UPDATE 2-Colombia's plan to spur economic growth, curb peso rise

Mon Apr 15, 2013 5:15pm EDT

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Related Topics

* Gov't wants pension funds to invest abroad to help peso

* Colombia will speed infrastructure spending

* Lower import duties, energy costs, taxes

* State to subsidize borrowing for low-income home buyers (Adds comments from finance minister, analysts)

By Eduardo Garcia and Nelson Bocanegra

BOGOTA, April 15 (Reuters) - Colombia's government announced a stimulus package on Monday designed to revitalize the economy and encourage pension funds to invest more money abroad, a step aimed at braking the rise of the national currency.

Colombia's economic growth slowed to 4 percent in 2012 from 6.6 percent a year earlier. The central bank expects the economy to maintain the same pace of growth this year as in 2012.

However, President Juan Manuel Santos said the stimulus package will allow economic growth to reach 4.8 percent this year - the government's target.

"This effort will cost around 5 trillion pesos ($2.74 billion)," he said at a news conference alongside his cabinet.

"This is a well-designed plan, well targeted. We've designed it with a lot of care so that it has an impact on productivity and the economy."

The package includes measures aimed at fostering growth in the industrial, construction and agriculture sectors and to accelerate state spending in infrastructure.

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said the measures will be financed with funds from the 2013 and 2014 national budgets and that the stimulus package will not threaten the government's fiscal targets.

He said the country's biggest economic challenge is to stem the appreciation of the local peso currency. A stronger peso cuts into the revenues of exporters and causes problems for manufacturers who struggle to compete with cheaper imports.

To that end, private pension funds will be allowed to invest more money abroad. Meanwhile, state-run regional pension funds will be required to keep their share of mining and oil royalties overseas.

Cardenas said these reforms would prompt pension funds to buy an additional $5 billion in the local currency market.

"This will considerably increase demand for dollars in Colombia," he said.

However, Francisco Chaves, chief economic analyst at local brokerage Corredores Asociados, said the measures aimed at easing peso appreciation failed to meet the market's expectations.

"Even though pension funds have the choice to buy more dollars, that doesn't mean they will do so," Chaves said.

At present, the central bank is buying at least $30 million a day in the local currency market.

Efforts by the central bank and the government have curbed the rise in the currency, which began in 2009, bringing the peso down about 3.4 percent against the U.S. dollar so far this year.

INDUSTRY, INFRASTRUCTURE, CONSTRUCTION

To fuel sluggish industrial output, the government has decided to lower import duties for raw materials, as well as taxes and energy costs.

Santos also said that state spending in infrastructure will be done ahead of schedule in order to stimulate economic growth.

"We've looked into public works that are scheduled for 2014, 2015 and 2016, to see which ones are a priority and which ones can be brought forward," Santos said.

In addition, the government will also subsidize borrowing costs for low-income home buyers to foster demand for new homes in the hope that it will fuel growth in the construction sector.

Critics have long said that in order to stimulate the economy, the government needs to speed up public spending on infrastructure and cut bureaucratic and environmental red tape that is preventing private investment and job creation.

"The best thing about the package is that they are looking at competitiveness from a broad point of view, instead of thinking only about how the exchange rate is affecting competitiveness," said Camilo Perez, chief economist at Banco de Bogota.

The government, along with the central bank, has tried to promote more investment from the private sector by providing subsidies and additional stimulus for banks to give credit.

The central bank has cut the benchmark interest rate by 200 basis points since mid-2012 in a bid to encourage Colombians to spend more.

But central bank board member Adolfo Meisel on Friday said that monetary policy alone will not be enough to foster growth because the global economic crisis is eating away at remittances and export revenues.

Colombian exports have fallen in seven of the last 12 months as cash from overseas buyers dried up or went elsewhere, damaging economic drivers like oil and mining, which attract the most foreign direct investment. (Additional reporting by Carlos Vargas; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Richard Chang)

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