Chinchero — Lost in the Clouds of Poor Engineering, Bad Finance

By Nicholas Asheshov ✐

It seems President Kuczynski is to lay the First Stone of the new Chinchero Airport in Cusco this coming week. If so, it will be the third first stone for this sad project. Presidents Toledo and Garcia have preceded him. Some locals say Presidents Belaunde and Fujimori were others. We have to hope President PPK’s stone suffers the same fate. Chinchero is a disaster waiting to happen.

This week top regulatory officials in Lima resigned in protest at the illegal contracts for the financing for Chinchero. But crooked finance contracts are the least of of what has always been a rotten project.

The Cusco city fathers say they need a new airport. This is incorrect. Their object is to grab the valuable building land of the present airport. But even if Cusco needs  a new airport, Chinchero is easily the worst of the alternatives. The Pampa de Anta, nearby, is incomparably better. Anta is dramatically lower in height and is already runway flat.

Chinchero is outside Cusco  at an oxygen-less 500ms higher, on the road to Machu Picchu.

It started off, as these projects do, with funny money. Four years ago the Cusco Regional Government, run then by ‘Humala associate Jorge Coco’ Acurio, paid $70 million for a 330-hectare string of potato fields on the rolling, cold, cloudy massif of Chinchero.

The lucky owners of the fields were the 426 members of a couple of Chinchero’s comunidades. They received $230,000 for each hectare, making them by far the most expensive potato fields in the world. You can buy a hectare of potato field in Idaho, the world’s biggest potato region, for $5,000 per hectare. In expensive southern England, in Devon and Somerset for instance, the same potato field might cost GBP 10,000, one-twentieth of the Acurio Chinchero price.

The Chinchero potato fields are good for potatoes, beans, a couple of sheep and a burro.  They make a lousy airport. Difficult in fact to find a worse location. The average height of this ancient farmland is 3,700 m.a.s.l. The only commercial airport in the world that is higher is El Alto, at 4,000 m.a.s.l., the airport for La Paz. El Alto can be used only for local one-hour , max 90-minute hops down to Cochabamba and Tarija and Santa Cruz. Arica is a ski-jump away, Lima a hop up the coast. But that’s it. El Alto never will be commercial because planes cannot take off at these altitudes with a full load of fuel and passengers.  You can have either a full tank and just a few tourists or lots of tourists and a few gallons of fuel, enough to get down the hill. In the case of Chinchero, that means Lima. As Newton said, apples fall down for free. Bolivia’s international airport is at Santa Cruz at 400 m.a.s.l. Passengers to and from La Paz to Rio, Buenos Aires, Miami and even Lima go via Santa Cruz. Check the timetables.

It will be the same for Chinchero. The bureaucrats and politicians in Cusco and in Lima, at ProInversion and the Ministry of Transport, have taken to calling it the ‘International’ Cusco airport. This is a lie propagated by the under-funded concessionaire, Kunturwasi.  Flights between Chinchero, if this idiot, foggy project goes ahead, will continue to go via Lima, as they do today and till the next century. With one difference. The tickets will cost $300 more than they do today.

Fog, hailstorms, normal in high mountains, add to the Chinchero danger. The glaciers and snowfields of the Cordillera Urubamba, at 6,000 m.a.s.l., loom over Chinchero. They are just a few miles to the north of the Chinchero potato fields. Picturesque, dramatic. Dangerous.

Technological advances in aviation are focused on electronics and nano materials. But Newtonian physics will not change, whatever the Cusqueño powerbrokers seem to think.

It could not get worse? Yes, it does.

The Chinchero massif is a limestone base. For engineers, this means sinkholes. For instance, the Inca terraces at Moray close to Chinchero at the same height, are sinkholes.  The Chinchero lakes of Piuray and Huaypo reflect the same geology. Engineering studies reflect no deep drilling to assess this risk. A 200-ton airliner will one day  land at Chinchero and open a massive instant hole. Not good.

Cusco road, sewage and electricity services are already pathetic. There’s talk, but no plans exist for new transport between Chinchero and Cuzco, nor Urubamba. Power cuts are almost daily in Urubamba, the province in which poor Chinchero is located, thanks to state-owned Electro Sur Este.

What to do with the 7 million tourists a year promised by President Kuczynski?  Machu Picchu is already at a standing-room-only 5,000, sometimes 7,000 visitors a day. A study commissioned by the government says the max daily entry cannot pass 5,400/day. Call it 2 million per year.

Cuzco thinks, says, it needs a new airport. The present one, Velasco Astete is at 3,250 m.a.s.l., 500ms lower than Chinchero, which is a big difference at these delicate heights.  Velasco Astete, run and owned by Corpac, the government airport authority, consists of 240 hectares of good flat land which could easily and cheaply have its runways extended and expanded, with new terminals and, above all, new electronics. The A219 and A320 used by Latam and Avianca can fly in on self-drive computers as they do routinely, of course, in Europe and North America where the weather, though for sure not the height, is much worse than Cusco ever is.

But the Cusco shakers, the chambers of commerce and the local politicos have other plans for Velasco Astete’s 240 hectares of land, which is only a few minutes from downtown. As building land it is worth already today $1,000/m2, $2,000/m2 before the end of the decade. Use your own fingers to work out how much this free gift of land will be worth to the imperial city’s top dogs.

In theory, the central government (all Peruvians) is owner of the land,  and indeed this is how it should be. But, no, the Cusqueños have already bought it. Under a quiet agreement with former President Humala, the $70mn it paid the Chinchero comuneros is being handed over to the central government in exchange for the 240 Corpac hectares of Velasco Astete.  Acurio was later thrown out of the regional president job by the Cusco Supreme Court for one of several instances of corruption. Acurio is one of the Humala-Heredia team being investigated by state prosecutors for corruption linked to the jailed Mr. Belaunde Lossio for thousands of millions of dollars in state construction contracts.

So Chinchero is shrouded in big money corruption, and should be stopped, investigated on these grounds alone. This apart from its technical stupidity, a characteristic of corrupt projects.

There is a good way for the Cuqueños to have their cake and eat it too. They can do the sensible thing and build a new airport on the Pampa de Anta, closer than Chinchero to their downtown and flat as a tortilla. It needs a few million bucks worth of drainage but none of the expensive earthmoving of Chinchero. Its approaches are no more dangerous than Cusco itself, better actually.

What height is Anta? Same as Velasco Astete, 3,225.

What is the Region Cusco to do with its world-record expensive potato fields, burro grazing at Chinchero? Forget it. The money has long gone on pick-up trucks and on a forest of dreadful cinderblock highrises.

Chinchero is a traditional Andean village with a fine cultural tradition in textiles, with superb views of the cordilleras reaching over to Machu Picchu. Leave it as it is. No airport means tourists will retain as fine a view as any in the Andes. The bells of the charming colonial church will continue to float out over the Inca ruins, the primary schools and the workshops of the internationally recognized weavers.

Nick Asheshov was editor of the Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, and of The South Pacific Mail, Santiago during the 1990s.  He was Latin America Editor of Institutional Investor, New York over the same period.  He lives in Urubamba, where he writes a blog and where he has been prominent in the hotel and railway business.

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times on  January 26, 2017

Finance Tightens — Peru joins the Troubled Ten

By Nicholas Asheshov

Morgan Stanley has told its clients that its MSCI division, which monitors international markets, is preparing to downgrade Peru from EM, Emerging Market, to Frontier status.

MSCI has also expanded its Fragile Five 2013 list —Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia and South Africa— to its Troubled Ten for 2016, to include also Peru, Colombia, Chile, Malaysia and Singapore. MSCI says these countries have new and above-average currency risks. These countries will have increasing difficulty in covering their current account deficits, meaning that debt payments plus imports will be higher than today’s low, slow income from exports.

The party is over.

For Peru it was a good one, by far and away the best in memory. During the first dozen years of this century it catapulted Peru into a respectable new level of economic growth and management. An urban middle class expanded by millions. Poverty in the Andes dropped by millions. Pay levels and property values doubled.

But today in 2015, the rapid growth of China that helped Peru, Brazil and a score of others to flourish is finished. This was signaled last week by an initial 4.4% devaluation of the Yuan, the Beijing currency. It was this that woke up the Wall St. analysts even though the slowdown had started a year ago.

The practical effect is twofold.

One is that China is saying it will need less and pay less for oil, gas, copper, iron ore, lead, zinc, gold and silver. Second, it means that for the coming few years at least, China will be growing not at seven percent, much less the ten percent of earlier years, but more like one or two percent. This is the new normal, like the United States struggling to get higher than two percent a year, Europe which cannot get yet to one percent. China is joining them, just another shambling mammoth.

Peru, though no monster, marches to the same drumbeat. A remarkable part of the past couple of decades, here and elsewhere, is how much has changed for the good despite the weak quality and performance of the government, and the public administration. The ministries and the Central Bank have been slow and often indecisive. There is no sign that they are improving. Out in the provinces it has become seriously dysfunctional.

But this has always been a rough neighborhood. Few other countries in Latin America are any better and some are much, much worse. Brazil’s economy is falling this year as it will in 2016, in the midst of world-class corruption and mountainous mismanagement. Sao Paulo, for instance, has run out of water. Venezuela and Argentina, two of the best-endowed countries in the world, continue to sink into incoherence, apparently endemic. This is a level of political stress from which Peru has notably escaped with no sign of a turn, much less return, to the serious confusion of the 70s, the 80s and the 90s.

The most consistent measure of the perversity of today’s financial markets is in the commodities. These will continue to stay low and to sink. This is not, exactly, because the world is in recession. It is not even that demand for copper, oil, lead, zinc, tin has fallen but that it is not rising to absorb what is coming every day onto the market.

New iron ore mines and oil and gas fields and techniques have opened, paid for with cheap money. The problem is that even cheap money has a price, has to be paid for. The iron ore companies, including Vale do Rio Doce, Anglo American and BHP, have between them issued $200,000mn worth of bonds to finance mines without a market. China was supposed to buy it but is disappearing back into its Oriental mist. A part of this is the heat-hazy nature of Chinese accounting where statistics, profits, loans and taxes are spelled differently in Chinese. The same happened in Japan as of a quarter of a century ago.

Copper is in the same slow boat. In Peru, Toromocho (Chinese), Cerro Verde (Freeport M), and Las Bambas (Chinese), fine mines all, will be getting $2/lb instead of the $4-5/lb they expected just three years ago. Chile, led by Codelco, the state-owned, high-cost mammoth, has it even worse which is why it, too, is being downgraded.

Morgan Stanley says that its downgrade warning on Peru will be confirmed on September. 30 but this is a formality. It means that foreign funds will be selling their investments in companies like the Banco de Credito, Graña y Montero and Buenaventura quoted in Lima, and Peru-based companies quoted in New York and London. Many funds will be selling, too, some of their holdings of bonds issued by companies in Peru. The sums may be impressive. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, US$15,000mn worth of bonds were sold to international investors, according to Bloomberg. Peru is just a part of a bond bubble including China itself, as well as other members of the Troubled Ten.

Similar downgrades are being issued for other countries in Latin America and elsewhere. The government-backed debt of Brazil, not long ago a Wall St. high flyer, has been knocked down to a notch over junk.

This is not the case for Peru, which has just raised $2,000mn on Wall St at only 2.5% more than the rate paid by the United States Treasury. It is remarkable, looking back a couple or three decades, that loans of this size and price should have become routine, merely a note in the middle of the financial pages. The money is needed, this time, to shore up the government deficit that has appeared because of the slowdown of the economy, and they will certainly need more to fill an even bigger tax shortfall in 2016.

Another sign of homebrewed discomfort is that inflation is running strongly higher than the Central Bank’s target of 2%: it is probably higher than six percent. This week Mr. Velarde, executive president of the Central Bank, cited inflation, which he has a constitutional mandate to control, and the exchange rate as among his “growing fears.”

Peru’s Central Bank, the BCRP, and even the lame-duck Humala government, may want to take comfort from being in the same lifeboat as bigger, noisier countries. Peru is only three percent of the dollar investment to Latin America. Another way of looking at it is that Peru is being dragged down by the neighbors.

This is not going to persuade many Peruvians. They will remember that the economists at the Central Bank, BCRP, and the Ministry of Finance, the MEF, were predicting as recently as this past Christmas that Peru would be growing this year at a tear-away 5.6%.

This made no sense (PT, Jan 22 and 29, 2015) but set the scene for inappropriate policies. They should long ago have launched an emergency plan, with low Soles interest rates and a fast-track devaluation of the Sol, from S/.3=$1, as it was at the beginning of the year down to S/.4=$1, before the end of the year. This was the path taken by well-managed central banks like those of Japan and the EU, Canada, Sweden and Mexico. Instead, the Central Bank in Lima has moved the exchange rate only just a tad more than inflation, to just over S/.3.25, burning $1,000mn a month of dollars that are going to be needed 2016-2018. This is allowing bankers here and abroad to buy billions of dollars at a giveaway price. This questionable policy is why Peru has been dumped, as Bloomberg has it, into the bucket of the Troubled Ten.

Forget a recovery, even of the United States

There is no prospect that basic commodities prices will increase for years. Huge iron ore mines in Brazil and Australia will be producing at a loss. Oil will be priced at thirty-something dollars a barrel. Natural gas will be down to prices that only the huge fields in North America, Australia and the Middle East can do.

For Peru as for other third-level hydrocarbon areas, this means that the jungle oilfields and the Camisea gas fields are today, and maybe forever, worthless. They are, in today’s terminology, “stranded assets”, on the books as potential profit centers but in practice valueless.

Peru has great resources and fine prospects, in agriculture, for instance, as well as mining.

But in today’s world, Peru is nowhere for oil and gas. As part of a Peru emergency plan to ride out the recession, the government should close down Petroperu and write off the jungle gas and oilfields. Peru will be able to buy cheaper for years from Mexico, Canada and the United States.

Work on the Southern Peru Gas Pipeline should be halted immediately. This $8,000mn piece of corruption-ridden nonsense, being constructed by Odebrecht, Sao Paulo, whose chief executives are in jail for similar boondoggles at home, should be transferred to the Brazilian taxpayer.

Any expectation that the Peru economy might stay afloat is made unlikely by predictions in Lima, the United States and elsewhere that a big El Niño is beginning. Based on the experience of 1972, 1983 and 1997-8, this will subtract between two and four percent from the country’s output.

The good news is that a capable new government may take control in less than a year’s time, ready and able to turn the progress of the past several years to good account.

Published in English by the Peruvian Times on August 21, 2015.

A Spanish version of this article appears in Caretas No. 2399 under La Fiesta se Acabó

Peru Eurobond Issue— A Lemon, Shows Government Financial Confusion

By Nicholas Asheshov

The minister of Finance, Alonso Segura, is patting himself on the back for selling €1bn worth of bonds on the European market at 2.75% above the ECB base rate, which is as everyone knows an eyelash above zero.

This brings the amount borrowed by Peru on the international market this year to the equivalent of $4.5bn, according to official statements. There are two problems, more like half a dozen, with this.

The first is that this latest, huge issue, is going to be thrown straight into the black hole of the government current account deficit. It will not create a single new job. It will not build a meter of road, a school or a first aid post in the Sierra.

Instead, the Central Bank, the BCRP, will be slurping it up in just one month to pay foreign and local bankers to keep the Sol at or near its present damaging, unrealistic, and unsupportable rate — this week a centimo or two below S/.3.30=$1. This brings the devaluation of the Sol against the dollar in these first 10 months of the year to 10%, between a third and a half of the rate of respectable neighbors like Chile and Colombia. This means that dollars are cheap in Peru, and local and foreign bankers are buying them while stocks last.

One of many bad results from this short-sighted expensive policy is that the Peruvian economy has slowed much more than need be. Non-traditional exporters are closing, hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared and will continue to disappear long after some sensible action is taken, presumably with a new government at the end of next July. Government economists like to say that government money is different from the Central Bank’s. This is incorrect. It is in one pocket. Economists, like accountants, count the dead and like to put them in neat cemeteries.

The Central Bank has been spending dollar reserves at the rate of $1bn/month for the past two and more years, call it $25 bn though the real figures are fudged by issuing swaps in soles with a guaranteed dollar repurchase.

A second problem with the new Peru Eurobonds is that they are way overpriced, at 2.75%, and much too short, only 10 years. Minister Segura himself said he had received offers for three times the amount, over €4.2bn, a sure sign that they were too expensive, from Peru’s point of view, and too short. If the issue had been properly prepared, he could have sold them at 30 years, maybe more, and with a much lower interest coupon. Crummy risks like Portugal, France, Spain and Italy just pay the eyelash, without the 2.75% These days Peru is a much better risk than these and dozens of others. If the bonds had been 30- or 40-years, some of the cost would disappear into the distant mist of the inflation that will be needed to wipe away today’s round-the-world trillions in unbacked debt, the Greek holes snow-banking through the markets today.

Debt payments impact the budget but are not yet an issue for Peru reserves, thanks to the good fortune and decent management of previous governments. But Peru, like the rest of the world, is facing a future with the certainty that things will be slow for many years. The world economy is not growing even though virtually unlimited quantities of dollars, euros and yen continue to be issued. Today few businesses and governments are using capital or credit to invest in infrastructure like roads, schools and ports. Or in mines and agriculture facilities.

In the United States and Europe governments continue to insist on austerity, meaning roads are not repaired, much less built. In Peru austerity is not a policy but the public works agencies, mostly in the provinces, are not functioning properly. The result is the same. Instead, the economies of the world, capitalism itself, has become distorted, destabilized The only assets that have increased in face value with all the trillions of quantitative easing are shares and bonds on Wall St and the European, Japanese and Chinese bourses.

This is the dangerous financial world through which the government is wandering, babes in a darkening wood. They have been predicting, this past week, for instance, that next year will see Peru growing at 4.2%, according to the Central Bank, 5.6% according to the Ffinance ministry. Either figure is the other side of silly, a warning sign only that they intend to borrow more abroad. The government people did the same for 2015 as a way, as old as the Andes, of papering over the sure-thing hole in their accounts. Peru’s budget deficit is ballooning under the sparse cover of these ‘predictions.’
Today the problem for banks, starting with central banks, is to lend. Borrowing is easy, as the youthful Mr Segura has discovered, at the expense of Peru’s taxpayers over the coming decade. Italy, a financial sinkhole if ever there was one, is paying its bondholders negative rates. These accept this payment because they believe that Germany will pick up the tab. More worrying, the financial markets sense the possibility of deflation where their bonds will increase in value. Italy, by the bye, is the third-largest, after the U.S. and Japan, issuer of sovereign debt in the world and, if it were not for Brussels and the Bundesbank in Frankfurt, would be below Russia and way below Peru on a risk/reward balance, another of the new perversities of 21st century finance.

The new Peru bond issue is not just a mistake in financial strategy but a complete misconception of the world, and the Peruvian economy today. The BCRP in Lima today should be pushing, forcing local banks to lend, soles and dollars, euros, whatever.

Peru is not the same as the dead-in-the-water economies of Western Europe —Eastern Europe is a different animal— Japan and the United States. It could and should have an agricultural export business 10 times, for starters, of today’s: this is a better California. Its metal-working shops have been honed on supplying a big, by any standards, mining province. There is more, like textiles. These can compete easily in today’s ho-hum world economy even with the Peru cost of, for instance, out-of-date labor legislation. But they cannot compete where the Central Bank is gerrymandering the exchange rate —it should today be S/.4.30, not 3.30— and increasing, not decreasing, the cost of bank credit. Both these, devaluation and cheap money, are the only Central Bank options today. With the exception of disasters like Venezuela, Argentina and, increasingly Brazil, everywhere else, bar none, is using them. Right or wrong, this is the world 2015-2020 and Peru’s agro- and metal-based companies are being short-changed by the Lima government, the Central Bank and the four big Lima banks themselves, willing fools in Lenin’s phrase. These have turned themselves for the nonce into expensive exchange houses with the equally willing Central Bank’s approval: anything for P & Q until the new government comes in.

It is a new financial world out there, where it is not exactly that money no longer counts, but it is equally sure that no one any longer can count the money.

First published in the Peruvian Times, November 2, 2015

 

World Bank, IMF Meeting Opens Window for Peru’s Next Step Up

By Nicholas Asheshov

The World Bank/IMF meeting in Lima this coming week is the biggest, most prestigious get-together of the year for bankers and finance people. Anyone who is anyone from anywhere will be here, has to be here, and it is a great thing, for Peru. It puts the country firmly, perhaps a little unexpectedly, on the list of world centers, up there with Rio and Mexico City.

Peru’s finances and politics will take little of the attention of the ten or twelve thousand financiers and camp followers. But the reputation of Peru’s cuisine will fill the restaurants in Miraflores and San Isidro from midday to after midnight. Many of the visitors will want to take in Cusco and Machu Picchu. Good news as it reflects, as with the restaurants, the arrival of first-rate hotel and airline service, a true hospitality industry that did not exist even a decade ago.

The priority of the ministers, the central bankers and their aides will be to get a fix on what is happening to the world economy. They will be looking with increasing concern for guidance, ideas about what to do, once they get home. Not since the Lehman explosion in 2008 have government finance people in the emerging countries had to face the certainty of falling prices, falling production, falling employment and falling income.

Worldwide, only a small handful of countries — starting with India and the United States— is growing. Not much but at least moving forward. Europe and Japan are stagnant, with no immediate prospects of growth as are usually reliable heavyweights like Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavians. This group includes as respectable tail-enders Peru and Chile, Mexico and Colombia, Singapore and Indonesia with, as it may be, Iran about to join in.

The rest, led by Brazil, China, Russia, Turkey, and South Africa, not to mention the Middle East and Africa, are in recession or in open disaster.

Looking for ideas

The delegations from 150-odd countries members of the IMF and/or the World Bank will be hoping to bump into someone, perhaps from the international investment and commercial banks, who can give them ideas about how best to keep afloat for, it has become clear, at least the rest of the decade.

This used to be the job of the IMF and of the World Bank. Not so long ago the World Bank was the main inspiration for public works and infrastructure for Latin America and elsewhere. It was a full-service institution, much more than a bank, providing moral backing as well as technical expertise, funds and guarantees.

The IMF, a similar building of conference halls and honeycombs of offices across M St in downtown DC, provided emergency funds and financial backbone for governments in problems. This included big names like the United Kingdom, not just third world backsliders. It may be that many of the World Bank projects did not work as advertised. Certainly the IMF’s austerity demands often produced pain with little immediate gain. Europe, including Greece today, are inheritors of this tradition. But the notion that orderly public finances and statistics are a good idea and not just an imperialist plot has become standard issue to the enormous benefit of countries round the world, starting with Peru and in this often-bolshie neighborhood, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico. It also included during the 1990s and the early years of this century, Brazil as star pupil.

Brazil — the 800-pound gorilla

But this year Brazil has become an 800-pound gorilla. At this Lima meeting it is not China that has already joined the other elephants like Japan and Europe, but Brazil that will be a feature of concerned conversation.

A couple of years ago Brazil had become the world’s seventh biggest economy, a few pounds ahead even of the United Kingdom, a century ago the world’s greatest. Until earlier this year it seemed to the financial markets as though Brazil could treat the commodities slump like a road-repair diversion. It could have been thus. Instead, “We got hit by a turtle,” a disgusted Sao Paulo executive told the Wall St Journal this week. Brazil is turning into an international mega-problem. It is not just that Brazil’s public finances are in tatters. . . Infrastructure like roads and water supply is in deep disarray, with crime rising. National and regional politics, traditionally complex, are disintegrating with the opposition as weak as the government itself.

These days this is not just another colorful third world sad story but one that could detonate a run on the international credit markets This week here in Lima the single biggest topic of discussion will be how to prevent or at least postpone a Brazil debt default.

Not so long ago it was the IMF that could put out the fire. But today the credit markets are huge and unstable. The money that has gone, virtually uncontrolled to companies in Brazil, China, Turkey, and South Africa went often into ventures that do not work, often mines and hydrocarbons facilities which themselves have created today’s low prices. It is no accident that the copper price has moved below its 200-month moving average, setting the tone, too, for the other industrial commodities.

At the beginning of the week, the bonds and other debt issued by Glencore Mining dropped along with its share price by 30%. Glencore, with a long association with Peru through Xstrata and Marc Rich, developer of the massive Antamina and Las Bambas copper mines here, saw its market value at $16bn, down from $80bn earllier in the year, and its debt at just under $50bn — huge numbers and huge dislocation.

Other mining and hydrocarbons companies, including BHP Billiton and Anglo American, are developing the same kind of dislocation between the productive value of their assets and their ability to service the debt paper bought with enthusiasm not long ago by investment and retirement funds in Europe and the United States. Top of the list are Petrobras and Vale do Rio Doce. Petrobras debt today is, at $470bn, 10 times greater than Glencore, one of the world’s biggest.

Wall St analysts say they have always assumed that the Petrobras debt is backed by the government, but famously Brazil’s sovereign debt has itself been marked down by the rating agencies to junk. By coincidence, the foreign debt of Greece is within a dollar or two of Petrobras’ obligations. In the case of Greece, of course, every widow’s mite is going to be picked up by the German taxpayer.

$60 trillion in debt issued worldwide since 2009

These are just straws in the IMF and World Bank’s headwinds this week though, there’s plenty more of the same. For instance the IMF itself has published a report saying that $18 trillion — i.e. $18,000,000 billion, give or take— in bonds and similar have been issued by companies in China, Brazil, Turkey, up from $4 trillion in 2004, and warns that a lot of this is held by US mutual funds. This in turn is part of the $60 trillion in debt that has been issued worldwide as of 2009, over and above whatever it had been before that.

This is the context of the IMF/World Bank meeting here this week. If economies around the world were growing as they did from 2009, then lenders and investors could as usual suspend their disbelief. But the IMF itself has said that it will be lowering, again, its growth forecasts for the coming few years so the lack of connection between reality and the credit markets has become even clearer, China or no China.

For sure the tip-top bankers and economists, investors and traders here are aware, convinced in fact, that it is them and not the elected politicians who are in charge What sets the annual IMF/WB meeting apart is that there is more to it than just international bureaucrats, paper-pushing government officials and the blank-eyed economists and lawyers who run central banks. The juice, and the big money, for this meeting comes from the investment and commercial bankers from Wall St., London, Frankfurt, Toronto, Tokyo, Sao Paulo who come to meet each other as well as government officials. The meetings take place at dozens of cocktail parties, buffet breakfasts and lunches and, naturally, cups of coffee and drinks at the bar. Lima’s main banks, the Credito, Interbank, the BBVA Continental, and Scotiabank are putting on big shows.

Two out of every three years the WB/IMF meeting is held in Washington itself where there is a well-oiled hospitality industry. Traffic is a known quantity. The hotels are geared to big-name conferences. It is easy to get things done. Phones and taxicabs work. Then one in every three years the meeting is held away from home. It might be somewhere well-organized like Berlin. Or Bankok or Lima with dreadful traffic and security worries. Lima is more of an adventure but that adds spice.

There will be real interest for the participants in the Prospects for Peru as an up-and-coming junior BRIC. The collapse of Brazil, joining Argentina and Venezuela, means that Peru, Chile and Colombia will have a chance to shine, to provide, along with Mexico, the main positive focus in Latin America, a valuable door-opener for the coming decade.

First published in the Peruvian Times on October 2, 2015

S&P Shot across the bows for Peru banks and government

By Nicholas Asheshov

The downgrade in New York by Standard & Poors, S&P, of Peru’s banking system last week came a day before S&P whammed the Brazil government debt to junk.

The Brazil move is a much bigger hit to a much bigger player but the Peru bank rating is a new sign that Peru is being priced firmly down even though its numbers are better than those of most of the neighbors.

The bank downslide came days before the Minister of Finance, Alonso Segura, was in New York to try to talk Morgan Stanley’s MSCI unit into postponing its decision, announced last month, (PT, Aug.21, 2015) to push the category of the Lima Bolsa de Valores, the stock exchange, from Emerging Market out to Frontier. Other countries to which this has happened this year include Morocco and Argentina.

Peru’s handful of international-style companies, like the Banco de Credito (BAP), Cia de Minas Buenaventura (BVN), Southern Peru Copper (SPCC), Graña y Montero (GRAM) and Hochschild (HOC) among them, are quoted in New York or London. But the downgrade of the Lima exchange will have a negative effect on the finances of the AFPs, the pension funds which by law are forced to invest in local paper.

A warning and further downgrades

The latest bank ratings are shots across the bows of the government and of its creditors — there is no question about the stability of any of the four main Lima banks, the Credito, the Continental, Interbank and Scotiabank. But it means further downgrades by the New York rating outfits like Moody’s and Fitch are possible as Peru’s economy continues to slow down. The rest of the Emerging and Frontier world is slow and getting slower, too, but the main reasons for the latest S&P bank ratings is the poor performance of the government and of the Central Bank in Lima.

The immediate practical effects are a bruise rather than broken bones. It will add, perhaps, 50 or 100 basis points, getting on for one percentage point, to the still-cheap cost to banks here of borrowing in New York. This is currently around 4% to 5% p.a., a gift by the standards of other times.

The change in status comes, too, as financial markets everywhere see-saw with a general trend down. Commodities, products and companies are being reassessed. De Beers has reduced the price of its latest gem quality diamonds by nine percent. Silver continues below $15/oz, less than half the price of 2013, gold at under $1,100 instead of $1,900, and copper at $2.30, half its price three years ago.

S&P says the quality of the Lima banks’ business will get worse as the economy deteriorates.

This is another way of saying that the quality of the balance sheets of Peruvian companies is seen by S&P as deteriorating too, in line with the mishandling of public finances by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, MEF, and the Central Bank, the BCRP.

Dangerous increase of reference lending rate

Part of the problem is that the Central Bank continues to prop up the price of the Nuevo Sol, spending $1 billion of its reserves every month. Last week it revalued, not devalued, the Sol, from S/.3.31=US$1 to S/.3.21 defying, perhaps with a certain sense of humor, international financial gravity.

In the same vein but even more questionably, the BCRP increased its reference lending rate from 3.25% to 3.50%, signaling too that this will go to over 4.25% next year.

The reason for this startling move is to rein in inflation. It will have, in fact, no effect on inflation though it will slow the economy, increase unemployment even further, raising the possibility of a return of the stagflation of the 1970s and 1980s, a specter that is becoming a reality in Brazil.

Elsewhere, starting with China, those central banks where the reference rate is not already close to zero are lowering rates to as near-zero as they can in a well-established effort to blow life into sagging economies.

The increase by the Central Bank in Lima of the reference rate is dangerous to the point of incomprehensible. The experience of the past five years has been conclusive that the old monetary buttons to control inflation, which rarely worked anyway, today turn out to be a well-aimed shot in the dark straight into the foot. Instead, increasing rates produces in today’s leveraged markets a sharp halt, a sudden stop. With it comes deflation.

This happened famously in 2011 when the European Central Bank raised rates and produced an instant Europe-wide recession. Other countries making the same mistake in the past few years have included Norway, Sweden, Israel and Australia, all of which quickly had to do a U-turn and reduce rates to stave off a collapse in their economies.

Now Peru, with a government and Congress focused on other issues, is allowing a crew of olde economists to make the same mistake.

The Central Bank in Lima also continues to squander its reserves on propping up the price of the Sol. Everywhere else they are cheapening their currencies against the dollar, starting with the Chinese, the ones who are supposed to be buying Peru’s copper, Venezuela’s oil and Germany’s BMWs.

But there are no signs of a recovery in the world economy. The price of copper edged further down towards $2/lb.

At that price Peru’s budget deficit in 2016 will be 5%, as a proportion of GDP, not just the two or three percent that the government says it is projecting. Peru’s government has been in surplus for the past dozen years.

Peru and Brazil

Peru’s situation has some similarities with Brazil. Government finances in both are getting worse due to mismanagement and to the fall in commodities prices.

But Peru’s financial and political problems, however grimy as seen from Lima, are nothing compared to those of Brazil which is already into a solid recession with a surge in inflation.

Another difference is that Peru will have a new government in less than a year. In Brazil it is a lame duck government mired in confusion with the best part of four years to go, and with no Plan B. Peru’s total foreign debt, public and private, knocking on $40 bn, is a tiny figure compared with Brazil. For instance, Petrobras alone owes $135 bn — it is one of the world’s biggest issuers of bonds. The cost of insuring Brazil bonds against default is today as bad as Turkey and Russia. The Peru cost is, rightly, insignificant, a big change from 20 years ago and a huge difference from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador.

There are two big problems for the Peru outlook. The first is that the world economy shows no sign of improving. The only country in the top ten doing well is India, at 7%, with the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom as also-rans at between two and three percent who dare not increase the cost of government credit from zero for fear of tipping back into recession. Brazil and Russia are in recession and financial distress. China has lost the plot and will be in no shape to rescue the third world or anyone else —Russia for instance— for a decade. The rising China tide that raised commodity boats so far this century is flowing back down and out, taking —for the moment, at least— Peru with it.

Citibank said this week that there is a better than evens chance of a world recession.

There’s not much Peru can do but prepare for this El Niño-sized rainy day.

Instead the government, at the end of its tether, is acting as if it believed its own starry-eyed projections. This includes putting soles interest rates up to slow the economy. The Banco Central economists apparently believe their projection of four percent growth for 2016 even though a recession is a certainty. They are putting on the brakes, the only country in the world to be doing so.

The banks 

Last week S&P said it had revised its Banking Industry Risk Assessment on Peru to group ‘5’ from group ‘4’. S&P also revised its rating for banks operating only in Peru to ‘bbb-‘ from ‘bbb’ due to a higher economic risk.

  • “We revised our economic risk score to ‘6’ from ‘5’. We consider that economic resilience has weakened amid lower growth prospects.
  • “The trend.” on economic risk remains negative because we’re still concerned that rapid credit growth could increase economic imbalances risk.
  • “As a result, we’re lowering our ratings on five Peruvian banks.”

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services lowered its ratings on the following Peruvian banks: Banco de Credito del Peru; Banco Interamericano de Finanzas S.A.; BBVA Banco Continental; MiBanco, Banco de La Microempresa S.A.; and Banco Internacional del Peru —Interbank.

S&P said it was not, however, marking down Scotiabank —three years ago the Bank of Nova Scotia, the controlling partner, increased Scotiabank’s capital.

The S&P report continues: “The downgrade (of the banking system) reflects our view of rising economic risk for banks operating in Peru. The greater economic risk reflects our reassessment of Peru’s growth prospects. We believe that Peru’s growth trajectory will no longer be consistently well above that of its peers with a similar stage of economic development.

“Also, our trend on economic risk remains negative, reflecting the persistent rapid growth in credit and private-sector leverage in the past few years, which has been weakening the Peruvian banks’ credit quality in the past three years.

“In our view, domestic banks now face tougher operating conditions, which we believe weakened their financial profiles, notably in terms of asset quality and capital and earnings.

“We expect growth to average 3.7% annually between 2015 and 2018 and to average 2.8% in per capita terms, which will protract Peru’s catch-up with more developed peers.

“We now expect Peru’s economic growth to be slower absent more successful concerted efforts to advance structural reforms to keep up productivity improvements and continue to increase social inclusion, such as improving labor market flexibility, infrastructure, reducing bureaucracy and informality, and improving education quality.”

Wall St does not seem to be taking its own warnings about Peru too seriously.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley, the New York bank that is downgrading Peru from Emerging Market to Frontier Post, is recommending clients to buy shares of the Banco de Credito, Credicorp (BAP.N): and predicts an impressive 40% profit by the end of next year.

MS says the Credito offers an “attractive Risk Reward”, predicting that the shares will go from today’s $107 to $150 by the end of 2016.

The MS Buy recommendation came only days after S&P’s rating downgrade of Credicorp from BBB to BBB- because of “rising economic risk for banks operating in Peru,”

“reassessment of Peru’s (lower) growth prospects,” “weakening credit quality in the past three years,” and “persistent rapid growth in credit and private sector leverage.”

MS Peru bank analysts see Peru’s economy accelerating to the 3-4% GDP growth range, fastest among the large economies in Latin America.

Nick Asheshov was editor of the Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, and of The South Pacific Mail, Santiago during the 1990s. He was Latin America Editor of Institutional Investor, New York over the same period. He lives in Urubamba, where he writes a blog and where he has been prominent in the hotel and railway business. 

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times Sept 17 2015

Sell, Collect your Money, or Go to Jail

Lofty principles, sacred promises, the public interest, the Constitution, and democracy itself are at stake in a heavyweight bout between El Comercio and La Republica. The dispute is about which of them should control Correo and Ojo, two of Peru’s biggest and best newspapers.

By Nicholas Asheshov

(From Caretas)

(From Caretas)

The fight is, of course, about money and power. Today in Peru, unusually, circulation is much bigger and more valuable than ever before. Peru is in the run up to a wide-open presidential election in 2016 and this is one of the first big skirmishes of the campaign.

HumalaMaquillaAmazingly, in the electronic age, Peru is a fast-growing, feisty newspaper market. Millions of unlettered 20th century families have morphed into 21st century householders and straphangers. The straw shacks of two and three decades ago are today brick and cement and not just in Lima but in Arequipa, Ica, Chimbote, Trujillo, Chiclayo, and Piura.

While The Washington Post has had to be rescued by an electronic biz kid who probably doesn’t touch a newspaper from one week to the next, El Trome El Comercio‘s zappy down-market tabloid – has tripled its circulation in just five years to 650,000. It is read by the new commuters, including the chauffeurs and maids of the people who read and advertise in the Establishment’s El Comercio. El Trome is read by one in three newspaper buyers in Peru. This is over three times more than the numbers who read the company’s flagship El Comercio (94,000) together with its less turgid stable mate Peru21 (87,000).

In Peru, each copy has a readership of perhaps four or five. The Internet has a still-low penetration of around 25%. pe_republica.750

There are, or rather were, three Big Newspaper groups in Lima. These are, or again were: El Comercio, the tough, rich Establishment leader; La Republica, the left wing group; and the Agois-Banchero group’s middle-of-the-road Epensa, featuring Correo and Ojo. Today, Epensa is just a nameplate.

In July, La Republica’s financial backer, Salomon Lehrner, had quietly arranged to buy out the Agois’ 93-year-old major Epensa shareholder, with 54%, for $17.2M, a bargain. In August El Comercio muscled in at the last minute with $18M, including an $800,000 pourboire for Apoyo, its bankers. Still, a giveaway. They got the deal.

Overnight, El Comercio’s share of Peru’s newspaper market went from around 50% to 80%, more than that of Beijing’s The People’s Daily.

Here, in this case, notwithstanding the adage to the contrary, otorongo no come otorongo, as things stand, El Comercio – more, an anaconda than a quick-footed mountain lion – has swallowed, in a single cheap gulp its only competitors, market leaders Correo and Ojo, both of them livelier and more market-friendly than its own products.

This is not good for the newspaper business in Lima. It is, in fact, a disaster. It gives the Comercio group four out of every five newspapers, and the deal would have been unhesitatingly thrown out of Anti-Trust court anywhere in Europe or North America. Anywhere, indeed, this side of Iran. Even Pravda Granma never had 80% of the market.

Correo’s market is A and B, Ojo’s is C and D. Correo and Ojo have been growing, fast. Ojo, a feisty tabloid has doubled its circulation lately to 300,000 Correo is, at 155,00 and growing, easily the market leader in the A and B level, triple that of La Republica, (45,000), the left wing tabloid.

Leaving aside for a moment the unfortunate readers, advertisers today have a choice of ONE. As Henry Ford liked to say: you can have any colour you like so long as it’s black.

Journalists who don’t see eye to eye with the numerous Miro Quesada family, El Comercio‘s patriarchal owners, will be out of luck and a job. Politicians who don’t get the nod from the Miro Quesadas will be in the same boat, offshore and heading west.

The Miro Quesadas say they will not interfere in the journalistic side of Correo and Ojo. As we used to say in Fleet Street, “pull the other one, it’s got bells on.” Rupert ‘The Dirty Digger’ Murdoch, my old employer, said the same when, in London, he bought The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, The News of the World and, in New York, The Wall Street Journal, among a hundred others elsewhere. Today his people, courted and employed by every prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, are being sent to jail in London for behaviour disgraceful even by Fleet Street’s flexible standards.

The Miro Quesadas are the cholo version of the Murdoch tradition, memorably cartooned as Lord Copper of The Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop.

For decades the Miro Quesadas carried on a deadly vendetta against the big up-the-workers AAPRA party and have enthusiastically backed every golpe militar within living memory. They helped oust President Belaunde’s democratic government in 1968. Velasco’s military whipped round and nationalised El Comercio as well as the other dailies.

Belaunde, a gentleman, returned El Comercio to the Miro Quesadas the day that he returned- to the Government Palace in 1980.

Today’s El Comercio, with its bland, deviously cryptic front pages, is a well-established formula in Latin America, like the Edwards family’s El Mercurio in Santiago and their equivalents in Buenos Aires and Ciudad de Mexico. A rich, sad bunch of Little Murdochs. The Miro Quesada newspapers do a poor job of reflecting the realities of Peru, one of the world’s most varied, fast-moving, and fascinating countries.

La Republica’s journalistic tradition is a little better, but not much. It was, for instance, anti-Fujimori i.e. anti-political gangsterism. But it has been quiet about the vote-rigging, phony finances, and corruption associated with Presidents Toledo and Humala, its political friends. Salomon Lehrner, a La Republica financial angel, has been a backer of Toledo and Humala and has built up a colourfully disreputable financial reputation, outlined more than once in Correo, over the past few decades.

However, La Republica, an attractively laid out full-service tabloid, is at least livelier than El Comercio. Circulation figures show, however, that it is a poor representative of the 50% of voters who regularly place their confidence in populism, which is what’s left, as it were, of the Socialism of the long-gone 20th century. It is, in the A & B range, outsold three-to-one by middle-of-the-road Correo. It was Correo, for instance, that broke the US$50M Toledo scandal: this features a bankrupt Israeli-Peru financier Josef Maiman, with whom Lehrner has worked closely in the past. Lehrner helped finance Humala’s campaigns in 2006 and 2011 and was Humala’s prime minister for the government’s first months.

Curiously, El Comercio and La Republica are partners in the market-leading TV Channel 4, El Comercio with 70%. This has been returning annual profits of between $15 and $20M, important to La Republica’s cash flow.

Gustavo Mohme, La Republica’s publisher, is a well-established construction figure. El Comercio is associated with Grana y Montero, Peru’s top construction company, quoted since 2013 on the NYSE.

La Republica is understandably upset about losing the Epensa deal. which Lehrner had engineered through a backstreet notary in the no-go Lima district of Puente Piedra. But La Republica’s directors would never have kept their left-wing fingers off middle-of-the-road Correo and Ojo. People with a political agenda, left, right and centre are boring and newspaper readers everywhere, of course, know it.

El Comercio will surely be told by even the most susceptible magistrates. that their protestations of good faith are meaningless, even if they claim that they are nice-guy reformed characters.

The magistrates will, we can hope, crossing our fingers, tell them that they have to sell their new prize, but will tell La Republica that they cannot be the buyers.

President Humala has weighed in on the TV, saying that the purchase of Epensa by El Comercio, “an octopus,” is in every way wrong and that he is drafting a press law. Lehrner and others have chimed in but this would, as we all know, make things worse. The answer is to tidy up Peru’s well-intentioned but confused anti-trust legislation. All that’s needed is to copy the European Union legislation, already in Spanish, under which corporate fusions must be routinely cleared by the regulators, in this case Indecopi, which often works quite well.

FIN

Nicholas Asheshov, Editor for many years of the Peruvian Times and The Andean Report, worked on Fleet Street for Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and for the Financial Times, and Institutional Investor. He lives in Urubamba and in 2010 broke Orient Express’s Peru Rail Machu Picchu monopoly.

Published in Spanish by Caretas on Jan. 9, 2014

We all like Chocolate, and it’s good for you

By Nicholas Asheshov

Peru could and should be one of the great chocolate-producing countries, and a new Chocomuseo in Calle Berlin, Miraflores is aiming to push this idea a step further.

The Miraflores Chocomuseo follows the Numero Uno Chocomuseo in Cuzco, a roaring success. I have been to the Cuzco one a couple of times, the latest earlier this week, and it’s full all the time. Here, in an old building in the centre of town just off the Plaza Recojijo, you can watch them roast and grind the cacao beans, known as nibs and add organic sugar produced in Piura, and a score of fillings, from corn and aji to sauco, lucuma, maracuya ,ahuaymanto, raisins, nuts, coconut . There are a few tables where visitors can eat thick, sweet, rich chocolate paste with a touch of aji –a Maya idea– and hot tea made from the husks of the cacao beans.

One of the liveliest features of the Chocomuseo here in Cuzco is the two-hour course in how to make chocolates. You start learning about how and where cacao orchards do best, which is down in the hot-house end of the jungle anywhere it is well over 21º C. and where there’s plenty of water and humidity A couple of hours later you walk away with a simpatico bag of little chocolates that you yourself made by pouring warm paste into moulds where you have put your favorite fillings. Good deal for S/.70 and the tourists love it.

The Cuzco ChocoMuseo was set up by Alain Schneider, a 27-year-old Frenchman, and his partner Clara Isabel Dias, also French. After studying engineering at universities in France and working for Air France, Alain and Clara went to Nicaragua where, after doing NGO work, they set up the first ChocoMuseo in Granada, a colonial town. Then came Cuzco two years ago and, later, Antigua Guatemala, and now Miraflores with more to come in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and El Salvador, and doubtless, elsewhere.

Over a cup of, naturally, chocolate, here at the Cuzco Chocomuseo, Alain, told me something of what he has learned about the cacao and chocolate business in Peru, in which he is today an important player.

Alain is one of those charmingly lively French boys, who is also well-organized enough to be running an international network.

“Every three days we have a Skype conference with the managers of each of the Chocomuseos where we go over the figures and discuss what’s working and what’s maybe not,” he says

So here we have the Internet, French chutzpah and talent, and Wall Street producing a charming, lively useful money-spinner which is sure to provide the basis for new businesses, perhaps chocolaty and perhaps not. There’s home-made beer, for instance.

Alain mentions, too, a friend who is setting up a Pisco Museum –we used to call it a bar, but these days it has to be called, something toney.

One of the things that Alain and Clara Isabel have found is that in Peru getting their hands on a steady supply of good cacao beans is not that easy. “An early lot we had from Quillabamba was fine. But the next lot we had to throw away, no good,” he says.

Here in Urubamba, I have had the same experience. The other day I bought a bar of chocolate-cacao paste under the brand name of COCLA, but it was so bad that it went into the rubbish. Cocla is the big coffee and cacao purchasing group based in Quillabamba. This has produced an unusual and certainly unwanted situation. The Cuzco Chocomuseo buys no cacao from down-the-road La Convencion, where a lot of cacao is produced. Instead, Alain Schneider is buying it mostly from a supplier in Tocache, a pueblo on the banks of the great Rio Huallaga, well to the north and downstream, of Tingo Maria. It is here that cacao and chocolate takes on one of two important political roles. As everyone knows tocache is a centre for coca plantations and the cocaine industry and at least until last year, an operations focus for Sendero Luminoso, both feeding off each other. Now USAID and others have been pushing cacao as an alternative to coca, and have introduced a hybrid variety, CCN51 which is a good producer but the flavor, Alain Schneider tells me, is nowhere near as good as the traditional ‘chuncho’ native Amazon varieties.

I first visited Tocache in 1982, riding upstream from Juanjui in a powered canoe that was doing a bus service up and down this great river. Then Tocache was still a sleepy village. Three years later it had a Banco de Credito branch where locals would take in bagfuls of $100 notes and receive, in exchange, Credito bearer certificates of deposit. Twin-engined planes bound for Colombia buzzed across the dawn skies, ushering in an uncomfortable three decades of wealth and violent death.

But today Alain Schneider buys his six tons of cacao beans from Tocache, indicating a much more positive future for one of Peru’s pleasantest and most bountiful regions.

He also buys some in Piura which, although it is on the Coast, is just a couple of degrees south of the equator.

Cacao has another positive political characteristic. It is naturally an Amazon tree and, like coffee, needs shade from higher canopy-style trees, like mango, avocado, and orange. This means it is ecologically better than most other jungle farming, like cattle, soya, sugar and oil palms. All these, like coca for that matter, see the forest razed and replaced with boring mile upon mile of mono-culture, only marginally less damaging to the world than a layer of cement. Under a canopy is how the good cacao, rather like coffee, is cultivated anyway: Other places that produce good cacao include Ecuador and the Caribbean coasts of Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica where the plantations are often right on the beach. Brazil’s Atlantic coast around Salvador de Bahia is also a famous producing area. The big West African and Southeast Asian plantations are pretty awful, however.

Amazon and Central American cacao from the native chuncho criollo and trinitario varieties has a noticeably better flavor and is used for the best Swiss, Belgian and French chocolates. This is partly, it seems, because if it is done properly, the fermentation of the cacao seeds, gives them a flavor that cannot be equalled by the hybrids either here or in Africa.

The fermentation is carried out in boxes with the fruity pulp and then the seeds are dried out in the sun on concrete or hard earth. The seeds are then transported to the United States, Europe, or to chocolate-makers like, now, the Chocomuseo. .

Peru chocolate has been getting a publicity lift from Astrid Acurio, glamorous wife of Gaston, Peru’s maestro chef, under the brand name Melate.

“Our new Chocomuseo in Calle Berlin will, we hope, make Peruvians more conscious of just how good their chocolate can be,” Alain Schneider says.

Also, chocolate is good for you. Studies carried out in universities and health research places in England and elsewhere have proved, it seems, that chocolate is awes choice for couples seeking to increase the quality of their relationship. More research, clearly, needed.

FIN

First published in Caretas in Spanish, the week of September 20, 2012