NEW YORK (Reuters) - Emerging economies’ rapid recovery from the global recession is leading to some curious role reversals.
Rather than looking to the rich world as just a place to sell their wares, developing-world multinationals are turning to their wealthy neighbors to recruit talent, take advantage of strong currencies to make acquisitions, and even find some lower-cost production in places that once were the bosses of global capitalism.
Take Brazil. Brazilian companies with international ambitions, armed with a surging local currency, are looking abroad for the next stage of growth. One place they hope to perform is in the United States.
“We see a steady increase of foreign investment in the U.S., particularly in the manufacturing sector,” said Barry Misthal, U.S. industrial manufacturing leader for the consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers. “They’re interested in distressed assets and cheaper pricing.”
The balance of power is shifting among the world’s economies.
Brazilian companies looking to expand in the United States include regional jet maker Embraer (EMBR3.SA)(ERJ.N), which is setting up a plane assembly facility in Melbourne, Florida; petrochemical company Braskem (BRKM5.SA)BAK.N; JBS SA (JBSS3.SA), the world’s No. 1 beef producer, which bought a controlling stake in poultry company Pilgrim’s Pride; and major oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA) (PBR.N).
The government is also supporting a plan by state-controlled Banco do Brasil (BBAS3.SA) to buy a regional U.S. lender to grab a share of lucrative money remittances.
“The currency overvaluation is making assets in the U.S. cheap, and even from a cost perspective the U.S. is becoming an interesting place to outsource engineering,” said Anand Hemnani, senior vice president and chief investment officer of CG/LA Infrastructure, an adviser to infrastructure investors and to governments making asset sales.
For Brazilian multinationals, the rest of Latin America was the first logical place for expansion. Expansion to Africa came later, and now secondary markets such as North America and Asia are becoming attractive. Petrobras is recruiting engineers from Harvard and Princeton universities for jobs in both the United States and Brazil.
“They’re hiring directly out of universities in the U.S. and India, which has never happened before,” Hemnani said. “This is unprecedented.”
Brazilian companies with global ambitions can rely on far more development funding from Brazil’s government than just a few years ago. The national development bank, BNDES, made a record $81 billion available in loans and guarantees in the 12 months through June.
“The currency is so strong you can’t export to global markets out of Brazil, but Brazil doesn’t want the global leadership of their companies compromised by the currency,” said Nick Heymann, who heads global industrial infrastructure research at Sterne Agee.
“So they’ll give them money to set up shop offshore.”
The real currency has strengthened about 38 percent against the U.S. dollar since the start of 2009, and this week it reached its highest level in three months, putting heavy pressure on exporters.
Construction companies Odebrecht, Camargo Correia and Constructora OAS, and holding groups like the Andrade Guttierez conglomerate and industrial giant Votorantim are targeting the United States, according to CG/LA.
Others may follow, such as motor maker WEG SA (WEGE3.SA).
The company, which also makes electrical transformers and factory automation systems and is controlled by its founding family, recently took a controlling stake in ZEST Group, a South African distributor of electric motors, and boosted its stake in Voltran, a Mexican manufacturer of transformers, to 60 percent.
As the family looks to dilute its WEG equity stake, it is potentially seeking deals similar to joint ventures it has struck in India, CG/LA’s Hemnani said.
WEG declined to comment on any potential U.S. investment.
Obstacles remain to the global growth of Brazilian companies.
One is rising political tensions with the United States, coming ahead of a presidential election in Brazil. Disagreement over policy toward Iran poses the risk of a long-term drift that could hurt bilateral trade and business.
Also, Brazil’s economy appears to be cooling from a torrid 9 percent pace of growth in the first quarter, as job growth and retail sales slow. Industrial production has fallen sequentially for three months in a row. Poor infrastructure and increasing labor shortages may also curb Brazil’s growth.
The United States does not always put out the welcome mat for uninvited foreign buyers.
Earlier this year, machine tool maker Romi SA (ROMI3.SA) offered a high premium for U.S.-based Hardinge Inc HDNG.O, but was rebuffed even after raising its offer 25 percent.
“Hardinge’s board and management were unwilling to engage in any dialogue,” Romi Chief Executive Livaldo Aguiar dos Santos said last month.
Still, Brazil’s economy remains robust by U.S. and European standards and its companies are increasingly competitive on the global stage.
Brazil’s internationalization movement is only just beginning, concluded an October 2009 report by SOBEET, Valor and the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment. The report ranked 57 Brazilian multinationals in terms of foreign assets, foreign sales and number of overseas employees.
Ranking first was crop and animal production company JBS Friboi, followed by Odebrecht. Metals-maker Gerdau was third, and five other manufacturing companies figured in the top 10.
“The traditional reason (to invest) was to grow market share in the U.S.,” CG/LA’s Hemnani said. “Now it’s that, coupled with lower-cost production, and it’s the right time to expand internationally.” (Additional reporting by Guillermo Parra Bernal in Sao Paulo; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)