By Conchita Sarnoff of ARVT
On an ordinary Monday in May, Ellen Gonzales woke up to find a handwritten note nailed to the front door of her home in La Palma, El Salvador. Her 11-year-old son Bryan, it said, had been tocado: “selected” as a recruit for La Mara, one of the most violent of the Hispanic organised crime gangs operating across Central America and the US. She decided it was time to run.
Mother Nature has dealt Central America a lousy hand. Earthquakes, floods and hurricanes of biblical proportions have battered the isthmus over the years, but the latest natural disaster is a botanical one.
A plague known as “coffee rust” has hit the region’s top-quality arabica crop. Premium blends from coffee grown in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are much loved by aficionados.
Is El Salvador, a poor Central American country struggling to overcome a violent history, a safer bet than Portugal? And is Mongolia, a country that has been rescued five times in the past 22 years by the International Monetary Fund, a better investment thesis than Spain?
Bond investors seem to think so.
Plucky fellows those market regulators in the small and relatively poor Central American nation of El Salvador. Their opposition has scuppered a deal between two very rich men: one the richest in Ireland, the other the wealthiest in all of the world.
After months of hand-wringing, Digicel, based in Jamaica but controlled by the Irish magnate Denis O’Brien, and Carlos Slim’s América Móvil have renounced plans for a takeover of mobile operator Digicel by the Mexican company, the dominant force in Latin American telecommunications.
When an avalanche of Spanish capital turned up on Latin America’s doorstep over the turn of the century, naysayers shuddered at headlines that welcomed the “New Conquistadors”. Latin America seemed to many to be a risky bet for Spanish banks, energy and telecommunications companies by comparison with the comfort zone provided by European markets.
Instead, the steady growth of Latin America has provided welcome relief for Spanish companies from the financial turmoil at home. But in recent weeks troubles in the old country have appeared to clip the wings of the Spanish companies in LatAm. A weakened Spain, indeed, seems to have lost political clout in the region.
There’s gold in them thar Central American hills. Gold and several other valuable minerals. Mining companies, especially Canadian, are courting the region yet most of the governments are playing hard to get, if not being openly hostile.
All of which must be pretty perplexing to at least some of the companies. World prices of metals remain high while Central American economies are some of the world’s most vulnerable. Surely a slam-dunk for the miners?
Lately it seems that stock prices in one emerging market or another are hitting a new record high every day, but the landmarks don’t matter so much to buy-and-hold investors.
More interesting to them is seeing what kind of money they would have made if they’d got into the best EM companies a few years ago, when big success was still ahead of them. That’s what a new study does, and it puts developed world businesses to shame.
By Ronald Buchanan in Mexico City
The tropical highlands of Central America grow some of the world’s finest Arabica coffee – much of it imported by Starbucks, which accounts for some 20 per cent of the Guatemalan crop alone. Yet the inhabitants of the isthmus have yet to experience a cup of Starbucks coffee, much less an iced caramel macchiato or frappuccino.
But coffee drinkers won’t have to wait much longer; by the end of this year, a franchised Starbucks will open in El Salvador, the first in a chain of stores expected to spread throughout Central America.