6 October 2001 - From Top to Bottom

Every day was a new adventure in South America: One day I would find myself driving through tiny villages along the rugged Andes Mountains. The next I was sitting in a giant soccer stadium watching 150,000 frothing fans thrill at their team’s victory.

At times, we found ourselves plying across desert-like scrub forests like the Gran Chaco in western Paraguay. On other days, we were surrounded by vast grasslands, which the locals call the pampa.

There’s something for everyone — from wayward travelers to investors — in South America. I wrote about Argentina’s economic problems a few months ago and developments there are worth keeping an eye on because Argentina’s downturn could certainly have a negative impact on its neighbors.

That said, we have plenty of reasons — good and bad — to keep our eyes on our southern neighbors for both opportunities and traps. After all, they are almost all natural-resource-based economies, my favorite kind of place these days. Increased conversation between the U.S. and South America’s many trade groups will open even more doors.

Here’s my roundup, in no particular order, of the countries I visited during my tour of the continent.

CHILE. Chile is without question the success story of South America. Its democratic government has embraced the kind of free-market economic approach I preach. Over the past decade, Chile’s leaders have reduced tariffs and lowered inflation, while keeping spending under control. The government encourages foreign investment and the numbers show someone is hearing the call: Chile received $3.6 billion in the first half of 2001, over twice as much as it received in the same period last year. Such fiscal prudence has earned Chile the highest sovereign bond rating of any South American nation. The government is making noises about excess spending during the current slow down so we will have to see how it handles this test.

Unlike Argentina, the Chilean government has managed its currency, the peso, soundly, allowing it to float to realistic values. With Argentina in a crisis and the possibility of a global recession looming, the peso has floated downward but the decline has actually kept Chile’s exports competitively priced.

Speaking of exports, Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper and the metal accounts for 50 percent of the country’s total exports. Copper prices have fallen substantially of late, and that’s slowed economic growth. Chile’s economy is slowing this year, far from last year’s 6 percent or the 8 percent the country saw during much of the 1990s. I’ve heard estimates that for each one-cent drop in the international price of copper, Chile loses $100 million.

But that problem could be a long-term blessing, forcing economic diversification. And other industries are stepping up. During the past few years, Chile has become the world’s second largest exporter — Norway is first — of farmed salmon with exports generating $973 million in 2000 and higher exports possible this year. Near Puerto Montt in Southern Chile, we saw a new, modern salmon fishery being built. The new highways opening the south are showing results.

Faithful readers know I measure a country’s success as much on the quality of its infrastructure as I do by the budget’s bottom line. Chile is a long, skinny country, more than 10 times longer than it is wide. The terrain varies from desert to a fertile central valley to the Andes Mountains, hardly forgiving areas through which to drive.

But Chile’s road system is one of the finest I’ve seen, reminding me of the roads in China that were so well maintained. That’s because the Chilean government privatized the highway system just as the Chinese did. Tourists generally get upset when they see a toll road but I love to pay tolls, particularly when it’s evident the money is going to make the roads better. We’ve been on too many horrible roads on this trip.

I didn’t make any investments in Chile but that’s only because I’m waiting on outside factors, like the fate of Argentina. When its economy falls apart — and it will — there will be panic selling in Chile and other South American countries and that will be the time to invest.

Many still wonder about the “Pinochet factor,” but it is no longer relevant. In a compromise, the court ruled Pinochet is too ill to be tried, but held out the promise of trying him for crimes against humanity if he ever shows signs of recovery. The former strongman no longer has any power or influence since any efforts to affect events will lead him to a courtroom. They say justice is blind, but apparently Chilean judges also know how to avoid tearing the country apart.

BRAZIL. There’s an old saying about Brazil that pretty much sums up my feelings: “Brazil is the next great country of the world and it always will be.” After all, it’s got many things going for it. It’s enormous, roughly the size of the lower 48 states. The population (174,468,575) is the second largest in the Western hemisphere.

There are vast natural resources from coffee to soybeans to iron ore and sugar cane. It’s such a big, unexplored country that I’m convinced it’s got resources that many people don’t even know about yet.

The problem is stops and starts in its economic development consistently plague Brazil. Every time it gets going in the right direction, something happens to set it off down the wrong road. In 1994, for example, the government instituted its “Real Plan” to bring down rampant inflation. It was working fine until the Asian fiscal crisis threw the plan off course.

Since then, the government, led by president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has tightened fiscal and economic policy, and successfully brought down inflation. Foreign direct investment hit an all-time high of $30 billion in 2000.

But now Brazil has new problems, like a major energy crisis. Hydroelectric power provides roughly 90 percent of the country’s electricity and low rainfall and poor planning has left the country without the necessary power reserves. Electricity is now being rationed and forced blackouts are a possibility. I believe this is the fault of the hapless government, which consistently fails to take in a long-term look at the country’s problems.

The government keeps talking about a surge in exports but that has yet to materialize. Brazil runs a fairly substantial account deficit — roughly 4.5 percent of GDP — and that’s already scaring off foreign investors. Foreign investment usually offsets the deficits but experts predict there’s not going to be as much money coming in this year. Such economic turmoil could spell the end of the current government’s tenure –adding to Brazil’s reputation for instability.

My barometer for any economy is the currency. As I passed through Brazil, I kept my eye on the real, hoping to see a turn for the better. No such luck. The real continues to fall; it has lost nearly a third of its value since the beginning of the year.

Making matters worse are the tensions between many of Brazil’s 26 states. In the south, states like Rio Grande do Sul are far more successful than those to the north and leaders in the south complain they are carrying their northern neighbors. It wouldn’t surprise me if the small separatist movement that’s already in place gains steam. In fact Brazil would be better off as two or three countries rather than as the historical quirk formed 500 years ago when a Pope drew a line in a hemisphere about which he knew nothing.

Needless to say, I didn’t invest. Little has changed in Brazil since I last visited. Per capita income is roughly $6,150, the same it was then. A third of the population lives below the poverty line. Until I see consistent competency from its leaders, I’ll take my money elsewhere.

However, if you want to see football [soccer], this really is the place. We were lucky enough to see the Brazil-Paraguay World Cup qualifying match. I have never seen such intensity, passion, and throb at a sporting event. Everything you’ve ever heard about football in Brazil is true. Fortunately Brazil won or I would have feared for everyone’s safety in the jammed stadium.

Ah, and the women! We’ve all seen photos of the beaches and Carnival and the revealing dress styles. It’s true everywhere. I suspect the suggestive dress of the women is no more than a style, but we remember no country in the world where things were so, uh, open.

PERU. I was in Puno on Sept. 11, eating breakfast in my hotel. The manager ran in and started profusely offering condolences. I figured someone had hit my car and our trip was over. I wish it had been that simple.

Despite the dark shadow cast by the tragic events in New York City and Washington, I found a lot to be excited about in Peru. When I was last in Peru in 1991, the Shining Path, a leftist guerilla group, was trying to overthrow the civilian government. I didn’t think there was much chance of the government getting overthrown so I bought shares of some of Peru’s many resource companies.

Turns out I was right, the Shining Path went south but my investments headed north. This time around I bought shares in three more companies: Pesquera Austral, a fish and fish-meal manufacturer; Casagrande, a sugar company; and Minera Andina de Exploraciones, a mining outfit.

What do I like about Peru? First, the government has done just the right things to stimulate the economy. President Fujimori, who ran the country from 1990 until November 2000 when he was deposed for being a crook, privatized old state-run dinosaurs in the mining, telecommunications, and power industries. Peru’s current president, Alejandro Toledo, has promised to fight poverty — half of Peru’s population live on less than $2 a day — and create jobs.

Peru is natural resource-based economy with mineral exports, especially gold, copper and zinc, accounting for 50 percent of export revenue. A huge new gold mine scheduled to open in 2002 should expand overall exports. The country also is one of the world’s largest producers of fish and fish products and agriculture contributes another 12 percent to export revenue. Major, and mostly untapped, natural gas fields, along with large copper, silver, iron ore and phosphate deposits also promise opportunities. In fact, British commerce officials list Peru as one of the largest untapped mineral resources on earth.

Tourism also is a booming industry. When I was here last, I visited Machu Picchu, the mountain city of the Inca Empire in Eastern Peru. In 1991, I had to take a rickety old bus up a winding road along the side of a mountain. Today, there’s a comfortable train with stewards and stewardesses to take you there and a fleet of new buses to take you to the top where we found shops and a new hotel and guides ready to give us tours. You can even take a helicopter now.

The pattern is repeated all over the country. There is nothing like peace to bring in visitors. [Now I have to find other countries where peace is coming and go into the tourism business there.]

There’s a great deal of discussion in Peru these days about the transcontinental highway that will link the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. It will run through Brazil and Southern Peru and likely be a huge boon for businesses in the area. In fact, we had to leave Cusco, the city near Machu Picchu, because hundreds of locals in Cusco were marching to demand the highway run through their town. Clearly, I’m not the only one excited about highways.

BOLIVIA: I’m high on Bolivia, it’s future, that is, not the cocaine industry for which it is notorious. In contrast to the protectionist economies of its bigger and better-known neighbors like Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia has open borders and imposes few tariffs. That’s attracted shoppers from all over South America to its vast markets and stores, where everything is incredibly cheap. We ate enormous meals for under $2 and stayed in beautiful hotels for next to nothing.

Unlike the leaders in most of South American countries, government officials in Bolivia have made smart moves after centuries of being a quintessential unstable joke. President Sanchez de Lozada, who ran the country from 1993 to 1997, privatized the airline, telephone, railroad, power and oil industries. His successor, Hugo Suarez reformed the country’s corrupt pension system. The new democratic government, led by Jorge Quirogo seems to be continuing their lead. The cost of such changes have forced the country to run a trade deficit but foreign direct investment has offset the difference, averaging $600 million annually for the past five years.

The infrastructure is in decent shape. We didn’t even have to buy new phones when we got to Bolivia. A small phone shop at the border just switched the ones we had bought in Argentina over to the Bolivian system. They worked without a hitch whereas repeated efforts had never been completely successful in Argentina. Cellular service is key in Bolivia since the mountainous terrain make landlines extremely expensive. The number of mobile users exceeds that of fixed line customers.

The mining and hydrocarbon industries are booming as well. International consortiums are announcing new finds in mineral and natural gas almost daily. Proven and probable gas reserves jumped from 9.79 trillion cubic feet in 1998 to 70.01 trillion cubic feet at the beginning of 2001. Best of all, Peru has given Bolivia a port on its Southern coastline so Bolivians have an access point to the Pacific. The new Brazilian-Peruvian highway runs right by Bolivia and the government is planning highways , which will make Bolivia a crossroads of the region.

I visited the stock exchange in La Paz. It’s tiny by any standard, with only 26 listed companies. My guess is that will grow as foreign investors see the opportunity I see. This will be an exciting opportunity if Bolivia really has finally seen the light.

ECUADOR. I really want to get excited about Ecuador, the one country I was convinced was headed for good times. The government got rid of its local currency, the sucre, in favor of the dollar in 2000. That’s a plan that only works well if you maintain fiscal discipline and have a reasonable balance of trade, which Ecuador does because oil prices have been strong. Unemployment has been falling, down from 16.8 percent in January 2000 to around 10 percent today. The country has huge oil >reserves; there’s a plan to build a new pipeline that should bring in even more petrol dollars. And the government plans to buy back some of its debt as a cushion against hard times. Sounds like smart thinking.

Again, the problem is leadership. Coups, military takeovers, and political absurdity have created revolving doors at the top. There’ve been seven leaders in the past 10 years! The phrase banana republic actually comes from Ecuador (bananas are one its biggest exports.) The current president, Gustavo Noboa, has been in power for a year and a half and seems to want to do what’s best for Ecuador, but until I sense some long-term stability, I’ll take my money elsewhere.

It is a shame, too, since it is such a great place to visit while seeking investments. Mountains, extraordinary old architecture, beaches, markets, diverse ethnic groups: It’s all there.

PARAGUAY. There’s little to recommend this tiny landlocked nation wedged between Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. Much of Western Paraguay is semi-desert. The population is one of the smallest on the continent. A military dictatorship ruled for 35 years and the current government is unstable and corrupt. The country is deep in debt and has a feeble infrastructure. The only people who are attracted to the area are the Mennonites, a spartan protestant group that has been driven out of the U.S. and Canada.

The one thing Paraguay has going for it is its rivers and hydroelectric plants. The Itaipu Dam on he eastern border between Paraguay and Brazil is one of the most amazing man-made structures I have seen. It’s truly a wonder of the world. Most of the power it generates is sold to Brazil. Another such dam is being built between Argentina and Paraguay.

Here’s my solution for Paraguay: Put itself up for sale. Better yet, offer its parts and start a bidding war. Brazil, with its current power crisis, would have a motivation to bid on a part of the country. Paraguay could sell its parts to its neighbors for a lot more than the whole is worth and everyone in Paraguay could take his/her share and head for the beach or Punta del Este or wherever.

URUGUAY. Uruguay is the financial center of South America. Despite it’s small size, the country has managed to hold its own by becoming something of a tax haven, a sort of Monaco or Liechtenstein for neighbors like Brazil and Argentina. I’ve heard that roughly 40 percent of all accounts in Uruguay belong to wealthy Brazilians. Such secrecy laws have attracted the concern of the U.S. government, which has cracked down on such tax havens.

Secrecy aside, the economy is in fairly good shape, although there’s little opportunity for investment ‘s the only other country, besides Chile, to receive an investment-grade bond rating. It’s certainly worth a visit: South America’s most popular resort, Punta del Este, sits along the Atlantic coast and attracts the wealthy from all over South America as well as Europe — sort of a St Tropez or Monaco of South America.

COLUMBIA. I only spent a few days in Colombia because of the violent civil wars throughout the country. I couldn’t drive through because the border was closed. Besides there is still no road through the Darien Gap to Panama so I had to ship my car ahead and fly to Bogota. It’s a beautiful city with stunning architecture, but it’s hard not to notice the presence of violence: Many people wear bullet-proof vests and drive around in armored cars. On average, eight people are kidnapped per week.

The current leadership is doing its best to right the country and the economy but that is almost impossible given the unstable political climate. It is another country that has it all, but I will just wait. After all, the world has plenty of places where one can spend time and money. I’ll be on the first plane to Colombia IF leaders ever do work it out.

VENEZUELA. Venezuela’s economy lives and dies by the price of oil. Petroleum accounts for a third of its gross domestic product and generates more than 80 percent of its export earnings. That helped fuel the economy out of a recession in 1999, but it’s no guarantee of good things to come.

The reason I wouldn’t invest a dime or much time in this country is the president. An ex-army officer, he attempted a coup d’etat in the early 1990s and was soon thrown in jail. That didn’t stop him from getting elected president. His hero is Fidel Castro. He talks about nationalizing many of the industries, including oil. That would be a major step back. It certainly wouldn’t be a welcome environment for foreign investors. I hardly see that he is good for the country, but it is none of my business. It is Venezuela’s business if they want a fool running the place. Many countries have done the same throughout history only to regret it later.

I left South America less optimistic than after my last trip. In the early 1990s, I was convinced the South Americans had learned their lessons. We all knew of the military dictatorships, the banana republics, the collapsing currencies, etc. I saw the people there also knew of their wretched histories and were ready for change.

They were and most did go through a period of change for the better. Unfortunately, it has not turned out to be permanent in many cases. Yes, there are wonderful places, people, and opportunities. One major suggestion would be to learn Spanish and to be sure your children and grandchildren do too [if they do not want to learn Chinese] since it is an exciting continent with opportunities of every kind.

I would like to think it is all going to be okay now, but that is not the reality I found on the ground.