Funds poised for a post-Castro boom

AMERICANS can't go there, let alone trade there, and there is nothing to invest in even if they could. But that hasn't stopped US investors, in their quest for the ultimate emerging market, from rushing to buy a handful of new mutual funds established specifically for that purpose.

Despite a hardening of the 33-year-old US trade embargo in response to the new refugee crisis, millions of dollars have already poured into a listed fund whose trading symbol is CUBA, and whose assets - despite the fanfare that greeted its public offering in May - cannot legally be put to work on the Caribbean island. Or at least, not yet.

'To call this premature would be putting it lightly,' says Lars Schonander, chief Latin American economist at Baring Securities in New York. 'There's an assumption that Cuban-Americans are poised to flood back into the country, but even then it would be hard to imagine exactly what one would invest in.'

Tourism is the one obvious Cuban growth industry, and Communist officials are happy to remind Washington that Spaniards, Canadians, Mexicans and others are already active in resorts and travel. But that avenue is closed to American investors by the embargo.

So while Wall Street waits for the overthrow of Fidel Castro, the Herzfield Caribbean Basin Fund, the Americas Growth Fund and others have been looking instead into what are called 'surrogates' - regional companies whose fortunes will almost certainly rise as those of the revolution fall.

It's not sugar cane, cigars, nickel mines or even Cuba's tiny medical bio-tech industry the funds are speculating on. American capital is instead being channelled to Puerto Rican cement makers, Mexican telecoms, Bacardi, the expatriated rum distillers, and Scandinavian Marine Group, a Miami company that has commissioned a 600-passenger high- speed ferryboat that will shuttle Cuban-Americans to and from Havana.

Americas Growth, listed on the NASDAQ stockmarket last week as Cuban and American officials met to defuse the regugee crisis, has raised more than dollars 5.5m ( pounds 3.5m) to gamble on such Cuban plays, arguing that a breakthrough in the embargo is imminent. Cuba will eventually benefit from US trade preferences such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative that have already helped its neighbours.

But most emerging-markets analysts say that it will be a gradual process, and one that will almost certainly require Fidel Castro's ousting or death. They also argue that other similar-sized economies in the region offer investors considerable advantages - including market-oriented island nations such as the Dominican Republic and, more recently, Jamaica.

The tiny Jamaican stock exchange, for example, was the world's best performing equities market last year.

'I suppose it's better to be first than last,' says Baring's Mr Schonander. 'But surely there is a more profitable place somewhere between.'

(Photograph omitted)

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