How to Access this South American 'Miracle' Economy

Nathan Slaughter's picture

Sunday, February 21, 2010 - 5:16pm

by Nathan Slaughter

Investors with a stake in this overlooked land don't mind the lack of publicity. While it may be a small country of less than 17 million people, its equity market packs quite a punch. In fact, it has posted a stunning return of +3,014% since 1989. That 30-fold increase would have turned a modest $10,000 investment into a cool $300,000.

In fact, a quick search of the this country's main index on Google turns up a scant 6,700 results. By comparison, you'll find more than 65,000 entries for water skiing squirrel videos.

Just a few decades ago, this country was pinned under the repressive thumb of military dictatorship. But reforms recommended by famed U.S. economist Milton Friedman helped sow the seeds of change and put the country on a much different path.

Inflation was corralled, taxes were cut, markets were deregulated and restrictive trade barriers were taken down. At the same time, the privatization of nearly 300 state-owned companies helped slim the bloated public sector -- a true economic renaissance that came to be known as the "Miracle of Chile".

And after 15 years of steadily rising per-capita income and robust GDP growth of +5.5%, Chile is now, by many standards, South America's most prosperous nation.

Chile is a long, narrow ribbon of land stretching more than 2,800 miles. Sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the varied terrain is a striking contrast of geology and climate, ranging from deserts to glaciers.

The Chilean people are well-educated, proud of their rich literary heritage, and (like many others in the region) avid soccer fans. They are also among the world's most earnest savers, with payroll withholdings prudently invested in privately-managed stock accounts.

The fact that Chile has adopted a privatized social security system speaks volumes. During the past couple decades, the transition to a market-based economy has transformed the country from an economic backwater to a role model for all of Latin America.

Most observers rate Chile as the most competitive and globalized economy in the region. The CIA World Factbook reports Chile has more bilateral trade agreements in place than any other country.

Chile's principal export is copper, but fruits, nuts, seafood and timber are also plentiful -- accounting for roughly 40% of the nation's GDP. When copper prices were soaring, leaders were smart enough to sock away the proceeds for a rainy day. At last count, the country had amassed more than $20 billion in sovereign wealth funds (not counting billions more in central bank reserves).

And in a refreshing change of pace, the federal government is forced by law to spend within its means and operate at an annual surplus. That mandate was temporarily relaxed during the recession, but the country still has a trifling debt equal to just 4% of GDP -- versus more than 80% in the United States or nearly 200% in Japan.

That fiscal discipline helps explain why Chile has the strongest sovereign credit rating in Latin America, according to Standard & Poor's.

My ETF Authority staff and I are confident Chile is still moving in the right direction, particularly with last month's election of billionaire business tycoon Sebastian Pinera as President. The Harvard-educated entrepreneur (who helped introduce credit cards in the 1980s) will extend the successful policies of his predecessors and draw on a strong business background to promote job growth.

Throw in record-low interest rates and aggressive stimulus measures, and we see a favorable macro backdrop to support continued gains for Chilean companies.

Don't make the mistake of assuming this market is just another play on commodities. Yes, Chile is inextricably linked to copper -- it satisfies approximately 40% of the world's demand each year. Instead, corporate profits on the Santiago Stock Exchange are more dependent on utilities, basic matep/e71ls and consumer products sectors -- businesses that are less exposed to external shocks and closely tied to domestic consumption. When the world went into recession in 2008, Chile didn't freefall like most other emerging markets.

In fact, Chilean stocks held up even better than the S&P 500 during the downturn. They raised a few eyebrows on the ride back as well, soaring more than +85% this past year. But prices remain well below their pre-crash levels and the country's short-lived recession is already a fading memory, catching experts by surprise.

Chile won't remain a secret forever. Now is the opportune time to stake your claim -- and this asset class could be the best way to profit.

P.S. A few days ago I recommended my top Chilean play to my ETF Authority readers. It's paying out an 8% yield and well-positioned to generate outsized gains in the months ahead. New subscribers will get all the details -- go here to learn more.

Nathan Slaughter does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.
StreetAuthority LLC does not hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.