Mexico's Economy Facts, Opportunities, and Challenges

Fewer Mexicans Immigrate to America Than Vice Versa

Auto assembly line, Mexico City, Mexico
••• Auto assembly line, Mexico City, Mexico. Ed Lallo/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Mexico is quickly becoming an emerging market heavy-weight. In 2017, its gross domestic product was $2.4 trillion. This was much less than its primary trading partner, the United States ($17.9 trillion) but larger than its other NAFTA partner, Canada ($1.6 trillion). Mexico's geographic size is equivalent to Saudi Arabia. But it supports five times as many people while exporting one-fourth of the oil.

Mexico's 2017 GDP growth rate was 2.1 percent, about the United States, but less than Canada's 3.0 percent growth. same as its other NAFTA partners. Mexico's growth has slowed since 2016,  when it was 2.3 percent. Its standard of living, as measured by GDP per capita, was $19,500. It's less than half of its other NAFTA partners.

Mexico's Economy Depends on Exports 

Mexico is the 13th largest exporter in the world. In 2017, 81 percent of its exports went to the United States. Trade with the United States and Canada has tripled since NAFTA's signing in 1994. More than 90 percent of Mexico's trade is under 12 free trade agreements. Mexico has agreements with 44 countries, more than any other nation. These trade agreements are a big reason for Mexico's success.

Mexico manufactures and exports the same amount of goods as the rest of Latin America combined. Foreign trade is a larger percentage of Mexico's economy than any other large country. Mexico's #1 export is manufactured products. It also exports silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, and cotton.

Mexico is the world's eighth largest producer of oil, at nearly three million barrels per day. This is less than Canada, Iran, or Iraq but more than other big exporters such as Kuwait, Brazil, or Nigeria.  

Mexico imports machinery for metalworking and agriculture. It also imports electrical equipment, automobile and aircraft parts, and steel mill products. 

Why Mexico Is Attractive to Investors

Mexico's economy and culture are changing. Until 2012, Mexico's economy underperformed Brazil's. Mexico is now a major manufacturing center for electronics. That includes most of the flat-screen TVs sold in the United States. It also makes medical devices and aerospace parts. 

Mexico's trade agreements allows its manufacturers duty-free access to 60 percent of the world. That benefit attracts foreign factories. 

International trade (exports plus imports) equals 66 percent of the country's GDP. That's much higher than Brazil (26 percent) or even China (42 percent). This emphasis on trade makes Mexico's companies globally competitive. Gruma is the world's largest tortilla maker. Bimbo is the largest bread maker since it acquired U.S. baker Sara Lee. Mexican companies have access to the U.S. market. They also share a common language with the rest of Latin America.

Mexico grew from the ninth to the seventh largest auto manufacturer in the world between 2010 and 2015. It's the fourth largest auto exporter. It recently surpassed Japan as the second-largest U.S. auto parts exporter.

Economic Influences

Part of the change includes a new President, Enrique Peña Nieto. In December 2013, Congress passed his bill, proposed in August, to partly privatize Mexico's oil industry to attract the foreign direct investment needed. Foreign oil companies could share in any profits from oil recovered from new wells. If the terms are right, this would allow exploration of Mexico's rich deep-water oil fields and its natural gas reserves. Foreign investors will help extract more oil only if they can share in the revenue.

 

Privatization was resisted by prior administrations.The country's oil monopoly, Pemex, was state-owned and sent all its revenues to the federal government. As a result, about one-third of the government’s income is dependent on oil. Instead of investing in developing new fields, the government had been treating Pemex like a cash cow, trying only to maximize short-term profit. As a result, production fell 25 percent in the last ten years. The CEO was replaced by Congress in February 2016. The new CEO must become competitive in the face of lower oil prices.

President Peña Nieto is also looking to privatize electricity generation, lowering its price. Investors also like Mexico's involvement in NAFTA, the independence of its central bank, and its fiscal restraint. (Source: "Mexico Vows to Overhaul Oil and Gas Industries," The Wall Street Journal,  August 13, 2013.)

Mexico built up its infrastructure to enhance trade. That made Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican telecom tycoon, the world's richest man in 2007. He retained that title until 2013 when Microsoft founder Bill Gates regained that position. Helu owns three companies: América Móvil, Telmex, and Grupo Financiero Inbursa.  They control 70 percent of mobile phones, 80 percent of home phone lines, and 70 percent of broadband.

This lack of competition hampers growth. Mobile-phone penetration in Mexico is only 85 percent, about the same as Iraq. A fast broadband connection costs double, the same as in Chile. Other near-monopolies include Bimbo (bread), Cemex (cement), and Televisa (television). 

Helu's position is threatened by Mexico's new policies of deregulating the telecommunications industry. America company AT&T is entering the market thanks to lowered tariffs. 

Challenges to Mexico's Economy

The biggest challenge is getting rid of the drug cartels. President Peña Nieto's focus is to increase security spending from 1.5 percent to 5 percent of GDP -- the level that worked for Colombia. He would draft 40,000 soldiers into the police departments. 

President Peña Nieto replaced President Felipe Calderón-Hinojosa. He initiated a controversial crackdown on organized crime and corrupt local police.  It created an all-out war. That increased violence including retaliation against civilians by the cartels. Many Mexicans blamed Calderon for upsetting the cartels and increasing violence.

Calderon had reason to be concerned. After Colombia's crackdown, many of its cocaine operations simply moved to Mexico. Without stringent controls, the cartels take over local governments. Calderon cracked down to improve Mexico's economic competitiveness. He also took steps to provide better healthcare, uphold legal institutions, and protect the environment.

President Pena has promised to upgrade schools, roads, and healthcare services, and modernize the tax system and labor laws. His biggest challenge is the southern part of the country. It doesn't benefit from the maquiladora program on the northern border. For more, see NAFTA Pros and Cons

Surprising Facts About Mexico and Immigration

Many Americans worry about illegal immigration from Mexico. The country is actually gaining immigrants itself. The legal foreign-born population doubled from 2000 - 2010. It's now one million total. Of these, 750,000 are Americans. As a result, more Americans have immigrated to Mexico over the past few years than vice-versa. 

Furthermore, the country's birth rate is trending down. It may soon be below that of the United States. The violence associated with drug cartels continues, as Mexico is a major underground trade route to U.S. addicts. However, the country's murder rate is slowly falling for the first time in five years. (Source: "After Darkness, Dawn," The Economist, November 24, 2012.)