Mexico's Economy Facts, Opportunities, and Challenges

More Americans Immigrate to Mexico 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, with a GDP of $17.9 trillion. But it was larger than its other North American Free Trade Agreement partner, Canada. Its GDP was only $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 that of the United States, but less than Canada's 3.0 percent growth. 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. That'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, the United States received 81 percent of Mexico's exports. 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 No. 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 almost 3 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 allow its manufacturers duty-free access to 60 percent of the world. That benefit attracts foreign factories. 

International trade, which is exports plus imports, equals 66 percent of the country's GDP. That's much higher than Brazil’s 26 percent or even China’s 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, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He was elected on July 1, 2018 to a six-year term. He promised to end corruption, reduce violence, and address Mexico’s poverty. Voters were fed up with

AMLO, as he is called, promised to review contracts for oil exploration awarded to foreign firms. Mexico's oil industry needs foreign expertise and investment. In the last 14 years, oil production has dropped from 3.5 million to 1.9 million barrels per day. Its refineries are operating at 40 percent capacity.

At the same time, AMLO wants to invest $9.4 billion in the state-owned sector. He would build two new refineries and renovatef six existing ones. He would award the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, $4 billion for exploration. He believes it would boost production to 2.5 million a day within two years.

The former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, awarded 100 contracts to partly privatize Mexico's oil industry. Peña Nieto also strengthened the automobile industry by making it easier for foreign companies to build auto plants. His Pact for Mexico was responsible for convincing Congress to pass 85 major reforms. It tore down monopolies, reformed education, and revamped tax laws. It even passed a new junk-food tax to combat Mexico’s diabetes epidemic.

Prior administrations resisted privatization. Pemex 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 10 years. The CEO was replaced by the Mexican Congress in February 2016.

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, which produces bread; Cemex, cement; and Televisa, televisions. 

Helu's position is threatened by Mexico's new policies of deregulating the telecommunications industry. American 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 increased security spending from 1.5 percent to 5 percent of GDP, the level that worked for Colombia.

Peña Nieto replaced President Felipe Calderón-Hinojosa. He had 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 health care, uphold legal institutions, and protect the environment.

Another challenge is the southern part of the country. It doesn't benefit from the maquiladora program on the northern border. An accounting of NAFTA pros and cons revealed that although 30 percent of Mexico’s labor is employed under maquiladora companies, their working conditions in these companies have been deemed substandard. 

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 to 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.