Though political upheaval in the United States and Europe is the focus of investors and developers of Latin American real estate, panelists at the ULI Latin America and Caribbean Conference in mid-February, said the clouds of uncertainty have yet to sway many from their carefully plotted courses through the region’s most attractive markets, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru.
Despite the recent death of Brazilian supreme court justice Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing prosecution in a wide-reaching corruption trial, Tim Gifford, senior vice president for CBRE, said the trial’s outcome could still bolster worldwide investors’ confidence in the Portuguese-speaking nation.
“Last year the Bovespa [Brazil’s primary stock exchange] was up 38 percent,” Gifford noted. “And in terms of the political situation, while everything we read in the press does appear to be negative, it’s creating a wall of opportunity. We should look and see the opportunities that are going to come out of these political reforms.”
About 4,000 miles (6,500 km) away in Mexico, both private investors as well as those with money in public markets are bullish on the commercial and industrial sectors. “We were able to raise a 7 billion-peso [$345 million] fund after the U.S. election, and since 2010 the public markets in Mexico have evolved tremendously,” said Patricio Desentis of Chicago-based Walton Street Capital. “Companies have jointly raised around 270 billion pesos [$13.3 billion] for equity commitments for real estate placements.”
Yet local currency devaluation coupled with demands to preserve return-on-asset ratios has also made many of those companies more selective about their targets. “We need to be cautious right now, capitalize ourselves, and wait for opportunities I’m sure will be there and will be enough to satisfy our investment requirements,” said Desentis.
Development on Mexico’s east coast and in the surrounding area has been limited over the past year by a decline in the tourism engine that props up the region’s economy. At the same time, that softness has hurt the Caribbean’s largest asset class, hotels, which is the main lure for private equity firms and real estate investment trusts (REITs).
Affecting Latin America were the Zika virus outbreak, which stretched from South America all the way up to Florida, and then the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, which further reduced tourism and investment. Both unfolded in the wake of the headache left over from the 2008 recession.
“The legacy lenders withdrew from the hospitality market following  and continued to [do so] as we worked through the financial crisis,” said Martyn Bould, Caribbean chairman of Rider Levett Bucknall. Yet in withdrawing, those large banks also left open a window for nontraditional lenders to come in with issuances for the Caribbean, one of the world’s most lucrative tourism markets.
“We’re seeing a lot more creative funding of product, with different people coming into the market,” Bould said.
New players are also entering the Colombian and Peruvian markets, which all the panelists agreed are among the safest, most attractive, and best poised for growth. In Colombia, a recently signed deal ending a 50-year armed conflict has combined with a long-awaited revamp of the tax system to help whet investors’ appetites.
U.S. businessman Sam Zell made a significant play in Colombia in 2014 when he bought lodging company Decamaron Hotels & Resorts, which has 2,500 hotel rooms, for $500 million—the largest hospitality transaction in Latin American history, said Rogerio Basso, chief investment officer for Key International.
The deal was done in partnership with Terranum Group, a Colombia-based firm that specializes in deploying capital throughout the country. That style of partnership is one of the most effective templates investors are using to establish a large portfolio in a country without the opportunities of the size previously found in Mexico and Brazil.
“They’re companies that have a good management team, an interesting thesis for growth, but don’t have the equity needed for that growth,” Basso said. “They are providing these best practices for how the company needs to be set up to put them ahead of local peers.” Gifford agreed, saying the platform model has become more popular since 2008, when investors saw the potential in previously untapped markets but were also wary of going it alone.
Looking ahead, many panelists raised a number of concerns. Among them are China’s growing interest in the Western Hemisphere, the large amounts of capital in the market, and the competition for the best projects. All will stiffen because investors must compete with large insurance groups and pension funds from across the region, particularly from Colombia, which now allows such investors to invest more freely and at larger levels than in the past.
Basso said that that despite the recent rhetoric about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico and the United States, investors have been keen to expand industrial facilities that take advantage of Mexico’s well-educated and still inexpensive workforce. He also said opportunities abound for residential real estate development in Colombia and Peru for a population that is predicted to increase its spending as the years pass.
“In Colombia alone, there’s a shortage of 8 million homes,” Basso said. “Drawing from the comparison to Brazil and other countries, developing a residential platform there is very attractive.”