Beyond Commodities: Argentina’s dynamic biotech industry

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Source: feelgrafix

By Jerry Haar and Krystal Rodriguez

The dictionary definition of crucible is “an extremely difficult experience or situation; a severe test or trial”. This is precisely where most of Latin America finds itself with its excessive dependence on commodities as the linchpin of its economy. In good times governments spend commodity windfalls on projects or programs to garner support for the political party in power. In bad times, politicians engage in handwringing and scapegoating, and the governing party borrows excessively to make up the shortfall in revenue from commodity sales.

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Creating an Ecosystem of Innovation in Latin America

 

The last few years have not been kind to Latin America, economically speaking. And that is an understatement. The region has experienced two consecutive years of negative growth (-0.1% and -0.5%). 2017 will bring a slight improvement only.

Recognizably, the main culprits in the projected contraction are Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela–accounting for 50% of the region’s GDP. As for foreign direct investment (FDI), inflows reached $171.84 billion in 2015, down almost 12 percent from the $195 billion in 2014. This contrasts with a 36% increase in FDI around the world. Add to the mix a continuing depression in commodity prices (slowdown in China), corruption scandals, high interest rates, and urban crime and violence, and the forecast is gloomy overall.

However, among the storm clouds that will continue to hover over the economies of the region, there are indeed a number of pockets of sunshine—the brightest being the rapid proliferation of start-ups, both tech- and non-tech based, and the pace of innovation throughout the Hemisphere. Last year, start-ups in Latin American ballooned to 1,333 and accelerators to 62, with investment approaching $32 million. Chile leads the way, with 3 times the investment of Brazil. In terms of numbers of start-ups, Chile had 442, Mexico, and Brazil 297.

While start-ups pop up serendipitously, it takes the formation of an “ecosystem” to fuel the growth, interaction, and dynamism necessary to foster and expand innovation. Ecosystems of innovation, as referred to here, are communities of interacting parties–business, government, academe and non-profit organizations. They can be national and subnational (Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica) or can be found in clusters (aerospace in Querétero, Mexico; IT in Campinas, Brazil; sugar cane, Valle de Cauca, Colombia). As Ricardo Ernst and I point out in our new book Innovation in Emerging Markets, an ecosystem’s drivers are innovation are national policies, facilitating institutions (such as Colombia’s Colciencias), and firm-level innovation. We find also that facilitating institutions, themselves, can have far greater impact than government or individual firms. Examples include Techstars, 500 Startups, Endeavor, Wayra, and NXTP Labs.

Just what are the key ingredients that comprise a successful ecosystem of innovation? Any research-based assessment and extensive conversations with entrepreneurs, other business professionals, and government officials would most likely agree that the list encompasses:

  1. Large pool of skilled talent
  2. Installed and diffuse technological base (e.g., broadband networks)
  3. Dedicated infrastructure of research universities, labs and entrepreneurship instruction
  4. Ample funding (angel investment, venture capital, convertible debt, microfinance, crowdfunding)
  5. Networks and collaboration among financiers, entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists, and designers
  6. An environment that nurtures, supports and sustains creativity
  7. Mechanisms for the fast transfer of knowledge
  8. Strong intellectual property laws and surety of enforcement
  9. Pro-market economic, tax and regulatory policies
  10. Well-functioning administrative, legal and judicial systems
  11. Federal, state and local industrial policies—especially those targeted at “clusters”

Although Latin American ranks low on the 2015 Global Innovation Index–Chile is #1 in Latin American but #42 overall–it is the second most entrepreneurial region in the world, according to the World Bank. Its Internet and mobile density is higher than the world average.

Although covered only minimally in the North American and European media, every nation in Latin America–and the Caribbeaan–is home to start-up activities. To illustrate, Dev.F (Mexico) brings software development techniques to that nation; Platzi (Colombia) provides an online learning platform for IT and programming courses; HubUnitec (Honduras), Impact Hub (Guatemala), and Atom House (Colombia) provide co-working and meeting spaces for young techies; and initiatives like Laboratoria (Peru), Epic Queen, and WomenWhoCode assist female start-up entrepreneurs to achieve success.

As for financing start-ups, here, too a myriad of resources such as Venture Club (Panama), Kaszek Ventures, Guadalajara Angel Investors, and Ideame, a crowdsourcing financing platform.

Successful ecosystems of innovation result from the synergy created by universities, R&D centers, talented human capital, investors (venture capitalists and angel investors), professional associations, and the private sector and government working to achieve sustainable competitiveness.

While 2017 will usher in another lackluster year for the region in terms of economic performance, with only a few countries achieving notable success, the rapidly emerging ecosystem of innovation will continue unabated and provide limitless opportunities for both technology- and non-technology entrepreneurs across the region.

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Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He also holds non-resident appointments at Georgetown and Harvard. His latest book is Innovation in Emerging Markets.

 

Economic truth vs. political fiction in presidential debates

The toxic display of rude behavior and character assassination that has become a hallmark of this presidential primary season is matched only by the disturbing manifest ignorance by some of the candidates about economic issues.

We have heard, ad nauseam, epithets such as: “We don’t make things anymore . . . We keep sending our jobs overseas . . . China and Mexico are killing us on trade deals . . . The Chinese manipulate their currencies.”

Each one of these assertions, aimed at riling up the voting public, is absolutely false.

Let’s see what the truth actually is:

▪ “We don’t make things anymore.” This one is the mother of all lies. U.S. manufacturing is strong, growing larger, and more productive and competitive than ever — especially in machinery, electronic equipment, aircraft and vehicles, America’s top four exports. However, it is less labor-intensive as technology (including robots) substitutes humans — a global trend, impacting rich and poor nations alike, including China. Nonetheless, the $2.5 trillion U.S. manufacturing economy faces a shortage of 2 million skilled jobs over the next decade. Both foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports are drivers of America’s manufacturing competitiveness. FDI in manufacturing exceeds $1 trillion, with motor vehicles most prominent (e.g., Honda in Indiana, Nissan in Tennessee, Mercedes in Alabama, BMW in South Carolina). U.S. auto exports (2 million vehicles) set a record high last year.

▪ “We keep sending all our jobs and moving our factories overseas.” Despite all the hysteria over the U.S. outsourcing more and more of our jobs, it affects less than .2 percent of employed Americans. Less than 20 percent of workers affected by outsourcing lose their jobs; the rest are repositioned within the firm. In recent years more and more companies have beenbacksourcing — bringing outsourced work back home. As for “runaway plants,” many of those overseas plants source inputs from the United States. The Mexican operations of Ford and GM, for examples, source 65 percent-75 percent of their components from U.S. plants.

▪ “China and Mexico are killing us on trade deals.” The United States has no free trade deals with China. As for Mexico, part of NAFTA along with Canada, trade has increased 632 percent since the accord was implemented 22 years ago. It now equals over $1 trillion and produces a trade surplus for the U.S., not a deficit. Here’s the math: Mexico sold $290 billion to the U.S. in 2014 — $166 billion was U.S. content, which added to the $240 billion we exported to Mexico renders a surplus for the U.S. of $162 billion. As for other trade deals, next up on the docket is the Trans-Pacific Partnership involving the U.S. and 11 signatory countries. Opposed by a number of the candidates, the agreement eliminates over 18,000 different tariffs on American exports and includes the strongest worker protections of any agreement in history.

“The Chinese are manipulating their currency.” The fact is that every central bank — including the Fed — has the legal monopoly power to fix its exchange rate to achieve price stability or full employment. The U.S. does this through the federal funds rate. It is comparative advantage that drives trade regardless of monetary policy. From 2004-2014 the dollar depreciated 25 percent against the yuan while our deficit with China more than doubled! Nevertheless, as the yuan continues to gain value, expect China to buy more goods and services from the United States; to invest more here ($36 billion currently); to purchase more government securities and to send us more tourists and students.

The xenophobic, protectionist rants of neo-populists of both the left and right prey upon the anger, fear, and limited economic knowledge of voters.

The American people deserve better from those who vie for the highest office in the land.

At the same time citizens have the responsibility to educate themselves to learn the facts and make the most sensible presidential choice for in November.

Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

To devalue or not to devalue?

To devalue or not to devalue? That is the question. During the last decade, Latin American central banks have effectively steered the rudder of monetary policy, avoiding major devaluations of their currencies–with the exceptions of Argentina and Venezuela.

Recognizably, there have been incremental devaluations in the region as a country may devalue its currency to combat trade imbalances. Chile and Peru are examples. Resultingly, a nation’s exports become less expensive and, therefore, more competitive in global markets; imports become more expensive, making domestic consumers less likely to purchase them. 

While currency devaluation may appear to be a wise economic policy choice, it can surely have negative consequences. The result of imports becoming more expensive has the effect of protecting inefficient domestic producers. Higher exports relative to imports can also increase consumer demand and fuel inflation. In the case of industrial buyers from emerging markets that need imported machinery and other capital goods to produce for either the domestic or export market, currency devaluations imports more drive up the prices for their customers, squeeze their profit margins and, in the aggregate, contribute to inflation.

The “perfect storm” of a drop in oil prices, a slowdown in the Chinese economy, and sluggish consumer and industrial demand in industrialized nations is whipsawing Latin American economies, especially large commodity producers such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Not surprisingly, Latin American GDP is expected to grow less than 1% in 2016 with Brazil and Venezuela continuing to post negative growth rates. There is nothing on the horizon to seriously challenge this doom-and-gloom scenario.

Rather than address the real causes of economic conditions that trigger currency devaluations and respond with viable remedies, political leaders often turn to scapegoating–usually casting the blame on other nations. For example, in September 2010, Brazil’s Finance Minister, Guido Mantega, used the term “currency war” with reference to monetary policies implemented mainly by China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Colombia and other countries to generate an artificial devaluation of their currency in order to achieve a cheaper, more competitive domestic economy that may be attractive to foreign investors, as well as to be able to withstand the 2008 economic crisis.

More recently the term “currency manipulation” has been bandied about, most prominently among a number of U.S. presidential candidates. These contenders assert that China, specifically, undervalues its currency to gain an unfair advantage in global trade. However, devaluation and revaluation are the prerogative of sovereign monetary authorities. The U.S., in fact, manipulates its own currency through interest rate manipulation. As economist Matthew J. Slaughter points out, in today’s globally networked economy trade competitiveness tends to vary little with the movement of any one currency.

Admittedly, however, the decline in China’s yuan is fueling turbulence in financial markets across the world and could well unleash a cycle of competitive devaluations of currencies. How would a series of currency devaluations impact Latin America’s private sector? Large corporations such as JBS, Cemex, Argos, Techint, and Cencosud have the wherewithal to weather economic recession and financial volatility, while small companies, especially microenterprises, that struggle for survival in even good times will find the business environment even more challenging. But what about new businesses? Given the explosive growth of new business formation (NBF) in emerging markets, particularly Latin America, and the emergence on technology-based entrepreneurial ecosystems in major metropolitan areas throughout the Hemisphere, this question is of special importance.

In a recent study, colleagues at Colombia’s EAFIT University and I examined 30 emerging markets, including a number from Latin America, during a seven-year period to determine the impact of devaluation on NBF. We found that while devaluation clearly boosts NBF, the effect is not lasting over time and loses significance after two years–even sooner if a country’s competitiveness is not strong to begin with.

Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s finance minister opined about competitive devaluations in a recent speech at the Foreign Ministry in Mexico City: “It’s frankly a perverse process, because at the end of the day if all countries engage in a competitive devaluation, no one becomes more competitive, and you generate financial dislocations.”

Should the next twelve months witness a resurgence of growth in China, a reversal in commodity prices, and faster economic growth in Europe and the U.S., currency devaluation as a monetary prescription will be relegated to the back burner of economic policy.

That will surely make 2016 a happy new year for Latin America.

Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also a research affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

Tell the truth about free trade

By Jerry Haar

Two of the leading contenders in the presidential race, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, disagree on almost every policy issue except one — trade. Both regard NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as “disastrous.” Trump excoriates American companies for investing in Mexico and threatens hugely punitive taxes on their exports to the United States. Sanders claims TPP will benefit only big corporations and Wall Street.

South Floridians should be especially concerned about the candidates’ positions since trade is so vitally important to our economy. Any honest discussion of the impact of free-trade agreements will conclude that these accords produce mutual benefits.

Every nonpartisan assessment of NAFTA demonstrates convincingly that marginal benefits (output, employment) exceed marginal costs. The trilateral agreement (United States, Canada, Mexico) links a market of 450 million people and a collective GDP of $21 trillion.

Both Trump and Sanders cite negative employment effects, runaway plants and trade imbalances as proof of the evils of trade agreements. They’re wrong. To begin with, trade agreements are not intended as job creators or job destroyers.

They are merely liberalizing accords that strip away the barriers to cross-border commerce, finance and investment so that companies and entrepreneurs can do business efficiently and allow consumer choice at affordable prices.

Technology, not trade agreements, is the principal source of labor reduction. While it is true that this country runs a $53-billion deficit with Mexico in its $534-billion trade relationship, this pertains to merchandise trade only (which includes oil). In services and agriculture, the United States produces surpluses with Mexico.

NAFTA-bashers should also note that 80 percent of Mexico’s imports come from the United States versus 20 percent of China’s, and that those imports are overwhelmingly high value-added manufactures, often produced by AFL-CIO members.

As for lower-value goods such as apparel, shoes and produce, poor people and those on fixed incomes are grateful beneficiaries of Mexican imports.

About jobs and factories moving to Mexico: Donald Trump constantly harangues Ford Motor Co., a firm with a long history of investment in that nation, but seems unaware that global automobile companies, including Nissan, Mazda, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, are serving the fast-growing Mexican market and European markets — not just the United States — given that Mexico has 40 free-trade agreements versus 20 for the United States.

Most important, Mexican auto plants are mainly involved in assembly operations, with most inputs imported from the United States.

Let us not forget that inward bound foreign investment supports more than 6 million U.S. jobs, one-third in manufacturing; and average salaries are 33-percent higher than the national average.

Mexico’s investment of over $30 billion is led by manufacturing, banking and wholesale trade. Elektra, Alfa, Cemex, Bimbo, Gruma, Herdez, Bochoco, Mexichem and Cinépolis are among the leading Mexican multinational firms invested in the United States.

Messrs. Trump and Sanders need to be reminded that their states (New York and Vermont, respectively) continue to benefit from NAFTA. New York, the No. 4 exporter of U.S. goods to Mexico, sold nearly $3 billion of manufactured products into that market last year — a 235-percent increase since the accord was implemented.

Vermont’s exports have grown 454 percent since NAFTA, 63 percent of which consist of sophisticated manufactured goods. Florida has seen a 194-percent jump in exports to Mexico since 1994, the majority consisting of high-value manufactures.

As the tragicomedy of the 2015-2016 election season plays out, falsehoods, hyperbole and mean-spirited attacks among contenders will proliferate. The issue of trade (along with illegal immigration) will be the proverbial whipping boy in this contest.

While the contenders choose not to be fully informed of the facts, there is no excuse for individual citizens not to be.

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Jerry Haar is a business professor at Florida International University and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is also a research affiliate at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.