In certain senses, Bolivia’s situation is not dissimilar to that of other countries in the region: a plebiscite in February 2016 ensured that current president Evo Morales will not be able to extend his term past 2019, mirroring the declining popularity of left-wing governments in Latin America. Bolivia has, like other surrounding nations, suffered from low oil prices, and has had to adopt other ways of raising capital.
However, thanks to its fiscal prudence, the country has around $13bn in state reserves, 30% of which the government plans to spend on infrastructure. The larger infrastructure projects are handled by state-owned entities, and since the government is increasingly willing to invest in such projects, loans to these entities are likely to continue. Moreover, Bolivia’s financial services regulator (the AFFI), has issued statutes over the last couple of years stipulating that all banks offer real estate loans and requiring that at least 20% (by value) be dedicated to the agrarian and productive sectors.
There are several new institutional investors in Bolivia, including smaller entrants from China, India, Singapore and Australia (not traditionally investors in the region), but attracted by increased confidence in the Bolivian market, and encouraged by a recent financial services law that modernised the regulatory system, promoting stability and ensuring greater juridical security for investors. The burgeoning ‘second-floor’ banking market is also a notable development. The Bolivian banking system has been fairly stable for the last five years, although it features few major international banks. Bolivia’s commercial code has been in place since 1976 and many lawyers are hoping to see it updated soon; in the interim, M&A and stock exchange activity nevertheless remains healthy.
The outlook in the mining sector is less positive thanks to the fall in mineral prices consequent upon reduced Chinese demand, although this is a global scenario in a cyclical industry and a negative prognosis would be premature. Rural lands intended for mining continue to be bought up by Brazilian, Uruguayan, Peruvian and Argentinian investors – a trend that began around five years ago. Mining rights holders are still adapting to the controversial 2014 mining law, which restricted the ability of cooperatives to partner with private companies, and banned private companies from registering minerals as property – effectively giving the state ownership of the nation’s natural resources – despite making it easier for foreign companies to invest in extracting the country’s natural resources.
In the intellectual property space, Decision 486 of the Andean Community – whereby trade mark rights can be applied throughout Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador as long as they are registered in one of these four countries – has been in use since 2000. The core of Bolivia’s intellectual property is trade mark registration and renewals, although patent applications, copyright work and litigation are all increasing. There is also a growing quantity of enforcement work, especially when it comes to upholding trade mark rights. Local clients are increasingly conscious of protecting their brands and filing requirements before national IP body, SENAPI.
Bolivia’s labour market has remained largely static: it is delicate, expensive and difficult to dismiss employees unless they have committed a criminal act. As a result, there is a tendency to try and reach a negotiated agreement with employees rather than having to resort to the judicial process. Official labour has, however, been impacted by a thriving counterfeit-goods black market that has hit numerous legitimate companies hard, sometimes forcing them to restructure. There is a much happier story to tell in the real estate sphere, with the sector growing by 9% – more than any other sector, as a proportion of GDP. Numerous projects, especially those of big-name hotel chains, have been approved in Santa Cruz, and retail real estate is also booming. Many experts have predicted that what they perceive as a real estate bubble will collapse in early 2017, but others are more bullish, arguing that the absence of a market deceleration is unprecedented and that activity will continue.
Having restructured the country’s tax authority (SIN), the government has become increasingly aggressive and prone to enforcement when it comes to collecting taxes. This has given lawyers a lot of ex ante tax development planning work, in addition to the more long-term trend of transfer pricing matters being increasingly significant. Nonetheless, Bolivia is a relatively small market, and so most of its tax matters remain an adjunct to more central corporate issues.
The country’s legal market is dominated by the larger full-service firms, namely Moreno Baldivieso Estudio De Abogados, Guevara & Gutiérrez S.C, Bufete Aguirre Soc. Civ., Indacochea & Asociados and C.R. & F. Rojas – Abogados, although Ferrere’s profile continues to grow strongly, and a number of boutiques – including Carrasco, Forgues, Mercado & Aleman in the labour space, and Tufiño y Villegas in tax – remain very relevant in their respective sectors. Moreno Baldivieso Estudio De Abogados is still the dominant intellectual property firm in the country, though small boutiques such as Bolet & Terrero and W. A. Mendez & Asociados S. R. L. have been gaining traction.