This was recently featured in The Economist:
AFTER the 1994 peso crash, the risk of Mexico’s difficulties spilling over into America was considered so great that the Clinton administration helped bail out its southern neighbour. In the first quarter of 2008, the boot was on the other foot, though the scale was entirely different. Now it was the turn of Banamex, one of Mexico’s two largest banks, to help out Citigroup, its crisis-stricken parent. Banamex provided $453m of the $1.1 billion Citi earned in net income from its overseas operations between January and March (Citi lost $5.1 billion overall). You could almost hear Vikram Pandit, Citi’s new chief, mutter “Gracias, compadre.”
Yet Banamex was not even the best-performing of the Mexican banks. Of Mexico’s five largest financial institutions (which control three-quarters of the market and also include Bancomer, Santander, HSBC and Banorte), it was the only one that did not show a big rise in year-on-year profits in the first quarter. The performance of the banks was impressive for two reasons. Firstly, Mexico has one of the most open banking systems in the world; two of its top five banks are Spanish-owned, one is American, one British, and only one is Mexican. Yet the crisis in global banking has barely ruffled it. Also, Mexico’s economy is usually more exposed than almost any other to a slowdown in America. As Alejandro Valenzuela, boss of Banorte, delicately puts it: “Decoupling is the wrong word, but there is now a certain shield.”
That shield, however brittle, has been forged both from financial reform in recent years and from macroeconomic stability. On the financial front, lending has ballooned. According to the central bank, credit to the private sector has nearly tripled since 2001, while consumer credit has increased by around seven times. The banks have also feathered their nests with relatively high consumer-banking fees.
Meanwhile, the market has grown more sophisticated, thanks to some shrewd moves by regulators. Chief among these, according to an IMF working paper released this week, were reforms to bank-secrecy laws which allowed the creation of a successful credit-reporting system, as well as reforms to bankruptcy laws. These have given birth to a thriving mortgage-backed securities industry. If that sets off alarm bells, Alejandro Werner, the deputy finance minister, notes that over the past seven years, the accumulated increase in house prices in Mexico has been less than inflation: there is no bubble yet.
There are also economic reforms to thank. Marcos Martínez, the head of Santander in Mexico, says that infrastructure investment as well as a huge public-sector mortgage programme have boosted demand. It helps that Mexican GDP closely correlates with America’s industrial production, rather than its overall economy. The brunt of the slowdown in America has been borne by the services sector.
Although Mexican economic growth is likely to remain sluggish, at something under 3%, the health of the banking industry is a salutary sign. For once, Mexicans can look northward with a sense of sympathy rather than envy.
The bottom line for Mexican banks may be better, but for anyone that still has to deal with one of them, it can be a bad experience. Customer service has still not caught on down here for many of the banks.