IN JUNE 2006 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then Brazil’s president, went to Itaboraí, a sleepy farming town nestled where the flatlands beside Guanabara Bay meet the coastal mountain range. He announced the building of Comperj—the Rio de Janeiro petrochemical complex, a pharaonic undertaking of two oil refineries and a clutch of petrochemical plants. With forecasts of 220,000 new jobs in a town of 150,000 people, Itaboraí geared up for a boom.

Today it is almost a ghost town. Its straggling main street adjoins an unopened shopping mall and is punctuated by a score of blocks of flats and office towers, one with a heliport on the roof, all finished in the past few months and all plastered with “for sale” signs. “A lot of people bet on this new El Dorado in Itaboraí and it didn’t happen,” says Wagner Sales of the union of workers building Comperj.  

What did happen? Private firms that were supposed to join Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, in investing in the petrochemical plants took fright when a shale gas boom in the United States slashed costs for their competitors there. Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, burdened Petrobras with developing new deep-sea oilfields as a monopoly operator while also adding three other refineries. A corruption scandal and plunging oil prices hit the company hard. Comperj has been reduced to one small refinery; its completion date has been pushed back to mid-2016.

Luiz Fernando Guimarães, the secretary of economic development for the municipal government, reckons there are 4,000 empty offices in the town. Two years ago the mayor set out to re-market Itaboraí as a logistics centre. But its trump card—location near the meeting-point between a new motorway round Guanabara Bay and the main coastal highway—was wasted because the federal government of that “darned Dona Dilma”, as Mr Guimarães calls the president, has failed to build the last stretch to the town.

Itaboraí’s plight is echoed, albeit less dramatically, across Latin America. The rise in the prices of commodities—minerals, oil and grains—brought about by China’s industrialisation unleashed a golden decade for the region (or more accurately for the commodity-exporting countries of South America). Growth averaged 4.1% in the decade to 2012. In its train came a social transformation: 60m were lifted out of poverty, and the middle class swelled.

Now the good times are over. Latin America’s economy is screeching to a halt; it managed growth of just 1.3% last year. This year’s figure will be only 0.9%, reckons the IMF, which would mark the fifth successive year of deceleration (see chart 1). Not only has this surprised most forecasters, but Latin America has slowed more than any other emerging region. Many reckon it now faces a “new normal” of growth of just 2-3% a year. That would jeopardise recent social gains; already the fall in poverty has halted.

So what has gone wrong? Did Latin America squander its boom? An immediate explanation for the slowdown is the fall in the region’s terms of trade—the ratio of the price of its exports to the price of its imports. Having risen threefold between 2003 and 2011, commodity prices fell somewhat thereafter before plunging sharply last year. Since 2011 investment in the region’s economies has slowed; the IMF finds that it is closely correlated with commodity prices.

Financial markets have responded accordingly, with the region’s main currencies depreciating by an average of 20% against the dollar since mid-2014 and most stockmarkets in the doldrums. The impending hike in the United States Federal Reserve’s policy rate will raise borrowing costs.

An end to expansión
In the past such abrupt reversals tended to cause panic and capital outflows. This time is at least partly different. Better macroeconomic policies, such as floating exchange rates and lower public debt, have allowed many countries to adjust smoothly. Chile, Colombia and Peru, which have handled their affairs responsibly, are still growing, but much more slowly. (So is Bolivia, whose leftist government has been relatively prudent.) Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic, which are net importers of commodities, are set to do better than average in the coming years.

Worst hit are countries that bungled their policies, to varying degrees. After an inflationary fiscal splurge, Brazil faces an inevitable adjustment: its economy will shrink by 1.2% this year according to the government, and unemployment is surging. Argentina is enduring prolonged stagnation and double-digit inflation. Venezuela faces a painful contraction of 7% this year and inflation of 95%, says the IMF. On the black market its currency has halved in value against the dollar since January.

“The boom was not completely wasted, but neither was it completely capitalised on,” Guillermo Perry and Alejandro Forero of the University of the Andes in Bogotá conclude in a recent paper. Most of its proceeds went on a consumption binge and imports. By contrast Asia’s expansion has been powered by manufactured exports, investment and infrastructure spending, increasing its potential for future growth.

But Latin America’s traditionally low investment levels did increase. Stronger and better-regulated banks and public finances and higher levels of international reserves meant that the region sailed through the great recession of 2008-09 with only a brief downturn. Yet that success went to the politicians’ heads. Many were too slow to withdraw the fiscal stimulus they applied. With the partial exception of Chile and Peru, no government now has scope to mitigate the slowdown through monetary or fiscal policy.

To return to faster growth, Latin America must address its chronic structural weaknesses. Put simply, it exports, saves and invests too little, its economies are not diversified enough and too many of its firms and workers are unproductive.

To make matters worse, the rise of China, and of the emerging world generally, over the past 15 years has exacerbated some of these problems, the World Bank concluded in a report published in May.

China reinforced Latin America’s role as a commodity exporter while the relative weight of its manufactured exports diminished, the bank found. That is partly because of Latin Americans’ low savings rate (under 20% of GDP, compared with 30% in South-East Asia). The region has relied on drawing in foreign savings, which meant that its currencies appreciated during the boom more than they might otherwise have done, rendering many non-commodity businesses uncompetitive.

In the 1990s Latin America began to diversify its exports, selling a bigger variety of products. But that has reversed since 2000. Only a small and declining percentage of the region’s exports are of “complex” (ie, knowledge-intensive) products (see chart 2). This matters. Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard, has found a close correlation between the diversity and complexity of exports and subsequent economic growth. The problem Latin America faces, says Mr Hausmann, “is the things that could be there and are not”. Latin Americans “seldom talk about technology and innovation, so there are no new industries to take over from commodities”.

Put another way, Latin America’s problem is its failure to join what economists call “global value chains”—which are in fact mainly regional. Modern industry needs elaborate supply chains with parts coming from several different countries, but they are often neighbouring ones. Some 72% of the “foreign value-added” in exports from European countries is intra-regional, in other words it originates in other European nations; the equivalent for East Asia is 56% and for South America only 30%, according to the World Bank (see chart 3). Only Mexico is plugged in to these value chains, thanks to its economic integration with the United States.

Don’t stick to your knitting
The productivity gap between Latin America and the rest of the world has been widening.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Latin America’s total factor productivity (the efficiency with which labour and capital work together) was slightly over half the level in the United States in 2010, compared with almost three-quarters in 1960. Over the same period, East Asia has narrowed the gap from around half to a third.

Why are Latin Americans so relatively unproductive? Take Alejandro Valladares’s business, in a quiet street in Huaycán on the eastern edge of Lima, Peru’s capital. In a large room of bare cinder-block walls on the ground floor of his house, Mr Valladares has a score of knitting machines. He makes around 12,000 pairs of baby socks a month. He sells them locally, but also to Panama. He employs four of his children and two other workers. It makes them a living but not much more. What prevents growth? Chinese competition, says Berta Valladares, one of his daughters. Sales were better 15 years ago, she says. Orders have risen recently, but only because the family has accepted lower margins.

Expanding would require more capital, adds Mr Valladares. He cherishes his British Bentley Komet knitting machines, bought second-hand from factories; but the technology predates the second world war. He has no more space in his house. After falling behind on loan repayments, he sold his cars and sends goods to market by taxi. He doesn’t do business with banks any more. “I want a quiet life,” he says. His daughter dreams of studying business or getting a job that would train her in computerised production. But she must combine her work with care for two children.

Latin America has large modern companies, some of which have evolved into successful multinationals. But the typical Latin American business resembles the Valladares workshop, lacking scale, technology and professional management.

There are several reasons why Latin American firms find it hard to be more productive. Andrés Velasco, who was Chile’s finance minister, stresses the lack of competition in what, Brazil and Mexico apart, are smallish national markets. Achieving greater scale is vital for raising productivity, and that means going abroad. But despite much talk about integration Latin America is still quite protectionist. Growing beyond the region is hard, given South America’s location. As Mr Velasco points out, exporters in Germany or China have 20% of the world economy within fair proximity (less than 3,000km); their Chilean counterparts have no such advantage. So global value chains may be out of reach. “To sell to Asia you have to sell the whole product, not part of it,” he says.

Another old explanation for low productivity is that half of Latin Americans work in informal non-registered businesses, which struggle to obtain technology and capital; such firms compete unfairly with legal ones and make their tax burden bigger. Santiago Levy of the IDB believes that some governments have encouraged the informal economy by setting up non-contributory pensions and free health insurance alongside traditional contributory social insurance schemes that tax formal employment.

Informality is in part a consequence of baroque regulation which adds to business costs. Piero Ghezzi, Peru’s production minister, laments that one of the country’s few industrial estates, in Tacna on the Chilean border, has no tenants although it offers exemption from corporate income tax; that is because the procedures to set up there are so complicated. He is deploying a small team of “de-bureaucratisers” to try to sweep away regulatory obstacles.

No through road
An even more powerful brake on productivity is the region’s lack of roads, ports and so on.

While China invests 9% of its GDP in infrastructure and India 6%, Latin America manages just 3%, according to CAF, a development bank. Lack of money is no longer the main problem: countries such as Chile, Colombia and Peru have mobilised private finance for infrastructure.

Rather, it is the difficulty of building anything. Take Peru, the fastest-growing of Latin America’s bigger economies over the past ten years. Between 2005 and 2013 the government awarded contracts for 62 infrastructure projects worth $15 billion. But only 55% of the money has been spent, says Gonzalo Prialé, a lobbyist.

Drive south from Lima and the motorway stops in the booming, chaotic farming town of Chincha, which can take an hour to traverse. A contract to build a bypass was signed in 2005, but governments have failed to expropriate the necessary land. Then there are the permits required before you start pouring concrete. Environmental impact studies take three years on average, says Mr Prialé. A 1,100km gas pipeline in the south of the country needs 4,102 separate permits. In May Peru’s Congress passed a law to speed this process, but its effectiveness remains to be seen.

Shoddy roads and public transport have dire effects in big cities. Latin Americans often face a daily two-hour commute each way in overcrowded buses. Many, like the Valladares family, opt to set up their own, not-very-productive business on their doorstep. Santiago is the only big Latin American capital with a metropolitan transport authority. Lack of urban planning means that firms often find it hard to get land onto which they can expand.

A third traditional explanation for low productivity is an ill-educated workforce. Latin America has made huge strides in expanding educational coverage. But the quality of teaching in schools is poor: the eight Latin American countries that participated in the PISA international tests of 15-year olds all came in the bottom third of the ranking. Some economists caution that schooling is no panacea; there is little evidence directly linking more education to higher productivity. They point to the danger that sociology graduates will drive taxis—unless governments try to stimulate the demand for, as well as the supply of, better-qualified workers.

Pisco sweet and sour
Battle through Chincha and 100km further on you arrive in Ica. There, in a low building at the entrance to the town, amid vineyards, stands the Centre for Agroindustrial Technological Innovation. Founded by the government in 2000 with Spanish aid and private support, it has helped to raise productivity in Peru’s grape, wine and pisco industries. It advises farmers, for a fee, and offers them the services of a small research laboratory and a model distillery.

Since 2000 output of grapes per hectare has more than doubled. Peru is now the third-biggest exporter of table grapes to China; annual production of pisco, a grappa-style brandy, has risen from 1.8m litres to 7.8m, says Pedro Olaechea, a winemaker who chairs the centre’s board.

Peruvian pisco, an ancient product, is starting to gain a global name. Mr Ghezzi, the production minister, has plans for several more such technology centres, starting with leather goods, forestry and dairy products.

Latin America has traditionally been poor at innovation. Its spending on research and development as a share of GDP is less than half that in developed countries. Farming is a shining exception. In Brazil, agriculture “is the only sector that has put technology at the heart of its business,” says José Roberto Mendonça de Barros, an economist in São Paulo. The latest innovation, pioneered by Enalta, a firm in upstate São Paulo, is called “precision farming” and involves installing sensors in farm machinery to control planting and fertiliser use, boosting productivity. Almost half the farmers in Mato Grosso have adopted the technology, says Mr Mendonça de Barros. He expects agribusiness to grow by 2.5% this year, even as the rest of Brazil’s economy contracts.
From Bolivia with love—and frustration

Extracting more value from natural resources by applying technology is part of Latin America’s future. But the region also needs to develop new businesses, in industry and services.

The IDB, in an influential report last year, called for “productive development policies”, in which governments try to foster such new enterprises.

Heavy-handed industrial policies have often failed in Latin America. Comperj in Itaboraí is just the latest example. The new approach calls for a lighter touch, to provide things—from training in specific skills, to new roads, or grants for innovation—whose absence may deter private investment.

For example, Costa Rica’s investment agency helped to develop a surgical-devices industry by persuading an American firm to set up a sterilising service. Start-Up Chile offers a grant and visa to would-be tech entrepreneurs from around the world. It has survived, with tweaks, a change of government. The new administration realised it was a global brand; although few foreigners set up lasting businesses in Chile, local participants learned from their risk-taking approach. “We realised it was a very powerful tool to change the culture,” says Eduardo Bitrán of Corfo, Chile’s economic-development agency.

Over the past 15 years only one Latin American country has become an important node in the world trading system, notes Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank’s chief economist for the region. Mexico has joined global value-chains, diversified its exports and moved into more complex products. And yet Mexico’s economic growth (averaging 2.4% a year for 20 years) and productivity have disappointed.

One theory is that Mexico has too many monopolies, especially in services: the reforms undertaken by Enrique Peña Nieto, the president, may remedy that. Others cite a weak legal culture and contract enforcement, and violent crime, as factors that deter investment. The underlying problem is the gulf in productivity between large modern companies, mainly in the north of the country, and small, informal producers and the south.

The same goes for other countries. “The problem of Latin America is that it has not been able to replicate its better-performing regions nationally,” says Mr Hausmann. Doing so requires better transport, the upgrading of skills, more competition and the spread of technology.

During the commodity boom, many governments could ignore that challenge. They can’t any longer.