Mexico’s central bank braces for fight over dollar-buying bill

Mexico’s central bank could appeal to the country’s highest court if rules requiring it to absorb excess dollars in the economy are approved, a move that bankers and critics say would undermine Banxico’s autonomy, put its reserves at risk and force it to launder illicit drug cartel cash.

The bill was approved this week in the Senate and is now before the lower house of Congress. It could be put to a vote as early as Monday.

Ricardo Monreal, a senior figure in populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party who presented the bill, argued that it was a “social” reform to help migrants with dollars in cash or those who receive greenbacks in the restaurant and tourist trades.

But Alejandro Díaz de León, Banxico governor, told Radio Formula on Thursday night that he did not rule out legal action if the bill passed the Chamber of Deputies. Asked if the central bank could seek an injunction at the Supreme Court, he said: “That alternative is open.”

Under current rules, US dollars received in Mexico are changed into pesos. Any that are not used are repatriated to the US through correspondent banks, which act as intermediaries, or sometimes sent to Canada and Spain. According to the central bank, banks repatriated $4.7bn this way in the first nine months of 2020.

Increasingly tight anti-money laundering regulations in recent years, however, have clamped down on correspondent banks willing to do business with Mexican institutions. Banks were left with $102m in the coffers that they were unable to send abroad during the first nine months of the year, the central bank said.

The new law would force Banxico to buy those dollars and add them to its own reserves, which would affect both its balance sheet and its autonomy to take measures it considers best to control inflation.

Gerardo Esquivel, one of the members of Banxico’s board appointed by Mr López Obrador, expressed worry in a tweet this week about the risks to the central bank’s international reserves if it was compelled to hold illegally obtained funds.

Mr Díaz de León said in the radio interview: “We know that when there are these types of [money laundering] investigations, foreign authorities can freeze accounts, confiscate assets or cancel the operation with that institution.”

Gabriela Siller, head of economic and financial research at Banco Base, said: “It could have its reserves frozen — the risks [for the central bank] are far more serious. It’s crazy to be putting Banxico in this situation.”

The bill was passed in the Senate by 67 votes to 23 with 10 abstentions. Billionaire businessman Ricardo Salinas’ Grupo Azteca banking, retail and media conglomerate “lobbied to get [it] approved”, Emilio Álvarez Icaza, an independent senator, tweeted.

Mr Salinas, a close adviser of the president, defended the bill on his blog, saying that suggestions it would imperil Banxico’s autonomy and open the door to buying dollars from cartels were “categorically false and alarmist”. His group had no comment on whether it had lobbied senators.

Coparmex, an employers’ confederation opposed to many of Mr López Obrador’s policies, called for binational accords to simplify the repatriation of excess dollars to the US.

“The damage from this reform could be irreparable for the macroeconomic stability of this country,” it said. “This puts at risk the reputation of the central bank [and] the availability of international reserves.”

Ms Siller also feared that this bill could open the door to future changes in how Banxico can spend reserves.

Rocío Nahle, energy minister, was reported to have recently considered it an “excellent” idea to use them to prop up Pemex, Mexico’s struggling state oil company. Argentina’s government in 2010 allowed its central bank to use reserves to pay off debt, something currently barred in Mexico.

Despite the outcry, Mr López Obrador this week appeared to close the door to any U-turn on the bill, saying that if it were approved by legislators “they are reforms that must be respected”.

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