Emerging Markets

Oil rich Colombia stays healthy, averting disaster from Venezuela, Brazil

Venezuelans shop for groceries at a supermarket in Cucuta, Norte de Santander department, Colombia on July 10, 2016.
Schneyder Mendoza | AFP | Getty Images

Colombia is more than just the sum of its coffee and crude oil exports.

The Andean nation has not been completely immune to the slump in oil prices that has undermined other commodity-dependent economies. At the same time, Colombia appears to be successfully navigating the rough shoals of a global economy that's hammering places like Venezuela, its geographic neighbor in the throes of an economic collapse.

Colombia ranks behind Venezuela and Brazil as one of South America's largest oil exporters, the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes, producing about 1 million barrels per day. The worldwide cratering of global crude oil prices has undermined Colombia's public finances, and foreign direct investment took a nearly 26 percent nosedive in 2015 from the previous year, according to state investment agency Procolombia.

Yet partial privatization of the state oil company and solid fundamentals have helped the country withstand the collapse of oil prices better than its battered neighbors, and investors have slowly begun to creep back this year. It's part of a decade-long growth story the World Bank recently called "remarkable," pointing to Colombia's doubling in per-capita incomes and a tenfold rise in foreign investment over that time frame.

"Sectors such as agriculture, construction and tourism had a significant increase," Alejandro Baquero, Colombia-based executive director of Ernst & Young's Transaction Advisory Services, told CNBC.

"Foreign direct investment in the oil and gas industry has decreased 65 percent in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015," Baquero said. "However, overall foreign investment has more than doubled during the same time frame, he added.

Bogota, Colombia
Neil Beer | Getty Images

Indeed, according to investment bank AdCap, Colombia is now among the world's most attractive emerging market investments. Analysts point out that Colombia has benefited from a halo effect of three major factors: better regulation and an improved security environment after the country negotiated a historic cease-fire to end a bloody 50-year guerrilla conflict.

The country is also investing lavishly in infrastructure, planning a $70 billion spending program that will extend through 2035. It's an ambitious plan, especially for an energy-heavy economy that's still feeling the hangover of low oil prices.

"Given the intensity of the oil price shock, it is our view that Colombia's recent growth performance has been quite strong," Michael Heydt, lead Colombia analyst and a vice president at DBRS, told CNBC recently.

"Colombia's medium-term prospects are also good compared to regional peers," he said. "Growth is expected to accelerate over the coming years on the back of higher investment in infrastructure and housing."

The relative stability of the Andean nation has helped Colombia earn and keep an investment-grade rating by all three major ratings agencies. Still, a sharply weaker peso is stoking inflationary pressures and done little to boost demand for Colombia's exports, which tumbled by about 35 percent last year. The situation has forced the central bank to hike rates to contain price pressures.

"The bank has been tightening aggressively, raising rates 425 basis points since April 2014, Win Thin, head of emerging market currency research at Brown Brothers Harriman, told CNBC in an interview. "Yet inflation continues to rise, hitting 8.6 percent year over year in June. Another hike may be seen at the next meeting July 29."

Although rate hikes mean higher domestic borrowing costs, they also mean higher returns on investments that have been pouring into the country's assets. A partial reflection of how bullish markets are on Colombia can be seen in the MSCI Emerging Market Index, whose Colombia component is outperforming the overall benchmark by a wide margin, Thin noted.

Still, without high-flying commodity prices, South America faces stiff challenges with Brazil in a deep recession, Venezuela in a prolonged downward spiral and the rest of the region struggling to reform. All of that may eventually spill over on Colombia's economy.

"The adjustment to lower commodity prices is painful in the near term, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Latin America" and Colombia, Heydt said.