Cablegate: Nicaragua's Economic Decline Continues


DE RUEHMU #1128/01 3101529
R 061527Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Nicaragua's Economic Decline Continues



1. (SBU) While forecasts of Nicaragua's 2009 economic growth rate differ slightly, they all point to a gloomy horizon, despite signs that the global economic crisis is coming to a close. A recent consumer and business confidence survey found that most Nicaraguans share this pessimism. According to data from the third quarter and/or the first six months of 2009, Nicaraguan exports have decreased, remittances from Nicaraguans working abroad have declined, and foreign direct investment (FDI) has decreased for the first time since 2002. Unemployment and underemployment remain critical problems. To make matters worse, Nicaragua's agricultural belt is experiencing a major drought (Ref A). Domestic political factors have greatly contributed to an increasingly poor commercial climate. The GON's three budget cuts this year have resulted in decreased infrastructure spending, while many key government agencies (such as customs) are working only half-days, affecting the private sector's ability to do business. One bright spot, however, is inflation, down dramatically from 2008.

Negative Forecasts

2. (U) The Nicaraguan economy faces a challenging future. A
prominent local think tank, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic
and Social Development (FUNIDES), forecasts a GDP decrease of 2 to
3.5% for 2009 and a decrease of 1 to 2% for 2010. Alejandro Arauz,
a respected independent economist, estimates that Nicaraguan GDP
will fall from 2.2 to 3.3% this year, while The Economist's
Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), in its September 2009 report,
forecasted a GDP decrease of 3.1%. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan
Central Bank (BCN) recently reported a 2.1% decrease in the
country's GDP during the first six months of 2009.

3. (U) According to the BCN's Index of Monthly Economic Indicators
(IMAE), hard-hit sectors included manufacturing (especially apparel
and automobile-part assembly as well as food processing), retail,
hotels and restaurants, transportation, telecommunications,
financial services and, above all, construction. The IMAE reported
a decrease in construction activity of 18% from January to August
of 2009. The sector has been impacted by a decrease in capital
spending and a lack of credit for private investment.

4. (U) Agricultural production fared better. Planted areas for
rice, sorghum, corn and beans increased during Nicaragua's first
harvest when compared to 2008. The BCN's IMAE reported 3% growth
for the sector from January to August of 2009, a substantial
improvement when compared to 3.9% contraction during the same
period in 2008. Unfortunately, due to the lack of rainfall caused
by the "El Ni????o" climatic phenomenon, the second harvest is
expected to be very meager (Ref A).

5. (U) Meanwhile, according to recent data from the International
Monetary Fund, the GON pursued an expansionary fiscal policy
(higher salaries and pensions) during the first half of 2009,
resulting in a 5% increase in the IMAE for central government
spending so far in 2009.

Labor and Unemployment

6. (U) Measuring the unemployment rate in Nicaragua is difficult,
as official GON statistics are unreliable. However, data from the
Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS) report the number of
registered employees, which approximates the number of people
working in the formal sector. During the first six months of 2009,
registered INSS employees increased by only 1.3%, compared to an
increase of 9% over the same period in 2008. As of August 2009,
there were 506,073 people registered in the INSS system. According
to INSS data, employment expanded in agriculture, transportation
and utilities, while it contracted in the manufacturing and
construction sectors. The BCN reports that the unemployment rate
in Nicaragua is between 4 and 5%. However, as 65% of the labor
force works in the informal sector, most economists believe that
the true unemployment figure is much higher, and underemployment
higher still.

Foreign Investment Down for the First Time in 6 Years

7. (U) According to ProNicaragua, the GON's investment promotion
agency, in 2008 foreign direct investment (FDI) totaled $626
million, equivalent to 9.9% of GDP and a 64% increase over 2007.
However, during the first six months of 2009, FDI decreased by 9%
compared to the same period in 2008. Overall investment was $231
million for the first half of 2009, and investment in free trade
zones (FTZs) diminished significantly, down from $89 million in
2008 to $50 million in 2009, a 44% decrease. According to
ProNicaragua, this negative trend is likely to continue in the near

Decreases in Imports, Exports and Remittances

8. (U) Nicaraguan exports, especially to the United States, had
steadily increased since the late 1990s. Coffee, apparel, cattle,
dairy products, gold, and peanuts are the most important exports.
In 2008, however, Nicaragua -- like many countries in Central
America -- felt the effects of the global economic crisis. BCN
data show that exports fell by 12% during the first six months of
2009 compared to the same period in 2008, falling from $831 million
to $726 million. Imports also decreased during the same period,
falling by 21%, from $2.1 billion to $1.6 billion. Since imports
decreased at a greater rate than exports, Nicaragua's trade deficit
fell, dropping from $1.2 billion to $863 million. Nicaragua's
trade deficit is equivalent to approximately 13.6% of the country's
GDP. FTZ exports (mostly textiles and apparel, but also automobile
parts and cigars) were also affected. During the first six months
of 2009 they fell by 19% compared to the same period the previous
year. Remittances also fell, falling from $408 million during the
first six months of 2008 to $390 in the first six months of 2009, a
4% decrease. International reserves, however, have remained
stable, increasing by 22% since December of 2008 to $1.3 billion as
of September of 2009.

Inflation Down Dramatically

9. (U) Inflation has declined dramatically so far during 2009. Accumulated inflation in September 2009 was 0.19%, down from 13.97% in September 2008. Because of weak commodity prices and slow demand, the EIU projects that inflation will remain low, but will increase toward the end of the year as seasonal demand increases and oil prices go up. The EIU forecasts that 2009 will conclude with an inflation rate of 2.5%. The nominal depreciation rate of the cordoba under the BCN's crawling peg mechanism has been set at 5% annually, a target that BCN officials believe balances the objectives of controlling prices while assuring external competitiveness. Interest rates among private banks have risen since 2008 as a result of increased political risk in Nicaragua. In September 2009, interest rates for deposits over one year averaged 5.42%, down from 5.63% in the same month in 2008. Likewise, average interest rates for loans of over one year in September of this year were 13.16%, up from 11.29% in 2008. The spread between deposit rates and loan rates increased by 208 basis points from September of 2008 to September of 2009.

Consumer and Business Confidence Low

10. (U) A consumer confidence survey performed by FUNIDES in June of 2009 revealed that 56% of households have experienced a decrease in their purchasing power. Only 16% of interviewed households reported that their incomes (salaries plus remittances) have allowed them to make large purchases such as real estate and automobiles. Expectations for improved purchasing capacity are negative; 44% of households said they expect their situation to be worse in the next twelve months than it is now. Of the interviewed households, 47% reported that their income is negatively affected by perceived increases in the price of food products, followed by increases in the price of utilities and transportation. Inflation and unemployment dominated consumers' concerns. Of the interviewed consumers, 59% believe that salary increases have not kept pace with inflation.

11. (U) Business confidence was also measured by the survey. Most
Nicaraguan companies interviewed reported a decrease in sales, and
75% thought that the economic situation was worse than in 2008.
Likewise, 71% of companies interviewed reported that the current
business climate is worse than in 2008, and 88% said that the
investment climate in Nicaragua is unfavorable. In terms of labor,
76% of surveyed companies said they will maintain their current
levels of employment. Businessmen surveyed reported that
corruption, the political environment, tight credit, the price of
energy, and the cost of raw materials are the most detrimental
factors affecting their operations.


12. (SBU) Nicaragua began to suffer the effects of the global
financial crisis at about the same time as many other Latin
American economies, in late 2008. However, the effects here are
compounded by internal political factors that make it likely
Nicaragua will not see much in the way of economic growth until
2011. President Ortega's initial reaction to the crisis was to
introduce a government austerity program, with measures such as a
shortened workday for GON employees. With customs and other
agencies now working half-days, the result has been to make
government services, on which the private sector depends, even less
efficient. The GON has cut its budget three times in 2009, each
time cutting infrastructure and social spending, while maintaining
-- and even increasing -- bloated civil service payrolls. All the
while, the investment climate continues to deteriorate, as
evidenced by the decline in FTZ investment and a lack of due
process and transparency that has in turn made infrastructure
investment risky (Refs B and C). So, rather than take steps to
improve Nicaragua's competitiveness in the face of economic crisis,
it looks to us like President Ortega is undermining it.

© Scoop Media

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