Latin American markets roundup

By BRADLEY BROOKS, UPI Business Correspondent

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 24 (UPI) -- Stock markets were mostly up across Latin America this week, as solid domestic news offset the ripple effect from a few poor days on Wall Street.

In Brazil, the region's largest economy, all eyes were on the central bank and whether or not it would cut the country's key interest rate for a second month running.


On Wednesday, the bank opted to trim the benchmark Selic rate to 24.5 percent from 26 percent.

The cut was the largest since May of 1999, when rates were sliced from 27 percent to 23.5 percent.

Groups across the business and political spectrum in Brazil have been clamoring for quick, though cautious, reductions to the country's rate, which they say stifles growth and makes it difficult for domestic companies to expand.

There are holdouts in economics circles, though, who have been trying to dampen the appetite for a rate cut on worries that inflation isn't beaten yet.


The central bank, in a memo that announced the rate cut, cast aside major concerns on inflation.

"The inflation projections continue to indicate convergence toward the (inflation) targets," the bank noted.

Indeed, the country's June readings on the main IPCA inflation index showed deflation for the first time since 1998, with consumer prices easing 0.15 percent, mostly as a result of the local currency's gains against the dollar this year.

The central bank's inflation target for 2003 is at 8.5 percent, a number which most economists call too optimistic. The market forecast continues to hover around 11 percent.

While the rate cut was applauded, the local stock market didn't react positively to the news, with investors were hoping for a larger cut.

"The optimistic line was expecting a rate cut of 2 percent. As the aggressive cut didn't come, there was a certain amount of frustration," Valmir Celestino, director of the Safra bank, told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

In Brazil's corporate sector, a federal court in Ceara state ruled Tuesday that long-distance carrier Embratel wouldn't be allowed to raise its tariffs as much as expected.

The court ruled that Embratel can only raise its rates in accordance with the government's main IPCA inflation index. Previously, the company had been authorized to raise rates using a different index.


That will translate into a rate jump of 14 percent, as opposed to the 25 percent raise Embratel had been expecting.

A company spokesman for Embratel but a positive spin on the news, though, pointing out that the same court ruling cut the interconnection fees the company must pay to fixed-line phone operators to make its long-distance service available.

Investors agreed with the positive spin, pushing Embratel's stock up more than 2.5 percent on Tuesday.

For the week, Brazil's Bovespa stock index gained 312 points to end at 13,799 Wednesday.

In Mexico, wireless powerhouse America Movil hit all-time highs this week, as the company released a solid second-quarter earnings report.

The company said after the bell on Monday that its net profit jumped 52 percent, compared to the year previous.

That pushed the company's stock up nearly 6 percent in Tuesday trading.

Company officials said the jump came as the local currencies in its two biggest markets -- Mexico and Brazil -- made gains against the dollar.

America Movil has bucked the global downturn in telecommunications, mainly because Mexico, unlike the United States or European countries, remains a country with strong growth potential for the sector.


With more than 100 million inhabitants, Mexico has just over 25 million mobile phone users, analysts say.

In the second quarter alone, America Movil reports it registered 554,000 new users in Mexico, giving it more than 21 million of the mobile subscribers in the country.

The company has also been cleaning up in Brazil, where it added more than 2.5 million users during the second quarter with acquisitions there. America Movil has some 6.6 million subscribers in Brazil.

Less than stellar news came for Mexico on Monday, in the form of a debt downgrade from Fitch Ratings.

Fitch downgraded Mexico's unsecured debt rating to BB from BB-plus. A negative outlook was tacked onto the downgrade.

The blame was placed on a decline in state revenues below the budget projections in 2002, and an increase in expected expenditures.

"Consequently, free operating cash flows for debt service payments and investments in capital declined," Fitch noted in its report.

Mexico's IPC stock index was 257 up for the week to end Wednesday at 7,284.

Argentina's new President Nestor Kirchner has been trying to gain investors' confidence with his talk of reform and bringing something resembling rule of law back to the country.


On Wednesday, Kirchner was in Washington to meet with President Bush.

Kirchner said he underscored to Bush that Argentina was going to take a market-oriented reform path under his watch.

Bush, Kirchner said, responded that the United States would give Argentina its support in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

Bush gave "frank, decided and unconditional support to the recuperation process" for Argentina, Kirchner told reporters after the meeting.

While Bush's talk may have been good-natured diplomacy for the sake of a visiting Latin American leader, Kirchner and Argentina will need any bit of support they can get as they try to bounce Argentina's economy back from the dead.

Argentina's debt rollover agreement with the IMF expires in August. In September, Argentina has a debt payment due to the Fund of $3 billion.

The country will be seeking a longer-term program with the Fund, something in the neighborhood of three years.

While IMF officials have repeatedly expressed their hopes that Argentina will receive a healthy loan package, there can be no doubting that IMF officials will not budge on their major reform demands being met before Argentina sees a penny.

For the week, Argentina's Merval stock index was up 49 points at 747.


Chilean investors had another even week of trading, as the country's officials continued to tout the free trade deal with the United States.

President Ricardo Lagos said Wednesday that he expects the trade deal to be in effect by Jan. 1.

Chile is the first South American country to have such a deal with the United States. Considering the country already has an agreement with the European Union, Chile is far outdistancing its neighbors on the topic of free trade.

On Wednesday Lagos noted that the opening of Chile's market to the world is on an irreversible course, and "starting from that effort there will be more investment and jobs" for the country.

The country's banking sector saw the best news this week, as the government's regulating agency reported an 8.2 percent jump in net profits for banks in the first half of this year as compared to last.

Loans to consumers have been on the rise, as low interest rates spark demand for cash.

For the week, Chile's IPSA index rose 29 points to 1,276.

Venezuela remains mired in a bizarre time, as the country's stock index continues to shoot up artificially.

Investors have been socking money into market heavyweight CANTV, the national telephone company, as they have been tightly restricted from buying dollars.


CANTV's shares can be converted into American Depository Receipts, which allows investors to them sell them in New York and get their hands on dollars.

That spark for the equity market notwithstanding, the country's economic outlook remains grim.

The business community remains completely at odds with President Hugo Chavez, whom they blame for fumbling the economy.

Earlier this week, Chavez issued a call for cooperation to business leaders, saying that both sides should "discuss differences of concerns and problems, work together and push the country forward."

The country will need a stiff shove rather than a push forward, with most economists saying the economy could retract by upward of 15 percent this year.

For the week, Venezuela's IBC index was down 443 points from last week's all-time high to end at 14,631 Wednesday.

Colombia saw its foreign direct investment dive 72 percent in the first quarter of this year as compared to the same time last year.

Investment stood at just $241 million in the first quarter, the government said.

Hardest hit were the communication, transport and storage sectors, officials noted.

The oil business didn't fare well, either, as it had an outflow of $16 million, as compared to a inflow of more than $210 million last year.


For the week, Colombia's IGBC was up 66 points at 2,224.

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