POLL: US INVESTORS REMAIN BULLISH ON LATIN AMERICA, SPLIT ON ASIA

POLL: US INVESTORS REMAIN BULLISH ON LATIN AMERICA, SPLIT ON ASIA

U.S. investors remain confident about growth prospects in Latin America, but remain divided over Asia and whether the regional stock and currency crises have yet to hit bottom, a poll shows.

Released Sunday at the Inter-American Development Bank conference in Cartagena, Colombia, the BankBoston poll found that portfolio investment will remain strong in Latin America.However, some troubling indicators surfaced in the query of 150 portfolio debt and equity investors. Some 38 percent of the respondents queried by corporate polling firm Wirthlin Worldwide believed that U.S. portfolio investment in Asia will decrease this year, while 29 percent expect levels to remain the same.

Moreover, 49 percent of the respondents expected Asia ''to soon see even greater financial problems,'' and only 45 percent feel the worst is over in Asia.

Latin American fared better in the survey, with 66 percent of the responding institutional investors saying they were much more confident about Latin America than they were five years ago. One year ago, however, the same question received a 81 percent total confidence rating.

The survey results are important because they signal potential flash points for the broader international trade community. Emerging markets in Asia and Latin America alike depend greatly on institutional investment to raise capital for corporate needs and to keep foreign exchange levels healthy.

Some countries like Brazil have started to recapture lost reserves, but the Asian economic crisis has made investors nervous in all emerging markets and slowed down several economies, slowing U.S. exports too.

On a brighter note for Latin America, 29 percent of the investors questioned said they would increase investment in the region, while another 44 percent expected levels to remain the same. Only 22 percent predicted a decrease in their investment levels for Latin America.

''I believe the headline for all of this is there is an awakening of the investor population that Latin America is not Asia. That Latin America has gone through the reform process, has gone through the excessive growth and catch-up which is required,'' said Chuck Mallis, managing director and head of BankBoston's Global Financial Institution's division. ''With this awakening is a greater interest. As opposed to Asia, where there still is a significant amount of uncertainty.''

To the surprise of Mr. Mallis, Mexico remained the most attractive market for investors, according to 41 percent of the respondents. That was down from last year's 50 percent rating as most attractive investment country. Brazil ranked second at 17 percent, followed by Argentina at 15 percent and Chile at 10 percent.