- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

SAO PAULO, Brazil
Dozens of workers in a small factory in this vast industrial city churn out parts for pressure cookers, essential items in most Latin American kitchens.
But the management of Acessorios para Panela de Pressao, set in a blue-collar neighborhood, is worried about an economic threat half a world away that could lead to reduced sales and layoffs: a U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Higher oil prices linked to fears of war have already boosted inflation from Brazil to Chile. And a much-anticipated regional economic recovery is on hold, with concerns that the situation could get worse before it gets better.
Brazilian sales of Acessorios' parts for pressure cookers widely used to make feijoada, Brazil's national dish of black beans, rice and pork are down 50 percent since January because of double-digit inflation and consumer uncertainty over the economy's direction.
The firm has managed to maintain production and its 85-employee staff only because of a spurt in exports to countries like Colombia and Ecuador.
But demand could plummet beyond Brazil's borders if war breaks out and consumers across the region limit spending and decide to use their old pressure cookers longer, said company manager Luciana Pereira Lopes.
"Usually, sales pick up after Carnival," which takes place in early March this year, she said. "But the uncertain thing is how the war could affect the Brazilian economy and the external market."
War fears have already hurt Latin American stock markets, curtailed foreign investment and prompted investors to push down the value of currencies in countries like Mexico, Chile and Brazil.
While their devalued currencies have helped Latin America boost crucial exports to the United States and Europe, analysts warn that a war could reduce global demand for goods ranging from Brazil's diverse manufactured and agricultural products to Chilean wine.
"Right now, talk of war has stalled everything," said Ricardo Amorim, head of Latin American research at the New York-based IDEAGlobal. "If war breaks out and the world economy performs worse, the impact on the Latin American economy will be deeper."
The economies of Brazil and Argentina were hit particularly hard last year. Mexico also suffered because its economy is so tightly linked to the United States, and could face tough times in war if the U.S. economy stumbles more.
Analysts say Argentina wouldn't suffer as much as Mexico or Brazil if war breaks out because the country has already struck rock economic bottom, pummeled by a five-year recession that has condemned one in two Argentines to poverty and 18 percent to joblessness.
Brazil's economy South America's largest turned sour last year on investor concerns that its new leftist president might implement policies that could lead to a default on the country's massive foreign debt.
Since taking office Jan. 1, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has pleased markets by filling key economic posts with moderates who say Brazil won't adopt unorthodox fiscal changes.
Mr. Lula da Silva's aides have pledged to fight inflation, and Brazil's central bank continued that course yesterday by raising the benchmark interest rate to 26.5 percent from 25.5 percent.
But the Brazilian economy still struggles because of war fears, with experts warning it will deteriorate if fighting begins.
Some speculate Brazil might have to return to the International Monetary Fund to seek funds beyond the record $30.7 billion loan it secured last year. Others say Mr. Lula da Silva may have to make additional budget cuts, after announcing $3.9 billion in cuts earlier this month.
The war talk is already directly having an impact on some Brazilian companies. Shares of Embraer, the world's fourth-largest commercial aircraft maker, slumped last week after a regional carrier for Continental Airlines delayed deliveries of new planes.
And Brazilian moving company Granero Transportes was forced to cut costs because Brazilian businesses and families are nervous about moving, said marketing director Julio Pires.
Besides higher gas costs for its fleet of 1,000 trucks, the price of cardboard boxes Granero uses rose about 45 percent in recent months. The company cut 30 jobs from its 1,000-employee work force, parked some trucks and reduced spending on advertising and maintenance.
"We're in the cascade effect right now," Mr. Pires said. "When gas goes up, everything goes up. If it wasn't for the threat of war, the economy would be improving, not getting worse."


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