By MATT MOFFETT
SANTIAGO, Chile -- During the emerging economies' commodities boom a few years back, Chilean Finance Minister Andrés Velasco was a wet blanket at the fiesta. Chile, the world's largest copper producer, was reaping a bonanza from the quadrupling in the metal's price. Mr. Velasco insisted on squirreling away a large chunk in a rainy-day fund.
As the savings swelled above $20 billion -- more than 15% of Chile's economic output -- Mr. Velasco faced growing pressure to break open the piggy bank. In September, protesters barged into a presentation by Mr. Velasco, carrying an effigy of him and shouting, "The copper money is for the poor people."
The 48-year-old Mr. Velasco, wary that a flood of copper income could generate lending and consumption bubbles, stood his ground, even as the popularity of the center-left government withered. Latin American history, he cautioned, was full of "booms that had been mismanaged and ended badly."
Finance Minister Andrés Velasco built Chile's rainy-day fund. Today Mr. Velasco looks like a prophet. Since the onset of the global economic crisis, copper prices have fallen by 50%, in line with the sharp decline in other commodities. Emerging economies that got too giddy in the good years are now coping with nasty hangovers. Soybean-dependent Argentina is facing a possible debt default while oil-rich Russia has been stuck bailing out banks and companies that got in over their heads in debt.
Thanks to Mr. Velasco's caution, Chile is now in a position to try to bootstrap its own recovery from the global recession. Mr. Velasco's preemptive moves have kept Chile's government from having to spend a single peso on bank bailouts. Having paid down foreign debt during the fat years, Chile is now a net creditor nation, with a debt rating that was upgraded by Moody's Investors Service in March.
And now Chile is pouring some of its copper savings into a massive stimulus plan, consisting of job-creating public-works projects, tax breaks for business, investments to keep mines operating and other goodies. Chile's plan is one of the largest stimulus packages in the world relative to the size of its economy. The Chilean program is the equivalent of 2.8% of gross domestic product, versus 2% in the U.S.
As a result, economists expect the nation's annual economic output to decline a very slight 0.5% this year, compared with much steeper declines elsewhere.
The moral of this story is, of course, you should always defer to the economists! (Velasco has a PhD in economics from Columbia). Such a fund would be pretty nice to have in Oregon right now, huh?