This Peru boom will run and run

The signs of Peru’s economic growth are everywhere at the moment. At a lunch this weekend a Peruvian friend who lives over here was telling me about how life is changing for her family back home. “Before, practically none of them had left Peru. Now, when they want to relax they go to New York for a long weekend.”

The reason for the fancy holidays? Mining. Her brothers work in the sector and enjoy a bonus of 21-times annual salary. Mining is also changing the nature of Peruvian city life, making it more cosmopolitan. She joked that her British husband, whom she’d met when he worked in one of Peru’s provincial capitals, would be less of a novelty to local women these days.

But these types of stories can make investors nervous. Are long weekends in New York and massive bonuses the sign of a bubble about to burst? Thanks to mineral wealth and massive government investment Peru grew 6.3% last year, one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.

But figures last month revealed that the economy grew at ‘just’ 4.8% in the first quarter, with Peruvian finance minister Miguel Castilla blaming a slowdown in China.

Another worry is that America may start to taper its quantitative easing programme, which could mean an end to the wave of cheap money that has flooded attractive emerging markets like Peru.

I first told MoneyWeek readers to invest in Peru back in April 2012. Now its time to take another look at the country and decide how far this boom can really go…

The four booms of Peru

Of course Peru is no stranger to bubbles. As respected Latin American-focused economic historian Victor Bulmer Thomas notes, Peru has a long history of economic “bonanzas”. In fact, in the modern economic history of Peru this is the fourth bonanza. The country that has lived through the guano boom, the rubber boom and the fishmeal boom, now seems to be enjoying the fruits of the metals and minerals boom.

Each of these booms created immense prosperity and wealth but, at the end of the period, the resultant crash seemed to leave the country even poorer than when it began. The question we need to ask ourselves is what’s different about this boom?

The ‘Guano Age’

Peru’s first modern economic boom came about halfway through the 19th century. Before the boom the newly-independent country was in a terrible way, having run up huge debts to finance its war against the Spanish. Peru won but victory meant Lima lost its status as the Pacific capital of Spain’s Latin American empire. And when what used to be called “upper Peru” broke off as Bolivia, and took the lucrative silver mines with it, the Peruvian economy was left with nothing. Nothing that is, apart from bird poo.

The pre-colonial indigenous population had long used excrement from the guano birds, which piled up in large volumes in their island nests, to fertilise their crops. But when the Spanish came, guano was largely forgotten, as they were more interested in the region’s gold and silver. However, by the mid 19th century, Europe was undergoing a massive population explosion and needed fertiliser to boost agricultural potential. Pretty soon enterprising British businessmen had won concessions to collect and sell the guano to Europe.

The first guano shipment landed in London in 1840. It was a revelation, boosting output, and thus profit, for farmers. Unsurprisingly, demand for the stuff rocketed. In the first two years, just 182 tonnes of guano were shipped to Europe, but over the next 20, that grew to an incredible 435,000 tonnes of guano being sent to Europe.

Guano magnates, like Bristol-based William Gibbs, became extraordinarily rich, while Lima recovered its former glory. Yet even in the midst of the boom there were signs that trouble was brewing. For starters, despite the fact that the guano trade was meant to help Peru pay off its loans, the country’s debt was increasing. That was partly due to the unfair payment system organised by London traders, but it was also down to growing largesse and waste in the Peruvian government. Buoyed by the guano revenue, which by 1860 provided about three quarters of its income, the government began to plan ever more ambitious programmes. To finance these it needed more capital and issued increasing amounts of debt in London, eventually becoming one of the biggest borrowers in the European capital markets.

With hindsight it seems clear it couldn’t last. In 1872, an attempt to raise a then staggering sum of £36,800,000 spooked the markets. The loan was undersubscribed and, for the first time, people started to doubt the guano boom.

Other factors were also starting to hit the guano trade. In many ways it was a victim of its own success as the high price encouraged farmers to explore alternatives such as nitrate fertilisers. Moreover the rapid, poorly conserved extraction of guano meant that resources were becoming depleted. This problem was exacerbated by brutal extraction methods that scared off birds and discouraged them from nesting. The final straw came when the Pacific War broke out between Peru and Bolivia on one side and Chile on the other. Chile temporarily seized Peru’s guano islands and even entered Lima. The four-year war proved the brutal end of the Guano age and left Peru in a worse condition than when it began.

Is history repeating itself?

Over the next century Peru ‘enjoyed’ two similar booms. The first was a rubber and petroleum boom that came to a crashing halt in the wake of the Great Depression. The second was a boom in fishmeal production – instead of waiting for the guano birds to eat the fish and turn it into feedstock, Peruvian companies used modern trawlers to turn the fish directly into fishmeal that could be fed to animals.

All of these boom periods had several shared traits. They were all based on extracting Peru’s natural resources. They were all developed by demand in the leading economic power of the day. For example, the guano and rubber booms were linked to the British economy, while the fishmeal boom was an American affair. They were also all managed badly, leading to resource depletion or environmental damage. And most of them were undermined by domestic or regional political instability.

But perhaps most important of all, the booms failed from a fiscal perspective, never leaving the country any better off than it was before. Indeed, apart from the odd success story – for example Gibbs & Son sold out of the guano trade at the height of the boom in 1861 and the country pile he built with the money, Tyntesfield House, stands to this day – many, especially locals, did poorly out of the booms.

So are we seeing a repeat with Peru’s current metal and minerals boom? There are definitely a lot of similarities. Again Peru’s prosperity is based on extracting natural resources and selling them abroad. Again it finds itself selling to the world’s dominant power – so invariably the relationship means more to Peru than its partner. Although this time China has taken the position formerly held by Britain and the US.

But while the similarities may be striking there are also many positive differences. One is politics. Peru’s relationship with its neighbours is far more stable now. Chile is now a fellow member of the Pacific Alliance and their disagreements about contested land now take place in the international courts rather than the battlefield. On the domestic front, President Humala has his faults – he is generally criticised for being indecisive and poorly managing conflict with local community groups about mining projects. Yet he runs a far more efficient, honest administration than any government in the previous booms.

Even the environmental protests that hold up new mining projects are a positive improvement on previous booms, where wanton brutal extraction left long-term environmental destruction. It is also slowing the rate of increased production, which may not be a bad thing given that previous booms undermined themselves by flooding the global market. Meanwhile the threat of substitutes, such as the sodium nitrate fertiliser that replaced guano and the synthetic rubber that doomed natural latex, still seems far off for the gold, silver, oil, gas and copper of Peru’s boom du jour.

But the most important difference of all is diversification. Don’t get me wrong Peru is heavily dependent on commodities, which account for around 75% of exports, but it’s taking big steps to diversify. Since 2002, the value of the agriculture sector has grown by around 45% and it now accounts for almost 8% of GDP. Meanwhile, the commodity wealth has been reinvested in massive infrastructure programmes, with construction now a major driver of the economy. As I’ve mentioned before, these building programmes will help other sectors by making the country’s companies more competitive.

Peru’s building boom

The fact is Peru has plenty of essential infrastructure that needs to be built. We’re not talking about building white elephants for the sake of propping up GDP figures. In many rural areas basic work such as extending sewage, water and electricity to people still needs to be carried out. Over time sharing the benefits of mining projects in this way is more likely to help win community support.

Moreover, even if commodity prices were to tank, Peru’s prudent macroeconomic policies of the last decade mean that it’s in a position to keep domestic consumption going.

With a budget surplus of 1.2% and around $7bn in a rainy day fund, Peru has ample funds to finance more essential infrastructure works. Another source of funding is local governments who in many cases have built up cash stockpiles during the boom years. The central bank would also be in a good position to help out.

I met Julio Velarde, the central bank governor, when he was in London last month, and he seemed pretty confident. It’s not that he’s blind to the dangers, rather that he feels he’s quite well equipped to deal with them. And with annual inflation comfortably within the 1% to 3% target – no grovelling apology letters from him – and interest rates at 4.25%, you can see why he might feel like that.

I’m not saying Peru won’t slow. I agree with Capital Economics that “growth is unlikely to return to the 7-8% rates witnessed since 2009”. But even Capital Economics’s – more bearish than most – forecast of 5% growth for the next few years hardly sounds like the devastation of the end of the ‘Guano Age’.

This article is taken from The New World, MoneyWeek's FREE regular email of investment ideas and news from Asia and Latin America. For more information visit