Strong pandemic-era performance and a look around the corner

IPO activity in Latin America has hit record levels in 2021, with the region’s largest economy taking the lion’s share of the bounty.

During the first eight months of 2021, Latin America recorded its strongest initial public offering (IPO) activity of the past six years. In total, 55 IPOs took place up to the end of August. That compared to 36 new issues for the whole of 2020. All this in a year that saw the region's economy contract by 6.9 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic1—the sharpest contraction in the world.2

Moreover, first-half deal volume (32 in H1) also accelerated compared to the second half of last year, when 27 companies came to market for the first time. Value and volume have already outstripped every year since 2015, and, with more companies unveiling plans to come to market, records may continue to be smashed (see figure 1).

This stands in sharp contrast to the general trend over the past decade, which saw domestic Latin American markets struggling to attract new companies to go public, with capital from US and European markets shifting toward emerging markets in Asia-Pacific.3

This meant that Latin American markets remained concentrated around a relatively low number of listed companies largely dominated by company groups. The recent uptick in Latin American IPO activity injects new life into the global IPO scene.

In value terms, the region also posted strong figures: The 55 IPOs to the end of August raised US$15.17 billion, an increase of 41 percent compared to the whole of 2020, when US$10.8 billion was raised.

The broad range of sectors that saw significant IPO activity is also noteworthy. Since January 2021 in Brazil, there has been a steady stream of IPOs in more traditional industries such as oil & gas, financial services and transport and retail. However, we have also seen activity in sectors such as healthcare with the IPO of Hospital Care Caledonia; mining with Companhia Brasileira de Alumínio coming to market; technology as TC Traders Club S.A. floated on the São Paulo exchange in July; and in telecoms with Unifique Telecomunicações S.A. coming to market in the same month.

IPO carnival in Brazil

The Brazilian market dominated Latin American dealmaking during the first half of 2021, with the country accounting for all but five of the IPOs that came to market. The strength of the country's new issue market reflects the broader bounce-back of the Brazilian economy in 2021. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects economic growth of 3.7 percent in Brazil this year, followed by 2.6 percent growth in 2022; that compares to an estimated decline of 4.1 percent over the whole of 2021.

Market analysts also point to the strength of Brazilian equities during the first half of the year, with the Bovespa stock market index rising 8.4 percent over the six months to June 30. That has seen both domestic and international investors take increasing interest in the country.

Mexico makes a comeback

Mexico's IPO market has been slow over the past few years. There have been a number of factors behind this including the implementation of several regulatory policies that limit private investment in the energy sector, and the slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in Mexican companies struggling to find adequate incentives to make offerings. However, the deals that are being done demonstrate that investors (particularly institutional investors, such as AFORES, the Mexican pension funds) have the appetite to invest in the equities market.

In 2020, BlackRock Inc. launched its iShares ESG MSCI Mexico ETF (ESGMEX), on the Mexican Stock Exchange (Bolsa Mexicana de Valores), which is the first ETF that tracks a Mexican market-based sustainable index (the ESG Mexico ESG Select Focus Index). Within the first few months of its launch, this ETF reached US$500 million in assets under management, primarily through investments by AFORES.4

In May 2021, Sempra Energy, the California-based company with energy infrastructure investments in North America (including Mexico, through its subsidiary IEnova) conducted an exchange offer on the Mexican Stock Exchange for shares of IEnova. As a result of this US$1.8 billion deal, Sempra Energy now has its common stock listed on the Mexican Stock Exchange, trading as one of the few foreign issuers there.

In addition, the past few years have seen Mexico becoming a hub for fintech companies, in a country where much of the population has no formal access to banking and financial services. This trend has been supported by the 2018 enactment of the Mexican Fintech Law, the first statute of its kind in the region. It is likely that the technology sector, and fintech in particular, will drive IPO activity in Mexico in the years ahead.

The election effect

Notwithstanding the recent track record, it makes sense to observe the geopolitical drivers in the region, which will accelerate or hamper IPO activity in coming years. Recent research of roughly 9,500 IPOs that occurred across 33 countries between 1995 and 2017 showed that IPO under-pricing is significantly more prevalent just before general elections.5 This under-pricing effect tends to be less pronounced in developed democracies that are characterized by effective corporate governance.6 It has also been shown that IPOs tend to be fewer in number during election years.7

General elections are scheduled to take place in Brazil and Costa Rica in 2022, as well as a presidential election in Colombia that year. General elections are also due to take place in November 2021 in Nicaragua and Chile, with a legislative election scheduled in Argentina during the same month, and a general election in Honduras in December. Venezuela is also scheduled to hold municipal elections in the coming months.

Political uncertainty can have a general depressing effect on IPOs for other reasons, too. If uncertainty causes the country's currency to weaken, that can lead to divestment—in turn making it more difficult to achieve successful IPOs. Similarly, if uncertainty causes interest rates to rise, stock markets will be negatively impacted and IPOs more challenging. In addition, if central banks curb liquidity, economic growth will be depressed.

The fact that Brazil's central bank felt it necessary to hike interest rates three times between February and June illustrates growing nervousness about Brazilian inflation, which reached 8 percent in May, and further interventions may occur.

The pandemic impact

More broadly, the uncertainties of the pandemic inevitably mean that further lockdown restrictions cannot be ruled out across Latin America. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that case numbers are once again surging in the region. However, dealmakers have rapidly evolved to overcome the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic, becoming adept at running IPO processes and roadshows virtually, without face-to-face engagement.

In general, though, the short-term factors in Latin America appear to make cautious optimism the most appropriate sentiment regarding the prospect for the flow of IPOs through the remainder of 2021 and into 2022. Equity capital markets (ECM) in Latin America are relatively small when compared to developed economies, indicating significant scope for growth as the region's economies mature. Figure 2 shows this clearly, comparing stock market capitalization to gross domestic product (GDP) in a range of countries worldwide.

A bright, if uncertain, outlook

Latin America's IPO bonanza over the past year or so is in line with the global equity capital markets generally. More than 6,100 equity capital markets offerings were brought to market globally during 2020, a 33 percent increase compared to a year ago and an all-time record. ECM activity totaled US$1.1 trillion during 2020, a 56 percent increase compared to a year ago and the strongest annual period for global ECM activity since records began in 1980.8

Despite institutional, geopolitical and other challenges to overcome, the outlook for ECM activity in Latin America—including further IPOs—appears bright.