I just spent a month in Colombia, where I was fortune enough to interview a veritable who's who' of the country's financial sector.
I met the financial regulator, the head of the stock exchange, the co-director of the central bank and the vice president of the country's development bank. I also spoke to the heads of its largest listed companies.
But there's a danger that comes with interviewing so many high profile people: when you focus on the elite, you miss out on wider public opinion. And, as recent protests across Latin America have shown, that's a mistake that can hit investors hard.
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Nevertheless, speaking to these figures and quizzing them about different parts of the country's economy has opened my eyes. In some cases, it has confirmed my optimism. In others, it has reminded me of the scale of the challenges that Colombia still faces.
The man in charge
One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Juan Pablo Crdoba, head of the Colombian stock exchange the BVC. Crdoba is typical of many of the people you come across heading up powerful organisations in Colombia: he's a very capable, American-educated technocrat who knows capital markets inside out.
When I spoke to Crdoba, I could sense how frustrated he was by the glacial pace at which everyone else is taking advantage of Colombian investment opportunities. His feelings are understandable, considering the Colombian stock market has expanded massively over the past decade.
Daily trading volumes have gone from $1m to around $100m, while listed firms are now able to raise billions of dollars from local investors.
Yet, while those numbers seem impressive, Crdoba would be the first to admit that the local market still has several problems.One is that the majority of Colombia's best and biggest firms have shown no interest in joining the exchange.
Many of Colombia's giant corporations are family-owned, which means that huge swathes of the economy remain out of reach for investors.
Getting those family-owned companies to list publicly could benefit the companies by giving them access to fresh capital. And it could benefit investors in Colombia and abroad by giving them a way to play the growing Colombian economy.
For years, Crdoba has been desperately trying to change that and persuade local firms to list. Until now, he's not had that much luck. But it seems that could be about to change. And that should open up exciting opportunities for British investors.
The multilatinas need your cash
"The one thing that is making the board members of these companies talk about the BVC is growth", explains Crdoba. "These firms are looking outside of Colombia and across the borders. They are no longer targeting growth of 10% per year, but looking to double or triple the size of their company in the next five years. And that means acquisitions and establishing operations in other countries, which requires a different form of funding."
To highlight his point, Crdoba uses local financial conglomerate Grupo Sura as an example. The group bought ING's Latin American assets for $3.7bn in 2011, in one of the biggest-ever purchases by a Latin American firm.
"Deals like that have to be financed somehow and $1.7bn came from the local equity markets proving the role the BVC can have in that type of expansion. Of course not everyone is making such big purchases, but in the last three or four years, we have had five equity issues in excess of $1bn. The fact is, as companies grow they are going to need more from equity markets."
And it's not just Colombia - the same story is being repeated in Chile, Peru and Mexico. As local companies grow into regional giants, they will turn to investors and create more interesting investment opportunities for us.
Cleaning up corruption
One of the biggest risks of doing business in Latin America is corruption and poor corporate governance. And in spite of massive improvements that Colombia has made on many fronts, fund managers active in the country tell me that poor corporate governance especially in smaller companies is a major worry.
But Crdoba is working on this front. On a very basic level, he's introduced a new investor relations initiative that calls for better practice. It's pretty standard stuff for a UK investor publishing director biographies and company bylaws and statutes but at least it means that "investors know what they are getting into".
Listed firms are also moving to IFRS financial reporting standards next year, which should help fund managers to judge like for like. Crdoba also told me that he wants to improve the timeliness of announcements.
As he put it: "We don't want an announcement where market participants have the funny feeling that some people knew about it two weeks ago."
Rolling out the welcome mat for foreigners
Perhaps what's most important for investors like us is that Crdoba wants to attract more international money. Again, he's doing this through a few simple steps, such as getting firms to translate all investor information into English. The idea there is to "create a level playing field" for foreigners.
But he's also part of a much bigger plan. Together with counterparts in Peru and Chile, he has helped to form Mercado Integrado Latinoamericano (Mila). Launched as part of the Pacific Alliance, the idea was for a unified platform that would open up the trade bloc's listed companies to international investors.
So far, Mila has had its fair share of detractors. For starters, Mexico, which is by far the biggest Pacific Alliance market, has yet to join. Meanwhile, trading volumes have been low. But Crdoba is convinced it will be a success.
"I don't know what Mila will look like in one year, but in ten, it will be very different." The key, says Crdoba, is to create the right products.
"At the moment we have very little possibility of creating an additional local ETF [exchange-traded fund], because we have few issuers. But by combining them with Peru and Chile, we can offer sector-specific products. Any energy or finance ETF in Colombia would be restricted to around five companies, but by working with our neighbours, that grows to around 25 companies. That gives much more scope for fund managers to design and offer these products to investors."
And last week that's exactly what happened. S&P Dow Jones Indices who, as the name suggests, compile indices of different securities licensed its S&P Mila 40 Index to ETF group Horizons.
The firm will make an ETF based on the index, which covers the market's largest 40 companies. The ETF should just be the start, says Crdoba, with sector-specific energy and financial funds the next logical step.
Building a shareholder democracy
But Crdoba doesn't just want foreign investors to get involved. He is also hoping that Latin Americans seize the opportunity presented by Mila to invest in their neighbours.
"For Colombians, Peruvians and Chileans it is easier to invest in the US than it is to invest in neighbouring countries. So you're changing the way that stuff has been done for hundreds of years and it's not easy."
Indeed, this is part of a concerted push by Colombian authorities to create a shareholder democracy. When national oil company Ecopetrol was part privatised, authorities made a huge effort to bring first-time shareholders on board.
Shares were sold in supermarkets and gyms as hundreds of thousands of people bought their first ever shares. The BVC even holds free workshops around the country to teach people the basics of buying and selling shares.
This new ETF, which will be listed on the Colombian exchange, will now give locals a way to buy into the Andean region for the first time.
Why does that matter? Well, as more local money floods into these shares, it will push up prices. It's all part of a process that my colleague, Lars Henriksson, has noted in Asia namely that in emerging markets, local investors are becoming more important.
How to play it
Unfortunately, the new Mila ETF will just be listed in Colombia for now meaning it is out of reach of small private investors. Yet, if it's successful, it will breed successors. And this flood of money will help the range of Pacific Alliance investments that I've been talking since 2012.
It's also a sign that the region's capital markets are opening up. So I'll also be keeping an eye out for new Mila products or companies that look best-placed to profit from them.
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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