Growth and Structure of the Economy

Mexico Table of Contents

Early Years

The Mexican wars of independence (1810-21) left a legacy of economic stagnation that persisted until the 1870s. Political instability and foreign invasion deterred foreign investment, risk-taking, and innovation. Most available capital left with its Spanish owners following independence. Instead of investing in productive enterprises and thereby spurring economic growth, many wealthy Mexicans converted their assets into tangible, secure, and often unproductive property.

The seeds of economic modernization were laid under the restored Republic (1867-76) (see The Restoration, 1867-76, ch. 1). President Benito Juárez (1855-72) sought to attract foreign capital to finance Mexico's economic modernization. His government revised the tax and tariff structure to revitalize the mining industry, and it improved the transportation and communications infrastructure to allow fuller exploitation of the country's natural resources. The government let contracts for construction of a new rail line northward to the United States, and it completed the commercially vital Mexico City-Veracruz railroad, begun in 1837. Protected by high tariffs, Mexico's textile industry doubled its production of processed items between 1854 and 1877. But overall, manufacturing grew only modestly, and economic stagnation continued.

During the Porfiriato (1876-1910), however, Mexico underwent rapid and sustained growth, and laid the foundations for a modern economy. Taking "order and progress" as his watchwords, President José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz established the rule of law, political stability, and social peace, which brought the increased capital investment that would finance national development and modernization. Rural banditry was suppressed, communications and transportation facilities were modernized, and local customs duties that had hindered domestic trade were abolished.

Revolution and Aftermath

The Mexican Revolution (1910-20) severely disrupted the Mexican economy, erasing many of the gains achieved during the Porfiriato. The labor force declined sharply, with the economically active share of the population falling from 35 percent in 1910 to 31 percent in 1930. Between 1910 and 1921, the population suffered an overall net decline of 360,000 people. The livestock supply was severely depleted, as thousands of cattle were lost to the depredations of rival militias. Cotton, coffee, and sugarcane went unharvested as workers abandoned the fields either to join or flee the fighting. The result was a precipitous drop in agricultural output. The disruption of communications and rail transportation made distribution unreliable, prompting further reductions in the production of perishable goods. As agricultural and manufacturing output declined, black markets flourished in the major cities. The banking system was shattered, public credit disappeared, and the currency was destroyed. The mining sector suffered huge losses, with gold production falling some 80 percent between 1910 and 1916, and silver and copper output each declining 65 percent.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression brought Mexico a sharp drop in national income and internal demand after 1929, challenging the country's ability to fulfill its constitutional mandate to promote social equity. Still, Mexico did not feel the effects of the Great Depression as directly as some other countries did.

In the early 1930s, manufacturing and other sectors serving the domestic economy began a slow recovery. The upturn was facilitated by several key structural reforms, notably the railroad nationalization of 1929 and 1930, the nationalization of the petroleum industry in 1938, and the acceleration of land reform, first under President Emilio Portes Gil (1928-30) and then under President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) in the late 1930s. To foster industrial expansion, the administration of Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-46) in 1941 reorganized the National Finance Bank (Nacional Financiera--Nafinsa), which had originally been created in 1934 as an investment bank.

During the 1930s, agricultural production also rose steadily, and urban employment expanded in response to rising domestic demand. The government offered tax incentives for production directed toward the home market. Import-substitution industrialization (see Glossary) began to make a slow advance during the 1930s, although it was not yet official government policy.

Postwar Economic Growth

Mexico's inward-looking development strategy produced sustained economic growth of 3 to 4 percent and modest 3 percent inflation annually from the 1940s until the late 1960s. The government fostered the development of consumer goods industries directed toward domestic markets by imposing high protective tariffs and other barriers to imports. The share of imports subject to licensing requirements rose from 28 percent in 1956 to an average of more than 60 percent during the 1960s and about 70 percent in the 1970s. Industry accounted for 22 percent of total output in 1950, 24 percent in 1960, and 29 percent in 1970. The share of total output arising from agriculture and other primary activities declined during the same period, while services stayed constant. The government promoted industrial expansion through public investment in agricultural, energy, and transportation infrastructure. Cities grew rapidly during these years, reflecting the shift of employment from agriculture to industry and services. The urban population increased at a high rate after 1940 (see Urban Society, ch. 2). Growth of the urban labor force exceeded even the growth rate of industrial employment, with surplus workers taking low-paying service jobs.

In the years following World War II, President Miguel Alemán Valdés's (1946-52) full-scale import-substitution program stimulated output by boosting internal demand. The government raised import controls on consumer goods but relaxed them on capital goods, which it purchased with international reserves accumulated during the war. The government progressively undervalued the peso to reduce the costs of imported capital goods and expand productive capacity, and it spent heavily on infrastructure. By 1950 Mexico's road network had expanded to 21,000 kilometers, of which some 13,600 were paved.

Mexico's strong economic performance continued into the 1960s, when GDP growth averaged about 7 percent overall and about 3 percent per capita. Consumer price inflation averaged only 3 percent annually. Manufacturing remained the country's dominant growth sector, expanding 7 percent annually and attracting considerable foreign investment. Mining grew at an annual rate of nearly 4 percent, trade at 6 percent, and agriculture at 3 percent. By 1970 Mexico had diversified its export base and become largely self-sufficient in food crops, steel, and most consumer goods. Although its imports remained high, most were capital goods used to expand domestic production.

Deterioration in the 1970s

Although the Mexican economy maintained its rapid growth during most of the 1970s, it was progressively undermined by fiscal mismanagement and a resulting sharp deterioration of the investment climate. The GDP grew more than 6 percent annually during the administration of President Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76), and at about a 6 percent rate during that of his successor, José López Portillo y Pacheco (1976-82). But economic activity fluctuated wildly during the decade, with spurts of rapid growth followed by sharp depressions in 1976 and 1982.

Fiscal profligacy combined with the 1973 oil shock to exacerbate inflation and upset the balance of payments. Moreover, President Echeverría's leftist rhetoric and actions--such as abetting illegal land seizures by peasants--eroded investor confidence and alienated the private sector. The balance of payments disequilibrium became unmanageable as capital flight intensified, forcing the government in 1976 to devalue the peso by 45 percent. The action ended Mexico's twenty-year fixed exchange rate.

Although significant oil discoveries in 1976 allowed a temporary recovery, the windfall from petroleum sales also allowed continuation of Echeverría's destructive fiscal policies. In the mid-1970s, Mexico went from being a net importer of oil and petroleum products to a significant exporter. Oil and petrochemicals became the economy's most dynamic growth sector. Rising oil income allowed the government to continue its expansionary fiscal policy, partially financed by higher foreign borrowing. Between 1978 and 1981, the economy grew more than 8 percent annually, as the government spent heavily on energy, transportation, and basic industries. Manufacturing output expanded modestly during these years, growing by 9 percent in 1978, 9 percent in 1979, and 6 percent in 1980.

This renewed growth rested on shaky foundations. Mexico's external indebtedness mounted, and the peso became increasingly overvalued, hurting nonoil exports in the late 1970s and forcing a second peso devaluation in 1980. Production of basic food crops stagnated, forcing Mexico in the early 1980s to become a net importer of foodstuffs. The portion of import categories subject to controls rose from 20 percent of the total in 1977 to 24 percent in 1979. The government raised tariffs concurrently to shield domestic producers from foreign competition, further hampering the modernization and competitiveness of Mexican industry.

1982 Crisis and Recovery

The macroeconomic policies of the 1970s left Mexico's economy highly vulnerable to external conditions. These turned sharply against Mexico in the early 1980s, and caused the worst recession since the 1930s. By mid-1981, Mexico was beset by falling oil prices, higher world interest rates, rising inflation, a chronically overvalued peso, and a deteriorating balance of payments that spurred massive capital flight. This disequilibrium, along with the virtual disappearance of Mexico's international reserves--by the end of 1982 they were insufficient to cover three weeks' imports--forced the government to devalue the peso three times during 1982. The devaluation further fueled inflation and prevented short-term recovery. The devaluations depressed real wages and increased the private sector's burden in servicing its dollar-denominated debt. Interest payments on long-term debt alone were equal to 28 percent of export revenue. Cut off from additional credit, the government declared an involuntary moratorium on debt payments in August 1982, and the following month it announced the nationalization of Mexico's private banking system.

By late 1982, incoming President Miguel de la Madrid had to reduce public spending drastically, stimulate exports, and foster economic growth to balance the national accounts. Recovery was extremely slow to materialize, however. The economy stagnated throughout the 1980s as a result of continuing negative terms of trade, high domestic interest rates, and scarce credit. Widespread fears that the government might fail to achieve fiscal balance and have to expand the money supply and raise taxes deterred private investment and encouraged massive capital flight that further increased inflationary pressures. The resulting reduction in domestic savings impeded growth, as did the government's rapid and drastic reductions in public investment and its raising of real domestic interest rates to deter capital flight.

Mexico's GDP grew at an average rate of just 0.1 percent per year between 1983 and 1988, while inflation stayed extremely high (see table 7, Appendix). Public consumption grew at an average annual rate of less than 2 percent, and private consumption not at all. Total investment fell at an average annual rate of 4 percent and public investment at an 11 percent pace. Throughout the 1980s, the productive sectors of the economy contributed a decreasing share to GDP, while the services sectors expanded their share, reflecting the rapid growth of the informal economy. De la Madrid's stabilization strategy imposed high social costs: real disposable income per capita fell 5 percent each year between 1983 and 1988. High levels of unemployment and underemployment, especially in rural areas, stimulated migration to Mexico City and to the United States.

By 1988 inflation was at last under control, fiscal and monetary discipline attained, relative price adjustment achieved, structural reform in trade and public-sector management underway, and the preconditions for recovery in place. But these positive developments were inadequate to attract foreign investment and return capital in sufficient quantities for sustained recovery. A shift in development strategy became necessary, predicated on the need to generate a net capital inflow.

In April 1989, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari an-nounced his government's national development plan for 1989-94, which called for annual GDP growth of 6 percent and an inflation rate similar to those of Mexico's main trading partners. Salinas planned to achieve this sustained growth by boosting the investment share of GDP and by encouraging private investment through denationalization of state enterprises and deregulation of the economy. His first priority was to reduce Mexico's external debt; in mid-1989 the government reached agreement with its commercial bank creditors to reduce its medium- and long-term debt. The following year, Salinas took his next step toward higher capital inflows by lowering domestic borrowing costs, reprivatizing the banking system, and broaching the idea of a free-trade agreement with the United States. These announcements were soon followed by increased levels of capital repatriation and foreign investment.

After rising impressively during the early years of Salinas's presidency, the growth rate of real GDP began to slow during the early 1990s. During 1993 the economy grew by a negligible amount, but growth rebounded to almost 4 percent during 1994, as fiscal and monetary policy were relaxed and foreign investment was bolstered by United States ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 1994 the commerce and services sectors accounted for 22 percent of Mexico's total GDP. Manufacturing followed at 20 percent; transport and communications at 10 percent; agriculture, forestry, and fishing at 8 percent; construction at 5 percent; mining at 2 percent; and electricity, gas, and water at 2 percent (see fig. 9). Some two-thirds of GDP in 1994 (67 percent) was spent on private consumption, 11 percent on public consumption, and 22 percent on fixed investment. During 1994 private consumption rose by 4 percent, public consumption by 2 percent, public investment by 9 percent, and private investment by 8 percent.

However, the collapse of the new peso in December 1994 and the ensuing economic crisis caused the economy to contract by an estimated 7 percent during 1995. Investment and consumption both fell sharply, the latter by some 10 percent. Agriculture, livestock, and fishing contracted by 4 percent; mining by 1 percent; manufacturing by 6 percent; construction by 22 percent; and transport, storage, and communications by 2 percent. The only sector to register positive growth was utilities, which expanded by 3 percent.

By 1996 Mexican government and independent analysts saw signs that the country had begun to emerge from its economic recession. The economy contracted by a modest 1 percent during the first quarter of 1996. The Mexican government reported strong growth of 7 percent for the second quarter, and the Union Bank of Switzerland forecast economic growth of 4 percent for all of 1996.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress