Now that power has changed hands in Mexico for the first time since 1929, is it time to send some money south of the border?
Vicente Fox Quesada's
victory in the Mexican presidential election last Sunday ends 71 years of rule by the
International Reform Party
and has fueled a rally in the Mexican exchange,
Bolsa de Valores
, renewing hopes for the country's economic prospects. The Bolsa's bellwether
is up more than 6% from Sunday through Wednesday.
But as the excitement diminishes and Fox gets down to the business of carrying out the free-market reforms he pledged to enact on the campaign trail, some regional experts say Mexico isn't a short-term bet for investors; any benefits seen from a market overhaul will be felt over the long term. Moreover, since part of Fox's economic plan involves ensuring greater competition in industries long dominated by state-run companies and near monopolies, bets on the big players (or mutual funds that bet extensively on the big players) may not be the smartest moves.
"The euphoria is probably behind us already," says Benny Thomas, manager of the $270 million
T. Rowe Price Latin America fund, speaking by telephone from Buenos Aires.
For investors eager to bet on Mexico, there are a handful of Latin America funds similar to the T. Rowe Price offering. The only pure Mexico funds are in the closed-end fund world. The 20 or so Latin America funds all have a heavy weighting in Mexico, many from 30% to 50%, because it is the largest country weighting in the
Morgan Stanley Latin America Index
, the benchmark for most of the funds.
While the best times for Mexico may be down the road, prospects certainly are bright. The IPC is still off its all-time high, not fully recovered from the tech-stock swoon in the U.S. and earlier concerns about the prospects of a contentious election.
But Fox's 8% margin of victory puts to rest the possibility that the results will be contested. Historically, presidential elections, held every six years, have ushered in financial turmoil because of accusations of bribery, vote tampering and general election malfeasance.
Moody's Investors Service
has upgraded Mexico's sovereign debt to investment-grade status, and
Standard & Poor's
is expected to follow suit soon. And "the Mexican economy is going gangbusters," Thomas says, but adds that investors should be wary of it rising too rapidly, as high inflation has been a longtime bugbear for the country.
In the months before the election, the Bolsa's biggest stocks swooned.
Telefonos de Mexico
-- the telecommunications concern best known as Telmex -- and media giant
both declined, but have made recoveries and are now favorites of portfolio managers.
Some mutual fund managers made smart bets on the Mexican election. David Manuel, portfolio manager of the $105 million
Aim Latin America Growth and $30 million
Invesco Latin America Growth funds, both owned by Manuel's employer
, beefed up his position in Mexico leading up to the election. He added shares of Telmex because of its dominant position on the Bolsa.
Manuel is also looking for other areas to profit. He's added stocks of
, the cement maker, and small-cap
, a homebuilder. He says the relatively tension-free election is likely to usher in an era of improved consumer confidence, making retailing an appealing option. In that kind of environment, consumers might be more willing to take out mortgages for new homes.
He's also bullish on a continued surge in Mexico's telecommunications industry and has recently added
Carso Global Telecom
, which is Telmex's largest shareholder.
But the election could be a double-edged sword for Mexican stocks. Mexican industries have long been controlled by oligopolies, thanks to a cozy relationship with government. The companies that have been the recipients of this nepotism may see their long-term prospects decline, says Thomas of T. Rowe Price.
Stocks such as Telmex and No. 2 broadcaster
could be vulnerable if increased competition erodes their dominant positions. "Fox is friendly to business and that means competition," he says, adding, "I would see that as a long-term concern." Regardless, he's holding on to his shares of Telmex and Televisa because he considers telecom and media key growth sectors.
Going into the election, Thomas reduced some of his holdings slightly as a hedge against a contested election. He trimmed positions in electronics concern
, Cemex and retailer
For investors playing the Mexico game on the closed-end fund side, there are a few options. Closed-end funds may not be a good investment for the average investor because their stock prices often trade at a discount to the net asset value. Savvy investors seek their fortunes by making quick moves in and out of the funds depending on where the premium or discount is.
, for example, invests solely in that country. Its discount narrowed slightly from 32.5% to 31.2%. And the
Caribbean Basin Fund
, an offering managed by Thomas Herzfeld, which has its second-largest holdings in Mexico, saw its discount eliminated on the upswing. Herzfeld says he's not adding any new positions in light of the news, but is hoping his picks will bring in future profits.