January 30, 2018 / 3:09 PM / 9 months ago

Mexico's economy rebounds in fourth quarter as elections loom

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s economy bounced back more than expected in the fourth quarter, according to preliminary data, but signs of slowing growth could feed discontent ahead of the presidential election in July.

Gross domestic product in Latin America’s second-biggest economy grew around 1.0 percent in seasonally adjusted terms in the October-December period, compared with the previous quarter, the national statistics agency said on Tuesday.

A Reuters poll had forecast an expansion of 0.6 percent. The economy rebounded after shrinking 0.3 percent in the third quarter as the country recovered from two devastating earthquakes that dented activity in the July-September period.

Higher interest rates and persistent inflation could weigh on consumer demand that helped support the Mexican economy last year amid uncertainty around U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to pull out of a free-trade deal with Mexico.

It is still unclear if Mexico, Canada and the United States will be able to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), adding to concerns about the outcome of Mexico’s presidential race, which a leftist candidate leads in the polls.

“Important investment decisions may potentially be postponed, scaled down or even canceled,” Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos wrote in a note to clients.

Data showed that the industrial sector edged up 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter compared with the prior quarter, crimped by a decline in oil production.

Agriculture grew 3.1 percent on a quarter-on-quarter basis while services grew 1.2 percent.

Mexico’s central bank is expected to hike interest rates again in February to contain a surge in inflation. Higher prices and more expensive loans could weigh on consumer demand, analysts said.

Mexico’s economy grew 1.8 percent in unadjusted terms compared with the same quarter a year earlier, the agency said.

For full-year 2017, the economy expanded at an unadjusted 2.1 percent rate, down from 2.9 percent in 2016. That is the lowest annual rate of expansion since 2013, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s first full year in office.

“The Mexican economy is surviving rather than thriving,” said Neil Shearing, an economist at Capital Economics.

Pena Nieto promised to boost Mexico’s anemic growth rates by passing major economic reforms, such as opening the energy sector to private investment. But an oil price slump sabotaged hopes to supercharge growth, as Pena Nieto had promised.

Slack growth could fuel support for opposition candidates in the July 1 election.

A poll on Monday showed leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador consolidated support in his bid for the Mexican presidency, but the race has tightened as another opposition contender gained ground while the ruling party trailed.

Reporting by Michael O'Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon; editing by Paul Simao and G Crosse

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