* Local market could see runoff from bets in Brazil
* Wary of bubble, Mexico funds happy with slow growth
(Adds detail on Darby in second paragraph)
By Patrick Rucker
MEXICO CITY, May 3 (Reuters) - Mexico’s private equity market could balloon in size over the next few years as it absorbs billions of dollars from local pensions and welcomes refugee investors from Brazil’s overdeveloped market, local fund managers say.
With roughly $7 billion in total assets, Mexico’s private equity sector is relatively anemic, but it could expand to $12 billion in the next four years due to evolving investor appetites, said Jaime Salinas-Solano, managing director of Darby Overseas Investments, the private equity arm of Franklin Templeton Investments.
“International investors see that they can buy the same company in Mexico for five times (book value), what they would have to pay nine times (book) in Brazil,” said Salinas-Solano, who also heads Mexican private equity trade group Amexcap.
Compared with Brazil, Mexico’s investment market is seen as a laggard, with its young private pension system, modest stock exchange and major industries dominated by heavyweight companies or even monopolies.
A tradition in Mexico of keeping businesses within the family over generations and favoring debt financing has also held back private equity.
Companies that would be ideal candidates for private equity investment are either out of reach or simply too small for the largest buyout firms like Carlyle Group, which came to Mexico years ago but walked away after seeing scarce deals.
Smaller buyout firms, though, are staking out ground in Mexico’s relatively unexploited market, said Jose Contreras with Wamex, a local private equity fund.
“Look at countries like India and Brazil — they are heated markets where competition for deals is very intense. That tends to bring returns down for everybody. Mexico is not there at all,” he said.
Last year, Wamex packaged a private equity investment using a new security tailored for risk-shy retirement funds.
Analysts expect that Mexico’s 14 private pension funds, known as Afores, will increase their private equity stakes by hundreds of millions of dollars by the end of this year.
But even with strong growth over the next few years, Mexico’s private equity market will probably remain low-stakes for some of the world’s biggest private equity firms.
Brazil buyout firm GP Investments GPIV11.SA opened a Mexico City office three years ago and seemed ready to make a splash in Latin America’s second-largest economy, but that has not happened.
“If you have a fund of over $300-$400 million dollars, it is very hard to invest. The bulk of transactions in this country are in the range of $30-$40 million dollars,” said Joaquin Avila, a Carlyle Group veteran who stayed behind to found EMX Capital, which makes bets on companies that serve Mexico’s lower and middle classes.
Local fund managers expect Mexico’s private equity growth to be slow and steady with more capital keeping pace with more available deals.
“So far we do not have the problem in Mexico of too much money chasing too few deals, and that’s a good thing. The pace is right,” said Avila, speaking at an Amexcap conference held last week. (Reporting by Patrick Rucker, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Chizu Nomiyama)