Analysis: In Latin America, business climate is king again

Thu Jan 12, 2012 9:20am EST
 
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By Brian Winter

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Here's an economic riddle of sorts: Which economy grew faster over the last seven years? A) President Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, famous for its forced nationalizations and "21st century socialism," or B) Chile, long renowned as a capitalist paradise for investors.

It might surprise some outsiders to learn that the answer is actually A. In recent years, commodities prices have dictated growth in Latin America more than any other factor, meaning that countries could trample on businesses but still grow briskly as long as they exported plenty of raw materials such as oil and iron ore to China and elsewhere.

Venezuela, the region's No. 1 oil exporter, has averaged about 4.6 percent economic growth since 2005, compared to 4 percent in Chile, the world's leader in copper. An even clearer example of commodities' almighty reign was Argentina, which averaged 7 percent growth during the same period as record soy and other farm exports helped offset the government's hostile stance toward energy companies and some other investors.

Now, it looks as if the trend is shifting. In Latin America, 2012 seems set to be the year in which business climate clearly reestablishes its supremacy as the main driver of growth.

The countries expected to grow the fastest in 2012 are also generally the ones that are perceived by the World Bank and others as treating investors the best. That means Chile, Peru and Colombia should lead the pack, while Venezuela and even Brazil will lag a step behind - just as they did last year.

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Graphic on region's economies: r.reuters.com/bed95s

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