Solid Growth In Belize Belies Crisis in Mexico

IAN ROBINSON is bucking an ebbing tide.

Burned by the Mexican peso crisis, many investors have been shedding Latin American stocks, and especially Mexican shares, as quickly as someone wearing shoes on a Cancun beach. But Mr. Robinson, chief executive officer of Belize Holdings Inc. (BHI), was in the United States earlier this month trying to reassure money managers that Belize is different.

''Our situation is different. The Belize dollar has been fixed at 2 to 1 against the US dollar since 1976. And it's supported by a balanced government budget and ample currency reserves,'' he says.

Nonetheless, the Nasdaq-traded stock dipped close to a 52-week low in recent weeks, but by Friday had recovered to $17 a share.

''A lot of people have been selling anything south of the border, without much discrimination,'' says Bernardo Pallicer, stock analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York, the only Wall Street brokerage firm that follows BHI.

BHI, a diversified holding company, is considered a play on the tiny Central American nation.

A country of 220,000 people, the former British colony has posted a 7 percent average annual economic growth rate between 1988-93. The withdrawal of British troops slowed the pace to 4.2 percent last year.

BHI owns the biggest bank in Belize with 36 percent of the nation's deposits. But the company is diversifying. It also has stakes in a hotel, Belize Telecommunications, Belize electricity, and citrus producers. Last year, it raised $31 million in a share offering on Wall Street.

It plans to use most of that cash to move beyond its holdings in Belize. So far, BHI has purchased a small Caribbean construction firm and put up $13.5 million for a 75-percent stake in Panama Holdings Inc., a newly formed Panamanian company that Robinson says could be used as a platform to duplicate the BHI model.

THE Panama government plans a privatization push and BHI's subsidiary is positioning itself to make a bid for the state-run telecommunications company, hints Robinson. Mindful of the foreign-currency risk, he notes that ''we like Panama because the economy is based on the US dollar. We're looking to invest in companies with export-oriented activities.''

BHI is also looking at investing in Cuba.

Robinson concedes that the Mexican financial-market crisis dims economic growth prospects for Central America. But it also means that some Mexican firms will be forced to shelve expansion plans in the region. That leaves BHI, flush with cash, at an advantage. ''We think that we can acquire assets now at better valuations,'' he says.

With only a 7-million share float, BHI is too small for many institutional investors. Much of the upside earnings potential depends on how the Panama holding company performs. Conversely, ''the biggest risk is that it buys a company in Panama that doesn't do well,'' Mr. Pallicer says.

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