Economic history of Chile

Economic history of Chile

Colonial era to 1690

In colonial times, the segmentation of Chile into latifundios left only small parcels for native American and mestizo villagers to cultivate. Cattle raised on the latifundios were a source of tallow and hides, which were sent, via Peru, to Spain. Wheat was Chile's principal export during the colonial period. From the inquilinos (peons), indentured to the encomenderos, or latifundio owners, to the merchants and encomenderos themselves, a chain of dependent relations ran all the way to the Spanish metropolis.

The government played a significant role in the colonial economy. It regulated and allocated labor, distributed land, granted monopolies, set prices, licensed industries, conceded mining rights, created public enterprises, authorized guilds, channeled exports, collected taxes, and provided subsidies. Outside the capital city, however, colonists often ignored or circumvented royal laws. In the countryside and on the frontier, local landowners and military officers frequently established and enforced their own rules.

The economy expanded under Spanish rule, but some criollos complained about royal taxes and limitations on trade and production. Although the crown required that most Chilean commerce be with Peru, smugglers managed to sustain some illegal trade with other American colonies and with Spain itself. Chile exported to Lima small amounts of gold, silver, copper, wheat, tallow, hides, flour, wine, clothing, tools, ships, and furniture. Merchants, manufacturers, and artisans became increasingly important to the Chilean economy.

Mining was significant, although the volume of gold and silver extracted in Chile was far less than the output of Peru or Mexico. The conquerors appropriated mines and washings from the native people and coerced them into extracting the precious metal for the new owners. The crown claimed one-fifth of all the gold produced, but the miners frequently cheated the treasury. By the seventeenth century, depleted supplies and the conflict with the Araucanians reduced the quantity of gold mined in Chile.

Because precious metals were scarce, most Chileans worked in agriculture. Large landowners became the local elite, often maintaining a second residence in the capital city. Traditionally, most historians have considered these great estates (called haciendas or fundos) inefficient and exploitive, but some scholars have claimed that they were more productive and less cruel than is conventionally depicted.

The haciendas initially depended for their existence on the land and labor of the indigenous people. As in the rest of Spanish America, crown officials rewarded many conquerors according to the encomienda system, by which a group of native Americans would be commended or consigned temporarily to their care. The grantees, called encomenderos, were supposed to Christianize their wards in return for small tribute payments and service, but they usually took advantage of their charges as laborers and servants. Many encomenderos also appropriated native lands. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the encomenderos fended off attempts by the crown and the church to interfere with their exploitation of the indigenous people.

The Chilean colony depended heavily on coerced labor, whether it was legally slave labor or, like the wards of the encomenderos, nominally free. Wage labor initially was rare in the colonial period; it became much more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because few native Americans or Africans were available, the mestizo population became the main source of workers for the growing number of latifundios, which were basically synonymous with haciendas.

Those workers attached to the estates as tenant farmers became known as inquilinos. Many of them worked outside the cash economy, dealing in land, labor, and barter. The countryside was also populated by small landholders (minifundistas), migrant workers (afuerinos), and a few Mapuche holding communal lands (usually under legal title).

Bourbon reforms

The Habsburg dynasty's rule over Spain ended in 1700. The Habsburgs' successors, the French Bourbon dynasty, reigned for the rest of the colonial period. In the second half of the eighteenth century, they tried to restructure the empire to improve its productivity and defense. The main period of Bourbon reforms in Chile lasted from the coronation of Charles III (1759-88) in Spain to the end of Governor Ambrosio O'Higgins, Marquis of Osorno's tenure in Chile (1788-96).

The Bourbon rulers gave the audiencia of Chile (Santiago) greater independence from the Viceroyalty of Peru. One of the most successful governors of the Bourbon era was the Irish-born O'Higgins, whose son Bernardo O'Higgins would lead the Chilean independence movement. Ambrosio O'Higgins promoted greater self-sufficiency of both economic production and public administration, and he enlarged and strengthened the military. In 1791 he also outlawed encomiendas and forced labor.

The Bourbons allowed Chile to trade more freely with other colonies, as well as with independent states. Exchange increased with Argentina after it became the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776. Ships from the United States and Europe were engaging in direct commerce with Chile by the end of the eighteenth century. However, the total volume of Chilean trade remained small because the colony produced few items of high unit value to outsiders.

Freer trade brought with it greater knowledge of politics abroad, especially the spread of liberalism in Europe and the creation of the United States. Although a few members of the Chilean elite flirted with ideals of the Enlightenment, most of them held fast to the traditional ideology of the Spanish crown and its partner, the Roman Catholic Church. Notions of democracy and independence, let alone Protestantism, never reached the vast majority of mestizos and native Americans, who remained illiterate and subordinate.


After Chile won its independence in 1818, the economy prospered through a combination of mercantilist and free-market policies. Agricultural exports, primarily wheat, were the mainstay of the export economy. By mid-century, however, Chile had become one of the world's leading producers of copper. After Chile defeated Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), nitrate mines in areas conquered during the war became the source of huge revenues, which were lavished on imports, public works projects, education, and, less directly, the expansion of an incipient industrial sector. Between 1890 and 1924, nitrate output averaged about a quarter of GDP. Taxes on nitrate exports accounted for about half of the government's ordinary budget revenues from 1880 to 1920. By 1910 Chile had established itself as one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America.

World wars and Depression

Dependence on revenues from nitrate exports contributed to financial instability because the size of government expenditures depended on the vagaries of the export market. Indeed, Chile was faced with a severe domestic crisis when the nitrate bonanza ended abruptly during World War I as a result of the invention of synthetic substitutes by German scientists. Gradually, copper replaced nitrates as Chile's main export commodity. Using new technologies that made it feasible to extract copper from lowergrade ores, United States companies bought existing Chilean mines for large-scale development.

Chile initially felt the impact of the Great Depression in 1930, when GDP dropped 14 percent, mining income declined 27 percent, and export earnings fell 28 percent. By 1932 GDP had shrunk to less than half of what it had been in 1929, exacting a terrible toll in unemployment and business failures. The League of Nations labeled Chile the country hardest hit by the Great Depression because 80 percent of government revenue came from exports of copper and nitrates, which were in low demand.

Influenced profoundly by the Great Depression, many national leaders promoted the development of local industry in an effort to insulate the economy from future external shocks. After six years of government austerity measures, which succeeded in reestablishing Chile's creditworthiness, Chileans elected to office during the 1938-58 period a succession of center and left-of-center governments interested in promoting economic growth by means of government intervention.

Prompted in part by the devastating earthquake of 1939, the Popular Front government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda created the Production Development Corporation (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción, CORFO) to encourage with subsidies and direct investments an ambitious program of import substitution industrialization. Consequently, as in other Latin American countries, protectionism became an entrenched aspect of the Chilean economy.

Import-substitution industrialization was spurred on by the advent of World War II and the loss of access to many imported products. State enterprises in electric power, steel, petroleum, and other heavy industries were also created and expanded during the first years of the industrialization process, mostly under the guidance of Corfo, and the foundations of the manufacturing sector were set. Between 1937 and 1950, the manufacturing sector grew at an average yearly real rate of almost 7 percent.

Despite initially impressive rates of growth, import-substitution industrialization did not produce a sustainable expansion of the manufacturing sector. With the industrialization process evolved an array of restrictions, controls, and often contradictory regulations. With time, consumer-oriented industries found that their markets were limited in a society where a large percentage of the population was poor and where many rural inhabitants lived at the margins of the money economy. The economic model did not generate a viable capital goods industry because firms relied on imports of often outmoded capital and intermediate goods. Survival often depended on state subsidies or state protection. In fact, it was because of these import restrictions that many of the domestic industries were able to survive. For example, a number of comparative studies have indicated that Chile had one of the highest, and more variable, structures of protection in the developing world. As a consequence, many, if not most, of the industries created under the import-substitution industrialization strategy were inefficient. Also, it has been argued that this strategy led to the use of highly capital-intensive production, which, among other inefficiencies, hampered job creation.

During the import-substitution industrialization period, copper continued to be the principal export commodity and source of foreign exchange, as well as an important generator of government revenues. The Chilean government's retained share of the value of copper output increased from about one-quarter in 1925 to over four-fifths in 1970, mainly through higher taxes. Although protectionist policies better insulated Chile from the occasional shocks of world commodities markets, price shifts continued to take their toll.


Between 1950 and 1970, the Chilean economy expanded at meager rates. GDP grew at an average rate of 3.8 percent per annum, whereas real GDP per capita increased at an average yearly rate of 1.6 percent. Over this period, Chile's economic performance was the poorest among Latin America's large and medium-size countries. Fact|date=April 2008

As in most historical cases, Chile's import-substitution strategy was accompanied by an acute overvaluation of the domestic currency that precluded the development of a vigorous nontraditional (that is, noncopper) export sector. Although some agrarian reform was attempted, the government increasingly resorted to controlling agricultural prices in order to subsidize the urban working and middle classes. The agricultural sector was particularly harmed by the overvaluation of Chile's currency. The lagging of agriculture became, in fact, one of the most noticeable symptoms of Chile's economic problems of the 1950s and 1960s. Over this period, manufacturing and mining, mainly of copper, significantly increased their shares in total output.

By the early 1960s, most of the easy and obvious substitutions of imported goods had already been made; the process of import substitution was rapidly becoming less dynamic. For example, between 1950 and 1960 total real industrial production grew at an annual rate of only 3.5 percent, less than half the rate of the previous decade.

During the 1950s, inflation, which had been a chronic problem in Chile since at least the 1880s, became particularly serious; the rate of increase of consumer prices averaged 36 percent per annum during the decade, reaching a peak of 84 percent in 1955. The main source of the inflationary pressure on the Chilean economy was a remarkably lax fiscal policy. Chile's economic history has been marked by failed attempts to curb inflation. During the 1950s and 1960s, three major stabilization programs, one in each administration, were launched. The common aspect of these efforts was the emphasis placed on tackling the various consequences of inflationary pressures, such as prices, wages, and exchange-rate increases, rather than the root cause of money growth, the monetization of the fiscal deficit. In spite of the efforts of presidents Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1927-31, 1952-58) and Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (1958-64), inflation averaged 31 percent per annum during these two decades. In 1970, the last year of the government of President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-70), the inflation rate stood at 35 percent.

During the 1960s, and especially during the Frei administration, some efforts to reform the economy were launched. These included an agrarian reform, a limited liberalization of the external sector, and a policy of minidevaluations aimed at preventing the erosion of the real exchange rate. Under the 1962 Agrarian Reform Law, the Agrarian Reform Corporation (Corporación de Reforma Agraria--Cora) was created to handle the distribution, but land reform proved to be slow and expensive. In spite of these and other reforms, toward the end of the 1960s it appeared that the performance of the economy had not improved in relation to the previous twenty years. Moreover, the economy was still heavily regulated.

Popular Unity Government

In September 1970, Salvador Allende, the UP candidate, was elected president of Chile. Over the next three years, a unique political and economic experience followed. The UP was a coalition of left and center-left parties dominated by the Socialist Party of Chile (Partido Socialista--PS) and the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile--PCCh), both of which sought to implement deep institutional, political, and economic reforms. The UP's program called for a democratic "Chilean road to socialism".

When Allende took office in November 1970, his UP government faced a stagnant economy weakened by inflation, which hit a rate of 35 percent in 1970. Between 1967 and 1970, real GDP per capita had grown only 1.2 percent per annum, a rate significantly below the Latin American average. The balance of payments had shown substantial surpluses during all but one of the years from 1964 to 1970, and, at the time the UP took power, the Central Bank of Chile had a stock of international reserves of approximately US$400 million.

The UP had a number of short-run economic objectives: initiating structural economic transformations, including a program of nationalization; increasing real wages; reducing inflation; spurring economic growth; increasing consumption, especially by poorer people; and reducing the economy's dependence on the rest of the world. The UP's nationalization program was to be achieved by a combination of new legislation, requisitions, and stock purchases from small shareholders. The other goals--output and increased consumption, with rising salaries and declining inflation--were to be accomplished by a boost in aggregate demand, mainly generated by higher government expenditures, accompanied by strict price controls and measures to redistribute income.

The UP's macroeconomic program was based on several key assumptions, the most important being that the manufacturing sector had ample underutilized capacity. This provided the theoretical basis for the belief that large fiscal deficits would not necessarily be inflationary. The lack of full utilization was, in turn, attributed to two fundamental factors: the monopolistic nature of the manufacturing industry and the structure of income distribution. Based on this diagnosis, it was thought that if income were redistributed toward the poorer groups through wage increases and if prices were properly controlled, there would be a significant expansion of demand and output.

Regarding inflation, the UP program placed blame on structural rigidities (namely, slow or no response of quantity supplied to price increases), bottlenecks, and the role of monopolistic pricing, and it played down the role of fiscal pressures and money creation. Little attention was paid to the financial sector, given the orientation of the new regime's economic technocrats toward the import-substitution, structuralist philosophy of the Economic Commission for Latin America. In fact, Allende's minister of foreign relations and vice president, Clodomiro Almeyda, relates in his memoirs how in the first postelection meeting of the economic team, these technocrats argued expressly and convincingly that monetary and financial management did not deserve too much attention. Alfonso Inostroza, the Central Bank president, stated in early 1971 that the main objective of the monetary policy was to "transform it into a key instrument . . . to achieve the complete mobilization of productive resources, and their allocation to those areas that the government gives priority to . . . ." This was consistent with the view of inflation of those espousing structuralism.

The UP perspective on the way the economy functioned ignored many of the key principles of traditional economic theory. This was reflected in the greatly diminished attention given to monetary policies, but also in the complete disregard of the exchange rate as a key variable in determining macroeconomic equilibrium. In particular, the UP program and policies paid no attention to the role of the real exchange rate as a determinant of the country's international competitive position. Moreover, the UP failed to recognize that its policies would not be sustainable in the medium term and that capacity constraints were going to become an insurmountable obstacle to rapid growth.

Economic Crisis and coup


After assuming power in November 1970, the UP rapidly began to implement its program. In the area of structural reforms, two basic measures were immediately begun. First, agrarian reform was greatly intensified, and a large number of farms was expropriated. Second, the government proposed to change the constitution in order to nationalize the large copper mines, which were jointly owned by large United States firms and the Chilean state.

Government expenditures expanded greatly, and in 1971 real salaries and wages in the public sector increased 48 percent, on average. Salaries in the private sector grew at approximately the same rate. Also, between 1970 and 1972 public sector employment grew at an average of 11.4 percent per year. [ [ Macroeconomic Stability and Income Inequality in Chile ] ] In the first two quarters of 1971, manufacturing output increased 6.2 percent and 10.6 percent compared with the same periods in the previous year. Manufacturing sales grew at even faster rates: 12 percent during the first quarter and 11 percent during the second quarter.

Overall, the behavior of the economy in 1971 seemed to vindicate the UP economists: real GDP grew at 7.7 percent, average real wages increased by 17%, aggregate consumption grew at a real rate of 13.2 percent, and the rate of unemployment dipped below 4 percent. [ [ Macroeconomic Stability and Income Inequality in Chile ] ] Also, and more important for the UP political leaders, income distribution improved significantly. In 1971 labor's share of GDP reached 61.7 percent, almost ten percentage points higher than in 1970. All of this created a sense of euphoria in the government.

On June 11, 1971 Congress approved unanimously an amendment to the constitution nationalizing large copper mines. As a result, reform of the banking system and large manufacturing firms was more difficult because the government lacked the institutional means to implement nationalization. Initially, this obstacle was alleviated because the government purchased blocks of shares, especially bank shares, at high prices. These share acquisitions were complemented by a process of requisition or expropriation of foreign-owned companies based on an old, and until then forgotten, decree law promulgated during Marmaduke Grove Vallejo's short-lived Socialist Republic of 1932.

All did not remain well in the economy in 1971. The UP's macroeconomic policies were rapidly generating a situation of repressed inflation. The high growth rate of GDP was largely the result of an almost 40 percent increase in imports of intermediate goods. The fiscal deficit had jumped from 2 percent of GDP in 1970 to almost 11 percent in 1971. The rate at which the money supply grew exceeded 100 percent in 1971. As a result, the stock of international reserves inherited by the Allende government was reduced by more than one-half in that year alone. A rapid reduction of inventories was another important factor in the expansion of consumption.

By the end of 1971, the mounting inflationary pressures had become evident. The economy was experiencing the consequences of an aggregate demand for goods and services well above the aggregate supply at current prices. This imbalance was aggravated by a series of labor disputes in many large establishments that resulted in the takeover of those firms by their workers. In fact, this procedure became the institutionalized way in which the government seized a large number of firms.


During 1972 the macroeconomic problems continued to mount. Inflation surpassed 200 percent, and the fiscal deficit surpassed 13 percent of GDP. Domestic credit to the public sector grew at almost 300 percent, and international reserves dipped below US$77 million. Real wages fell 25 percent in 1972 [ [ Macroeconomic Stability and Income Inequality in Chile ] ]

The underground economy grew as more and more activities moved out of the official economy. As a result, more and more sources of tax revenues disappeared. A vicious cycle began: repressed inflation encouraged the informal economy, thus reducing tax revenues and leading to higher deficits and even higher inflation. In 1972 two stabilization programs were implemented, both unsuccessfully.

When evaluating the problems faced by the economy, UP economists generally held the view that the authorities had failed to impose appropriate controls in implementing Allende's program. This view guided the first, rather weak, attempt at stabilizing the economy that was launched in February 1972. Price controls were the main ingredient of the program. By mid-1972 it was apparent that the February stabilization program was a failure. The underground economy was now widespread, output had begun to fall, open inflation reached an annual rate of 70 percent in the second quarter, foreign-exchange reserves were very low, and the blackmarket value of the currency was falling rapidly. Parliamentary elections scheduled for March 1973 made the situation particularly difficult for the UP. In August 1972, a new stabilization program was launched under the political monitoring of the PCCh. This time, not only prices were officially controlled, but the distribution channels were taken over by the government, in an attempt to reduce the extent of the black market.

Unlike the previous plan, the August 1972 stabilization program was based on a massive devaluation of the escudo. The government expected that the result would be an easing of the mounting pressures on the balance of payments. The program also called for two basic measures to contain fiscal pressures. First, nationalized firms were authorized to increase prices as a means of reducing the financing requirements of the newly formed nationalized sector. Second, the program called for a massive increase in production, especially in the recently nationalized manufacturing and agriculture sectors (large manufacturing firms and farms had been expropriated arbitrarily). The devaluation and a large number of price increases resulted in annualized inflation rates of 22.7 percent in August and 22.2 percent in September.

In mid-August 1972, the government announced that it had drafted a new wage policy based on an increase in public and private-sector wages by a proportion equal to the accumulated rate of inflation between January and September. In addition, the new policy called for more frequent wage adjustments.

At the same time, the United States conducted a campaign to deepen the inflation crisis [United States Senate Report (1975) "Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973" "U.S. Government Printing Office" Washington. D.C.] . Chilean economist Jacobo Schatan writes, "It was clear that the scarcity had been manipulated for political reasons, to create a climate favourable to both the coup and, subsequently, the total change of the economic system." [p.60 of Schatan, J. (2001) "Poverty and Inequality in Chile: Offspring of 25 Years of Neo-Liberalism". "Development and Society", 30(2) pp.57-77]


During the first quarter of 1973, Chile's economic problems became extremely serious. Inflation reached an annual rate of more than 120 percent, industrial output declined by almost 6 percent, and foreign-exchange reserves held by the Central Bank were barely above US$40 million. The black market by then covered a widening range of transactions in foreign exchange. The fiscal deficit continued to climb as a result of spiraling expenditures and of rapidly disappearing sources of taxation. For that year, the fiscal deficit ended up exceeding 23% of GDP.

The depth of the economic crisis seriously affected the middle class, and relations between the UP government and the political opposition became increasingly confrontational. On September 11, 1973, the UP regime came to a sudden and shocking end with a violent military coup and President Allende's suicide.

When the military took over, the country was divided politically, and the economy was a shambles. Inflation was galloping, and relative price distortions, stemming mainly from massive price controls, were endemic. In addition, black-market activities were rampant, real wages had dropped drastically, the economic prospects of the middle class had darkened, the external sector was facing a serious crisis, production and investment were falling steeply, and government finances were completely out of hand.

Military government's Free-Market Reforms, 1975-81

After the military took over the government in September 1973, there was a year and a half of benign neglect of the economy as the regime consolidated its power. When in April 1975, the so called "Chicago Boys" took control of economic policy, a period of dramatic economic changes began. Chile was transformed gradually from an economy isolated from the rest of the world, with strong government intervention, into a liberalized, world integrated economy, where market forces were left free to guide most of the economy's decisions. This period was characterized by several important economic achievements, bolstered by increased support from the US administration: inflation was reduced greatly, the government deficit was virtually eliminated, the economy went through a dramatic liberalization of its foreign sector, and a strong market system was established. Along with these achievements, drops occurred in the standard of living of the poorest citizens, poverty jumped dramatically, wages declined, and the gap between rich and poor widened significantly. [Schatan, J. (2001) "Poverty and Inequality in Chile: Offspring of 25 Years of Neo-Liberalism". "Development and Society", 30(2) pp.57-77]

From an economic point of view, the era of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-90) can be divided into two periods. The first, from 1975 to 1981, corresponds to the period when most of the reforms were implemented. The period ended with the international debt crisis and the collapse of the Chilean economy. At that point, unemployment was extremely high, above 20 percent, and a large proportion of the banking sector had become bankrupt. During this period, a pragmatic economic policy that emphasized export expansion and growth was implemented. The second period, from 1982 to 1990, is characterized by economic recovery and a further movement towards a free market economy, although at a slower pace than that of the early 1980s.

Trade policy

One of the fundamental economic goals of the military regime was to open up the economy to the rest of the world. However, this was not the first attempt at liberalizing international trade in Chile. Between 1950 and 1970, the country went through three attempts at trade liberalization without ever reaching full liberalization. Moreover, all three attempts quickly ended in frustration and in a reversion to exchange controls, the use of multiple exchange rates, and massive quantitative restrictions. A particularly interesting feature of the three attempts at liberalization is that, although they took place under three different exchange-rate systems, they all collapsed, at least in part because of a highly overvalued real exchange rate.

Starting in 1974, Chile adopted unilaterally an open trade regime characterized by low uniform import tariffs, a lack of exchange or trade controls, and minimum restrictions on capital movements. Starting in 1979, Chile's trade policy became highly liberalized; subsequently, there were no quantitative restrictions, licenses, or prohibitions. A uniform import tax varying between 10 percent and 35 percent took effect, and, until 1980, real exchange rate over valuation generally was avoided. By 1990 Chile was the only country, according to the World Bank, whose index of liberalization reached the maximum possible level of 20, indicating an absence of external-sector distortions.

In 1973 import tariffs averaged 105 percent and were highly dispersed, with some goods subject to nominal tariffs of more than 700 percent and others fully exempted from import duties. In addition to tariffs, a battery of quantitative restrictions were applied, including outright import prohibitions and prior import deposits of up to 10,000 percent. These protective measures were complemented by a highly distorting multiple exchange-rate system consisting of fifteen different nominal exchange rates. By August 1975, all quantitative restrictions had been eliminated, and the average tariff had been reduced to 44 percent. This process of tariff reductions continued until June 1979, when all tariffs but one (that on automobiles) were set at 10 percent. In the mid-1980s, in the midst of the debt crisis, temporary tariff hikes were implemented; by 1989, however, a uniform level of 15 percent had been established.

During the early period (1975-79) of the military regime, the opening of Chile's external sector was accompanied by a strongly depreciated real exchange rate. In 1979, however, the authorities adopted a fixed-exchange rate policy that resulted in an acute over valuation of the Chilean peso, a loss in international competitiveness, and, in 1982, a deep crisis. In 1984-85 this situation was reversed, and a policy of a depreciated and highly competitive real exchange rate was implemented. The combination of these two policies--low tariffs and a competitive real exchange rate--had a significant impact on Chile's economic structure. The share of manufacturing in GNP dropped from almost 29 percent in 1974 to 22 percent in 1981. Productivity in tradable sectors grew substantially, and exports became highly diversified. Chile had also diversified its export markets, with the result that no individual market bought more than 20 percent of the country's total exports. By the early 1990s, exports had become the engine of growth, and the Chilean trade reform was winning praise from multinational institutions and observers of different ideological persuasions. Largely thanks to the boom in exports between 1986 and 1991, particularly the increasing growth in exports of fresh fruits and manufactured products, Chile experienced the highest rate of GDP growth in Latin America (the "Miracle of Chile"), with an annual increase of 4.2 percent.

In what was perhaps the surest sign of the success of trade reform, the new democratic government of President Patricio Aylwin Azócar (1990-94), elected in December 1989, decided to continue the opening process and reduced import tariffs to a uniform 11 percent. Interestingly, Aylwin's economic team, including the minister of finance and the minister of economy, development, and reconstruction, had been relentless critics of the trade reform process during its implementation in the mid- and late 1970s.

Banking reform and the financial sector

A major policy objective of the military regime was the liberalization and modernization of the banking sector. Until 1973 the domestic capital market had been highly repressed, with most banks being government owned. Real interest rates were negative, and there were quantitative restrictions on credit. The liberalization process began slowly, in early 1974, with the sale of banks back to the private sector, the freeing of interest rates, the relaxation of some restrictions on the banking sector, and the creation of new financial institutions. International capital movements, however, were strictly controlled until mid-1979. In June 1979, the government decided to begin to liberalize the capital account of the balance of payments, lifting some restrictions on medium- and long-term capital movements.

The opening of the capital account resulted in a massive inflow of foreign capital that contributed to Chile's subsequent international debt problems. In 1980 capital inflows were more than double those of 1979--US$2.5 billion versus US$1.2 billion--and in 1981 the level of capital inflows nearly doubled again, to US$4.5 billion.

An important result of the reforms of the financial sector was that the number of financial institutions and the volume of financial intervention both increased greatly. For example, in 1981 there were twenty-six national banks, nineteen foreign banks, and fifteen savings and loan institutions (financieras), a number significantly higher than the eighteen national banks and one foreign bank in operation in September 1973. Furthermore, between 1973 and 1981 the real volume of total credit to the private sector increased by more than 1,100 percent.

At least in terms of increasing the degree of financial intermediation, liberalization was a success. However, it was apparent from the beginning that capital-market liberalization faced three major obstacles. First, interest rates were very high. Second, in spite of the significant growth in the extent of financial intermediation, domestic savings had not increased to the extent that the proponents of the reforms had expected. In fact, domestic savings were at one of their lowest levels in history from 1974 to 1982. There are several possible explanations for the behavior of domestic savings. One of the most popular of these relies on the notion that the appreciation of domestic assets that was taking place at the time, such as stocks and land prices, resulted in a real accumulation of assets without saving. This increase in private-sector wealth was consistent with higher levels of consumption at a given income. Third, and perhaps more important, the rapid growth of the financial sector took place in an environment in which monetary authorities exercised no supervision. As a result, many banks accumulated an unprecedented volume of bad loans, a situation that led to the financial crisis of 1982-83. As a consequence of this crisis, a number of banks went bankrupt during 1983-84, were placed temporarily under government control, and then were reprivatized. By 1992, after monetary authorities had learned the hard way the importance of bank supervision, Chile's financial sector had become highly stable and dynamic.

Rural land market reform

At the time of the military coup, about 60 percent of Chile's irrigated land and 50 percent of total agricultural land was in control of the public sector. Land reform had started in the 1960s with expropriations of large landholdings (those larger than eighty basic irrigated hectares--BIH), and the encouragement of small farms (about 8.5 BIH) managed by their owners. The Allende administration favored large-scale farms under cooperatives and state-farm management over private ownership of agricultural land. Starting in 1974, the military government began using Cora to end agrarian reform by distributing land to establish family farms with individual ownership. In a period of three years, 109,000 farmers and 67,000 descendants of the Mapuche had been assigned property rights to small farms. About 28 percent of the expropriated land was returned to previous owners, and the rest was auctioned off.

Three key legal issues were then clarified by decree law in 1978. Government authority to expropriate land was repealed, the ceilings on landholdings (the equivalent of eighty BIH) were removed, and the ban on corporate ownership of land was eliminated. At the end of 1978, all farmland owned publicly had been distributed, and Cora was legally closed.

Reforms in the legislation that regulated land rentals and land subdivisions in 1980 added flexibility to the rural land markets. But perhaps more crucial aspects of the reforms were the separation of water rights from the land itself and the legal possibility of transferring water titles independently of land transactions.

Labor-market reform

Immediately after the 1973 coup, many labor institutions, that is, traditional channels of influence, such as government offices, which unions used to get their voices heard, were disbanded, and some important unions were dissolved. Thus, wage adjustments became mainly a function of indexation, which, given Chile's history of inflation, had become an established element of any wage negotiation. Indexation was kept in place until 1982, through ten years of declining inflation.

Starting in October 1973, the government mandated across the board periodic wage adjustments tied to the rate of inflation. Lower wages were adjusted proportionally more than higher ones. From 1973 to 1979, indexation to past inflation with varying lags was the norm throughout the economy. The 1979 Labor Plan formalized this practice by requiring that collective bargaining agreements allow for wage adjustments at or above the rate of inflation. In 1982 the indexation clause of the Labor Plan was eliminated. The government continued the practice of periodically announcing wage readjustments and bonuses, with the wage increases usually not keeping pace with inflation and covering the non-unionized sector only. The dynamism of the economy in the early 1990s resulted in actual wage increases above officially announced readjustments.

The Employment Security Law established that in the absence of "just cause" for dismissal, such as drunkenness, absenteeism, or theft, a dismissed employee could be reinstated to the job by a labor court. This law was replaced by a less costly system of severance payments in 1978. Decree Law 2,200 authorized employers to modify individual labor contracts and to dismiss workers without "cause". A minimum severance payment was established that was equivalent to one month of salary per year of service, up to a maximum of five months' pay. This new system applied to all contracts signed after August 1981.

The changes introduced by Decree Law 2,200, along with the 1979 reforms, which established new mechanisms to govern union activity (Decree Law 2,756) and collective bargaining (Decree Law 2,758), became known in Chile as the Labor Plan. Decree Law 2,756 departed significantly from traditional legislation: union affiliation within a company became voluntary, and all negotiations would now have to be conducted at the company level; bargaining among many companies would be eliminated. According to the previous law, which had applied until the 1973 coup, once the majority of the workers of an enterprise chose to join an "industrial union" all workers became part of that union. That is, one union would have exclusive representation of all workers in an enterprise. The right to collective bargaining was granted to unions at the enterprise level and also to union federations and confederations. This resulted in some negotiations at the industry level with the participation of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare through the Labor Inspectorate. As in the past, the new law required participation of 10 percent of the workers or a minimum of twenty-five workers (whichever was greater) for creation of a union. Workers were not required to be represented by a union in collective bargaining.

Decree Law 2,758 stipulated that in the event of a strike, a firm could impose a lockout and temporarily lay off workers, which the previous law had prohibited. At the same time, Decree Law 2,758 established norms about collective bargaining, and in its Article 26 the law established that unionized workers' nominal wages should be adjusted to at least match the rate of inflation. This article, which became a severe constraint to downward real wage flexibility during the 1982-83 crisis, can be understood only in the context of a previously existing policy of 100 percent indexation across the board. In 1982, at the onset of the debt crisis, Article 26 was amended, eliminating the downward inflexibility of real wages. This reformed law was in effect until April 1991, when some important changes proposed by the Aylwin administration were approved by the National Congress (hereafter, Congress).

Public employment programs

Two public employment programs affected the labor market during the period of economic reforms between 1975 and 1987. The Minimum Employment Program (Programa de Empleo Mínimo--PEM) was created in 1975 at a time when unemployment had reached record levels. The program, administered by local governments, paid a small salary to unemployed workers, who, for a few hours a week, performed menial public works. At first, the government tightly restricted entry into the program. Gradually, most of these restrictions were lifted, and a larger number of unemployed people were allowed to participate. Thus, the proportion of the labor force employed by the program remained virtually constant between 1977 and 1981, despite the economic recovery and a reduction in the real value of PEM compensation.

When Chile entered a new and more severe recession, the number of individuals employed by PEM in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago increased from about 23,000 in May 1982 to 93,000 in May 1983. An Employment Program for Heads of Households (Programa de Ocupación para Jefes de Hogar--POJH), created in October 1982, employed about 100,000 individuals in the greater Santiago area by May 1983. The two programs combined absorbed more than 10 percent of the labor force of the greater Santiago area in May 1983. These programs were also implemented in other regions of the country. The PEM program was cut back drastically in February 1984. Likewise, by December 1988, there were only about 5,000 individuals employed by the POJH in the entire country.

Debt crisis: further reforms and recovery

The international debt crisis unleashed in 1982 hit the Chilean economy with particular severity, as foreign loans dried up and the international terms of trade (see Glossary) turned drastically against Chile. The policies implemented initially to face the 1982 crisis can best be described as hesitant. In early 1983, the financial sector was nationalized as a way to avoid a major banking crisis, and a number of subsidy schemes favoring debtors were enacted. The decision to subsidize debtors who had borrowed in foreign currency during the period of fixed exchange rates, and to bail out the troubled banks, resulted in heavy Central Bank losses, which contributed to the creation of a huge deficit in public sector finance. This deficit, in turn, would become one of the underlying causes of the inflation of the early 1990s. Different exchange-rate systems were tried, including a floating rate, only to be abandoned rapidly and replaced by new plans. Policies aimed at restructuring the manufacturing sector, which had entered a deep crisis as a consequence of the collapse of some of the major conglomerates, the so-called groups (grupos), were implemented. In spite of this array of measures, the economy did not show a significant response; unemployment remained extraordinarily high, and the external crisis, which some had expected to represent only a temporary setback, dragged on.

In early 1985, increasingly disappointed by the economy's performance, Pinochet turned toward a group of pragmatic economists who favored free markets and macroeconomic stability. Led by newly appointed finance minister Hernán Büchi Buc, an economist who had studied business administration at Columbia University, the new economic team devised a major adjustment program aimed at reestablishing growth, reducing the burden of the foreign debt, and rebuilding the strength of the financial and manufacturing sectors. Three policy areas became critical in the implementation of the program: active macroeconomic policies, consolidation of the market-oriented structural reforms initiated in the 1970s, and debt-management policies geared toward rescheduling debt payments and making an aggressive use of the secondary market. With the help of the International Monetary Fund ( IMF--see Glossary), the World Bank, and improved terms of trade, these policies succeeded in achieving their objectives.

The macroeconomic program of a group of Chilean economists known as the "Chicago boys", who had guided Pinochet's early economic policies, had relied on a hands-off "automatic adjustment" strategy. By mid-1982 this approach had generated a severe over valuation of the real exchange rate. By contrast, the new macroeconomic program relied on active and carefully monitored macroeconomic management. An active exchange rate policy, based on large initial exchange-rate adjustments followed by periodic small devaluations, became one of the most important policies of the post-1982 period. Between 1982 and 1988, the international competitiveness of Chilean exports was increased greatly by a real exchange-rate depreciation of approximately 90 percent. This policy not only helped generate a boom in nontraditional exports but also contributed to reasonable interest-rate levels and to the prevention of capital flight.

The adjustment program that started in 1985 also had a structural adjustment component that was aimed at consolidating the market-oriented reforms of the 1970s and early 1980s, including the privatization process, the opening of the economy, and the development of a dynamic capital market. There were several structural goals of the 1985 program: rebuild the financial sector, which had been nearly destroyed during the 1982 crisis; reduce import tariffs below the 35 percent level that they had reached during 1984 to a 15% uniform level; and promote exports through a set of fiscal incentives and a competitive real exchange rate.

Perhaps the most important aspects of these structural reform measures were the privatization and recapitalization of firms and banks that had failed during the 1982-83 crisis. As a first step in this process, the Central Bank bought private banks' nonperforming portfolios. In order to finance this operation, the Central Bank issued domestic credit. The banks, in turn, paid a rate of 5 percent on the nonperforming portfolios and promised to repurchase them out of retained profits. This recapitalization program had as its counterpart a privatization plan that returned the ownership of those banks and firms that had been nationalized in 1983 to the private sector. Economist Rolf J. Lüders estimates that about 550 enterprises under public-sector control, including most of Chile's largest corporations, were privatized between 1974 and 1990. By the end of 1991, fewer that fifty firms remained in the public sector. The overall privatization program undertaken after 1985 has been criticized by some Chileans and also by some international economists because banks and manufacturing firms were sold too rapidly and at "very low prices."

Chile's structural adjustment of the second half of the 1980s was unique from an international comparative perspective. The most difficult, controversial, and costly reforms--including the bulk of privatization, trade liberalization, financial deregulation, and labor market streamlining--were undertaken in Chile in the 1975-80 period; the measures taken after 1985 were minor, in comparison. The success of the post-1985 period was rooted in the early reforms. For example, the boom in nontraditional exports that took place in the second half of the 1980s was only possible because of investments begun almost ten years before. The markets' flexible and rapid response to incentives was also a direct consequence of the microeconomic reforms of the 1970s.

One of the most hotly debated issues of the Chilean recovery of the second half of the 1980s concerns the different foreign-debt conversion plans aimed at rapidly reducing foreign indebtedness. When the debt crisis erupted in 1982, Chile's foreign debt was US$17.2 billion, one of the highest debts per capita in the world. Through the aggressive use of a variety of debt-conversion plans, between 1985 and 1991 Chile retired an estimated US$10.5 billion of its debt, most of which was converted into equity in Chilean companies.

Chile's net international reserves totaled US$9 billion in 1992, enough to cover a year of imports and equivalent to roughly half of its foreign debt. The stock of foreign direct investment in Chile was estimated to be between US$10 billion and US$13 billion, roughly 30 percent of GDP. About US$4 billion of this was acquired through debt-equity conversions. The debt-swap program was ended when the growth of direct investment and the strength of the economy had done away with the need for special incentives to attract foreign capital.

Return to democracy

On March 11, 1990, General Pinochet handed the presidency of Chile to Patricio Aylwin. When Aylwin's Coalition of Parties for Democracy ("Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia"--CPD) government took over, Chile had the best performing economy in Latin America.

For years, opponents of the Pinochet government had argued that its economic program was based on ideas alien to the Chilean tradition. In early 1990, analysts, scholars, stockbrokers, and politicians throughout the world wondered if the new democratic government of President Aylwin would maintain some, or for that matter any, of the most important aspects of the military government's market-oriented policies, or if the CPD government would reform the system along the lines of the decade-long criticisms of the opposition. What made this question particularly interesting was that at the time of the restoration of democracy, Chile was considered by many, including international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, as a premier example of the way the adjustment process after the debt crisis should be carried out. A number of analysts asked themselves how the advent of democracy would affect Chile's economic policy. In particular, analysts were concerned about the new government's attitude toward the free price system and Chile's new openness to international competition.

Regarding price competition, the Aylwin program's position was stated as follows: "We affirm that within an efficient economic policy there is no role for price controls." In discussing the role of the market, the program noted: "The market cannot be replaced as a mechanism for consumers to articulate their preferences." These views were a far cry from those sustained by Frei's Christian Democratic government of the 1960s and, especially, from those of Allende's UP government of 1970-73. They were also substantially different from those of the new market critics of the 1970s and mid-1980s. Indeed, the CPD program conveyed that there had been a significant convergence of domestic views on the role of markets in the economic process.

Addressing the opening of the economy to the rest of the world, the CPD program stated: "The most important instruments of the external sector policy are the maintenance of a stable high real exchange rate and a reasonably low import tariff" [emphasis added] . This statement suggests that from its onset the Aylwin government was not prepared to implement major changes to one of the most fundamental features of Chile's new economics.

ocial programs

In seeking funding for new social programs, the Aylwin government made clear immediately that the only way of increasing social spending without generating unsustainable macroeconomic pressures was by finding secure sources of government revenue. Economists associated with Aylwin's CPD coalition calculated in 1989 that in order to implement their antipoverty social programs, annual funds on the order of 4 percent of GDP would be required. They argued that these resources could be obtained through a combination of expenditures, reallocation, foreign aid, and increased tax revenues. In order to implement these programs rapidly, in April 1990 President Aylwin submitted to the newly elected Congress a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the tax system. The main features of the package were the following: the corporate income-tax rate was to be increased temporarily from 10 percent to 15 percent for 1991-93; and the tax base, which in 1985 had been defined as distributed profits, was to be broadened to include total profits. The progressiveness of the personal income tax was to be increased by reducing the income level at which the maximum rate was applicable; and the rate of the value-added tax would be increased to 18 percent from 16 percent. During most of the Pinochet government, the VAT rate had been 20 percent. It was only reduced to 16 percent prior to the electoral contest before the plebiscite on Pinochet's continuation in power. After intense and often frustrating negotiations between the Aylwin administration and the opposition, the tax reform was approved in late 1990.

Pinochet's labor reforms of 1978-79 had been, from the beginning, strongly criticized by the opponents of the military regime. Although the 1979 decrees had modernized labor relations in some areas, they had also severely limited the activities of unions and, as initially conceived, had made real wage rates unusually rigid. Reforming the labor plan was an important priority of the new democratic government.

After the support of some opposition senators was obtained, a mild labor reform was passed in 1991. An important characteristic of Chile's constitution of 1980 is that it stipulates the seating of nine nonelected senators in the legislature's upper house, as well as former presidents and former justices of the Supreme Court. The CPD coalition lacked a parliamentary majority because the nonelected senators had been appointed by Pinochet. Consequently, in order to approve legislation it had to obtain support from the opposition for some measures.

The new labor legislation restricted the causes for firing employees, increased the compensation that firms had to pay to lay off employees, and restricted employers' recourse to lockouts. Although there was little doubt that these new regulations had increased the cost of labor, it was too early to know the effect of the new legislation on job creation. It was known, however, that the reform of labor laws by a democratically elected government had greatly legitimated the modernization of labor relations. In a way, the concept of labor-market flexibility had ceased to be associated exclusively with the authoritarian military regime.


ee also

*Economy of Chile
*Chilean nationalization of copper
*Miracle of Chile
*Chile pension system

External links

* [ Chile's GDP 1948-2003]
* [] Economía y democracia. Los casos de Chile y México - by J.L. Saez Lozano, CEPAL
* [ Global Trade Watch paper on recent Chilean economic policy history]

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