn’t sound like a disaster. But the Koch refineries in Louisiana (?) have been angling to get Venezuelan oil for several years – the Kochs probably won’t survive without either a full contract of PEMEX oil, or a Venezuelan replacement. (It might not matter if they can get oil from Guyana soon.) So it will likely be more expensive for the Kochs. The thing that is troubling is that if we are dedicated to a certain amount of globalization it should not be at the expense of national sovereignty. Which is what neoliberal policies have always achieved. What needs to change in trade agreements is making international globalized interests secondary to national interests. AMLO’s 50 – 50 proposition sounds pretty reasonable. Except for the pigs at the trough.

    1. lance ringquist

      free trade also removes capital controls. the only way out of this horror show nafta billy clinton created is to jettison free trade and get rid of the W.T.O.

      GATT would have allowed mexico the room to self develop.

      Truman on GATT:

      this is GATT: Compensatory tariffs might be added to products from countries that do not maintain international standards of environmental protection, wages, health and safety standards, and social safety nets, thus encouraging higher standards for all people everywhere

      truman was a populist: Of course I believe in free enterprise but in my system of free enterprise, the democratic principle is that there never was, never has been, never will be, room for the ruthless exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.

      “Is the answer to withdraw from global trade, as the free traders have caricatured our position? No, it is to go back to a system like the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which promoted trade but was flexible enough to allow countries policy space to develop and to preserve their intricate social contracts by preventing commodity dumping, environmental dumping, and social dumping.

      shame on ALMO for signing another free trade agreement.

  5. Quill

    Why on Earth is someone building a new oil-refinery in 2021? Of course, construction is expected to continue next year so it’s not really 2021, but more like 2023.

    With the increasing replacement of the internal combustion engine slated to ramp up in the next decade throughout Europe and parts of the US and in China, it seems odd to be building a long-lived asset focused on gasoline refining.

    I suppose Mexico might take the view that eventually the US will end gas refining exports and that might well occur before Mexico retires internal combustion engines. But it is unclear at best why Mexico should want to be in that position.

  6. drumlin woodchuckles

    Is there anyone in Mexico suggesting that Mexico abrogate NAFTA 2.0 or whatever it is called now and reclaim its own National Economic Sovereignty?

    If a new political party strictly devoted to abrogating NAFTA, all the other Free Trade Agreements, and withdrawing from WTO, would such a party get any votes in Mexico? It could call itself the Protectionism Restoration Party. ( How poetic might that sound in Spanish?) El Partido de Restoracion de el Proteccionismo . . . . is that a correct translation?

    1. lance ringquist

      getting rid of nafta billy clintons free trade is the only way out of this mess. otherwise corporations and the oligarchs that control them, never rest, and will not ever be satiated.
      the free traders are losing their grip, you can tell that by the STUUID nafta joe biden is clamoring for war with russia, china, and iran.
      but of course this was gonna happen no matter what, free trade always implodes. and now they are turning to the power of the gun to keep it. won’t work.
      because the system itself takes till there is nothing left.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        What I wonder is . . . will the Mexican masses ever be able to “exterminate” their own elites into a position of such utter and absolute weakness that the Mexican masses can take Mexico out of NAFTA, WTO, etc. without having to the feelings of their defeated elites into consideration.

        The same question exists for the American masses as well, of course.

        1. lance ringquist

          as free trade implodes world wide, the grass fires will explode and become almost impossible to put out because there are so many. this will embolden people to gain their freedom and liberty back.
          hope we can do it without another world war. free traders are like wild animals, when cornered no one knows for sure what they will do next.

  7. Sound of the Suburbs

    The neoliberals were always going to be in trouble with neoclassical economics.
    They don’t know what real wealth creation is, and associate it with things like making money, rising asset prices and trade.
    They don’t know how the monetary or banking systems actually work.
    They don’t look at private debt.
    It’s a recipe for disaster.

    We really need to get used to the idea neoliberals don’t know what they are doing.
    Financial liberalisation only looks like a good idea when you don’t understand the banking and monetary system, this is a system that needs to be carefully managed.
    It is only through their mistakes, repeated over and over again in different countries around the world, that heterodox economists have now come to understand the monetary system and I have been keeping up to date with the latest developments.

    They don’t understand the mechanics of the monetary system.
    The IMF predicted Greek GDP would have recovered by 2015 with austerity.
    By 2015 Greek GDP was down 27% and still falling.
    The money supply ≈ public debt + private debt
    The “private debt” component was going down with deleveraging from a debt fuelled boom. The Troika then wrecked the Greek economy by cutting the “public debt” component and pushed the economy into debt deflation (a shrinking money supply).

    Greece was pushed into a Great Depression type event by the Troika; because they didn’t know what they were doing.

    1. lance ringquist

      the free traders mistake money for wealth, anyone can have lots of money, banana republics have lots of banana’s.
      america has lots of money, but little production. so america has lots of banana’s, but little production which is real wealth, just like a banana republic.
      the free traders understand money and what it does for “THEM”, but not production. they cannot figure out that the two go hand in hand.
      to the free trader civil society is the enemy, it cuts into “THEIR” money. so since 1993 when nafta billy clinton shoved free trade down the worlds mouth, the planet has teetered from one economic crises to another, every crises gets worse.
      its a complete crank system that has never worked, and can never work. it just a matter of time when one of the free trade dim wits figures it out, the world must be destroyed to save it from civil society and the bombs will fly.
      when fascism came to america, its was sold as free trade spreads democracy, and eradicates poverty, and it does the exact opposite.

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