• Economic and political crisis will pass, said region chief
  • Real estate, infrastructure, private investments are targets

Canada’s largest pension fund is sticking with plans to expand in Brazil, betting that Latin America will deliver outsize investment returns even as political turmoil and the deepest recession in a century batters the region’s biggest economy.

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the financial institution that manages C$283 billion ($207 billion) in assets, plans to hire two more people for its Sao Paulo office, according to Rodolfo Spielmann, the managing director and head of Latin America for the asset manager. That’s after already tripling the size of its workforce to 15 since opening the regional headquarters in 2014.

Latin American equities have underperformed emerging markets as a whole over the past year as a selloff in commodities prices batters some of the region’s largest companies and saps economic growth from Brazil to Chile to Mexico. Brazilian stocks are trading near the lowest in six years, while the nation’s currency has dropped every year since 2011 as President Dilma Rousseff struggles to get support for measures to reverse a budget deficit that has caused the country to lose its investment-grade rating.

Spielmann isn’t worried.

"This crisis, like others, will pass," Spielmann said in an interview at Bloomberg’s office in Sao Paulo. "We’re not reassessing our strategy for Brazil, unless a cataclysm happens. We’re still very excited about investment prospects in the country in the medium and long term."

Born in Argentina, Spielmann worked for Bain & Co. Inc for 21 years, 14 of them in Brazil, before joining CPPIB in 2014.

The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board isn’t calling a bottom for Brazilian assets, and sees a sustained rebound in the currency as a ways off. Still, there’s long-term value in the region’s best companies, Spielmann said, declining to specify which stocks he is buying.

"We are not bottom fishers," Spielmann said. "Our ambition is to have the best assets on the market, because their price may fall 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent, and, still, they will always perform better than the medium-quality assets in the long term."

The fund returned about 18 percent in the 2015 fiscal year, more than double its 10-year annual average. About 80 percent of the fund’s investments are outside of Canada, with 3 percent in Latin America, or C$7.9 billion. It has C$2.5 billion invested in Brazil.

In Brazil, the fund is likely to increase its holdings in real estate, infrastructure projects and other private investments, according to Spielmann. He cited gas pipelines and parking lot managers as investments that would "make sense" to CPPIB.

Latin America’s largest economy is forecast to contract 3.3 percent this year, according to a central bank survey of economists, following a 3.7 percent decline in 2015. If the predictions are correct, 2015 and 2016 would be the only time on record the economy contracted more than 3 percent for two straight years. The real has plunged 41 percent since the end of 2013, the most among 16 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The Ibovespa stock gauge has lost 53 percent in that span in dollar terms, among the 10 worst performances worldwide.

The nation’s budget deficit last year expanded to a record 613 billion reais ($153 billion), the largest on record. The government has already recognized it will fail to meet the 2016 primary surplus target of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, according to two members of the economic team who asked not to be identified because matter isn’t public.

Speculation the government will abandon its fiscal target this year and slow the pace of spending cuts, undermining pledges to shore up the deficit, has weighted on financial markets, and prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the country for the second time in five months. The ratings company put the country’s debt grade at two levels below junk on Wednesday, with a negative outlook.

"Brazil’s debt is increasing, but I don’t think it’s unsustainable," Spielmann said. "The long-term trend for the country has to be of an improvement, and we’ve seen that improvement, even if it’s gradual, even if it in some moments there are some steps ahead and one step back."

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