By Abraham Gonzalez
AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico (Reuters) - In an arid valley in central Mexico, one of the world's largest automotive suppliers is preparing to open a new plant to produce components for North America, underpinning the export business that has kept the country's struggling economy ticking over.
The new Continental AG plant in Aguascalientes state should benefit from the new United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade deal and U.S. President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus plan to revive growth after the coronavirus pandemic.
The confidence expressed by local executives of the German parts maker echoes growing optimism among analysts that a global recovery will lift Mexico's economy more than previously expected, despite ongoing weakness in domestic demand.
"We've got high (auto) output coming, high volumes for everyone, and that's what we're getting ready for," said Ina Seterbakken, the manager of plant still under construction.
Continental expects business to revive after delays caused by pandemic-related disruptions, Seterbakken said, noting the facility was a strategic bet given Mexico's proximity to the United States, the world's biggest economy.
The new plant, which will employ about 1,000 people, joins a thick belt of automotive factories clustered in central Mexico, whirring with machinery focused chiefly on satisfying export demand that the market access of USMCA provides.
"If (USMCA) hadn't been agreed, it would have really changed this country's economy," said Gustavo Puente, economy minister in the central state of San Luis Potosi, which recently unveiled a separate 60 million euro Continental investment.
Mexico's economy last year suffered its worst slump since the 1930s, with gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking by 8.5%. Robust foreign demand ensured the outcome was not worse.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has resisted calls to splash out to prop up the economy, arguing that bailouts and deficit spending tend to line the pockets of the rich.
But his country has benefited from stimulus spending in wealthier countries, especially the United States, which soaks up around 80% of all Mexico's goods exports.
The automotive industry forms the core of manufacturing output, which makes up almost a fifth of Mexico's economy.
Buoyed by the prospect of a revival north of the border, Mexico's government is revising up its 2021 growth forecast to 5.0-5.5%, and Finance Minister Arturo Herrera said the U.S. stimulus plan was "very important" to the country.
Private sector analysts are doing the same, with JPMorgan recently raising its 2021 estimate for the second time this year to 5.6%.
"If it weren't for such a strong program in the United States this year, Mexico might be growing 2.5% or 3%," said Gabriel Lozano, the U.S. bank's chief economist for Mexico.
Mexico has committed funds worth about 1.3% of GDP to reviving its economy, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculations. In Brazil, by contrast, it is 6.2%.
Yet despite that, Mexico's economy is expected to grow by 4.3% this year versus 3.6% for Brazil, the IMF estimates.
Export exposure is one reason.
Worth some $360 billion before the pandemic, according to U.S. official data, Mexican annual exports to the United States are equivalent to about a third of GDP. Brazil's U.S. exports were worth under $31 billion in 2019.
The difference between Latin America's two biggest economies also shows up in financial markets: while the Mexican stock exchange has gained 4.9% so far in 2020, the Brazilian exchange has lost 8.2%, when measured in dollars.
Nevertheless, some analysts and bosses in Mexico have their doubts. They note that appetite for manufactured goods abroad contrasts with flagging domestic demand, with Mexican fixed capital investment plummeting more than 18% last year.
How well Mexico recovers will depend in part on the government's ability to overcome tensions with business and encourage investment in manufacturing, which could profit from a drive to regionalize supply chains away from Asia under USMCA.
Drawn to lower-cost Mexico to get a competitive edge, companies are watching nervously to see if the government's moves to strengthen state control of the electricity market will affect energy-intensive sectors like carmaking.
"(The electricity sector) is decisive for the Mexican economy to grow steadily, but for this, the state must guarantee the principles of free competition and legal certainty," the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Mexico said last month.
(Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Dave Graham and Chizu Nomiyama)