The COVID-19 pandemic reached Latin America on February 26, 2020, when Brazil publicly confirmed its first case in São Paulo. Since then, the virus has rapidly spread across all countries in the region and has forced some governments to take immediate action – not only by implementing public health policies designed to contain and limit the spread of the virus, but also by macro-economic action to try to preserve and stabilize the local economies and protect local businesses and employment for their citizens.
In this article, we evaluate the responses of four of the larger economies in Latin America, all of which have developed fairly varied approaches in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic: (i) Brazil, (ii) Chile, (iii) Colombia and (iv) Mexico. Chile and Colombia, on the one hand, have adopted stimulus packages aimed at strengthening their healthcare systems and protecting local companies. Mexico’s response, however, has been more laissez-faire, with President Lopez Obrador insisting that citizens and companies continue operating as usual. President Lopez Obrador maintains that the Mexican government’s efforts to address the crisis will focus on supporting the economically disadvantaged rather than the wealthy enterprises. Like Mexico, Brazil was slow to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, finally doing so after mounting public pressure. The COVID-19 pandemic reached Brazil while the country was in the process of implementing a series of important reforms for its long-term growth and recovery. Now, the country will need to mitigate the damage being inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic prior to resuming its plan to implement the envisaged reforms. A more complete description of the government programs and economic policies addressing the COVID-19 pandemic for each of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico is set forth below.
On February 11, 2020, the Brazilian Ministry of Economy published the document “Brazil: Macroeconomic Monitor and Reform Agenda,” which states that the risks related to the coronavirus outbreak “had not altered the official GDP forecast of 2.4% according to the Economic Policy Secretariat of the Ministry of the Economy.” On March 20, 2020, when the number of confirmed cases in Brazil reached 900, the Ministry of Economy revised its GDP forecast to a 0.02% GDP growth.
Before COVID-19, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank of Brazil had just reduced the basic interest of the economy to the all-time low of 4.25% per year, giving clear signs that it should maintain such rate at that level. Unemployment rate was estimated at 11%, the same percentage as the previous four years. The forecast for the Ibovespa Index was minus 1.7% in net changes as the reactions of the market to the risks of the pandemic were known early in February. The last time this index was negative was in 2015, when it reached minus 13.3%. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the index reached 31.6% positive in 2019, almost double that of 2018 (15% positive).
On February 26, 2020, the day after the end of Brazilian Carnival, the Brazilian Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the country’s territory. In response to such announcement, Ibovespa was down by 4.92%. In the intervening 30-day period, four market-halting “circuit breakers” were activated, and by March 26, 2020, Ibovespa was down 39.28%. More recently, on April 8, 2020, the Ibovespa was up 2.87% based on projections of oil production cuts and the associated increase in the price of the oil barrel.
On March 14, 2020, the Brazilian COVID-19 curve graphic had its first major increase, when confirmed cases reached a total of 200, an increase of 80 cases compared to March 13, which was the total number of cases on March 12. By April 8, Brazil reached a total of 15,927 confirmed cases, with a daily increase of approximately 2,000 cases.
On March 16, 2020, two days after the first significant increase in reported cases, the Brazilian government redirected R$5 billion (slightly over $1 billion U.S. Dollars) to the Ministry of Health through Provisional Measure 924 in order to fight COVID-19 and released its first stimulus package granting R$5 billion in credit lines to small companies through public banks, mainly for working capital. On that same day, the National Monetary Council also adopted several measures increasing the capacity of banks to grant credit in the amount of R$637 billion (approximately $125 billion U.S. Dollars). The government also exempted importers from the payment of tax on imported goods if such goods are used to fight COVID-19, anticipated certain payments scheduled to be made later this year by the Brazilian Social Security Institute to workers and retired employees who contributed during their lives and reduced certain social contributions paid by companies to 50%.
On March 18, 2020, the Brazilian government increased the amounts released as emergency measures and requested the Brazilian Congress to declare a state of calamity in order to allow the government to spend additional funds to fight the pandemic. Additional tax exemptions were granted in connection with the acquisition of equipment to fight the virus, and the Brazilian National Treasury Attorney General’s Office suspended enforcement actions and lawsuits for debt collection and initiated efforts to foster the renegotiation of debts with the government as a result of the pandemic. A 3-month R$200 payment (approximately $40 U.S. Dollars) was approved to support informal workers, unemployed citizens and small individual entrepreneurs who are members of low-income families. This amount was increased to a R$600 payment (approximately $115 U.S. Dollars), to be paid through an app that was developed by the government. It was estimated that a total of R$5 billion would be transferred to a total of 15-20 million Brazilian nationals. Due to the aforementioned increases, it is estimated that this emergency program will benefit more than 24 million members of low-income families, amounting to a total of R$45 billion (approximately $9 billion U.S. Dollars).
During the later days of March, the Brazilian government and policy makers took action almost on a daily basis to provide stimulus monies, debt and tax relief and other programs designed to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on the Brazilian economy and lower-income workers.
On March 20, 2020, in the first remote voting session in the history of the Brazilian Congress, it declared a state of calamity, exempting the Brazilian government from its obligation to meet the fiscal primary balance target this year, as set forth in the so-called Law of Fiscal Responsibility. The state of calamity followed the declaration of state of emergency by the Brazilian Ministry of Health in February.
On March 22, 2020, the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) announced its initial emergency measures to fight COVID-19. It suspended payments of principal and interest for borrowers in a total amount of R$19 billion and R$11 billion in indirect financing and increased the credit line “BNDES Credit for Small Companies” (companies with an annual income of up to R$300 million – approximately $60 million U.S. Dollars) by R$5 billion (approximately $1 billion U.S. Dollars) in an effort to provide working capital. The credit limit for borrowers per year was increased significantly, and such borrowers will have a 24-month grace period and 5 years to repay their loans.
The Brazilian government launched the platform “All for All,” allowing companies, public entities and associations to offer services and products free of charge due to the emergency created by the COVID-19 crisis. Offers must be made gratuitously, without any commitment by the beneficiary to make a payment during or after the offer period.
On March 23, 2020, the federal government enacted a plan to support States and Municipalities in the total amount of R$88.2 billion (approximately $17 billion U.S. Dollars), suspended the payment of the debt of the States and Municipalities with the federal government in the amount of R$12.6 billion (approximately $2.5 billion U.S. Dollars), and renegotiated R$9.6 billion (approximately $2 billion U.S. Dollars) in debt with States and Municipalities, and the Brazilian Federal Revenue promptly extended the validity of certificates issued to companies attesting that such companies are in compliance with their tax obligations. Otherwise, if not compliant with tax obligations, Brazilian companies cannot obtain new loans, contract with the public administration and eventually renew or obtain licenses to operate, depending on the business.
On March 24, 2020, the 3-month R$200 payment approved to support informal workers, unemployed citizens and small individual entrepreneur members of low-income families was increased to R$600 (approximately $120 U.S. Dollars), amounting to a total of R$45 billion (approximately $9 billion U.S. Dollars) of stimulus into the Brazilian economy. BNDES also adopted other measures, such as the allocation of R$55 billion (approximately $11 billion U.S. Dollars) to its credit portfolio companies, granting a 6-month extension for payments of principal and interests incorporating such amounts to the total debt to be refinanced and allocating amounts to standstills. The bank also promised additional measures to address the financial hardship of Brazilian aviation and tourism industries as well as bars and restaurants.
On March 27, 2020, the Brazilian government announced an additional credit line of R$40 billion (approximately $8 billion U.S. Dollars) for small- and medium-sized companies to provide for payments of employees and maintenance of employment in general. Companies that accept the financing cannot dismiss its employees, and public banks will not profit from these transactions. A total of 85% of the funds came from the National Treasury Department and 15% came from private banks. Caixa Econômica Federal (Brazilian Savings Bank) also announced the extension of deadlines for payments of real estate financing for 3 months temporarily relieving more than 800,000 families from their payment obligations.
The Brazilian Ministry of Economy invited Brazilian start-ups to participate in the campaign StartupsxCovid19 and BNDES included fintechs among the companies eligible for its R$5 billion (approximately $1 billion U.S. Dollars) emergency credit line. The federal government also allowed limited liability companies and corporations to hold ordinary shareholders’ and partners’ meetings within seven months after the end of the fiscal year.
Since the beginning of April, several additional important measures were also adopted by the government. On April 1, a Bill of Law formalized the creation of the emergency support mentioned above to low-income Brazilian citizens in the amount of R$600 (approximately $120 U.S. Dollars), and the government exempted companies from the payment of IOF, a tax on financial transactions that applies when someone assumes debt, buys foreign currency or hires insurance, for example. The deadline for filing of income tax returns by Brazilian citizens was postponed by two months from April 30 to June 30. Congress moved to speed up the processing time of government decrees from 120 to 14 days.
Also in April, the government adopted measures to protect formal jobs, reassuring that employees that may have their salaries and work load reduced will receive an amount to be paid by the government for three months. This amount will be calculated based on the monthly amount of the unemployment insurance that such workers would be entitled to if they had been laid off. Work load reductions will be negotiated based on the applicable individual and collective bargaining agreements based on the salary paid to each worker but may reach a maximum of 70% reduction (other options would be 25% and 50% reductions). A 2-month suspension of employment contracts was also authorized, subject to payment of the full amount of unemployment insurance for this. Other authorized actions were the anticipation of individual paid vacations, mandatory vacation leave, and anticipation of non-religious holidays. The Brazilian government also authorized and adopted an Emergency Employment Maintenance Program whereby the government authorized the reduction of working hours and wages, in return for the maintenance of jobs.
The Brazilian Federation of Banks announced an agreement by which certain major banks operating in Brazil will respond to requests for a 60-day extension for the maturity of individual debt and debt of small- and medium-sized companies. Banco do Brasil announced a R$100 billion (approximately $20 billion U.S. Dollars) increase in its credit lines, aimed at working capital, investments, prepayment of receivables, agribusiness and credit to individuals. The bank also increased the credit limit for 13 million customers and authorized airlines to suspend interest payments by up to four months. The National Treasury responded to pressures in the future interest market by announcing a program of repurchase auctions and sale of securities – simultaneous auctions (buying and selling) of public securities – R$11 billion (approximately $2.2 billion U.S. Dollars) (buying) and R$197 million (approximately $40 million U.S. Dollars) (selling).
A “War Budget” Constitutional Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and is now under Senate consideration. The amendment would allow the segregation of expenses incurred by the government to combat COVID-19 from its budget and would create a regime that would allow the government to spend more during the COVID-19 crisis, without the constitutional barriers in place restricting certain federal spending. Congressional authorization for the issuance of federal bonds, for example, would no longer be required. The Central Bank would be authorized to trade National Treasury bonds.
The COVID-19 pandemic reached Brazil when the country was putting in place a series of important reforms for its long-term growth and recovery. Now, the country will need to fight COVID-19, recover from its impacts, and then resume the plan to implement the envisaged reforms. The decree enacted by Congress declaring state of calamity is valid through December 2020.
On March 19, 2020, the Chilean Minister of Finance, Ignacio Briones, announced a stimulus package of US$11.8 billion that will be used to strengthen the budget for Chile’s healthcare system, protect families against loss of income, and provide support to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
In order to address growing costs arising from the COVID-19 health emergency, the Chilean government intends to increase its healthcare system budget by 2%. In addition, the government is launching several projects to compensate for the increased unemployment rate caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of these projects include (a) Bono Covid-19, a US$1.3 billion bonus that will provide assistance to workers who lost their jobs as result of COVID-19, and (b) Fondo Solidario, a fund of US$1 billion that is aimed at mitigating the social emergencies caused by the decline of microbusiness sales.
The Chilean government has also decided to assist SMEs through the use of more favorable tax measures, including the following:
Due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Colombia, the government has recently enacted legislation aimed at providing incentives to those companies that offer services to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.
On March 21, 2020, Decree 444 of 2020 created the Emergency Mitigation Fund (Fondo de Mitigación de Emergencias, or the “Fund”), pursuant to which the government is allocating 14.8 billion Colombian pesos (approximately $3.9 million US Dollars) to the Fund to (a) address the growing need of healthcare resources, (b) mitigate adverse effects on the economy, and (c) maintain employment growth. Such Fund will therefore be used to finance public, private or mixed companies that engage in activities of national interest within these objectives.
Separately, the government is also permitting Colombian financial entities such as Bancóldex and Findeter to offer loans at fixed rates in order to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country (Decree 468 of 2020). The decree allows for the provision of direct loans at a fixed rate to those entities and sectors that engage in projects and activities seeking to alleviate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, companies wishing to access these loans must certify that the resources will actually be used to finance initiatives that specifically address COVID-19.
In addition to the initiatives described above, Colombia is still working on other ways to stimulate its economy. On April 7, 2020, the Colombian government requested a US$10.8 billion line of credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) following an additional two-week extension of its national lockdown (now until April 27, 2020). The IMF is currently reviewing and expects to approve this request. The Colombian government is also seeking another US$3 billion in loans from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Bank to (a) fund programs aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and (b) support local companies.
Colombian companies are also implementing new policies in order to safeguard themselves and their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list below provides an overview of the actions that companies are allowed or required to take under Colombian law.
Amid the coronavirus health crisis and the official reported cases totaling 4,661 and 296 deaths  as of Monday, April 13, 2020, Mexico declared a health emergency and issued stricter rules aimed at containing the virus spread. However, the Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gattel stated that the stricter rules apply only “to people older than 60 years, those who have hypertension, diabetes or are pregnant, regardless of whether their jobs are considered essential.”  The government determined that no more than 50 people should gather and non-essential activities are suspended. Those emergency measures will be in effect for one month (March 30-April 30).
Experts are worried that the Mexican population is more vulnerable due to the percentage of obesity in the population as well as the limited health care resources. While Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced that violation of the rules by both companies and individuals could lead to potential administrative or penal actions, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has not ordered a lockdown or other such measures to control the spread of COVID-19.  Further, considering the amount of the population of Mexico as compared to that of Italy, as well as its healthcare systems, even if the spread of the virus is controlled so that only 20% of the population is infected, The Washington Post has said that “half a million Mexicans could die in the next 18 months.” 
President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, along with others have urged the Mexican President to take more drastic measures amid this pandemic considering the size of Mexico.  Despite those pleas, President Lopez Obrador insists on maintaining life as usual and encourages citizens to continue going out to restaurants so as to stimulate the economy. However, considering the increase in cases, President Lopez Obrador has recently begun taking the temperatures of incoming airport visitors in order to identify those with the virus.  Moreover, President Lopez Obrador insisted that companies should “continue to pay their workers or face public scorn.”  Considering his criticism of ex-Mexican President Felipe Calderon during the H1N1 viral outbreak, when President Calderon shut down Mexico for 5 days, the stance that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has taken is unsurprising.
While, as a populist leader, the president states that his worry is the poor, some people such as Xavier Tello, a Mexican healthcare analyst, have stated that “[h]e could genuinely be trying to save the economy for the poor. But he is allowing them to become infected and contagious, which will be worse for them in terms of the health costs.” 
April 1st marked the day on which the Mexican peso led global currency losses. This loss comes after President Lopez Obrador rejected the creation of a fiscal stimulus.  Despite the lack of response from the Mexican government, “Banco de Mexico auctioned $5 billion in dollar credit on Wednesday, tapping a swap line with the Federal Reserve that was established on March 19 to ease the liquidity crunch.”  On Sunday, April 5, President Lopez Obrador pledged that he “would create 2 million new jobs in the next nine months and boost small business and housing loans.”  Those small business (less than 10 employees) and housing loans estimate to be around US$1,000 each. The money for those loans would come from, partially at least, a pay cut from employees above a certain pay grade. 
Unlike the recently enacted CARES Act enacted in the United States, Mexico’s President said, “he would use a budget stabilization fund and cash from public trusts to fund plans to shield the poor from a slump economist expect to be severe”  President Lopez Obrador has briefly mentioned a handful of times that “his government’s efforts to address the crisis would focus on supporting the economically disadvantaged, not the wealthy businesses.”  Moreover, and in support of his populist style, President Lopez Obrador stated: “[n]o more rescues in the style of the neoliberal period, that provided for banks, big companies. They shouldn’t even be thinking that there will be tax forgiveness or other mechanisms that were used before.”  As a matter of fact, President Lopez Obrador recently mentioned the possibility of publishing a list of 15 large companies that owe US$2 billion in tax and instructed Carlos Salazar, head of CCE business lobby, to speak with the owners stating that, “if they pay us, we would have many more resources to help small and medium-sized companies.”  Even individuals who support President Lopez Obrador such as leftist economist Rolando Cordera, believe the Mexican President’s plan was disappointing.  President Lopez Obrador further stated that the top-level bureaucrats “will have their salaries reduced and give up their annual year-end bonuses.” 
Strategists at BBVA Mexico stated that “without a plan of action, Mexico may lose its investment grade rating in the next two to four years. Last week, S&P Global Ratings cut Mexico’s sovereign credit score to BBB, two notches above junk.” 
In the interim, the head of the Association of Small Businesses estimates that 250,000 corner shops could close, resulting in approximately 500,000 jobs lost.  According to Ernst & Young, Mexico has delayed the deadlines for lawsuits in tax courts until April 19, 2020; however, there will be no extension for filing the annual tax return nor any tax incentives.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, President Lopez Obrador canceled a US$1.4 billion dollar brewery plant in Mexicali because of supposed “influence peddling” after taking it to a public referendum in which a limited amount of the population voted against the brewery due to concerns over water (i.e., it is estimated that 36,000 people voted out of a population of 1 million) . While not the first time that President Lopez Obrador has canceled an ongoing contract (e.g., the state-of-the-art international airport that was supposed to be constructed in Mexico City), such actions in a time of global economic downturn may further diminish foreign investors’ appetites for investment in Mexico.
Coronavirus threatens to further hinder the Mexican economic growth forecasted for 2020. Last year, President Lopez Obrador was unable to attain an increase in GDP but instead had a decrease of 0.1%, the first contraction in a decade. The extent of the impact of the coronavirus in Mexico is uncertain. Forecasts from Barclays indicate that “2020 would not be far worse than last year, slashing its GDP forecast for Mexico to a contraction of 2% from a prior estimate for 0.5% growth.” Moody’s, on the other hand, cut its GDP by 1.5% and Capital Economics only by 0.5%.  According to Reuters, Mexico’s economy is forecasted to contract approximately 3.9% in 2020,  while Bank of America slashed the forecast to a 4.5% contraction.  However, unlike the other banks, Bank of America estimates that Mexico would be able to grow in 2021 by 4.5%, thereby making a comeback from the downturn it is expected to take in 2020. 
Considering that the Mexican economy thrives on its tourism and the sale of oil, the Mexican finance ministry stated that those “forecasts ‘incorporate the effects of a drastic shock on the economic scenario of Mexico and the rest of the world, derived from the pandemic.’” The prices for oil have dropped to an all-time low of US$24 per barrel and an expected US$30 per barrel in 2021.  Moreover, PEMEX, the national oil company, is about to be downgraded to junk status which would likely have an effect on the ability of PEMEX to borrow funds, according to Reuters.  Further, in an attempt to stimulate the economy, the Mexican government will not increase the oil prices, which in turn represents a 30% discount in the price of petrol.
While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the populations and economies of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico remains uncertain, there is a significant disparity (a) in the approaches of each of the governments of these countries to the public health crisis itself and (b) in the macro-economic responses that these governments and their ministers of economy are taking. The Brazilian government has utilized the most tools in its arsenal, whether through stimulus programs to low-income workers, state and municipal debt relief, or other economic stimulus tools, whereas the Mexican government has taken a more laid-back approach. Chile is utilizing its accumulated reserves to make an impact, and although without the fiscal and monetary muscle of some of its larger and wealthier neighbors, Colombia is also actively using monetary and political tools at its disposal to try to address the crisis. The ultimate effect of these initiatives on Latin American economies and the large vulnerable populations within each country is uncertain, and the political legacy of these very disparate reactions to an unprecedented crisis remains to be seen.
Rafael Breves de Toledo contributed to the writing of this alert.
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