Investing: Latin America bucks dour trends

Markets there produce healthy returns, but some analysts expect a correction.

Source: Morningstar Inc. As of June 6 market close *annualized/SCOTT WALLACE – STAFF

If grim markets this year have skewered your portfolio's returns, you probably weren't investing much in Latin America.

While many world stock markets have been suffering, Latin America's have refused to follow suit. Through June 4, the Morgan Stanley Capital International Latin America equity price index has gained 11.6 percent this year, while the MSCI Emerging Markets index fell 5.8 percent and the MSCI World index shed 5.3 percent of its value.

Within Latin America, the MSCI Brazil stock index jumped 13.4 percent this year through June 4, while Argentina's leapt an even higher 22.5 percent. In addition, Colombia's stock market rose 16.7 percent, while Mexico's market climbed 7 percent.

Evidently, this showing wasn't just a one-off event: Over the five-year period, Latin America was collectively the best performing stock market region in the world on an annualized-return basis, MSCI data show.

Behind Latin America's good showing, many experts cite global demand for commodities, such as oil, iron ore, and other metals that Latin America supplies. Such trends added punch to an overall economically brightening picture in the region. "Latin America is experiencing its fifth year of steady expansion. The region's economy has been growing, creating more employment [and] rising incomes, but generally lower inflation, which means greater purchasing power for Latin Americans," sums up Alfredo Coutino, senior economist for Latin America at Moody's

All the while, the region's trade expansion beyond the United States market now helps limit any impact of a US recession, he holds.

Meanwhile, the region continues to offer attractions for socially responsible investors, some experts say. Some companies there "have themes in their sector or industry that play well in sustainability," says Lauren Compere, shareholder advocacy director at Boston Common Asset Management. But she would avoid "polluters" or "companies that create degradation in the mining or extracting process."

Despite Latin America's growth, signs suggest many international investors aren't pouring money into Latin America right now, chasing after good returns. This year through May 28, US-registered Latin American mutual funds had net inflows of $362 million, according to data of AMG Data Services. Although that exceeds the net $309 million into this category in the first five months of 2007, it's almost $1 billion less than the net inflows during the same period in 2006.

Moreover, the Merrill Lynch Fund Manager Survey for May showed a lessened enthusiasm for Latin America among global emerging markets managers: Asked about their most preferred emerging-market region over the next year, only 29 percent of survey respondents cited Latin America – more preferred to invest in emerging nations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

In interviews, some – but not all – managers expressed concern about the run-ups already in some Latin markets, given the global economic slowdown.

"At this stage, I'd be cautious [about Latin America] and wait until stock prices come down," suggests Simon Hallett, chief investment officer of Harding, Loevner Management in Somerville, N.J. "Sentiment [has been] powerfully in favor of Brazil," he says, so right now, there "doesn't seem room for sharp positive surprises."

Acadian Asset Management in Boston has "recently gotten more cautious on Brazil because it's done so well," says John Chisholm co-chief investment officer for the company. Instead, the firm now prefers such markets as Russia's and South Korea's.

Within Latin America, "Mexico remains a ... market in which we believe we can do well," says Mr. Chisholm. Among the factors favoring Mexico, he holds: are its currency, since the Mexican peso "looks less extended than the Brazilian real; monetary policy, which is a little looser in Mexico than Brazil," and, on balance, oil prices, since "Mexico exports more oil than Brazil."

Fiona Morrison, investment manager in London of the Aberdeen Emerging Markets fund likes the long-term domestic growth story in Latin America. But for now, she's pessimistic about emerging markets as a whole. "We expect further corrections in these markets," she says. "Most analysts expect 15 percent earnings growth in 2008 for emerging markets, which we think is optimistic. As [actual] earnings come out, emerging markets will be downgraded, and we expect a leg down again in the performance of the markets," including Latin America's.

But some investment pros continue to champion Latin America. "Possibly the pace of gains seen recently won't be sustainable, [but] we still believe the region will perform well over the short, medium, and long term," says Nick Beecroft, portfolio specialist with T. Rowe Price in London.

With stock holdings such as those of retailers Wal-Mart de Mexico and Lojas Renner in Brazil, T. Rowe Price's Latin America Fund is "heavily biased toward domestic growth," he says. But the fund also has "big positions" in multinational firms in Brazil, including Vale, a mining company, and Petrobras, an oil producer.

BlackRock Inc., a mutual fund company in New York, not only has a Latin America mutual fund but an overweighting to Latin America in its emerging markets portfolios. Most the firm's "global fund managers have it as an overweight as well," says Will Landers, the company's senior portfolio manager for Latin America.

Given the range of positive trends there, Mr. Landers believes it's "a good time to be investing in that region."

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