Latin America's history of boom and bust - caused by volatile commodity prices, poor governance and, not insignificantly, fickle investor sentiment - is well known. What is less understood are the vast strides many Latin American countries have made during the last two decades.
Colombia is a prime example. In the 1980s and '90s the country was mired in violence as the government slugged it out with drug traffickers and leftist rebels. Vast regions of the country were in rebel hands. Kidnapping and other violent crime was endemic.
This began to change in the early 2000s with the election of President Alvaro Uribe, a law-and-order politician who dramatically weakened the rebels through relentless military and police action. By the time Uribe left office in 2011, Colombia seemed a different country: The government was back in control, kidnappings and violence were down, and the FARC (Colombia's largest rebel group) was as weak as it had been in decades.
The current president, Juan Manuel Santos, has continued the progress and is in negotiations with the FARC in an attempt to reach a final solution to the conflict.
The dramatic improvement in Colombia's security environment has allowed the development of the country's vast natural resources. Colombia has 2.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and likely has a lot more, as much of the country has not been extensively explored for oil.
Production, at one million barrels per day, is led by government-controlled Ecopetrol, whose market capitalization at $125 billion is higher than Brazil's Petrobras. Colombia also has huge potential for agricultural production and, with ports on two oceans, is in a good position to increase trade with the major markets of Asia and Europe, as well as the United States. The country also has big water resources in the Orinoco and Amazon River basins, which will prove increasingly valuable in the years ahead.
Colombia's GDP has expanded at least 4 percent every year since 2003, with the exception of the global recession of 2008-09. The government's foreign currency reserves have doubled since 2007 to $35 billion, while inflation at 2 percent is well under control. U.S. exports to Colombia have more than tripled since 2005 to $16.4 billion, while exports from Idaho are up more than four-fold during the same period to $5.7 million.
The exports number will certainly grow, since a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia went into effect last year. Colombia's IGBC stock index is up 40 percent since 2007 (the S&P 500 is still below its highs in 2007) and has returned 25 percent annualized during the last 10 years. The yield on 10-year Colombian sovereign bonds has fallen significantly during the last decade and is now 3.18 percent, a spread of only 117 basis points over 10-year Treasuries.
Colombia is a success story with more chapters to come. The country is of increasing importance for U.S. investors and exporters.
Brandon Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer of D.B. Fitzpatrick & Co., Boise. dbfitzpatrick.com, 342-2280