UPDATE 2-Mexican front-runner eyes quick reforms-aide

Fri Mar 16, 2012 11:22pm EDT

* PRI government would seek to tap more foreign investors

* Energy, fiscal reforms top priorities for Pena Nieto

* Campaign chief says PRI will foster competition

By Dave Graham and Anahi Rama

MEXICO CITY, March 16 (Reuters) - A government headed by Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto would seek to tap foreign capital markets more and push ahead quickly with energy and tax reforms if he wins the July 1 election, his campaign chief said on Friday.

Luis Videgaray, seen by many as a possible finance minister under Pena Nieto, who belongs to the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), told Reuters that his candidate was adamant about the need to boost sluggish domestic lending.

Videgaray noted that the vast majority of Mexican federal debt was sold in pesos - to the extent that the government risked crowding out private sector lending. So it ought to raise the proportion that it sells to foreign investors, he said.

Asked whether a PRI administration, which would begin in December 2012, would issue more of that debt denominated in dollars or euros, Videgaray said:

"More in all (currencies). The thing is to take the decision to be funded more in international markets and less in local markets in order to free up domestic gold. The thing is (to see) how far international markets let us get," he added.

Videgaray detailed a range of economic reforms in the interview that suggested the PRI would be far more market-friendly in power than it has been since 2000, when it became the opposition party.

Changes also need to be made to rules governing bank capitalization and reserves that currently "penalize" lenders, Videgaray said. And it is vital to create a development bank in Mexico to spur commercial lending, Videgaray added.

Domestic credit of all kinds provided by the banking sector was 45 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product in 2010 - far behind the United States, where the equivalent figure was 231.4 percent of GDP that year. In Latin America's biggest economy, Brazil, bank lending was more than double Mexico's rate.

Investors are hopeful Pena Nieto, 45, will push through stalled reforms in Mexico if he is elected.

In recent polls, Pena Nieto had a lead of between 7 and 18 points over his nearest rival, Josefina Vazquez Mota of President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN).

Until the PAN took power in 2000, the centrist PRI ruled Mexico for more than 70 years, a reign that was often dogged by accusations of corruption and authoritarianism.

Several of the domestic reform plans outlined by Videgaray echo measures proposed by the PAN under Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox, whose efforts to overhaul the Mexican economy were often thwarted by the PRI in opposition.

MORE COMPETITION

Videgaray, who served as finance minister in the State of Mexico when Pena Nieto was governor, said the PRI would seek to foster competition in all sectors, including the telecommunication industry that tycoon Carlos Slim dominates.

There is broad consensus in Mexico among the three main presidential hopefuls on the need to shake up competition, though progress has been halting due to political standoffs in Congress, where no party has had a majority for 15 years.

A government headed by Pena Nieto would create special tribunals to handle competition disputes, which can get bogged down for years in legal maneuvering in Mexico, Videgaray said.

Another of Pena Nieto's principal priorities to help boost Latin America's second biggest economy is to improve Mexico's weak tax take, which has made the government heavily dependent on state oil monopoly Pemex for revenues.

A fiscal reform might extend to ending a value added tax exemption on food and medicine, if a way to offset the impact on the poor can be found, Videgaray added. Politicians, particularly in the PRI, have been wary of such a move because about half of Mexico's population lives in poverty.

If the PRI wins the election, it would also push for quick approval of legislation aimed at liberalizing Mexico's labor market, Videgaray said. A bill designed to do this has been stalled in Congress for months, partly due to PRI objections.

"The key issue in the labor market is flexibility," he said.

Turning to foreign policy, Videgaray said ties with the United States, where Mexico sends nearly 80 percent of its exports, would be the most important for Pena Nieto.

U.S. efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration, and Mexican concerns over the treatment of undocumented workers have vexed policymakers on both sides of the border for years. Videgaray said the PRI would seek to ease tensions.

"Mexico will be interested in seeing how we can help the U.S. government to create the political conditions in the U.S. Congress for immigration reform in the United States," he said. "Our stance won't be to demand immigration reform, it'll be how can we help with an immigration reform."

Videgaray also floated the idea that the two sides should increase cross-border integration in the service sector.

He said one potential example that may be worth exploring is whether state-backed U.S. welfare programs like Medicaid or Medicare could be used to pay for some medical services in Mexico, arguing that the lower cost of treatment south of the border could result in major savings for U.S. public finances.

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