Category Archives: Peru

Street Markets 101: On Money Laundering, Foreign Exchange and Counterfeit US Dollars

I’ll begin with the spoiler for those of you who should have been somewhere else five minutes ago:

The Mexican peso trades at a 50% discount on the streets of Peru and I believe this is somehow related to Peru being the top source of counterfeit U.S. dollars in the world.

That’s the basic thesis.

What is about to come next is a series of observations, some postulations, an educated guess or two, and a some rough idea of where to go next.

Contained nowhere in here is actual proof, in the Euclidean sense of the concept. But I’ll defend that by saying that what this brain dump is about is so off the radar that the only possible proof to have is to be an actual perpetrator. So, not being a perpetrator, what I can spell out here is my thought process, and I wholeheartedly welcome comment from anyone who can fill in any of the gaps I’ve left, or better yet, prove me wrong.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the data.

This whole idea began with a simple observation: upon landing in Lima’s airport, the first currency changers available—the ones you see before even clearing customs—offer to sell Peruvian soles in exchange for travelers’ American and Canadian dollars, Japanese yen, British pounds, euros, Swiss francs and Mexican pesos, quoted in terms of how many soles you can expect to receive per unit of your foreign currency. Considering that the first currency changers available upon landing at any airport anywhere in the world will never give the best exchange rate, the rates in Lima’s airport do not depart from current market rates as much as they could.

The single exception is the Mexican peso.

The number of Peruvian soles one can expect to receive per Mexican peso in the Lima airport is quoted as “0.1”. What does this mean?

To equate this to something understandable, we can use the old cross-canceling technique of multiplying fractions with different units. Here’s what happens when we do that:

1 Mexican peso            2.5 Peruvian soles           25 Mexican pesos
——————–         X    ———————-            =      ———————-
0.1 Peruvian soles        1 US dollar                       1 US dollar

Yes, you’re reading that correctly: that’s 25 Mexican pesos per dollar. Look up the going market rate for Mexican pesos, and you’ll see them trading, as of this writing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12.3 to the dollar.

So, anyone landing in Lima wanting to change Mexican pesos for Peruvian soles at the airport will do so at an implied devaluation of the peso on the order of 50%.

Put another way: you’re going to spend twice as many Mexican pesos as you should to acquire Peruvian soles.

Granted, this is in the airport. Clearly the next step was to see if any casa de cambio in central Lima takes Mexican pesos. The answer to that question is yes, as should be expected of any fully convertible currency in world markets. The rate I was quoted at the casa de cambio around the corner from my hotel was 20 Mexican pesos per dollar. This is better than 25, but not by much; the implied devaluation here is still nearly approaching 40%.

Now, one could argue there is fault in my sample size, that the data only came from the Miraflores neighborhood, which skews it this way or that way…in short, there are always more data points to gather. But for these purposes, for what I’m trying to establish, I do not believe more evidence beyond the airport and the wealthiest neighborhood in Lima is going to materially alter the findings.

Meanwhile, changing US dollars on the street in Lima can be done for very little, if any divergence from the market rate. The single data point I have here—drawn from the casa de cambio that was willing to take 20 Mexican pesos per US dollar—was receiving 258 Peruvian soles for $100 on April 23, which, according to oanda, was exactly the market rate that day.

To further demonstrate the relative demand for US dollars in Peru, my hotel bill for a recent three-night stay there was quoted as payable with 1,386 soles or US$462, which implies a USDPEN rate of 3.0. Given the market rate of 2.58 Peruvian soles per dollar, this means the hotel was willing to devalue its own currency by 14%.

I don’t know if the hotel would have been willing to take Mexican pesos, but that’s unnecessary for a preliminary conclusion here. The 50% devaluation penalty for changing Mexican pesos in Peru is more than just statistically significant. It’s basically the Peruvian foreign exchange establishment saying, “You’re either stupid or a drug dealer.”

As it so happens, Peru is the largest producer of counterfeit US dollars in the world. Coincidence?

Suppose it is. An alternative conclusion here could be that the more convertible a country’s currency is on an international scale, the less it will charge you when you try changing more “exotic” currencies for the local money.

On that front, I’ve since checked so-called “street” FX rates for Mexican pesos in New York, London, Toronto and São Paulo. In every one of those markets, the implied USDMXN rate ranges from 13.0 to 14.5, with the 13.0 rate coming unexpectedly from Sao Paulo. That São Paulo’s rate for pesos is actually better than New York, Toronto or London kind of goes against any theory that greater convertibility reduces the peso spread.

Where this goes next:

It’s probably worth checking Mexican peso rates in Bogotá as another frame of reference, not just for another Latin American country, but another transit point of known narco-related money laundering in the hemisphere. I have no idea what to expect here but am looking into it.

Drunkeynesian, who aided me with the São Paulo data, additionally offers this comment:

“I like your thesis, and I would add to it a premium for the difficulty to convert Mexican pesos in another “liquid” currency. In a country where there are many Mexicans (or people traveling to Mexico), rates should be better, since if you’re a FX broker and you get some Mexican pesos you won’t have to wait long until you make some profit. If this is valid, this premium should grow with the local interest rate (to compensate for the opportunity cost).”

To be continued.

China Latin America Trade: Who’s Dependent On Whom?

Yes, I am obsessed with charts. And if you’re still reading this blog with any regularity, you are too. Especially if they’re about China Latin America trade.

I finally had a chance to dig through a BBVA report from last month entitled, “How dependent is Latin America’s Economy on China?” Following are the essential takeaways.

  • Commodities have always taken a significant share of Latin American exports; the level of commodity exports concentration had been declining until the start of this century, which coincides with the further involvement of China in global markets.
  • The shift of China’s economic model makes it the biggest contributor to world commodity demand and the top importer of Latin America’s natural resources.
  • There is a positive China effect on commodity exports concentration; the dependency on Chinese demand for sample commodities has indeed increased during the last decade.
  • However, Latin American countries’ economic growth is far less dependent on China than the commodity exports figures might imply.

Now with those overview bullets out of the way, the first chart that strikes me is shown a few different ways but all with the same conclusion. This is one of the versions, demonstrating the proportion of each country’s exports that are commodities:

2013.03.12.Latam-China commodity exports percent share total

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Chart of the Day: World Gold Production in 2012

World gold production last year, sourced from here. Kind of speaks for itself I think.

Chart Of The Day: Emerging Markets Currency Wars Landscape

This is interesting:

2013.03.06.Swan FX Diagram

2013.03.06.Swan FX Table

And here’s an explanation of what we’re looking at:

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Carry trade returns: winners and losers as of mid-November

From the Hindu Business Line:

Though this comes from a story headlined, “Rupee depreciation erodes carry trade returns”, it’s interesting (though perhaps not surprising) to note that Asia is nowhere in this table.

EMPEA’s Sarah Alexander on a post-BRIC world

An old saw from the journalism universe has it that once you start hearing the same quotes from different people, it means one of two things: either you’ve reported the hell out of the story and it’s time to start writing; or you haven’t dug deeply enough and have more reporting to do.

Helpful, right?

Anyway, Emerging Markets Private Equity Association President Sarah Alexander was on CNBC yesterday saying some things that I know I’ve heard somewhere before…I just can’t remember where…

Basically, for those looking for more assurance they’re not alone, EMPEA members apparently like these countries and regions:

Sub-Saharan Africa

…and these industries:

Health care
Consumer goods

Is there an echo in here?

Latin America Political Risk: perception vs. reality

The Gold Report has an exclusive interview with Carlos Andres chief analyst and managing editor of the Frontier Research Report and the Global Resource Investor that goes into rather gritty detail on risk assessment in the mining sector. If this is your thing, I would recommend reading the entire interview, but following are the bits that grabbed me the most.

On Peru:

Carlos Andres: Now is one of those times where perceived risk is moving close to actual risk. It’s narrowed, even in some of my favorite jurisdictions, like Peru, which is a mining powerhouse and is No. 2 in the world in copper, No. 2 in silver and No. 6 in gold. Nevertheless, it’s experiencing some problems with local unrest to the point where it’s receiving international attention. It’s brought a cloud over Newmont Mining Corp.’s Minas Conga project, which has the green light from government but is moving very slowly in the face of local opposition.
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What Peru’s electricity market says about its economic prospects

During a project a few years ago in Ghana, a government official there told me that one of the unofficial ways his agency attempted to measure informal economic activity was by tracking electricity usage. At the time, I had previously heard that such–no pun intended–off-the-grid methods were on the rise for certain frontier markets as a supplement to more textbook approaches for tracking economic activity, but that was the first time I had actually met someone who was an active practitioner (Dr. Friedrich Schneider of Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, whom I have never personally met, has a sizeable body of work in this niche, this presentation being one example; Hernando de Soto’s work of course goes without saying).

Two recent items have reminded me of that conversation. One is Continue reading

Latin America Infrastructure Project Finance: the top 100

Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Colombia account for two-thirds of the top 100 infrastructure finance projects in Latin America this year, which collectively will total nearly US$200 billion, according to a report by CG/LA Infrastructure, Inc. By sector, the favorite is transportation, accounting for US$90 billion, half of it in Brazil. The obvious indication here is that this is Olympics and World Cup preparation. I’ve refashioned the data in the following graphs to give a more (to me, at least) comprehensive visualization of these numbers:

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A non-ideological defense of capital controls

So the other day my attention was drawn to Peru, first by Inca Kola:

Can you spot the difference between these two excerpts from Peru financial press in the last few days?
1) Julio Velarde, head of Peru’s Central Bank (BCRP), Friday April 27th:
“We are more worried about a strong rebound in the dollar.”
2) Peru Central Bank, Monday April 30th:
LIMA (Dow Jones)–The Central Reserve Bank of Peru said Monday it will increase reserve requirements and create a new reserve requirement as a preventive measure in order to offset increased liquidity.

And then separately, the FT’s Pan Kwan Yuk asked “Has Peru replaced Brazil as Latin America’s currency warrior?” in an explanation of Peru’s recent imposition of capital controls.

This got me thinking about the general tone that tends to surround capital controls when they are discussed in the global financial news apparatus.
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The Next 5 Emerging Markets To Watch?

As part of the Atlantic Monthly’s sporadic coverage of developing markets, it recently proposed Turkey, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, the DRC and Mexico (with Nigeria as the sixth man coming off the bench) as the next 5 emerging economies to “change the world.” And because I hate websites that force you to click through a different page per item of a list, presumably just to keep you clicking, I am summarizing it all on one page here to make for easier digestion.

Directly from the intro:

“Now that we understand the global hierarchy to be less fixed than it once was, who will rise next? The conditions for a rising power are so complicated and so reliant on outside factors beyond any one country’s control that accurately predicting them would be impossible. Still, some countries seem better positioned and better managed than others.”

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