The pace of the economic recovery in the U.S. has been disappointing at best, leaving millions of Americans unemployed and making many people wonder whether the nation's best times are behind it. As a result, many investors have looked abroad to faster-growing emerging markets as having better prospects for rising profits.
Latin America has long played second fiddle to red-hot Asian growth markets like China and India. But even though its growth rates have been somewhat more modest lately, Latin American markets have still outpaced their counterparts to the north, and they're taking steps to accelerate their growth in the years to come. Let's take a look at three smart ways to cash in on potential future success in Latin America.
The giant: Brazil
Brazil is the largest country in Latin America both by population and by area, and that gives it a wealth of both human and natural resources to use in generating growth. Growth has slowed recently as the country has had to deal with fairly high inflation and an influx of currency speculation that drove up the value of the Brazilian real compared to the U.S. dollar and other major currencies. But GDP growth is expected to rise to 3.5% in 2013, well above the 2% rise in U.S. GDP. The 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics will both play out on the Brazilian stage, and the country has therefore had to respond with massive construction and infrastructure spending in order to prepare. That has helped keep unemployment down to a very respectable 5.4%.
Investors can buy the iShares MSCI Brazil ETF (NYSEMKT:EWZ) as a quick way to get exposure across the spectrum of Brazilian companies, with a heavy emphasis on financial and natural-resources stocks. Those who prefer more emphasis on consumer-facing companies, which arguably have more upside as Brazil's middle class continues to rise in prominence, would likely prefer Market Vectors Brazil Small-Cap (NYSEMKT:BRF), which invests in smaller companies and has nearly half its assets in consumer stocks.
The country next door: Mexico
Mexico has a mixed reputation among U.S. investors, many of whom see the country as a source of cheap labor for U.S. multinationals. But the Mexican economy has been booming in its own right, with better than 3% growth in GDP recently expected to rise above 5% throughout 2013. Inflation below 4% is a bonus, and low unemployment of 5.3% compares quite favorably to U.S. labor markets.
Traditional ETFs tend to give disproportionate weight to mobile-telecom giant America Movil because of its massive market capitalization. But one intriguing play on the economy is the closed-end Mexico Fund (NYSE:MXF), which has only half the weighting to America Movil as the country's MSCI index while emphasizing consumer stocks to an even greater extent. Right now, Mexico Fund's nearly 10% premium to net asset value makes it an unattractive buy despite its managed-distribution policy that provides a regular yield of more than 6%. But when the premium gives way to its more normal discount, the closed-end will provide better value and a good mix of investments for those interested in Mexico's growth.
The surprising stalwart: Chile
Chile isn't the first country that comes to most American investors' minds, but the nation at the tip of South America has some of the most attractive economic numbers in the region. Inflation at just 1% to 2% rivals levels in the U.S., but growth rates in the 5% to 6% range have produced relatively strong labor numbers, as unemployment currently runs at about 6%. Most remarkably, Chile is the only major country in the Americas expected to sport a budget surplus in 2013.
Again, investors have a couple of choices to invest in Chile. The iShares MSCI Chile ETF (NYSEMKT:ECH) has a good mix of stocks with an emphasis on financials, consumer, and utility stocks. You'll find a slightly different mix of investments from the closed-end Aberdeen Chile Fund (NYSEMKT:CH), which trades at a 3% premium to net asset value. Again, though, with a managed-distribution rate of nearly 10%, income investors will appreciate the reliable income from the closed-end Chile fund -- albeit with the recognition that some of those distribution payments represent a return of investor capital rather than true income.
Go south, young man
If you never look beyond the U.S., you'll miss out on some great investments. Look to Latin America for investing ideas, and you'll find a wealth of prospects worth considering for your portfolio.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.