Moving on from China in Latin America

Like Australia, South America is trying to deal with China's economic slowdown – and it’s an Australian opportunity. 

There’s been much said about China's One-Belt, One-Road strategy. We also hear a lot about China's growing presence in Africa.

But we hear less about the eastward route: Chinese investment in a road less travelled by Australian business – the route to Latin America.

" China's trade with South America grew about 25 times between the year 2000 and 2013, almost hitting $US100 billion."
Mark Skulley, freelance journalist.

With the world economy increasingly hitched to (or shunted by) the Chinese economic locomotive, it's notable China's trade with South America grew about 25 times between the year 2000 and 2013, almost hitting $US100 billion.

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to invest $US250 billion in Latin America over the coming decade. Soon after Donald Trump won last year's US Presidential election, Xi was back making his third visit to South America since taking office.

The boom in South America's exports to China was largely in primary products like iron ore, copper and soybeans, putting it on a parallel export path to Australia.

A decade-long boom in prices ended in 2015 and South America, like Australia, is trying to deal with China's economic slowdown as it shifts from industry-based investment to consumption-based service industries.

Still, the Spanish multinational bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) said Latin America's GDP ‘deceleration’ has ended, with regional growth expected to recover from -1.4 per cent in 2016, to 1.1 per cent this year to 1.8 per cent next year.

Ambitious

Some of the Chinese-sponsored mega-projects in South America appear wildly ambitious, such as a mooted $US10 billion transcontinental railway from Brazil's Atlantic coast to Peru's Pacific coast to boost trade with Asia.

Then there is the even bigger project to build a new commercial waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Nicaragua Grand Canal, involving the Hong Kong-based HKND Group led by a Chinese billionaire, Wang Jing.

The project aims to handle bigger cargo ships than the Panama Canal, which remains under the sway of the US. The proposed 290-kilometre route cuts through Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua, which is Central America's key freshwater reservoir.

The economic and environmental impact of the canal project – which makes the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt look only middling-ambitious - have been strongly questioned, yet it appears to be proceeding regardless.

However, South America is increasingly looking to less grand infrastructure projects to drive economic growth. High levels of government debt mean countries are increasingly looking to private investment such as public private partnerships.

America's Market Intelligence (AMI) argues Latin America competes on the global economic stage in three broad areas:

• Primary goods, whose extraction, transformation and export relies on world-class transportation and energy infrastructure, often in remote areas

• Manufacturing of low- to mid-tech products that requires free trade agreements, fluid customs processes and competitive transportation infrastructure

• Tourism, which depends on public safety and modern airport infrastructure.

Productivity

AMI said in a recent market insight with oil prices forecast to remain low and other commodities expected to rise only slightly Latin America can only lift per capita incomes through productivity gains "built on the shoulders of infrastructure improvements.”

"Unlike India, which similarly boasts poor infrastructure, Latin America does not compete effectively in high-value outsourced service sectors where Internet connectivity alone will suffice," it said.

"Latin American competitiveness requires old-fashioned asphalt and power infrastructure to move people and products. During the commodity super-cycle, exports swelled but the uptick came from pricing, not volumes."

Infrastructure is the key for Latin America but counter-intuitively it is also an opportunity for resource export competitors like Australia.

"In almost every resource category, Latin America lost market share to commodity competitors who invested in infrastructure to enable more product to get to port, including: Canada, Australia, Russia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the US and even China,” the AMI said.

"When each major Latin American economy’s infrastructure is benchmarked against its global competitors (who export similar mixes of products) … only Chile even competes within the range of rivals, whereas every other LAC country underperforms vis-à-vis their multiple competitors."

"The next generation of infrastructure will be financed by the private sector, including yield-seeking commercial banks, growing Latin American pension funds as well as international equity investors and non-bank lenders."

AMI argues the terms of infrastructure projects will have to be "sweetened" and red tape reduced to attract investment - but that this is coming.

"Host governments across Latin America will have to make very compelling cases to international investors to convince capital to swim against the stream of economic headwinds that presently are pushing monies back to US equity and bond markets," it said.

"For the risk tolerant investor who knows how to negotiate such conditions from host governments, it promises to be an arduous but profitable decade ahead in Latin American infrastructure."

Australia

The counter-intuitive opportunity for Australia is in funding and project managing that infrastructure.

Australian superannuation funds are increasingly looking to infrastructure investment to lock in longer-term returns in a low-interest environment. Witness last year's blockbuster $A16 billion purchase of a majority stake in the operator of the NSW electricity grid by Australian Super and IFM Investors (IFM).

Australian investors have historically looked to kindred nations when making overseas forays but – as bluenotes reported earlier in 2017 - our total investment in ASEAN countries in 2016 topped our investment in New Zealand for the first time.

The US (with 19.4 per cent), Britain (15 per cent) and New Zealand (11.2 per cent) still dominate as Australia's investment destinations, although China and South East Asia are increasing.

Overall Australian investment in Latin America lags well behind other destinations, with some individual standouts. For example, BHP Billiton has the world's biggest copper mine (Escondida) in Chile, among other interests.

Macquarie Group manages two funds with significant assets in Mexico – a $A2 billion real estate investment trust (industrial and commercial properties) and an $A1 billion infrastructure fund (with investments in hydro, solar, roads, telecommunications, education).

IFM has a 49 per cent stake in a major Mexican toll road, an investment which is valued at about $1 billion.  In 2015, IFM sold its Pacific Hydro renewable energy business of hydro dams and windfarms in Australia, Chile and Brazil to a Chinese state company.

At same the time, the upper echelons of Australian business have developed some Latin American and Hispanic connections. A former top BHP executive, the Colombian born Alberto Calderon, is now CEO of the explosives maker Orica. Another Colombian-born executive, Edgar Basto, heads BHP's massive iron operations in Western Australia.

Meanwhile, Spanish investment in Australia leapt – and started to break down Anglophone cultural barriers – in construction and infrastructure in recent years.

The major Spanish builder, Actividades de Construcción y Servicios (ACS), now controls CIMIC, the former Leighton construction group. Other big Spanish construction and infrastructure players are active Down Under, such as Ferrovial and Acciona.

Savvy

On the ground in South America, Australia has a savvy official network through its embassies and Austrade offices.

But there is still a perception problem back in Australia, where the popular (and media) tendency is to put all South American countries in the same boat.

There are problems, of course, led perhaps by the unrest and economic dislocation in Venezuela and the impeachment proceedings against former leaders in Brazil.

The there is great promise, too, with about 200 million middle class consumers and about one quarter of the population, some 163 million people, aged between 15 and 29.

Mark Skulley is one of Australia’s most-respected business journalists, a veteran of more than two decades at Fairfax Media including The Australian Financial Review.

The Australia-Latin America Business Council is holding an infrastructure forum in Melbourne on May 23.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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