Foreign Trade

International executives discuss prospects for Latin American trade


Last year set a record for South Florida’s trade with the world, and 2013 is shaping up to be another solid year — with a few exceptions.

Top Miami Customs District Trading Partners 2012

Rank Country Total YTD (Jan.-Nov.)*
4.COSTA RICA$6,950,345,486
8.DOMINICAN REPUBLIC$4,752,378,901

* Full-year 2012 data is expected to be available Feb. 8

Source: U.S. Census data analyzed by WorldCity

Coastal International Logistics has been shipping 50 container loads of window glass a week to the Brazilian port of Santos.

But Chris Hood, a co-founder of the Jacksonville-based international freight forwarding and logistics company, wouldn’t call Brazil an easy market.

With a population of nearly 200 million and a large and diversified economy, Brazil is a country that many international companies want to do business with despite its tariffs and cascading taxes, complicated legal and customs system, and tangle of regulations.

“We’re seeing an 18 to 20 percent increase in Brazilian business per year,’’ said Hood, whose company also operates warehousing facilities at the Miami Free Zone. And he sees no reason that pace will slow in 2013.

From January through November 2012 — the latest figures available — $15.16 billion worth of trade with Brazil flowed through airports and seaports in the Miami Customs District, which stretches from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys. That made Brazil the Miami district’s top trading partner by a wide margin.

Brazil, in fact, is an interesting enough market that José Garcia, chief executive of Vertilux, a Doral company that sells the components needed to fabricate window coverings, would recommend it to anyone who wants to export to Latin America. “In 2013, we expect to triple sales in Brazil,’’ he said.

But he is also well aware of what exporters call the custo Brasil — or high cost of doing business with Brazil.

It might cost $50,000 to get a container filled with $100,000 worth of merchandise through customs and into Brazil after adding in the cost of duties and various taxes, he said. Mitigating the cost somewhat is that a value-added-tax is refunded once the merchandise is sold, Garcia said.

“What you put up front in Colombia is about half of what’s needed in Brazil,’’ Garcia said.

“There are barriers to export [to Brazil] — no doubt,’’ said Victor Mora, managing director of global operations for Lennox International, a Texas-based heating, air conditioning and refrigeration company whose Latin American operations are based in the Miami Free Zone. “If you don’t have a factory, it’s very difficult to participate in the Brazilian market.’’ Lennox has a factory that makes refrigeration equipment in São José dos Campo, Brazil.

Other international business executives talk about the importance of having a local partner or a Portuguese-speaking employee to successfully enter the Brazilian market.

Personal relationships also pay dividends in difficult markets such as Venezuela whose political future is murky with socialist President Hugo Chávez recuperating from cancer in a Cuban hospital and unable to be sworn in for a new six-year term.

“We know it’s risky to sell in Venezuela but we have known our customers there for many years,” said Mora. “We get paid although payments are slow.’’

To lessen risk, Hood said Coastal’s CIL Forwarding branch only does port deliveries in Venezuela, rather than door-to-door service.

But he still lists Venezuela as Coastal’s third most promising market for 2013.

Venezuela was the Miami Customs District’s fifth most important trading partner last year.

One country Hood is not very bullish on is Argentina. “I just don’t see that much business for our customers in shipping to Argentina,’’ he said.

Garcia also is wary about Argentina. He said he’s not clear on all the details of Argentina’s recent announcement that it would be dropping import licenses for hundreds of products. But Garcia said he’s optimistic it will make it easier to sell there.

Still, it doesn’t appear Argentina is abandoning its policy of trying to balance imports with exports and encouraging local manufacturing. Last month, it also announced it was raising import tariffs on a hundred products — they include computers, toys, motorcycles, mobile phones, tools and furniture — to 35 percent, the maximum authorized by the World Trade Organization.

“We were doing well in Argentina, but lately the import restrictions have been making it very difficult for us,’’ said Garcia. “It was very difficult to get a license to import textiles.’’

Last year, he said, Vertilux also began experiencing problems getting paid in Argentina.

With the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement now in effect, most Florida exporters and importers are optimistic about trade prospects in Colombia — the Miami Custom District’s No. 2 trading partner in 2012.

“People in Colombia are starting to look more for merchandise that is made in the USA,’’ Garcia said. “This is something that will grow year by year.”

Overall, the Miami district’s trade with the world climbed to $114 billion, a 10.6 percent increase, through the first 11 months of 2012. Full-year figures are expected to be released by the end of the week, but the 11-month tally puts the Miami district in position to crack into the nation’s top 10 customs districts for the first time.

“I’d be surprised if trade doesn’t continue to do well in 2013 because Latin America looks solid and is holding its own,’’ said Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity, a Coral Gables media and data research company.

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