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The last big Latin opportunity

With acquisition opportunities elsewhere in Latin America now few and far ­between, global banks are increasingly turning their attention to the economically vibrant and rapidly integrating central American region. Leticia Lozano reports.

JUST A FEW years ago, many investors might have sneered at the kind of grand business plans now being discussed in the boardrooms of central America: Panama as the Singapore of the Americas? A Nicaraguan trans-oceanic canal? Honduras as an international textiles hub? Scorn at such proposals is outdated, reckon those bullish about the region. "That’s the old mindset," says Costa Rican businessman Daniel Carillo, whose canned fruit export company has doubled its sales to the US over the past three years. "Central America isn’t about civil wars and poverty any more. It’s a rapidly integrating market of 40 million people," he adds.

Enter global banks HSBC and Citigroup. As central Americans grow more prosperous, open bank accounts, and look to save and seek credit, both banks want a piece of the central American boom-town action and are preparing to fight each other for supremacy. "We’re going to see a battle over the best assets in Latin America’s last big banking opportunity," says a US banker. "HSBC and Citigroup are realizing that central America won’t be virgin territory for much longer." Indeed, the conquest has already started. Bank mergers and acquisitions in central America have totalled more than $5 billion since May 2005, as international and regional players look to gain scale and stake a claim.

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