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Hank Greenberg Sees Opportunity in Argentina and Cuba, But Not Trump

September 11, 2016, 8:22 PM UTC
Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, former chairman and chief executive officer of AIG
Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, former chairman and chief executive officer of American International Group, is interviewed in New York, U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2015. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Hank Greenberg
Photograph by Michael Nagle—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Maurice ‘Hank’ Greenberg says foreign investors should give Argentina and Cuba a second chance. But the legendary insurance executive, and long-time Republican, isn’t willing to say he is backing Donald Trump.

But even if Trump is elected, Greenberg says, he doesn’t think the GOP presidential candidate, who has spoken out against free trade agreements, will make it harder for U.S. companies to do business in Argentina.

Next week, business leaders from around the globe will meet in Buenos Aires for the Argentina Business and Investment Forum, a government-sponsored conference that hopes to convince investors that it is safe to bet on Argentina. Potential investors will be able to hob-nob with President Macri and his staff and hear from business leaders who have already invested in Argentina, including the chief executives of BP, Siemens, Coca-Cola and Dow.

Greenberg will be among the big name U.S. executives making the trip.

After years of populist rule, the South American nation finally has a government and a president committed to free market principals. But while the new government, led by President Mauricio Macri, has made some great strides in making it safer and easier for foreign investors to do business in Argentina, the fact is, it has only been in power for a few months. Popular opposition and a defiant judiciary could potentially overturn many of these changes, leaving foreign investors out of luck and at the back of the creditor line – again.

But Wall Street, Main Street, and the energy industry are giving Mr. Macri the benefit of the doubt, committing billions of dollars to long term projects in Argentina. They do this knowing very well that it could all blow up in their faces if the winds of change start blowing in the opposite direction. But the opportunity to be on the ground in Argentina now is simply too great for them to ignore.

Greenberg, the former chief executive of insurance giant AIG, who is now heading up C.V. Starr & Co., an insurance and investment company, based in New York. Fortune sat down with Mr. Greenberg shortly before he left for Argentina, and on the eve of a long-awaited fraud trial against the insurance executive related to his time at AIG, to find out about his investments in the South American country and how he plans on mitigating risk for investors. The following interview has been edited for publication.

FORTUNE: How much experience do you have with the Argentine market?

Well, when I was with AIG we did a lot of business with Argentina, so it is a place I know well. We had several million dollars’ worth of business. But things turned sour after the Kirchners came into power around 2005. The country changed dramatically and suddenly it wasn’t a great place to do business.

FORTUNE: Do you really think Argentina’s new government can turn things around?

I met with President Macri around four months ago and I believe he is on the right track. In his first two months of his presidency, he did more to help the economy than Cristina Kirchner did in the seven years she was in power. He fixed trade relations with the United States, got rid of that stupid tax on agriculture – he’s doing some good things.

FORTUNE: What are some of the challenges President Macri faces in your opinion?

It is not going to be easy – inflation is still running very high. The Kirchners gave away electricity for virtually nothing to the whole population for many years. You can’t turn that around overnight – you’ve got to do it in steps.

FORTUNE: What investments have you made in Argentina?

There is enormous need for construction equipment—new roads, airports and bridges. We insure construction risk, so as these projects come online, we will be there. We already have a travel insurance business operating in Argentina now, Assist Card, but we will be expanding to include a primary insurance company and a re-insurance company. We have a team on the ground as we speak and plan on doing business right away. We also recently bought about $10 to $15 million worth of Argentine bonds.

FORTUNE: Argentina may be a promising market but some would say the political risk doesn’t justify the potential return. You are in the risk business – how do you mitigate this risk for yourself and your customers?

Well, risk is our business and we mitigate through the premiums we charge. Now, we can’t charge premiums that are super high, either – we need to be competitive. There will be other insurance companies down there, both foreign and local. We will be competitive in rates but also competitive in experience and knowledge. We have been in business a long time.

FORTUNE: And the currency risk? There is 20% inflation in the country now—it could get worse.

Well, their bonds are trading at a premium, right? Look, is it a risk free investment area – there is risk in every country. But you have a leadership there that knows what needs to get done and is trying to do it. He hasn’t won over the entire congress yet – but he will.

FORTUNE: He may be able to win over Congress but he still doesn’t have control of the judiciary. A couple weeks ago the Argentine Supreme Court capped the percentage increase in electricity rates, which some feel could hinder natural gas investment in the country. What if things like that keep happening?

Look, I do think he will overcome most of the problems in the country – it is not going to happen overnight. You can’t look for this to be a 24-hour turnaround – it is going to take years. But Macri is making progress, and this is what counts. The people recognize that they needed a change in government and that they couldn’t live on government handouts forever. The Argentines aren’t dumb people, history has proven that as they were at one time, before World War II, the second-largest economy in the world.

FORTUNE: What about political risk here at home? If Donald Trump were to become president, do you think he will unwind the trade agreement the Obama Administration just signed with Argentina?

I don’t think so.

FORTUNE: I know you have been a big Republican backer in the past—have you decided to support Mr. Trump this year?

I don’t want to answer that.

FORTUNE: Ok, so what’s next for you after Argentina? Any other “frontier markets” on your radar?

Venezuela is going to happen soon – it is only a matter of time. They’re broke. You can’t promise the people everything forever—eventually you run out of money and you go broke. Cuba is also very interesting. I’ve been there recently and I plan on doing business there.

FORTUNE: The only issue with Cuba is that their government hasn’t changed. Would you really feel comfortable doing business with the Castro brothers still in power?

Change will happen down there—it’s only a matter of when.