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Transcript of a Press Briefing on Latin America
Anoop Singh, Director, Western Hemisphere Department
Caroline Atkinson, Charles Collyns and Jose Fajgenbaum, Deputy Directors, Western Hemisphere Department
Markus Rodlauer and Christopher Towe, Senior Advisors, Western Hemisphere Department
April 15, 2005
Washington, D.C.

MR. BAKER: Good morning and welcome to the Latin America Press Briefing. I am Francisco Baker, the press officer in charge of Latin America here at the IMF. As usual, the main speaker at this press briefing will be the Director of the Western Hemisphere Department, Mr. Anoop Singh, who is to my left. Joining him today at the head table are the three deputy directors of the Western Hemisphere Department--Mr. Jose Fajgenbaum, Mr. Charles Collyns, and Ms. Caroline Atkinson--and the two senior advisors, Mr. Markus Rodlauer and Mr. Christopher Towe. We also have in the audience Mr. John Dodsworth, who is the senior resident representative in Argentina.

And before we start questions, as usual, Mr. Singh will have some opening remarks.

Mr. Singh?

MR. SINGH: [Remarks as prepared for delivery] Good morning and welcome to our press conference on the economic situation and outlook in the Western Hemisphere region. I am joined today by my colleagues José Fajgenbaum, Charles Collyns, Caroline Atkinson, Markus Rodlauer, and Christopher Towe. I'd like to offer a brief overview of the global and regional economic outlook before turning to questions.

In 2004 there was a marked pickup in activity in most of Latin America, with the region enjoying its strongest growth in twenty-five years. Growth in the region has been underpinned by the very favorable global economic environment. We are estimating that world growth in 2004 reached upwards of 5 percent. The U.S. economy, along with the fast-growing economies in Asia, especially China, have been key drivers of this expansion and have provided a considerable boost to the hemisphere. Indeed, U.S. imports from South and Central America were roughly 25 percent higher in 2004 than in the previous year. Robust growth in China has also benefited many Latin American countries, by spurring both an increase in the volume of the region's exports and a sharp rise in commodity prices.

Looking ahead to 2005, global growth is projected to slow to more sustainable levels as output gaps narrow, fiscal and monetary policy stimulus continues to be gradually withdrawn, and high oil prices dampen demand. Nevertheless, the overall macroeconomic environment is expected to remain broadly favorable with global economic growth for this year of 4.3 percent, still above its long-run average. Inflation is projected to remain contained, and interest rates in the United States are expected to be returned to more neutral levels at a "measured pace." Indeed, it is encouraging to note that Latin American countries have taken advantage of the relatively favorable conditions in international capital markets to pre-finance two-thirds of their combined external public sector borrowing requirements for this year.

There are, however, important risks to the global outlook, which have important regional implications. Foremost of these is the growing divergence of economic performance across regions, which raises questions regarding both the sustainability of the current global upturn and the risk of a sharp reversal. Going forward, however, we continue to expect growth in Japan and the Euro area to lag behind that in the U.S. and China. Activity in the U.S. remains robust, especially corporate employment and overall productivity, and we are currently forecasting growth in the U.S. of 3.6 percent in both 2005 and 2006. At the same time, given the large fiscal deficit, this means that the U.S. current account will remain at levels that may weigh on currency markets and global interest rates. In addition, oil prices remain a key vulnerability. Although the effects on global output and inflation have been well contained thus far, continued high oil prices could still trigger inflation pressures, especially if productivity slows or if confidence in policymakers' commitment to price stability wavers.

The Regional Outlook

In Latin America, the pace of the recovery has exceeded earlier expectations, and 2004 growth of 5.7 percent was more than a percentage point higher than we had anticipated in the Fall. Here it is worth highlighting the very marked acceleration in growth in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay, the impact of higher oil prices on Venezuela, and the effect of the boom in copper prices on Chile. Encouragingly, domestic demand—both private consumption and business investment—in the region is playing a larger part in driving growth as recoveries mature.

Against this background, we continue to see still strong growth in 2005 in the Latin American region of a little over 4 percent, even though the effects of the boom in commodity prices wane and the recoveries in countries such as Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina mature. This said, there are downside risks, particularly if oil prices spike higher, interest rates in industrial countries rise more sharply than expected, or industrial country growth slows in a prolonged way. I would also add that the removal this year of quotas for textiles and clothing will pose a particular challenge to producers in the region. These factors underscore the importance for countries such as Mexico and in Central America of policies that improve labor and product market flexibility.

It is also worth highlighting that there are encouraging features that distinguish the current economic cycle from previous episodes of fast growth.

First and most importantly, this upturn has been supported by macroeconomic policy frameworks that incorporate much greater flexibility to buffer against external and domestic shocks. This reflects, in large part, the structural improvements in fiscal policy as well as a firm commitment to low inflation in the context of greater exchange rate flexibility in many countries.

Second, recent policy making in the region, more generally, contrasts with past periods of growth, in which large inflows of external financing were used to fuel both private and public spending rather than as an opportunity to strengthen and crisis-proof underlying fiscal, external, and structural positions. Indeed, many governments are using the recovery and the associated higher revenues to reduce budget deficits and public debt ratios, and to improve debt management, including by reducing the reliance on foreign-currency and short-term instruments.

Third, despite high commodity prices, inflation has been well contained, falling to an average of about 6½ percent in 2004—the lowest level since 2001—and is projected to decline further in 2005. This achievement is an important testament to the commitment throughout the region to low inflation and financial stability, avoiding the excesses of the past; and

Fourth, in this environment of prudent fiscal and monetary policies, it is perhaps not surprising that the initial phase of the recoveries has been led by improved external performance more than by strong domestic demand.

Policy Challenges

As many governments have recognized, the current favorable economic environment provides an important opportunity to press ahead with reforms to address the region's economic weaknesses. Much has been achieved during the past two years. And, it is encouraging that many countries plan to deepen their reform efforts, recognizing the importance of reducing vulnerability to shocks and setting the stage for stronger investment and job creation to tackle the still high rates of unemployment and poverty. Let me highlight three areas that I believe are particularly important to achieving these goals.

First, continued steps to reduce public debt, which remains high in many countries in the region. Using the opportunity of the strong recovery to make progress in reducing debt, curbing non-essential expenditures, and boosting revenues would also allow for higher spending on physical and social infrastructure within a sustainable overall fiscal position.

Second, securing the remarkable progress that has been made in reducing inflation. It is encouraging that central banks are continuing to strengthen their monetary policy frameworks—often in the context of inflation targeting regimes—and are being pro-active in weighing against any nascent inflation pressures, including those that may be triggered by higher oil prices.

Third, further institutional and structural reforms to boost growth prospects in a lasting way. Key aspects include a well-coordinated strategy to strengthen the corporate and financial sectors, labor market reforms to address the rigidities that dampen job creation in many countries, and steps to enhance governance and property rights. Further trade liberalization will also be key to improving the region's growth potential. Despite the increase in trade openness in recent years, there remains considerable scope for reducing trade restrictions.

Thanks to the strengthened policy reforms of recent years, the Latin American region is better placed to confront the various risks underpinning the outlook. This, however, underscores the importance of persevering with macroeconomic policy discipline and pressing ahead with growth enhancing structural reforms.

Against this background, it is perhaps useful to note that a large number of countries will hold elections from now to the end of 2006, including some of the largest Latin American countries. These elections provide a unique opportunity for these countries to secure a strong mandate in support of prudent macroeconomic policy frameworks and to deepen the structural reform agenda. This would help send a clear signal of the durability of the shift in macroeconomic policy orientation that is already underway in many countries throughout the Latin American region.

With this brief overview, I will now take questions.

QUESTION: Would you elaborate a little bit more on when you said that the pace and the level of rate increases in the United States may affect Latin America? Can you define the impact--because these regions do borrow a lot in the international markets.

MR. SINGH: Clearly, interest rates in the United States, in industrialized countries, are important for emerging markets from a number of channels.

The first point I would make is that in many countries, the sensitivity of their public debt to interest rates and to exchange rates has gone down over the last couple of years as countries have made intensive efforts to manage their debt. Nevertheless, it is the case that the public debt remains highly sensitive still to interest rate changes. There is a certain expectation about how interest rate increases will take place over the next 12 to 15 months. Like the Fed, we are expecting interest rates to return to more neutral levels, and to do so in a measured way. And to a large extent, countries in the Region are protected from the near-term effects by the fact that they have already prefinanced much of their external needs for the year.

Nevertheless, were there to be any shocks in the global environment, those shocks could entail changes in exchange rates and therefore in interest rates as a consequence. So were there to be shocks that lead to interest rate changes which are not as measured as they have been, obviously that would affect countries in Latin America. So that is among the risks we see for the Region along with oil prices.

Let me pause at this point and ask Chris if he wants to say something more on the interest rate increases that are in the pipeline.

MR. TOWE: I don't think I really need to add too much to what Anoop said, but I think the one point, maybe linked to what the Economic Counselor has cautioned about in the context of his earlier press conference--the other risk, which also links to the interest rate profile, is with regard to global imbalances and the very large U.S. current account. And as he cautioned, the large U.S. current account requires very significant capital inflows from abroad, and the concern is whether or not the appetite of foreign investors for those U.S.-denominated assets will remain as robust if market sentiment turns, which could also imply pressures on interest rates globally.

QUESTION: I want to know how close is the IMF to reaching an agreement with the new Uruguayan Government, and also, what is the primary surplus that you would like to see in Uruguay for the next two years.

MR. SINGH: All I can say is that that is a very topical question, so I give you my congratulations. The reason why I say "topical" is that Markus Rodlauer will leave us in a few minutes to continue discussions with the authorities.

What I can say is that the discussions toward a new program are going very well, but the important point is that the discussions are still ongoing. Maybe we'll have news for you sometime next week, but for the time being, I can tell you we are having very good discussions, and those discussions include all the important areas of the program; as you said, they include policies regarding the primary surplus that will bring down the public debt, and policies of structural reform so that we can be confident of economic and debt sustainability over the medium term.

So it is going well, but we will come back to this issue and give you some news as soon as we have it, which we hope will be next week.

QUESTION: How do you see the risks for Brazil, and what is your prospect for long-term growth for Brazil?

MR. SINGH: Well, that is very important because Brazil, as we all know, is a huge share of the Region's GDP. I think Brazil's GDP constitutes probably 35 to 40 percent of the Region's GDP. So it is very crucial for the Region what happens in Brazil.

Having said that, let me just say how pleased we are that Brazil's growth recently, at over 5 percent, has been the strongest in ten years. And let me also say that what augers very well for future growth is the extent to which the recent growth has been based on its export performance.

In fact, as I said recently in Okinawa, we are very impressed by the broad-based nature of Brazil's export response in recent years, its depth, and the diversity of the countries to which Brazil's exports have been going. So all that augers very well for medium-term growth.

Clearly, like other countries in the Region, there is a continuing need for structural reforms, and you will have seen the paper on these issues prepared by the Ministry of Finance about one-and-one-half years ago that spelled out an agenda for reform in Brazil over the medium terms, and among those reforms, I would highlight the labor market. Charles, do you want to add something more on Brazil's medium-term growth?

MR. COLLYNS: Yes. As Anoop says, we are optimistic about Brazil's growth outlook. I think Brazil will be reaping the benefits of very disciplined macroeconomic management which has really changed the environment for business in Brazil. There are no longer the fluctuations and uncertainty that plagued Brazil in the past, and there is a growing economic literature which has demonstrated the very adverse effect of a volatile macro environment for growth.

We also are seeing the benefits of the structural reforms that have been put in place in Brazil in recent years already in the growth performance, particularly in the financial sector and the fiscal sector.

And as Anoop says, the Government is continuing with a broad-based agenda for reform which will help to further boost growth prospects. And I would mention in addition to labor market reform, continuing efforts at financial market reform to improve the working of credit markets and also the Government's further efforts at tax reform. It is, as you know, working this year to complete a harmonization of state VAT, which would help to simplify and make more efficient the tax environment.

So we are very positive that the Government will be able to take advantage of this opportunity now to push forward further reforms which will further enhance the growth prospects in Brazil.

MR. SINGH: If I may, let me just add one thing on that issue. It is very important to note that there are lags between reforms and growth. There has been a lot of reform in Brazil in recent years, going back to the nineties and of course in the last two years. Our sense is that these take time, as Charles was saying, to feed through, and that is why we are confident. We have still to see the full effects on growth of these reforms, we believe there is sufficient momentum in the pipeline for growth in Brazil to continue in the coming years to be somewhat above trend. That's a very important point.

QUESTION: On Argentina, the Managing Director yesterday said that one part of this realistic strategy that the IMF is asking for is to give time to Argentina to realize that it has to finish this debt swap, and my question is whether you have some kind of time frame in mind, you know, how much time Argentina needs to deal with this issue of the people who didn't accept the offer.

And on a second issue on Argentina, on inflation, there has been this strong spike in recent months, and I wonder if that is something that concerns you.

MR. SINGH: Well, on the first point, I can understand your anxiety to ask about the issue of debt. But I can tell you nothing has happened since the Managing Director spoke to you yesterday, so there is no new event that I can report on that issue since the MD spoke.

On inflation, I think the economic team in Argentina and the Government are themselves concerned about the rise in inflation, and we share that concern. In recognition of that concern, the central bank has raised its key policy rate twice--it is now 3.25 percent; the central bank has put out its target for inflation for 2005, and tomorrow, we shall meet the central bank president in the morning. So I think a lot is being done in Argentina already to ensure that inflation remains under control and to ensure that it remains within the central bank's target band, and that is appropriate.

QUESTION: Going back to the issue of reforms and growth, in the WEO, the Fund insists again on the necessity of Mexico to go ahead with sound reforms, especially in the energy and telecommunications sectors. There is a growing sense in Mexico that those reforms won't happen this year and obviously not next year, when we are going to have a political process, a Presidential election. So my question to you is what are the consequences for Mexico of this delay in moving ahead with these reforms in these critical sectors.

I will just say that in the case of Brazil, you see that because of the reforms, Brazil was able to grow more strong.

And on the same issue, there have been some reports in the press and also by some financial institutions like the International Institute of Finance about the current political environment in Mexico, especially because some people see that it is a political crisis, continuing to grow, and there may be some impact in the financial area.

I would like to know your opinion or comment, your sense about this last issue.

MR. SINGH: Okay. Well, let me start by saying that as you know, growth in Mexico has been quite rapid. Growth in Mexico has been close to 4-1/2 percent in 2004 and should remain around 3.7 percent in 2005.

We see the slight slowing in growth in 2005 as a consequence of the slowing we are seeing and we will see from the U.S. That is quite natural given the extent to which Mexico's economy is now intertwined with that of the U.S.

Now, you know, there isn't any, should I say, optimum or unique scenario or sequence for reforms in any country. In any country, reforms do not follow a predetermined pattern, and reforms have to move ahead at a pace dictated by domestic consensus. And as I have said before, we see the democratic process in Latin America as crucial to securing that mandate for further reforms.

Now, as we look at the near term, it is important to realize how far Mexico has traveled over the last eight to ten years. Mexico's financial sector underwent very significant reforms in the 1990s, and credit is now growing in Mexico. That is a considerable achievement.

Mexico has an enviable macroeconomic policy framework in terms of its exchange rate flexibility, in terms of inflation targeting, and now in terms of its high trade share in GDP.

The effects on growth of the reforms which have already taken place, especially in the financial sector, and the effect on growth of a prolonged period of macroeconomic stability, which has high consensus that it will continue in the future, I believe that these effects are still being felt, and that is why growth is remaining above trend in the coming year.

And even if some reforms take longer than economists or others might desire, it is the case that Mexico's economy remains well-placed, macroeconomically stable, and continuing to benefit from past reforms. This said, like other countries in the Region, Mexico does need further structural reforms, as you have said, including in telecommunications, in energy, and in saving resources from the oil price boom.

These are all reforms that the economic team is committed to, which I am confident will unfold in Mexico even if it may take a bit longer than some might want.

QUESTION: Since you don't see new evidence regarding the debt swap problem in Argentina, let me ask you if you can elaborate a little bit farther. What do you mean exactly by a realistic strategy for the holdouts in this country, and why are you demanding this with such an emphasis, something that the Argentinean Government considers as discriminatory for the country?

MR. SINGH: Well, you know, this is an issue that we are continuing to discuss. Our interest in the issue arises from a number of sources. The first is medium-term sustainability, the return of Argentina to capital markets, and the view is that dealing with the unresolved creditors would accelerate sustainability, will accelerate Argentina's return to international capital markets.

So the framework within which we are discussing these issues is a framework that we believe is in Argentina's own interest. That framework is one based on entrenching high medium-term growth in Argentina, accelerating the return of capital, accelerating investment and productivity. And it is not just in the area of debt but in other areas where we are trying to look at the policies that will entrench growing prosperity in Argentina. That is the framework.

Now, what that framework means precisely in the case of debt, what that framework means precisely in the case of fiscal policy, what that framework means precisely in the case of banking system policy, those details are what we are discussing with the authorities. It would be inappropriate for me now to give you details of our views in those areas. What is important is what are the Government's views, and that is what we are looking forward to discuss when they are here next week.

QUESTION: Two questions. First, Brazil's domestic stock index posted its biggest loss in a year on Thursday amid fears of falling commodity prices. Is this the beginning of an adjustment period? And second, Brazil and Mexico are going through elections next year, and these two countries have a bad record in election moments, and Mexico especially is going through a tough crisis. Is this a major concern, first?

And just one more. Two months ago, you issued a report on Latin America about the problem of competition, and there was a problem of competition in Brazilian banks; you said that there was not a strong competitive environment there, and that was a problem. How big is this problem?

MR. SINGH: Okay, you have about three questions in one there, so let me just try to answer them, and maybe Charles can say something about the banking system.

But I would not focus on one day's events. I mean, obviously, yesterday, the stock markets fell in a number of regions. But we need to look as to where emerging markets have been in the last one or two years, and that environment remains very benign, very favorable for emerging markets. So I would not focus on one day's events and say this is going to be the trend. There is no reason to be that pessimistic.

On the issue of elections, I have said--this is my view--that I see elections not just in the Region but generally as a critical process of democracy in action and one that can only help the reform effort. Now, if it means in some countries that certain reforms are somewhat delayed or are somewhat differently sequenced, I can only assume that eventually, there will be greater ownership in the community for those reforms.

I am very impressed, not just in Brazil and Mexico, but in other countries, too, by the absolute commitments of our counterparts, the economic teams in the Region, in virtually every country. They are very clear in their own minds what reforms are needed, and we support them. They are trying to sequence this as best as they can, sequence the reforms in a way that is politically sustainable, and we try our best not to second-guess that process. But we are confident of the commitment within the economic teams in the Region for these kinds of reforms.

It is true that a wider consensus is needed for these reforms to move ahead expeditiously, and I still believe that elections are a crucial part of that process.

Now, in terms of Brazilian reforms in the banking system, I can remember what our Economic Counselor said on this issue a day or two ago. He said there are many reasons why Brazil has high real interest rates. They are not all due to monetary policy; they are also due to structural aspects in the economy. And clearly, those structural aspects are what the Government has in mind.

Charles, do you want to add something specifically on the banking system, perhaps?

MR. COLLYNS: Yes. Clearly, Brazil is an outlier in terms of the very wide spreads between lending and deposit rates, and that clearly is a factor holding back financial intermediation in the economy. And as we said earlier, I think boosting growth prospects in Brazil in the long term would greatly benefit from efforts to make financial intermediation in Brazil more efficient.

There are a range of explanations for the very wide banking spreads, particularly on the structural side, and I would emphasize a number of them, including the bankruptcy framework. The system in the past has not been conducive to allowing banks to easily recover credit where the debtor falls into arrears. The Government has made, I think, important efforts to deal with this issue by passing a new bankruptcy law, by starting reforms to the judicial system, and also by improving information available to banks and allowing direct deduction from payrolls for loan repayment. This has already made quite a difference in the environment in Brazil, which is very encouraging.

I think other areas where we see an issue include the system of directed credits in Brazil and also the significant financial transactions taxes. In this context, I think there is also an issue about the degree of banking competition, and as you mentioned, there have been some studies that have demonstrated that increased competition in Brazil could also contribute to lower spreads.

But I think the important thing is to work across the full range of areas in a determined way in order to achieve the objective of making the financial system more efficient and better at delivering credit to the productive sectors of the economy.

QUESTION: So, among the global risks that you have pointed out, you didn't say anything about the housing bubble in the U.S. Last year, in the Outlook report, there was a whole section about the housing bubble, but this year, there is no explicit reference to the bubble, so I was wondering what happened. If there was really a bubble last year, then it is even bigger this year, because the housing prices have gone up.

So my question is what would be the consequences to the exports of Latin America if the housing bubble burst in the U.S.

MR. SINGH: Chris, do you want to answer that?

MR. TOWE: Well, I would acknowledge that there was a very detailed analysis in I believe it was last fall's WEO of the housing sector. But I don't think it's fair to say that this issue has fallen under the radar screen. I think it is covered in this spring's WEO quite extensively. I think there was a chart--which I can't find immediately--but there is a chart that illustrates the very rapid growth of housing prices in many industrial countries, and I believe the WEO text also contains the caution that housing price inflation has been very rapid and poses a risk both in the U.S. and in a number of other industrial countries.

So, yes, I think we are keenly aware of the risks of asset price inflation in general and housing prices in particular, and of the risks that these pose to the outlook both in these individual countries and globally.

In terms of the spillovers, I don't think I could speculate in any great detail, but certainly to the extent that housing prices and asset prices in general have been a key factor explaining the boom in consumption in the U.S., any diminution of housing price inflation or a drop in housing prices in the U.S. and in other countries would certainly have negative consequences for personal consumption in industrial countries which would likely spill over to the rest of the world.

And then, in addition, I think it is probably fair to say that the housing industry in general does rely in terms of raw materials not just on production within the United States and Canada in particular--I am thinking of the lumber sector--but certainly there is a direct impact in terms of the extent to which imports from Latin America of raw materials would suffer.

So the short answer is yes, I think we are keenly aware of this issue, and I think it would have a dampening effect on activity both in the countries affected but in the rest of the world.

QUESTION: I want to ask you a question about the policy of the Government of Argentina about spending. What do you see--do you see any danger in the path, or not, and if we can consider that after the debt exchange, Argentina is friendly for investment?

MR. SINGH: Let me just first say on the issue of government spending, as we look back over the last couple of years, Argentina's track record in restraining spending over the period as a whole has been very good, and Argentina's consolidated primary surplus, as you know, last year was in excess of 5 percent of GDP.

So there was considerable over performance, which has helped macroeconomic stability, which has helped the extent to which the economy has recovered. And this over performance in the primary surplus has reflected not just--or not only--buoyant revenues--and they have been very buoyant--it also reflected generally restraint on spending, restraint on the Region. So, so far, that record has been very good.

Now, it is also the case that in recent months, certain spending initiatives have been undertaken. But our sense is from the authorities that they remain committed to primary surplus outcomes that will maintain macroeconomic stability in Argentina.

Now, what that precisely means in terms of the primary surplus for 2005, we have to see. There is an official target for 2005 for the primary surplus, and next week we are discussing with the authorities what would be an updated forecast in cash terms of the surplus for this year, and we do believe there is again room for over performance from the official target.

So as far as government spending is concerned, my sense is the commitment to fiscal outcomes that are consistent with maintaining stability, that commitment remains strong in Argentina.

Now, what was your second question?

QUESTION: On inflation.

MR. SINGH: For inflation, as I have said earlier, inflation has been rising. Inflation is a concern, and that concern is shared by us and shared by the authorities. And our sense is that they have already taken some steps to address that risk. The central bank has raised interest rates twice. And I think you will see that in terms of the macro policy mix, they will continue to make adjustments to ensure that inflation will remain in line with the central bank's target range.

QUESTION: The second question was about your impression if, after the exchange, Argentina is friendly for investment.

MR. SINGH: So your question is to what extent has investment or is investment going to rebound--is that your question on investment?

QUESTION: That it's a climate to bring new investment to Argentina.

MR. SINGH: Well, I think if you look through the numbers, we will see that investment and foreign investment has already been rising in certain export sectors, and that is a very good development.

Now, in terms of investment and foreign investment, as I said earlier, there are natural lags in the process. Investment does not respond in real time or in the same quarter, or even the same year, in response to reforms. So what is needed in a country is a track record and a confidence by markets of maintaining a stable environment for investment. And then, the investment will come, but there are normally lags.

So in many countries, we are now seeing the result of reforms undertaken some years ago. And so it will be with Argentina that it is normal that there will be lags. Markets need some time to digest and understand the implications of the debt exchange. Markets would like to know what are other aspects of investment policy. Markets would like to know what is going to happen to the utility company long-term agreements. Markets would like to know other policies about investment.

It is natural that these kinds of reforms take some time to develop and that there are lags, but the trend certainly is positive, and the focus of the Government's efforts and of our efforts is to sustain that trend.

QUESTION: On textiles, something you mentioned before but you didn't elaborate, that has had an enormous impact especially in some Central American countries. Do you see that as a real threat to their economies, and how important is this Free Trade Agreement that they are trying to finalize with the United States, because that trade agreement still has a lot of impediments to trade within the textile sector.

MR. SINGH: You know, I can't give you a very quantitative answer at this point. I can tell you two or three things. We are concerned about this development. We are studying it. We are trying to do a paper that will quantify the impact on Central America. We are trying to see how much of this could be offset by CAFTA.

We are optimistic about the effects of CAFTA. We do know that the impact on Central America of the phase-out of textile quotas as a share of GDP is extremely large. However, we do think that effect may be exaggerated, so we will have more on this issue, maybe a paper on this issue, in the coming months. But it is an important issue for the Region, for Central America, and we are studying it very closely. Thank you.




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