|LATIN AMERICAN FIRMS LEAP FROM SPAIN TO REST OF EUROPE|
Aruba, July 3, 2014 - Spanish firms seeking to escape a sluggish eurozone are heading in ever greater numbers to reap the financial benefits of doing business in the faster-paced economies of Latin America.
But the corporate business traffic now runs in both directions: Latin American groups are building business links with Spain as a gateway to entering the rest of Europe.
On a visit to Madrid this month by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, for example, Spanish business chiefs, from the leaders of major bank BBVA to energy giant Iberdrola, lined up to meet with him.
Indeed, Spain's firms fall easily for Mexico's charms: an economy expected to grow five percent annually in the years ahead and which plans to invest 440 billion euros ($600 billion) up to the end of 2018, notably in energy and telecommunications.
More generally, "we are witnessing a major boom in infrastructure construction in Latin America for the next decade," explained Juan Carlos Martinez Lazaro, lecturer at the IE Business School.
"We can see it from Mexico to Chile, where almost everything is yet to be done," he said, citing Brazil which is hosting the World Cup and will also put on the 2016 Olympics.
With its cultural and linguistic affinity, Latin America became a natural destination in the 1990s for Spanish companies seeking to spread internationally.
In that period, construction and public works group FCC set foot in the region, first in Costa Rica and Mexico, said Vicente Mohedano, regional director for the group's construction branch.
FCC enjoyed "the same culture, the same language and practically identical values," he said. That offered it a competitive advantage that has led to FCC now undertaking about 40 percent of its construction activity in Latin America -- slightly more than it does in Europe.
The eurozone's financial woes sent more Spanish firms to the region, particularly Brazil and Mexico.
In March this year, FCC in a consortium with Spanish construction group ACS won a 3.9-billion-euro contract to build part of the metro system in Lima, Peru.
Brazil became Spanish telecommunications group Telefonica's top market at the start of 2013. In Panama, another Spanish firm, Sacyr, is overseeing the enlargement of the Panama Canal.
In Mexico, Iberdrola plans to invest 3.5 billion euros over six years.
But the roles are being switched, too: Spain is now a target for Latin American companies, especially those from Mexico and Venezuela.
"There are more and more companies we call 'multilatinas' which are Latin American multinationals that have begun to have a presence not just in Latin America but also on a global scale, in Europe in Asia or the United States," said Carlos Malamud, Latin American research chief for the El Cano research institute.
They are investing in all sectors, the analyst said.
"For example, Mexican investment in Spain is about 20 billion euros and we have recently seen investment in the banking sector," an easy prey since the Spanish banks were hit by the collapse of a decade-long property boom in 2008.
Banco Popular, Liberbank and Banco Sabadell have all opened up their capital to Mexican investors.
But it was Venezuela's Banesco that scored the biggest coup by swiping the nationalised NovaGalicia bank in December for one billion euros.
"Spain, as well as being the mother country, is an attractive country in a period of recovery," said Banesco president Juan Carlos Escotet in an interview with leading Spanish daily El Pais. His parents, Spaniards, took a chance by emigrating to Venezuela in 1947.
Banks are not the only targets.
Mexican group Sigma, in an alliance with China's Shuanghui, took control of Spanish food group Campofrio. Mexican oil giant Pemex did the same with the Barreras shipyards.
"I would not say that the investment flow between Spain and Latin America has completely reversed but it is clear that the wind has turned recently with Latin American groups beginning to invest in Spain," said FCC's Vicente Mohedano.
"Numerous companies are using Spain as a bridgehead, the gateway to Europe," profiting from the two sides' cultural links, said Juan Carlos Martinez Lazaro of the IE Business School.
"It's a phenomenon that is going to grow as Latin American businesses gain strength, financial capacity and managerial capacity," he predicted.