A slight thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has some observers thinking that down the road, U.S. asset owner interest in the Caribbean nation could heat up.
“Every now and then I get a call from someone in private equity or infrastructure asking when we can invest in Cuba,” said Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies and director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank. “But regulations regarding that aren't out yet.”
Institutional investment in Cuba “could be years away,” said Greg Behar, senior vice president, director of global equity investment strategy at Northern Trust Asset Management, Chicago. “It'd be in the bullpen for frontier markets.”
What sparked interest in Cuba, 53 years after the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations, was the Dec. 17 announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that they would begin a process to normalize relations between the two countries. Along with establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana, the agreement would lift some U.S. travel restrictions and give U.S. banks access to the Cuban financial system. However, the agreement does not end the 52-year U.S. embargo against trade with Cuba, nor does it change Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, made by the U.S. State Department in 1982.
It's the embargo — which would require an act of Congress to remove — and the terrorism sponsorship designation that has U.S. institutional investors silent on Cuba as a potential investment destination. Sources at money managers, asset owners and investment consultants contacted for this story would not comment on the potential for future investment in Cuba.
Given the half-century of animosity between the U.S. and Cuba, there would “definitely” be political risk in institutional investment in Cuba, said Brenden Woods, partner and co-head of infrastructure and real assets at alternative investment consultant StepStone Group, San Diego. “But I wouldn't necessarily say it's higher than any other emerging market. You may see adoption of developed-market investment structures like public/private partnerships, but implementation of those structures may require some observation before commitment. It'd definitely be a material consideration. It'll probably be a little bit of who jumps first, then you'll see a little follow-the-leader.”