Colombia is a land of culturally rich colonial cities, lanky skyscrapers, pristine beaches, dense Amazon jungle, snow-capped Andean and Sierra Nevadan mountains, archeological ruins and home to author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And, I should add, in my view, a country ripe with intriguing potential investment opportunities.
After ten years away from Colombia, I started my tour in Cartagena, on the country’s Caribbean coast and then made my way through Bogota, Medellin and Cali. By the end of my trip I was impressed by the developments I saw. One notable change is the stock exchange integration between Colombia, Chile and Peru, making it the second largest equity exchange in the region. Mexico and other countries have already demonstrated their intention to join.1
Cartagena is one of the country’s most attractive spots and also one of the oldest cities in the Americas, having been founded by the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia in 1533. A lot of potential tourist spots are still largely unexplored, but cities like Cartagena are increasingly showing signs of becoming a destination, a trend with the potential to yield economic benefits.
At the trade and tourism promotion agency I met with enthusiastic and knowledgeable executives in their downtown Bogota offices. The organization has been expanding its network, especially in Asia and the Middle East, and has been encouraging both exports and domestic investments by Colombian companies as it realizes such investments are likely to eventually lead to more trade.
The officials were honest when our discussion steered towards the challenges Colombia still faces regarding its tarnished image as a drug and guerilla haven.
They acknowledged this continued to be an issue but stressed that there has been a marked improvement as the government has made progress in bringing more areas of guerilla territory under control and has driven out many of the drug lords. The successes have much to do with the realization by the government that focusing efforts on improving the living conditions for the people could go some way to help to solve some of the problems.
I also visited a company in the tourism sector. What struck me most was the system its management devised in order to focus on customer satisfaction and the key performance indicators which were developed to track management’s proficiency. Also impressive was management’s acceptance that 25% of an employee’s salary should be tied to performance.
One more positive development for growing tourism: in 2013, an open skies agreement between Colombia and the U.S. is scheduled to begin which could result in Colombia becoming an important hub for Latin American airlines.
Colombia’s real GDP is projected to grow by between 5% and 6% by end 2011, and inflation to end 2011 at less than 4%.2 With those numbers, it was no surprise that the companies and government ministry officials I visited in Bogota echoed a generally optimistic economic outlook. The primary caveat: lack of infrastructure remains one of the main challenges for the country; past guerrilla conflicts made large parts of the country inaccessible, a hurdle the country has not quite yet overcome. However, as security has improved, the central government has gained more access to the countryside, enabling it to make some progress on infrastructure improvements.
Assuming that economic conditions remain on their current trajectory and security does not deteriorate – which admittedly are not assured, Colombia has the potential to attract around US$6 billion in foreign direct investment annually.3
As an investor, I was also happy to learn that Colombia has never imposed controls that limit the exit of money out of the country. They generally also don’t use physical barriers for money flows, but instead increase transaction costs when inward flows must be controlled.
Less encouraging was the capital market, where I found that it currently remains debt-oriented with a rather limited equity market. This is largely explained by the expanding local pension plans which were gobbling up a large portion of the equity market’s shares.
My visit would not have been complete without a visit to companies in the energy sector. Colombia is the third largest oil exporter in Latin America to the U.S.,4 so I was glad to find evidence of a forward-thinking mindset and a focus on efficiency.
All in all it was an enjoyable trip. If Colombia is able to carry its momentum for the long term, the country may well be on the road to putting itself on the global investment map.
1 Mercopress & Christian Science Monitor, 8 September 2011
2 CIA The World Factbook, 21 February 2012
3 Economic Intelligence Unit, World Investment Prospects 2011
4 CIA The World Factbook, 21 February 2012