Activity to cool in 2023
After returning to its preCOVID19 level in 2022, GDP growth is set to lose momentum in 2023. Household consumption (59% of GDP) is expected to drive activity, as inflationary pressures ease throughout the year and the job market remains relatively solid, notably amid a gradual rebound in tourism. This sector is a mainstay of the economy and accounted for 16.4% of GDP and 16.3% of employment in 2019, before the COVID19 shock. However, the weakening of activity in neighbouring Brazil and Argentina could drag somewhat on the tourism upturn. Meanwhile, foreign sales should start to bear the fruits of the new UPM plant (contributing to expand pulprelated exports). In addition, expansion of traditional exports (which includes beef, soybean, dairy, rice and wood products, and accounts for 16% of GDP) will decelerate from their strong showings in 2021 and 2022, as growth momentum in its main trade partners (China, Brazil and the European Union) weakens, and assuming some softening of agriculture commodity prices during 2023.
Moreover, for the third consecutive year, the La Niña represents a downside risk to the 20222023 crop. Last, gross fixed investment growth should lose steam, weighed down by higher global borrowing costs and by the termination of large projects, such as the construction of UPM pulp factory and the restoration of the FerrocarrilCentral Railway (both expected for Q1 2023). Investments are expected to be primarily directed towards exportrelated industries, renewable energy (currently supplying over 90% of the country’s electrical grid, including hydroelectric) and improving road infrastructure.
Contained current account deficit & minor progress in fiscal consolidation
The current account deficit will further narrow in 2023. The slowdown in domestic demand and the expected relatively minor decline energy commodity prices should contribute to a milder rise in imports. This trend should outpace weaker export growth. In addition, the services balance, which switched back to a surplus in 2022, will continue to improve in 2023, as freight costs decline, and travel revenues rebound. Finally, lower repatriation of foreign companies’ profits will also help shrink the primary income deficit. On the financing side, foreign direct investment will continue to comfortably cover the current account deficit. Moreover, as at August 2022, foreign currency reserves stood at USD 15.9 billion, covering roughly 14 months of imports. Finally, total external debt stood at 80% of GDP at Q2 2022, with the consolidated public sector’s share representing 45%.
Regarding the public account, the fiscal deficit should remain broadly stable in 2023. Weaker activity growth will limit the expansion of tax revenues, while the government´s fiscal consolidation efforts could be somewhat watered down by political and union opposition. Furthermore, the government continues to count on one of the lowest borrowing costs in Latin America. While public debt is large and increased because of the crisis, the authorities have gradually increased its share denominated in local currency (52.9% in Q2 2022, compared with barely 11.5% in 2005) and lengthened its average maturity, thereby reducing its vulnerability.
President Lacalle Pou tries to move with reforms amid decent (albeit weaker) popular support
Luis Lacalle Pou of the centreright Partido Nacional (PN), who took office in March 2020, does not govern with an outright majority in the bicameral General Assembly. However, thanks to a “rainbow” coalition including the PN and four other parties ranging from the centreright (Partido Independiente) to the far right (Cabildo Abierto), the ruling power governs with a legislative simple majority. In addition, an oppositionled referendum held in March 2022 rejected the proposed repeal of 135 articles of the Urgent Consideration Act (LUC) law, representing a victory for the incumbent power. The LUC, which was enacted in July 2020, is considered a central pillar of the government agenda. It includes tougher sentences for crime, restricting the right to go on strike, education reforms, implementing fiscal constraints and increasing the role of the private sector. Furthermore, in July 2022, a pension reform bill was presented, which aims to aggregate the current multiple pension schemes into a single system and to gradually raise the retirement age from 60 to 65. On balance, Lacalle Pou has maintained a decent approval rating (47% in August 2022), although it is slipping. For instance, rising inflation throughout 2022 resulting in eroding purchasing power has sparked occasional protests since June 2022, which have been mostly led by unions. Moreover, his popularity could also be dented by the arrest of his personal security detail in late September 2022 for allegedly participating in a scheme to help Russians illegally obtain Uruguayan passports. Last, regarding Uruguay’s foreign trade policy, Lacalle Pou has argued that Mercosur countries should be able negotiate free trade agreements separately from the other members of the bloc. In July 2022, the country announced that it would launch formal trade negotiations with China.