Many Americans fear traveling in Mexico. Potential tourists hear horror stories of Mexico City taxi kidnappings, government officials extracting bribes, and violent illness from the food and water. Focus only on the negative, and you will never experience the beautiful colonial architecture, diverse natural wonders, endless beaches, and fantastic weather that Mexico can offer.
Likewise, many folks refuse to invest in Mexico because they fear crime and corruption will destroy their portfolio. Again, focus on the negative, and you could miss out on many potential rewards.
Accentuate the positive
Major American corporations invest in Mexico for a reason. Companies such as Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) and General Motors (NYSE: GM ) have manufacturing plants in Mexico. The recent opening of Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) in Mazatlan created a hardware-shopping frenzy. In Mexico City, Starbucks' (Nasdaq: SBUX ) familiar green logo has begun to appear.
Certainly, manufacturers have moved to Mexico to take advantage of lower labor rates and easy access to the U.S. market. However, if that were the only story, why would retailers, including the upscale Starbucks, be heading to Mexico as well?
It turns out that Mexico has the highest per capita income in Latin America, and that figure is increasing rapidly. Per capita income has been growing at an annual rate of 6.5%, from $2,830 in 1990 to $6,790 in 2004. While poverty remains a problem, the situation is improving. Roughly 48% of Mexicans live in poverty, compared with 64% after the 1995 financial crisis.
Looking at the headlines from 2006 could cause investors to fear political instability south of the border. While some regional turmoil exists, Mexico is doing quite well for a young democracy. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) held power in Mexico for more than 70 years. This stranglehold on power ended peacefully with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000.
Furthermore, while the election of 2006 was contested, power did transfer hands peacefully. Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador filled the streets for several weeks, but the majority of protests were peaceful. In the majority of the country, life has returned to normal, and the new government has been accepted.
Regional problems do remain, particularly in the southern provinces of Mexico. Protests against the regional governor in Oaxaca have become violent, and the tensions in the state of Chiapas are always a threat to stability in that region. (On a recent trip to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, I learned that the conflict in Chiapas dates back several hundred years, so I wouldn't expect resolution soon. I also wouldn't expect the conflict to affect the remainder of the country.)
That sucking sound
Ross Perot used to warn that NAFTA would cause a "sucking sound" of American jobs heading south of the border. What I see is billions of dollars heading south of the border. Mexicans working in the U.S., both legally and illegally, send money to their families. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Mexican migrant workers sent $17 billion back across the border in 2004.
Furthermore, tourism is big business in Mexico. In 2005, Mexico was host to 21.7 million foreign tourists who spent $11.6 billion there. Beyond the tourists, somewhere around 1 million Americans have gone loco and have moved to Mexico. This number should increase, since Mexico has recently made it easier for foreigners to buy (actually, purchase a 100-year lease) on property. High-end beach houses, time shares, golf communities, and vacation projects abound.
The investment angle
So Mexico is getting richer -- how do we profit from it? First, you could do the "toll-road" approach and take a bite of Mexican air travel. You might also want to look at one of the best international stocks of 2007, FEMSA (NYSE: FMX ) .
FEMSA has plenty of room to grow in Mexico, especially with its OXXO brand convenience stores. Much of the retail in Mexico reminds me of Chinatown in New York City. There are tons of small shops selling just about everything imaginable. Tens of thousands of independent convenience stores dot the country, usually sporting the name "Super" something or other. (On a short stretch of road in Mazatlan alone, there are the Super Mart, Super Sol, and Super Magul.) In contrast to the independent shops, which are often dirty, and have inconsistent pricing and inconsistent stock, OXXO stores are clean, bright, and everything a modern convenience store should be.
Unfotunately, from the time FEMSA was recommended in the 2006 blue-chip report, shares have climbed 33%, so valuation is a greater concern that it was last summer. For the moment, I'm keeping it on my watch list, hoping for a better price somewhere down the road.
Ask the experts
The good news is that the same folks who found FEMSA south of the border have uncovered another Mexican investment opportunity. The Fool's newest premium investment service, Motley Fool Global Gains, scours the globe to find the best ideas outside of the American market. If you want to buy Mexico now, sign up today for a free trial to see the team's current and past recommendations.