Bloomberg News

Colombia Bank May Ignore Pressure by Santos and Raise Rates

June 17, 2011

(Updates prices.)

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Traders are betting Colombia’s central bank will raise the benchmark interest rate to as high as 5 percent by year-end, ignoring President Juan Manuel Santos call for policy makers to pause and preserve growth.

The yield on Colombia’s benchmark short-term bond due August 2012 has risen 29 basis points to 5.27 percent since Santos on May 31 made what he called a “respectful request” for policy makers to keep the key rate on hold at 4 percent. The gap between yields on the securities due 2012 and the nation’s bonds due 2024 shows that borrowing costs need to rise further to control inflation that breached the 3 percent midpoint of the bank’s target range in May, according to Interbolsa SA’s Pedro Ospina.

The additional tightening will begin today, when Banco de la Republica is expected to raise the overnight rate by a quarter point for the fifth straight meeting to 4.25 percent, according to 22 of 23 economists surveyed by Bloomberg. That’s likely to anger businesses on concern growth will slow and also exporters who say higher rates attract more investment behind the peso’s 6.7 percent rally this year.

“Independently of what Santos says, the bank will continue to lift” rates, said Ospina, a fixed-income analyst at Colombia’s biggest brokerage. “Santos’s remark is entirely political. He wants to appease businesses and distance himself from what some see as an unpopular decision.”

Economists expect a year-end benchmark rate of as high as 5 percent, as indicated by the average estimate of 4.82 percent in a central bank survey published last week.

Presidents, Exporters

Pressure has been building on Santos to slow the pace of rate increases by exporters who are worried that higher rates could attract more investment to the Andean nation and extend the biggest rally this year among the six most-traded Latin American currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

Colombia’s biggest business association, known as ANDI, said in a May 31 e-mailed statement that a new increase in rates is “inconvenient.” Rate increases are determined “with models that seem not to consult with the country’s reality,” ANDI said.

“Exporters are worried about rate increases because they widen the spread even further between Colombia and developed nations, bringing in more cash and pressuring the peso,” said David Aldana, an analyst at Ultrabursatiles SA brokerage.

Former President Alvaro Uribe frequently urged the bank, to take steps to weaken the currency. Santos’s predecessor argued that the strong peso forced exporters to cut jobs as they received fewer pesos for goods such as flowers and coffee sold abroad.

‘Practically a Given’

The central bank, founded in 1923, has been independent under the constitution since 1991, when it was given the mission of fighting inflation. Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry who is also president of the central bank’s seven-member board, has one vote in the rate decision.

Elsewhere in the region, the central banks of Mexico, Chile and Peru are also independent of the government. Banco Central do Brasil, while in practice operates autonomously, doesn’t enjoy formal independence.

Citing the delayed effect of interest rate increases on consumer spending and prices and the likelihood that South America’s fourth-biggest economy is operating near its potential, the central bank said in minutes of the May 30 monetary policy meeting that “the Board of Directors felt the move toward a less expansive monetary policy must continue.”

“The increase is practically a given since the minutes didn’t show one single dovish argument,” said Munir Jalil, chief economist at Citigroup’s Colombia unit.

Growth, Inflation

With its emergence from recession in 2009, Colombia’s economy has expanded for seven consecutive quarters. According to the median forecast of nine economists surveyed by Bloomberg, the $285 billion economy grew 4.9 percent year on year in the first quarter. The national statistics agency publishes its first quarter growth report June 23.

Surging foreign investment in its mining and energy industries will boost annual economic growth to as high as 6 percent this year, according to the government, from 4.3 percent in 2010, building pressure on the central bank to keep inflation expectations anchored around its target.

Annual inflation quickened to 3.02 percent in May, from 2.84 percent the previous month, and up from a five-decade low of 1.84 percent a year earlier. Colombia’s real interest rate after inflation, at 0.98 percent, is the lowest in Latin America among nations that target inflation.

Calm, Flattening

Core inflation, which excludes food prices, slowed to 0.09 percent in May compared with 0.14 percent a year ago, bolstering confidence the central bank will keep consumer price under control.

“The market is calm regarding 2011 inflation readings,” said Ricardo Bernal, head analyst at Bogota-based brokerage Serfinco SA. The bank “still needs to continue raising. With real interest rates at such low levels, you can’t expect the economy to continue growing without pressuring inflation.”

The gap between yields on the government fixed-rate bonds due July 2024 and the securities due August 2012 dropped to 258 basis points, or 2.58 percentage points, on June 15. That’s its lowest level since Feb. 2, 2010.

“The TES curve still has room to flatten,” said Ospina, who forecasts the gap may fall to 230 basis points within a month.

--Editors: Robert Jameson, Jonathan Roeder

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Jaramillo in Bogota at ajaramillo1@bloomberg.net; Helen Murphy in Bogota at hmurphy1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net; David Papadopoulos at papadopoulos@bloomberg.net


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