Colombia to divest stakes in companies with low profits, official says

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The government of Colombian President Ivan Duque has started a plan sell off public stakes in low-profit companies, expecting to generate more than $1.9 billion a year for more lucrative investments, a finance ministry official told Reuters.

Different state entities in Colombia, from large government ministries to small state agencies, own stakes collectively worth some $25 billion in more than 100 companies, both public and privately-owned, according to a finance ministry document.

But Cesar Arias, the ministry’s director of public credit, said many of the investments deliver tiny yields and the funds invested in them could be harnessed to bolster strategic sectors such as infrastructure, clean energy, education and health care.

“The idea isn’t to use those resources to finance current account spending by the state, but rather to use them for more profitable investments,” Arias said in an interview Tuesday.

“It’s a strategy that seeks to secure resources needed to maintain public investment at optimal levels,” he said.

The state, however, will only be able to disinvest in companies when its stake is less than 49 percent, according to a draft decree that adheres to guidelines approved by Congress.

That means large companies such as state-owned oil company EcoPetrol SA ECO.CN and electricity, telecomms and infrastructure company ISA ISA.CN will be off limits.

This year alone, the government expects to receive 6 billion pesos ($1.86 billion) from the plan. “That doesn’t mean every year will be like that. There will be years with more operations and years with less,” Arias said.

But on average, Arias said the state should be able to free up funds equal to 0.6 to 0.7% of gross domestic product per year, or about $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion.

The finance ministry will receive feedback on the draft decree - published on its website July 4 - in coming days before passing it. In the meantime, it is analyzing which stakes the state should offload first and where to direct the funds from selling them.

Arias said it was too early to identify companies the government would like to invest in, but added that details would be included in the proposed budget for 2020 that the government will send to Congress in coming weeks.

“There are sectors that are very obvious - education, health, infrastructure...public works for regions, clean and renewable energy,” Arias said. “All those sectors that are flagship priorities for his administration, that’s where the resources will go.”

(The story corrects first paragraph to say government started plan to sell off stakes, not finalizing.)

Reporting By Carlos Vargas, Writing By Mitra Taj; Editing by David Gregorio