Any U.S. student knows all about what European colonists did to South America. And folks who paid close attention to the news in the '60s, '70s, and '80s know that the U.S. government was hardly angelic in its own dealings with our southern neighbors. But those neighbors may still have the last laugh: As their region improves, several South American countries may finally have found the path to sustainable economic growth.
In comparing South America with Western Europe, you're comparing a region with relatively low per-capita income, low development, and a low base of education to a modern, well-educated, and relatively prosperous one. But economic conditions and advantages aren't set in stone; empires rise and fall, and South America may be on the rise.
Western Europe has several problems that South America lacks: low birth rates, high social-welfare burdens, and entrenched feelings of entitlement. And South America also happens to have a growing and increasingly affluent population, while some European nations are simply trying to hang on to what they already have.
Consider that companies like Unilever (NYSE: UL ) , Kellogg (NYSE: K ) , and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) increasingly see South America and Mexico as important future growth drivers. Heck, even Toyota (NYSE: TM ) is planning a new ethanol-powered car for Brazil next year.
OK, so South American consumers are able to buy more. How does that make the region a good place to invest? While there aren't as many good options for American investors as I'd prefer, we're not completely shut out. Several different options all draw upon the growing wealth of the average citizen south of the equator.
When folks have more money, they can chatter more on their cell phones, and there's a whole swarm of cell-phone operators to benefit. When people have more money, they travel more, which is good for airliners like GOL (NYSE: GOL ) and LAN (NYSE: LFL ) . And when people see prosperity around them, and governments are willing to let them keep the rewards of their labor, they're more willing to start new businesses -- and that's good for lenders like Bancode Chile (NYSE: BCH ) or Bancolombia (NYSE: CIB ) .
There's nothing wrong with Western Europe, and I do believe Fools should have some holdings there. But we're taking about mature -- some might say "stodgy" -- economies, where most countries' bright futures are in their history books. Nobody invests in General Electric expecting to make a 10-bagger, and you shouldn't expect that from England, France, or Germany. But it's not impossible in Latin America.
I believe the right approach to foreign investing is a global approach, so I don't agree with "either/or" arguments about where to invest. By the same token, it baffles me that so few so-called experts give any love or attention to South America when they talk about global asset allocation. That spells opportunity to me. Given recent sharp sell-offs in many emerging markets, Fools may just be getting the chance to take a more affordable flier on a region that's finally improving.
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South America is facing Western Europe in this Investing World Cup second-round match. Go back to the intro page to navigate your way to another part of this contest, and then vote for the region that you think should advance to the final round of the tournament!
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