Photographer: Paulo Fridman
business

Argentina Is Now Open for Business and Foreigners Are Piling In

Updated on
  • Brazil's BRF plans factories, acquisitions to tap growth
  • Arca Continental sees `tremendous opportunity' in Argentina

For the first time in two decades, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is bringing business leaders to Argentina. Global hedge funds are snapping up the country’s assets. Farmers across the fertile pampas are getting ready to empty silo bags of corn and soybeans after years of withholding part of their crop in anger over tax policies.

Nine days before a closely-watched presidential election in Argentina, it would be hard to overstate the level of expectation in the business world. BRF SA, Brazil’s largest food company, is expanding two factories and planning acquisitions. BayWa AG, the Munich-based grain trader, is building its first office in South America’s second-largest economy. Arca Continental SAB, Latin America’s No.2 Coca-Cola bottler, talks of “tremendous opportunity.”

“There are many, many opportunities in that country,” Chief Executive Officer Francisco Garza Egloff of Arca Continental said on a conference call with investors Oct. 23. “Well-located, well-positioned in terms of energy, commodity and so on, no debt. It’s a tremendous opportunity to work with a well-educated and prepared population.”

The turnaround in attitude is stark. For years, doing business in Argentina has been enormously frustrating, with 30 percent inflation, currency controls that make it costly to get money out of the country, sub-par economic growth and unpredictable government policies. The reward has never seemed closer for foreign companies that stuck it out, betting a country that’s home to an educated workforce, the world’s second-largest shale gas reserves and the third-largest source of soybean exports would eventually normalize. On Nov. 22, Argentines will choose between two presidential candidates who have promised change from the past dozen years of leftist populism led by the Kirchner family.

“We’re getting the right overtures right now that this election may represent a renewed relationship with the U.S. and the U.S. business community,” said Jodi Hanson Bond, the vice president for the Americas at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The optimistic notes from foreign companies follow moves by hedge funds and other investors who say the departure of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will bring a windfall.

Hedge-fund firms including Soros Fund Management LLC, Third Point LLC and Perry Capital LLC have seen their investments soar amid speculation the next government will settle a lawsuit with creditors, return to international capital markets and undertake reforms designed to bolster growth.

Unacknowledged in all the enthusiasm is that the turnaround may not be swift or easy in Argentina, and there’s no shortage of pessimism on the region as a whole with several European banks shrinking their operations in Latin America. 

Argentina is engaged in an epic legal battle with hedge funds fighting for full repayment on debt the country stopped paying in 2001. Its economic data is viewed with skepticism by the International Monetary Fund. Its currency is so overvalued, and limits on buying and selling the dollar are so strict, that the country has developed several parallel exchange rates used by individuals and businesses when they can’t get dollars through official channels.

Both leading presidential candidates advocate the need for change, even if they have different approaches. The opposition’s Mauricio Macri has promised to lift capital controls and let the peso float, while Daniel Scioli of the ruling party vows to make gradual reforms while initially preserving currency controls.

Either way, the change of government will have repercussions for more than 70 companies listed in the S&P 500 Index that have currency exposure in Argentina, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The country also hosts some of the world’s largest energy producers, including BP Plc, Total SA and Petroleo Brasileiro SA.

“In terms of opportunities going forward, Argentina would be at the top into 2016,” James Harbilas, the chief executive officer of Calgary-based Enerflex Ltd., said when asked by an investor where he saw the biggest opportunity in Latin America for the oil and gas field services provider.

The upbeat tone has been especially widespread among companies with ties to agriculture, one of the sectors hardest hit by Fernandez’s tax policies. Argentine farmers have protested what they consider unfair treatment for several years, in part by holding back crops and storing them in bags that can be seen dotted along rural roads, as they wait for a new government and policy.

Both Scioli and Macri have pledged to scrap the 23 percent levy on corn exports and to reduce the 35 percent tax on soybean exports.

That’s good news to Soren Schroder, the chief executive officer of White Plains, New York-based Bunge Ltd., the world’s largest oilseed processor. He told analysts and investors on Oct. 29 that after years of isolation, he sees Argentina opening up no matter who wins the elections.

“We all believe that starting some time in the first quarter, the Argentine farmer will start letting loose on some of the soybeans that are accumulating,” Schroder said. “They’ll be sitting on over 10 million tons of beans as it looks right now as we move into the new crop, and some of that should come out in the first quarter prior to their new crop harvest.”

Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., the world’s largest corn processor said on a conference call last week that it expects more exports out of Argentina, while BayWa executives told analysts and investors on Nov. 5 that they found the Argentine soy industry to be “very impressive.”

Jorge Becerra, a managing director for Latin America at the Boston Consulting Group, said businesses are seeing opportunities to bolster investments in Argentina no matter who wins the election. Companies focused on infrastructure, energy and financial services are among those looking for opportunities in the country, according to Becerra.

"There’s a renewed interest in understanding how to harness, monetize and promote growth in the country," Becerra said from Santiago.

— With assistance by Daniel Cancel, and Rita Nazareth

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