SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Here's an economic riddle of sorts: Which economy grew faster over the last seven years? A) President Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, famous for its forced nationalizations and "21st century socialism," or B) Chile, long renowned as a capitalist paradise for investors.
It might surprise some outsiders to learn that the answer is actually A. In recent years, commodities prices have dictated growth in Latin America more than any other factor, meaning that countries could trample on businesses but still grow briskly as long as they exported plenty of raw materials such as oil and iron ore to China and elsewhere.
Venezuela, the region's No. 1 oil exporter, has averaged about 4.6 percent economic growth since 2005, compared to 4 percent in Chile, the world's leader in copper. An even clearer example of commodities' almighty reign was Argentina, which averaged 7 percent growth during the same period as record soy and other farm exports helped offset the government's hostile stance toward energy companies and some other investors.
Now, it looks as if the trend is shifting. In Latin America, 2012 seems set to be the year in which business climate clearly reestablishes its supremacy as the main driver of growth.
The countries expected to grow the fastest in 2012 are also generally the ones that are perceived by the World Bank and others as treating investors the best. That means Chile, Peru and Colombia should lead the pack, while Venezuela and even Brazil will lag a step behind - just as they did last year.
Graphic on region's economies: r.reuters.com/bed95s
What has changed? The global economy.
Demand for many commodities is expected to slacken in 2012 due to economic problems in buyer markets such as China and Europe. That means it will be up to Latin American countries to generate more of their own growth - and the ones that fare best will be those who have made their labor laws more flexible, cut red tape, and taken other steps to stimulate business.
"There's no question we're seeing a change," said David Rees, Latin America economist for Capital Economics in London. "The external drivers of growth are drying up and these countries will have to look to other sources like investment in order to keep up the pace."
A DOGFIGHT FOR FIRST PLACE AMONG INVESTORS
One way to measure the trend is by looking at the World Bank's annual "Doing Business" study, which ranks the business climate in 183 countries around the world based on how well they protect investors; the ease of starting a business; the simplicity of paying taxes; and other factors.
The cluster of Latin American countries that rank a clear step above their other regional peers in the survey are Chile (39), Peru (41) and Colombia (42).
All three of those economies are forecast to grow 4.5 percent or more this year, according to the International Monetary Fund's latest forecasts, made in October. Countries that rank lower in the Doing Business survey, such as Guatemala (97), Brazil (126) and Venezuela (177) are all forecast to grow in the 3.5 percent range or lower.
The divergent trend is even more pronounced in more recent 2012 forecasts by Wall Street firms such as Morgan Stanley.
The region's other two big economies also appear to be headed in opposite directions.
Growth in Argentina (113) is expected by the IMF to be around 4.5 percent this year - but that's just about half of last year's pace. Meanwhile, Mexico's (53) relatively open, low-tax economy should show resilience, with growth of 3.6 percent - well above its roughly 2 percent trend level since 2005.
Most of the countries at the top of the economic league table have vigorously implemented pro-business reforms in recent years, often with the explicit goal of improving their standing in the Doing Business rankings.
Peru, Chile and Colombia have been battling each other for supremacy within Latin America for years, said Luis Plata, a former Colombian trade minister. "We fought hard to be first," he said in an interview. "It became a competition."
"The rankings improve your standing with investors, but ... the real reason to do it is to help you identify deep changes in the system, things that will help your economy grow better," Plata said.
For this year's "champion," the dividends are clear. Chile saw foreign investment of $13.79 billion in 2011, a historic high that contributed to the country's fastest economic growth in years. A top Chilean official told Reuters last month that the government expects a new record in foreign investment this year.
STALLED REFORMS IN BRAZIL
In countries closer to the bottom of the table, attitudes are notably different.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has shown few signs of softening an antagonistic stance toward some investors that in recent years has seen her government nationalize private pension funds and face widespread suspicions of manipulating basic economic data such as inflation.
Venezuela's economy remained buoyant for years thanks largely to its status as South America's biggest oil exporter, but Chavez's frequent confrontations with business have hollowed out much of the private sector and left the economy dependent on state spending.
In Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, the picture is slightly more complex. While successive governments have catered to private enterprise to a much greater extent than Argentina and Venezuela, Brazil has also failed to push any major pro-business reforms through Congress in a decade.
As a result, investors have become frustrated with the country's high costs and red tape. Brazil dropped six spots in the latest Doing Business survey - more than any other big economy in Latin America - and ranks in the world's bottom third in categories such as trading across borders, dealing with construction permits, and ease of paying taxes.
Partly as a result of the business climate, some economists believe that Brazil may be downshifting into a new era of 3 percent to 4 percent economic growth, which would be a letdown after the faster pace of previous years.
"Brazil hasn't kept pace with some other (Latin American) countries on some of the really important long-term questions, and they may pay the price for that," said Gray Newman, chief Latin America economist for Morgan Stanley.
"People focus on things like inflation, and that's good, but what about - How long does it take to open a business? How easy is it to hire and fire?" Newman said. "The economies that are moving forward are the ones that have looked at those metrics, and have put them at the heart of government policy."
(Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)