Equity and Private Debt Markets in Central America, Panama, and the Dominican Republic

This study focuses on equity, private debt, and asset-backed securities markets in Central America. These markets are generally under-developed throughout the region due to several structural problems, economic and political factors, and weaknesses in regulation and in institutional investor base. The paper identifies key country-specific recommendations to strengthen securities laws, regulatory oversight, market infrastructure, investor base, and new products such as asset-backed securities. Despite these efforts, developing seven viable private capital markets is a difficult goal. The paper thus also explores the benefits and difficulties of creating a single capital market in a region still short of full economic integration.


This study focuses on equity, private debt, and asset-backed securities markets in Central America. These markets are generally under-developed throughout the region due to several structural problems, economic and political factors, and weaknesses in regulation and in institutional investor base. The paper identifies key country-specific recommendations to strengthen securities laws, regulatory oversight, market infrastructure, investor base, and new products such as asset-backed securities. Despite these efforts, developing seven viable private capital markets is a difficult goal. The paper thus also explores the benefits and difficulties of creating a single capital market in a region still short of full economic integration.

Executive Summary

This study focuses on equity, private debt, and asset-backed securities markets in the seven countries in the region. It follows a similar study for public debt markets undertaken in 2006. The focus of the paper is primarily regional, with limited treatment of country-specific issues.

Not surprisingly, we find that private capital markets in several countries in the region are under-developed in terms of size, liquidity, and number of issues relative to some regional peers, many countries of a similar size, and generally compared with the more advanced emerging markets. Equity markets exist only in three of the seven countries and are shrinking in some of them; private debt markets are even smaller, and asset-backed securitization is at an incipient stage in six of the seven countries. Collectively private capital markets play an extremely limited role in financial intermediation, price discovery, or risk diversification. While these problems do not constrain financing of private sector projects, they do limit the efficiency of such financing in terms of risk-sharing and diversification.

Under-developed capital markets create poor valuations and discontinuous growth prospects for regional businesses, and difficulties of exit for principal shareholders. The consequences may be worse for institutional and retail investors, who may be unable to meaningfully diversify their investment portfolios. Systemically, such under-development create strategic weaknesses in the banking system, and complicate important public policy choices, particularly regarding pension reforms, if pension funds must invest predominantly in limited domestic markets.

Several historic economic, structural, and political conditions have dampened both supply and demand for private securities. The relatively small size of regional businesses, pervasive family ownership, aversion of principal owners to minority partners, and tax avoidance all limit security issuance. Poor corporate governance, investor protection, and memories of political and financial crises limit retail investment in private securities, while institutional investors remain far smaller than the banking system.

Basic securities laws and regulation have important gaps in many countries. Securities regulation has been weak, indeed nonexistent in some countries, with larger gaps in development of enabling legal framework for mutual funds, pension funds, and asset-backed securities. Where pension funds exist, there are important limitations on their investment regime.

We find no simple, single solutions to the development of regional capital markets. Rather, development of securities markets would require comprehensive efforts from both the public and private sector to resolve several country-specific problems. The paper outlines several recommendations to strengthen securities laws, regulation, and regulators; simplify and expedite the issuance approval process; develop the retail and institutional investor base; and strengthen trading infrastructure. While it is difficult to generalize across seven countries, the key priorities would include removal of obstacles to asset-backed securities markets (ABS); completing the enabling legal framework for mutual funds and private pension funds; and simplifying approval of private security issuance.

Even with these reforms, countries in the region may find it very difficult to create a viable national stock market in the foreseeable future. The best option for the four less developed capital markets may lie in adopting one of the other markets in the region as their own. And it would be challenging for the other three to reach a viable size, offer adequate diversification opportunities, attract foreign investors, or retain top domestic issuers and investors. Thus, the region as a whole may wish to seriously consider a medium-term goal of developing a regional securities market, balancing the potential benefits from economies of scale with the implementation and coordination costs. Given the incomplete economic integration of the region, this is a fairly complex challenge that would merit an in-depth study of its economic and political feasibility. The paper provides an early assessment of the required steps needed for such integration. Either way, even with all the efforts recommended in this paper, the prospects of developing seven private capital markets or a regional one to the level observed in the large emerging markets would remain difficult..

The paper is structured as follows. This main paper provides a regional summary, while the seven appendices focus on individual countries. The next sections of this main paper look at the overview of the financial sector; regulation of securities markets; market infrastructure; business environment, corporate governance and investor protection; issues relating to equity markets, debt markets, and asset backed securities; and regional integration. The last two sections offer conclusions and recommendations.

I. Overview of Financial Sector

Banks and their affiliates dominate the financial system. While growing rapidly, financial intermediation in Central America, Panama, and the Dominican Republic (“Central America” or “region” in the rest of the paper) continues to take place mainly through the banking sector. Assets in the banking system are significantly larger (80 percent of regional GDP) than those of the pension funds, insurers and mutual funds (9 percent). Bank lending to the private sector (ranging from 19 to 82 percent of GDP across countries, and 42 percent of the region) significantly outstrips equity and bond financing provided by capital markets (12 and 6 percent of GDP respectively (Table 1)). Until recently, the banking system has been dominated by regional financial conglomerates. With the recent acquisitions of several major regional banks,1 global financial institutions have acquired an important market share and regional presence.

Table 1.

Central America: Financial System Snapshot, as of end 2006

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey, IMF IFS, Central Banks, Ministries of Finance, country regulators, and local stock exchanges

For El Salvador, the figure refers to administradoras de cartera which are not technically mutual funds

The under-development of capital markets reflects a common pattern among developing countries, and certain business characteristics in Central America that suppress securities issuance. It is commonplace in small and developing countries for banks to dominate financial intermediation, and for capital markets to develop later and more slowly. But the current state of under-development of the Central American securities markets also reflects the small size of most regional businesses, the dominance of family-owned businesses and conglomerates, and gaps in corporate governance and disclosure within the region. These conditions generate informational asymmetries that may justify the observable preferences in corporate financing. Bank financing is preferred by a wide margin, as banks may have advantages in monitoring the use of funds by borrowers.2 The regional conglomerates also prefer financing through the ‘house” bank rather than from the market for reasons of corporate control. Corporate debt issuance ranks a distant second and equity financing ranks last, in concordance with standard corporate finance theory.3 Moreover, a good part of the current very limited equity issuance is also driven by regulation and overstates the true preference for equity funding. For example, in case of banks in El Salvador, equity listings are mandatory. Equity shares, however, are usually placed with conglomerate shareholders and seldom change hands.

In addition to limited corporate financing through the capital markets, there is little use of asset-backed securitization in the region. Except for Panama and Costa Rica, there has been no meaningful on-shore securitization of assets in the region. This reflects both the relatively liquid state of many of the region’s banking systems, gaps in the facilitating regulatory and tax framework, and insufficient standardization of underlying assets, particularly mortgages.

The under-development of institutional investors inhibits long term demand for securities and capital market development. In developed, and increasingly in emerging markets, insurers, mutual funds, and pension funds are the major and natural investors in tradable securities. In Central America, for a variety of reasons, these investors are as yet poorly developed. With an aggregate resource envelope of barely 9 percent of the regional GDP, they lack the resources to contribute meaningfully to demand for capital market securities and thus to capital market development.

Lack of confidence in the enforcement and real value of financial contracts are major constraints on retail demand. There have been several episodes of financial distress in the region, including bank failures (e.g., in Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua); the mutual fund crisis in Costa Rica; sovereign debt problems in Nicaragua and Dominican Republic. The region has also experienced significant political strife. These factors have generally weakened confidence in regional currencies and regional financial securities. Most countries face problems with the execution of collateral and lack effective out-of-court settlements. Judicial proceedings are often lengthy, unpredictable, and biased, with overburdened courts that lack specialized judges. In addition, bankruptcy laws are outdated and need to be modernized.

The low number and volume of issuances also reduces possibilities of meaningful diversification for regional retail investors. At the same time, even small investors are generally aware of and able to access investment opportunities abroad. The resulting weaknesses in the retail demand for regional private securities can be overcome only gradually through improved confidence in financial system, better supervision and disclosure, and an increased supply of investible securities.

II. Regulation and Supervision of Securities Markets

A. Basic Legal and Regulatory Framework for Securities Markets

Securities regulation needs to be developed in several key areas and in most countries. The laws relating to securities markets are still being promulgated, completed, or modernized in several countries. There are significant shortcomings in several areas, including corporate governance for listed companies, powers of the regulator, division of oversight between the regulator and the exchanges, and the regulators’ ability to cooperate with other jurisdictions. In addition, many countries need to introduce or develop the legal framework for newer topics or products. The more important gaps include ABS (in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to some extent in the Dominican Republic and Honduras) and mutual funds (El Salvador and Guatemala) (Table 2). Enabling regulations in many areas remain to be introduced. Guatemala and Nicaragua have the farthest to go to complete the basic legal framework for securities. The former has yet to pass a modern basic securities market law, and the latter just approved a new Securities Law in 2006, but has yet to enact all the regulations necessary for its implementation.

Table 2.

Central America: Securities Markets Basic Legal and Regulatory Framework

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

Brokerage houses administer ‘carteras de inversión’ hich are poorly-regulated quasi mutual funds.

The legal framework includes ‘sociedades de inversion’ which are poorly-regulated quasi mutual funds.

Participants do not consider it an impediment.

The process for authorization of securities issuance needs to be improved and streamlined throughout the region. Approval by regulators for issuance tends to concentrate on the more formal requirements and less on material issues that can affect transparency and the value of the securities. In terms of timeliness of approval, regulators frequently do not provide comments all at once. Market participants also complain of inconsistent responses across time and over similar issues. The gaps in coordination between the regulator and the exchange in the process of authorization and listing also leads to unnecessary delays. Thus, the authorization process ends up being protracted (often six months or more), costly and uncertain, creating an incentive in favor of bank loans rather than securities issuance.

Some regulators have taken measures to alleviate these problems. Useful approaches include establishing deadlines for all comments (Costa Rica), and for the authorization of an issue (Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama) and establishing fast track approval (basically a “shelf” registration regime) for certain types of bond issues (Costa Rica, and in Panama for commercial paper).

B. Structure of Securities Regulators

The nature and structure of securities regulators varies across the region. Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama have specialized regulators for securities markets.4 In Honduras and Nicaragua securities regulators are housed within a regulatory unit that oversees the whole financial sector. Guatemala does not have a securities regulator, but only a securities registry. Five of the regulators have a Governing Board and a Superintendent in charge of day to day operations, while Panama only has a board, with no separate managerial figure (Table 3).

Table 3.

Central America: Structure and Resources of Securities Regulators

article image
Source: IMF/MCM Survey

Regional securities regulators enjoy only limited independence and self-funding. In most countries (with the exception of Honduras and Panama), the Minister of Finance and/or the Governor/President of the central bank are represented in the Governing Board of the regulatory agencies; moreover in the cases of Costa Rica and Nicaragua they themselves are members of the Board5. While not uncommon internationally, such representation could reduce the independence of the regulator. Most regulators are also largely dependent on public funding either through the Ministry of Finance (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama) or the central bank (Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua). Levies on market participants provide only a fraction of the regulator’s budget, with the public sources accounting for 75–100 percent of the funding in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. In the Dominican Republic, the regulator is almost entirely financed by a special fund established by the central bank. Such dependence on public funding tends to restrict independence of securities regulators, especially relative to bank regulators that tend to be better funded from market levies.

Securities regulators are also restricted by the application of civil service rules. In Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama, securities regulators are constrained to varying extents by regulations governing staffing and salaries, which limit their ability to hire qualified personnel, as private sector salaries tend to be significantly higher. In El Salvador, the budget of securities regulator and personnel contracts are subject to approval of the Ministry of Finance. Costa Rican and Dominican Republic regulators enjoy the highest level of autonomy within the region.

C. Authority, Staffing, Budget, and Quality of Enforcement

The regulator’s authority varies considerably across the region. Several regulators face limitations on their legal authority to regulate and supervise securities markets. The most critical case is that of Guatemala, where the registrar has no material powers to regulate, supervise or enforce. In Honduras and Nicaragua, regulators believe the law provides them with sufficient powers, but these are so far untested. In other countries, there are important limitations on the powers of regulation and supervision. Common areas of weaknesses include: (i) the disciplinary framework for regulators (e.g., in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama), where there is a need to better define civil and criminal misconduct, manipulation of markets, and insider trading and widen the range of sanctions; and (ii) the power to share confidential information and cooperate with foreign regulators (Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica), which can affect regional integration efforts. Some of the regulators have limited powers over rating agencies and external auditors. Both are cases where international best practices have experienced considerable changes in recent years.

The staff size and budgets of securities regulators also vary considerably. In terms of resources, it is possible to identify three tiers: 1) Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, with a staff of less than10; 2) El Salvador and Panama with a staff of around 40 and a budget of around US$1.5 million; and 3) Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, with personnel in the 100’s and budgets of around US$4 million.

The quality of supervision and enforcement varies, given the level of market development, authority, supervisory capacity, and resource constrains. There is little supervision of securities intermediaries, stock exchanges, and issuers in Guatemala where the Registrar only fulfills “registry” functions. In Honduras and Nicaragua, supervision is very limited due to resource and capacity constraints, although the securities markets are also relatively under-developed. Panama faces a special challenge due to the limited resources available compared to the state of development of the market. Costa Rica appears to have been able to set up reasonable supervisory programs using a risk-based approach. Enforcement appears to be weak in the whole region, due to limitations in the legal framework (as explained above) and also because of weak enforcement culture.

Securities exchanges have been given some self-regulatory powers in most countries. In the case of Nicaragua, the new Securities Law approved in 2006 provides this role to the exchange. However, in other cases, the division of responsibilities between the regulator and the exchange is unclear, the laws are too broad, and the regulators have yet to establish more specific memoranda of understanding delineating the role of the securities exchanges. In El Salvador, the self-regulatory powers of the exchange are not well-defined in the current legal framework. Exchanges have also been weak in the exercise of their self regulatory powers, particularly in the areas of supervision and enforcement, with Costa Rica and to a lesser extent Panama ahead of their regional peers.

III. Market Infrastructure

A. Securities Exchanges

Securities exchanges exist in all seven countries. Guatemala has two exchanges, and all others have one (Table 4). In almost all the countries only the securities exchanges are authorized to operate trading systems. The majority of securities exchanges are mutualized corporations, except in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, where they are demutualized. In the cases of El Salvador and Panama, the exchanges are themselves listed. All exchanges have electronic, automated systems, with the exception of Honduras. Only two countries (Costa Rica and Panama) have continuous trading systems for the secondary market. Trading systems for secondary markets are all order driven and there are no market makers. The Costa Rica exchange has a pilot project for market makers in the equity market. Only two listed companies have volunteered for the program so far, and a market maker is appointed for one, making it still early to assess its impact.

Table 4.

Central America: Securities Exchanges

article image
Source: IMF/MCM Survey

Regional securities exchanges have enjoyed some unusual privileges, in an effort to promote the development of the securities market. For example, primary public debt issuance is restricted to the securities exchange in several countries.6 Moreover, in some countries, it is mandatory to conduct all secondary market transactions of publicly offered securities (Costa Rica), and all repo transactions (Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) through the respective exchanges. At the same time, secondary market transactions in listed equity and corporate debt are not always required to be routed through the exchanges (Panama, Honduras).

B. Clearing, Settlement, and Depository Services

Clearing and settlement processes have several weaknesses and are not uniform across the region. Almost all the countries have deficiencies in the legal framework for clearing and settlement, mainly in the recognition of the concepts of netting, novation, irrevocability and finality. All these legal issues have been addressed in a regional treaty on payments that was developed with the support of the Consejo Monetario Centroamericano. All countries have already signed it and it is currently in the process of legislative ratification. Settlement cycles differ across the region (Table 5). 7 Clearance and settlement arrangements vary: Costa Rica does multilateral netting, El Salvador and Panama do netting for the cash side, while the securities side is settled on a gross basis.

Table 5.

Central America: Clearing and Settlement Systems

article image
Source: IMF/MCM Survey

Risk management practices in clearing and settlement also vary. Guatemala and Honduras have no formal risk management mechanisms. In all the other countries, there are some risk management mechanisms, with Costa Rica and Panama being more advanced. Risks from the securities leg are managed through pre-deposit (El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama) or blocking of securities after trade and lending facilities (Costa Rica). Risks from the cash leg are managed through pre-approved debt limits in a bank account (El Salvador and Panama), or a settlement fund (Costa Rica). Only in Costa Rica and El Salvador does settlement occur in central bank money. Delivery versus payment (DVP) is far from common in the region, with only Costa Rica and Panama achieving DVP.

There is a need to strengthen legal and operational aspects of depository and custodial arrangements.8 In general, the legal framework lacks specific provisions clarifying the role of the depository and custodial institutions, except in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama, and oversight of the depository and custodial arrangements by the regulator has been weak. Dematerialization is only required in El Salvador, however in Nicaragua it is mandatory for listing and immobilization of securities (the holding of material securities within a depository institution) is required for trading in Costa Rica and Panama. In practice, most new issuance of private securities in the region have been dematerialized; however in some countries (Panama) investors can subsequently request the paper securities from the issuer, reversing the benefits of dematerialization.

Custodial infrastructure for corporate securities is under-developed and insufficiently centralized. Public debt accounts for the lion’s share of capital markets and is often not issued in dematerialized or standardized form, with depository functions being performed by the central bank or a public sector bank. Coupled with the very small issuance of private securities, this creates a poor environment for the development and economic viability of central depository agencies. Honduras has no centralized securities depository (CSD); in the few private issuances that were dematerialized, the issuers carry their own books. In Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama, CSD functions are provided by a separate legal corporation, owned by the securities exchange (except Panama where it is owned separately). In Guatemala and Nicaragua, custodial services are performed by a department of the securities exchange. Despite small domestic capital markets, participants do not always agree on a single CSD. In Costa Rica, the Central bank is considering an amendment to the legal framework to allow it to provide CSD services for corporate securities, and in the Dominican Republic, Banco de Reserva and CEVALDOM have been competing in provision of CSD services and are currently involved in protracted negotiations about centralizing them.

Regional CSDs are under-capitalized, in need of technical improvements, and have insufficient linkages to other CSDs. Many investors, particularly foreign, regard regional CSDs as undercapitalized and in need of technological improvements. Currently, CEVALDOM (the Dominican Republic) and Latin Clear (Panama) are pursuing alliances with external partners to improve their technological infrastructure and capital base. The central securities depositories of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama have signed sub-custody arrangements among each other which facilitates cross country custody.

C. Rating Agencies and Price Vendors

Rating agencies have a presence throughout the region, except Nicaragua (see Table 5). None of the nationally recognized rating agencies from the United States has direct presence, but several local rating agencies have affiliation with Fitch Ratings. Rating agencies are subject to a licensing requirement and thus supervision by the securities regulator in all countries except Guatemala which has no regulator, and Panama, where the securities regulator can only register a rating agency, with no powers to supervise or sanction. In many countries, the legal framework requires rating by a local company. Given the relatively low demand for rating services in the region, it would be natural for agencies to want to operate regionally, without establishing a physical presence in each country.

The region has a major problem of illiquid securities and insufficiently developed price vendors. As discussed later in Sections VI and VII, the regional capital markets are illiquid, particularly in private securities. Illiquidity creates important problems of valuation of security portfolios, especially for mutual and pension funds and other investors who must mark to market their portfolios. Only Costa Rica and Panama—two countries with regionally more developed mutual and pension funds—have begun to address these issues. In Costa Rica, the regulators have developed common regulations for the valuation of pension funds, mutual funds and the trading portfolio of banks. Regulations do not prescribe a single methodology for the whole financial sector, merely that all members of a financial group use the same methodology to value their portfolios.9 In Panama, the securities exchange is working with Balmer, a Mexican price vendor, to develop a methodology for price valuation. Accurate pricing of illiquid securities is a major problem and would have to be tackled urgently, as deposit taking activities of loosely regulated investment managers are converted into mutual funds (e.g., in El Salvador and Guatemala—see footnote 4) and as defined contribution pension plans grow. In June 2007, Proveedora Integral de Precios de Centroamericana (PIPCA), a price vendor with Mexican/Costa Rican capital, announced that it will start providing prices to investors in Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador.

IV. Business Environment and the Framework for Public Issuance

A. Business Environment

Basic business conditions represent a major long term challenge to improving securities markets in the region. The regional scores on basic business conditions (Table 6) are generally low.10 For 2006, out of 175 countries, El Salvador received the highest score in Central America (ranked 71), and Guatemala the lowest (ranked 118). The region scores even lower in terms of protecting investors (countries ranking from 83–156) and enforcing contracts (49–164). For development of securities markets, the quality of accounting and auditing, the adequacy of commercial and corporate law, ability to create and enforce collateral, efficiency of the bankruptcy framework, and more generally the requirements to set up corporations are particularly relevant. Our analyses below do not look at these issues in any detail, but it is consistent with the generally weak ranking of the region on these aspects by the World Bank and other studies.

Table 6.

Central America: Indicators of Ease of Doing Business, 2006

article image
Indices range from 0 to 10, with higher scores indicating more favorable business conditions. Rankings compare 175 economies during 2006.Source: World Bank, Doingbusiness.org.

Accounting standards, auditing, and transparency

Unlisted companies are not required to use international financial reporting standards (IFRS) in the majority of the countries. Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua use local GAAP, although in Honduras, IFRS will become mandatory in January 2008. In El Salvador, a version of IFRS as of 2003 is applicable. Thus, only in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Panama are unlisted companies required to use IFRS. However, even in these countries, implementation remains a challenge because of the lack of familiarity with IFRS.

Qualifications for auditors are generally low. Several of the top global auditing firms are present in the region. While these firms employ high international standards in conduct of their work, the minimum requirements for being licensed to work as an auditor are generally low, and limited to basic (not professional) academic degrees. None of the countries requires professional examinations. Continuous education is not mandatory, and efforts to implement such requirements have been rejected in some countries.11 Oversight of the audit profession is very limited. Regulators in several countries do require higher standards for auditors authorized to audit regulated financial institutions and listed companies.

As a general rule, the level of transparency is low for unlisted companies. Companies without a public issuance are not required to make their financial statements available to the public. Thus, even for corporate businesses, public issuance involves a major change in the degree of transparency and disclosure that they are used to. In three countries (El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama), companies are required to audit and file their financial statements with a public entity; but they are not available to the public.12 In Guatemala, legislation introduced in 2004 sought to impose audits on large taxpayers but the provision was suspended by the Supreme Court.

Corporate and commercial laws, collateral, and bankruptcy

Requirements for registration of a corporation are not a major problem. While there is room for streamlining, this does not appear to be a critical constraint vis-à-vis other issues relating to basic business conditions. In particular, in the cases of Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic the average time required for registration is far longer than in the rest of the region. Panama and El Salvador have made significant progress in facilitating business formation, and Panama now has the most efficient process in Latin America. Honduras has also made important progress due to the outsourcing of the Corporate Registry to the Chamber of Commerce.

Many countries face problems with the constitution of collateral. The main problem relates to delay in the registration process, and the security of registration, which were cited as important challenges in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Also, in some countries, the lack of registration of pledges on movable assets is a significant factor which limits its reliability and acceptance by creditors.

The majority of the countries also face problems with the execution of collateral. In most countries, execution requires judicial proceedings that are lengthy and somewhat unpredictable due to overburdened courts and lack of specialization of judges. Nevertheless, some attempts to streamline execution of collateral have been made. Nicaragua and Dominican Republic have created special parallel judicial procedures for banks, although inadequate independence of the judiciary is perceived to be a major problem in Nicaragua. In Honduras, a recent amendment to the Notary Law allows execution of collateral directly by a notary through a much abbreviated process. However, these provisions have not yet been adequately tested. In some countries (Costa Rica, and Honduras), market participants have bypassed judiciary proceedings through the use of “security trusts” as an alternative means of enforcement of collateral.

Throughout the region, bankruptcy laws are outdated and need to be modernized. The most common problems are excessive protection of debtors, excessive judicial intervention, and a lack of expertise of bankruptcy judges in economic and financial matters, all of which result in lengthy and somewhat unpredictable proceedings. Most of the countries also lack frameworks for effective out-of-court settlements, resulting in considerable delays in enforcing contracts or closing business. Some countries (Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic) have made amendments to bankruptcy laws to permit reorganization proceedings that allow illiquid but potentially viable companies to remain operating (similar to the U.S. Chapter 11). However, these reforms have shortcomings that have limited their use in practice.


Tax treatment of securities income also generally deters investment in private securities. This is a complex subject and not studied comprehensively in this study. However, the available information suggests that regional tax systems are generally not neutral, by and large favoring investment in public debt over private securities, and bank deposits over debt and equity securities (Table 7). Typically, interest and capital gains from private debt and equity securities are taxed at higher rates than corresponding public debt. Dividends are taxed in addition to corporate income tax, and private securities are subject to certain transfer taxes and value-added tax which do not apply to public securities. Costa Rica, in particular, has a very complex framework, with different tax treatments depending on the nature of the issuer, the currency and the investor. El Salvador seems to be the most neutral, with the same tax treatment across the board, with the Dominican Republic a close second.

Table 7.

Central America: Taxation of Income from Securities

article image
article image

B. The Regulatory Framework for Public Issuance

Securities regulators have addressed some of the weaknesses of the business framework by establishing stronger accounting and auditing requirements for public issuance. The most important examples relate to the accounting and auditing framework and the level of financial transparency required. Listed companies in all countries except Guatemala are required to use either IFRS (in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras) or US GAAP (in Nicaragua and Panama). In addition, listed companies in all countries are required to audit and publish their financial statements. The majority of the regulators have also tried to impose additional professional and independence requirements on external auditors authorized to audit listed firms, as well as a registry of such auditors.13 Securities regulators have imposed non-financial disclosure requirements for equity and corporate debt issuers; however the framework is weak for equity issuers, particularly in the area of corporate governance.

Requirements for equity issuance

There is no minimum issuance or minimum float requirement in most of Central America. A minimum issuance amount of C100 million (about $2 million) is specified in Costa Rica, the only country to require a minimum issuance amount for equity. None of the seven countries require a minimum float.

Disclosure requirements for equity issuers are weak in most countries. The most common problems relate to:(i) timely disclosure to the public of insider and/or substantial holdings; (ii) timely disclosure to the public of material events;14 and (iii) the minimum requirements for the prospectus, which generally fall short of international best practices (Tables 8 and 9).

Table 8.

Central America: Equity Issuers Registration Requirements

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

If the offering is carried out off the exchange.

Table 9.

Central America: Equity Issuers On-Going Disclosure Requirements

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

In addition, corporate governance and protection of minority rights is weak throughout the region. All the countries in the region have a basic framework for corporate governance for unlisted companies in their Commercial Codes, and this framework does not differ significantly from other countries with Napoleonic tradition. However, for companies with publicly issued securities, this basic framework should be complemented with other provisions that afford an appropriate level of protection to minority shareholders. This additional framework is almost absent in the region (Table 10). Most countries lack adequate public disclosure of insider and/or substantial holdings. Only in four countries (Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Panama), does acquisition of control in a listed company (under certain circumstances) require a mandatory tender offer to all shareholders. Only two countries (Honduras and Panama) have developed codes of corporate governance, but even in those countries the codes require further strengthening in issues such as independent directors, qualifications of directors and use of supporting committees by the board. In Costa Rica, the BNV has issued a Corporate Governance Code for voluntary adoption. In addition, the banking, securities and pension regulators are developing a corporate governance code for supervised entities.

Table 10.

Central America: Corporate Governance

article image

For Costa Rica, code was recently approved and authorities have not provided information on its content.

Requirements for corporate debt issuance

Disclosure requirements for corporate debt issuers are more complete than those for equity. In the majority of the countries disclosure requirements are reasonable; the main exception is Guatemala where private debt issuers are not required to disclose material events, nor to update the information in the prospectus. Perhaps the main area of weakness is the timeliness of disclosure of material events (Tables 11 and 12).

Table 11.

Central America: Debt Issuers Registration Requirements

article image

But all secondary market transactions have to be carried out in the stock exchange

Source: IMF/MCM survey
Table 12.

Central America: Debt Issuers On-Going Disclosure Requirements

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

Most countries require a rating for each issue. As in many other developing countries, the legal framework of all countries (except Panama) requires mandatory rating of corporate debt issuances (see Tables 10 and 11). Given the shortcomings in the availability and reliability of financial information, as well as in other research and analysis services, such measure is reasonable. However, in two countries (Honduras and the Dominican Republic) two ratings are required in certain circumstances, which could be deemed excessive.

Authorization process

Authorization of securities issuance needs to be streamlined throughout the region. There are several problems. The regulators frequently do not provide comments all at once, drawing out the approval process. The regulatory reviews tend to be more formal and less focused on material events that affect the value of securities. Market participants complain of inconsistent responses across time and issues. The coordination of authorization and listing between the regulator and the exchanges15 also needs improvement in several countries. There are of course also problems of inadequate filing of documents by potential issuers. As a result of these problems, the authorization process ends up being protracted (often six months or more), costly and uncertain, creating incentives to favor bank loans rather than securities issuance.

Some regulators have taken some measures to alleviate these problems. Useful approaches include establishing deadlines for all comments to the issuers (in Costa Rica), for the authorization process (in Costa Rica16 and Panama), and establishing a fast track approval process (basically a “shelf” registration regime) for certain types of bond issuances (e.g., in Costa Rica, and in Panama for commercial paper).

In addition, review of compliance with periodic disclosure has been limited. In most countries, supervision is limited to verifying the timely submission of information, but the actual content is not rigorously examined. Costa Rica has made more advances in this area. In addition, in a number of countries, market supervision and enforcement have been weak due in part to weaknesses in the legal framework, (inadequate description of offenses and/or adequate sanctions). Thus, the public perception in some of these countries is that there is insider trading and market manipulation, with insufficient action taken by the regulator.

V. Institutional Investors

As with many small and emerging countries, and despite recent rapid growth, the regional institutional investor base remains poorly developed and as yet does not offer a significant source of demand for securities.17

Pension funds are not well-developed in most Central American countries and their investment regime is constrained. Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama still have significant gaps in their legal framework for private pension funds (Table 13). Guatemala and Nicaragua do not report any significant activity by pension funds. While Panama does have public sector pension funds, defined contribution private pension plans exist only in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Honduras. Moreover, all countries have fairly tight limitations on investment, particularly in private securities, by pension funds. Equity investment is not allowed to exceed 10 percent of total portfolio in any country, and investment in corporate debt and ABS are also tightly restricted.

Table 13.

Central America: Regulation of Mutual and Pension Funds

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

Brokerage houses administer ‘carteras de inversión’ hich are poorly-regulated quasi mutual funds.

The legal framework includes ‘sociedades de inversion’ which are poorly-regulated quasi mutual funds.

Aggregate assets of the regional pension funds amounted only to about $7.4 billion at end-2006, or about 5.4 percent of regional GDP. Total assets of public and private pension funds (Table 14) are significant only in El Salvador and Honduras (about 19 percent of GDP), and in Costa Rica (7 percent). While information available on asset composition is sketchy, it appears that only about 5 percent of the total assets were invested in stocks, and another 8 percent or so were invested in local corporate debt, with the public securities and foreign securities accounting for the lion’s share.

Table 14.

Central America: Pension Funds

article image
Source: IMF/MCM survey

Mutual funds have an even smaller presence in the region. They exist only in two countries, Costa Rica and Panama.18 El Salvador and Guatemala have yet to develop an adequate legal framework, while Nicaragua has yet to issue detailed regulation for mutual funds (see Table 13). The mutual funds industry in the region needs to overcome a bad image problem, given its origination in informal and poorly regulated investment pools, involving considerable maturity transformation, whose risks are not always adequately controlled, regulated, or understood by the depositors. Finally, there are problems in authorization requirements and regulations which are deemed burdensome by market participants, e.g., in Costa Rica.

The mutual fund industry appears to face several efficiency challenges. There are 163 mutual funds with aggregate assets of only to about $2.1 billion (Table 15). On average, a mutual fund only manages about $12 million, which is very low, even allowing for multiple funds managed by the same house. Second, the industry suffers from a lack of sufficient diversity of regional private sector assets that would enable local mutual funds to add value in a special niche. The Panamanian funds appear to invest bulk of their assets in local corporate bonds, while in Costa Rica, the funds appear not to i