The ties that bind

Brazil’s economic record over the past decade is remarkable, but performance has been strong across mineral-rich Latin America. For delegates at SWIFT’s first Latin American Regional Conference in Rio de Janeiro last week, continued success depends on the development of cross-border infrastructures – financial, economic, regulatory, physical.

The event was attended by finance professionals from the securities, exchange, custody and payments sectors, but the tone of many presentations and discussions was often macro-economic in nature. Perhaps prompted by weakening commodities demand, notably from China, there was a consensus among speakers at the conference that Latin America should build infrastructures now from a position of strength and opportunity, not in the future from a position of need. From a financial infrastructure perspective, signs are good. While BM&F Bovespa is consolidating its post-trade infrastructure, Brazil’s post-trade regulatory environment is also being overhauled. In Chile, a new central counterparty is being constructed for OTC derivatives. Some initiatives have a cross-border element. MILA, the project that joins the stock exchanges of Peru, Chile and Colombia may extend links to Brazil and Mexico before long.

But there are still a lot of hard yards. Latin America knows it has a great opportunity, yet it is still heavily shaped by its past. Fear of inflation slows investment in physical infrastructure and economic nationalism is also evident, for example in Argentina’s treatment of Spain’s Repsol.

Much ire was expressed at the latest edition of the World Bank’s 'Doing Business' survey published in November last year, which downgraded Brazil to 126th.

“Brazil isn’t 126th in anything,” retorted Paulo Oliveira, CEO of BRAiN (Brazil Investments of Business), a body that promotes Brazil as a global finance and business hub. However, Oliveira and his fellow panellists in a session on Brazil’s growth priorities acknowledged that bureaucracy was still a barrier to business in the country. They cited the fact that it routinely takes four months to set up a new business in a major city such as Rio or Sao Paolo as the unacceptable face of officialdom.

But for delegates from smaller countries, such as Ecuador or Uruguay, the problem of bureaucracy goes even further. Complex tax and tariff systems are also used to strangle cross-border trade, they complain, dissuading Brazilian firms from importing from counterparts from smaller neighbouring countries. They also dismiss the record of Mercosur in promoting free trade in the region. Founded by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, later joined by Venezuela, the customs union now covers most of the region via its cooperation agreement with the Andean Community of Nations, consisting Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. However, many feel Chile has done well by going its own way by pursuing bilateral arrangements with global trading partners.

It can take years to slough off protectionist instincts. MILA itself was nearly thwarted by Peruvian tax concerns. But the more Latin America’s burgeoning economies build bridges between their financial markets the stronger their appeal will be to global counterparts and investors.