Mexican Peso Devaluation Still Echoes Noisily in Texas

Some El Paso residents now shop for groceries across the border

AT his south Austin store, Lee Cantu sells imported Mexican handicrafts and dabbles in dream interpretation and ''water readings'' at $35 per half-hour.

But all Mr. Cantu's claimed powers give him no edge over his Mexican suppliers who have marked up their prices on embroidered sombreros and Power Ranger pinatas, wiping out any advantage to him from the drastic peso devaluation that began last December.

Five months after the peso's plummet sent shock waves through the Texas international business community, importers and exporters here are still trying to find their footing in the topsy-turvy economy of neighboring Mexico.

The devaluation was believed to make importers of Mexican products better off. ''But we're worse off,'' Cantu complains.

Some export industries remain unaffected by the peso's value because Mexico places a priority on buying their goods. That advantage applies to petroleum equipment and services, says Galen Cobb, industry affairs director at Halliburton Energy Services in Houston, whose company has seen ''no negative impact.''

At the other extreme is Doskocil Manufacturing Company of Fort Worth. The maker of pet products, furniture, and hardware sold several hundred-thousand dollars worth of plastic kennels in Mexico last year. This year, not one.

Another Fort Worth firm, Southwestern Petroleum Corporation, saw Mexican sales drop 95 percent after devaluation. ''We were just getting started there,'' says Buddy Thomas, senior vice president of the maker of petroleum-based lubricants and roofing. Only in the last few years had Pemex, the Mexican national oil company, allowed import restrictions to be eased enough for Southwestern to compete. Now, business with Mexico ''is more or less dead until the peso gets back to the range it was in before,'' Mr. Thomas says.

But his company exports to 80 other countries; border-city retailers, who rely on Mexican shoppers, are not as fortunate.

In Laredo, stores are subsisting on one-fifth of their former business, says Lisha Garcia, city economic-development director. As of March, 50 stores had closed in downtown El Paso, notes Lucinda Vargas, a Federal Reserve economist there.

Residents of Juarez, Mexico, used to cross the Rio Grande to shop in El Paso for groceries. But Lane's Dairy owner John Lane says now El Paso residents shop across the border. Some Juarez supermarkets report a 30 percent rise in sales.

But there are glimmers of hope. ''The first couple of weeks in May have been a little bit better...,'' says Leticia Palacios, general manager of the Mall del Norte in Laredo.

At its worst, the peso traded for as little as 47 percent of its predevaluation worth in dollars. Lately, it has held near 60 percent. ''That's good news,'' says David Schempf, treasurer of Compaq Computer Corporation. The Houston computermaker was stung by the decline in value of its Mexican accounts receivable in the fourth quarter of 1994.

Other good news: Mexico is running monthly trade surpluses. The current account deficit is down; its stock market is performing better. Michael Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, says by next year Mexico's economy will be stronger than before devaluation.

But the country faces some immediate hurdles, like 80 percent interest rates and growing unemployment. One result of the uncertainty: ''My phone does not ring with questions about Mexico anymore,'' says Teresa de Onis, director of Western Hemisphere business development at the Texas Commerce Department. Instead, Texas exporters are looking elsewhere in Latin America for opportunities, she says.

While economists are reluctant to estimate 1995 Texas-Mexico commerce figures, most expect shrinking exports and growing imports.

Falling exports could hurt manufacturing employment in Texas, where trade with Mexico supports 6 percent of the work force.

The state had led the nation in employment growth for six years, notes Fiona Sigalla, a Federal Reserve Bank economist in Dallas. But for the last two quarters, the growth rate here has fallen toward the national rate. The difference is ''the loss of that extra boost'' from exports to Mexico.

''We haven't totally stopped promoting Mexico,'' Ms. de Onis says. ''Companies should keep their contacts, because the situation will turn around. Just don't expect any big deals soon.''

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