By Ravi Agrawal, CNN
Editor's note: Ravi Agrawal is senior producer of Fareed Zakaria GPS. The views expressed are his own. This was originally published in September 2012 and re-posted as Mexico's President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto meets with President Obama on Tuesday.
Here’s some trivia. Which of these countries has the highest average income: India, China, Brazil or Mexico? If you guessed Brazil, you’d be wrong. And if you guessed India or China, you’d be way off: even if you combine the incomes of the average Indian and Chinese you wouldn’t reach the $15,000 annual purchasing power of the average Mexican.
These numbers don’t fit with many people’s perception of America’s southern neighbor. Mexico, you see, has a PR problem. A quick Google search for news from Mexico throws up a set of results that usually includes the words violence, drugs, cartels, and migrants (or the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). But it’s not just the international media that seems to have it in for Mexico’s reputation. Mexicans themselves seem woebegone. A recent Pew survey found that only a third of Mexicans think they have a good national economic situation. Compare that with half of Indians, 65 percent of Brazilians, and 83 percent of Chinese. Or let’s go back to average citizens: 52 percent of Mexicans think they have a good personal economic situation, but for Indians, Chinese, and Brazilians, those numbers rise to 64 percent, 69 percent, and 75 percent respectively – and that’s despite the fact that in purchasing power terms, Mexicans actually earn more per capita than citizens of all three of those countries. And, unlike the others, Mexico’s growth rate is actually rising.
Indeed, Mexico’s economy has a number of strengths. It is the 14th largest in the world. If you take into account purchasing power, it is the 11th largest economy – larger than Canada, Turkey, and Indonesia. It is projected to grow 4 percent this year, and even faster in the coming decade, a rate that the financial services firm Nomura says will lead to Mexico overtaking Brazil as Latin America’s biggest economy within 10 years, despite the fact that Brazil’s economy is currently twice as large.
Still, there is a weakness in Mexico’s growth, as I saw for myself when I was there last month: the money hasn’t been trickling down. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico has the highest rate of poverty among the group’s 34 member nations. If you consider inequality, the OECD ranks it the second most unequal, with only Chile more unequal.
So although the headline numbers might surprise, Mexico presents something of a mixed bag. Yet this hasn’t deterred investors taking a growing interest in this Latin-but-North American country. In a special report on investing in Mexico, the Financial Times went as far as to call its macroeconomy “virtually bulletproof.” Move over BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India, China – it’s time for the MISTs – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey.
Part of Mexico’s appeal to investors is tied into what I think may be the country’s key weakness: inequality. You see, at the lowest-end, labor remains cheap. The Economist points out that in 2003, Mexican pay was three times China’s rates; now it is only 20 percent higher. So Mexican manufacturing is poised for a boom. And while in the past few years Mexico banked on its proximity to the U.S. (lower transport costs) and trade deals like NAFTA to compete with China, it will now be able to manufacture and price products at an advantage.
The big question, of course, is whether the export dollars will trickle down. But making this happen will require significant market reforms. In his recent book "Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles," Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma points out how the top 10 Mexican families account for more than a third of the country’s stock market value – an almost unheard of number. “Private cartels produce about 40 percent of the goods that Mexicans consume and charge prices that are 30 percent higher than international averages,” he writes. “Phones, services, soft drinks, and many foodstuffs cost more in Mexico than in the United States.”
One thing is clear – Mexico is not the war-torn wasteland it is often made out to be. Its people have a glorious history, and a hopeful future. This isn’t to say that Mexico is destined to be the next investment hotspot – that’s far too simplistic a way of looking at this. Instead, the numbers suggest the truth is somewhere in between. Mexico has enormous capacity to surprise on the economic stage. But to really shine, it needs to work on developing a vibrant – and bigger – middle class.