Mexican leftist seeks to court bankers, to mixed reviews

Leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, presidential candidate of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), addresses the audience during the Mexican Banking Association's annual convention in Acapulco, Mexico March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

By Stefanie Eschenbacher ACAPULCO (Reuters) - Mexico's left-wing presidential frontrunner on Friday tried to assuage the fears of a skeptical audience of bankers that he would run a radical economic agenda, vowing not to nationalize, expropriate or drive the country deeper into debt. Speaking at a major banking conference in the Pacific resort of Acapulco, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador received mixed reviews for a speech packed with promises not to disrupt economic stability, but short on new policy proposals. "We will support banks and we won't confiscate assets," he said. "There won't be expropriations or nationalizations." He said he would not raise taxes or debt and vowed to respect central bank autonomy. Lopez Obrador's commitments to respecting the financial system and seeking ways to expand access to banking were welcome, said Rodrigo Zorrilla, the president of CitiBanamex. But some bankers said the presidential candidate, known locally as AMLO, did not give enough concrete policy proposals to set their hearts racing. "AMLO lost the opportunity during this convention to present to the banking sector how he plans to accelerate the economy in Mexico in the short, medium and long term," said Diego Folino, the deputy chief executive at the Bank of China Mexico. "There was an absence of strategic proposals." Lopez Obrador, 64, has sought the presidency twice before. This time, with a double-digit lead over his nearest rival in most opinion polls, he has sought to soften his image, moderating his previous opposition to the government's attempts to open up Mexico's energy sector to foreign investment, and surrounding himself with former rivals. Lopez Obrador's governance would ultimately be dictated by his margin of victory, noted Zorrilla. "If he wins by a small margin, his policies are likely to be more moderate," he said. Former Mexico City mayor Lopez Obrador reminded the audience that he worked closely with the private sector when he ran the capital from 2000-2005, while making clear where his priorities lie. "We are going to listen to everyone, respect everyone ... for the benefit of everyone - first of all the poor," he said. His focus would be on governance rather than legislative changes, and those there were would not be until the middle of his six-year term, he added. He received polite applause for a speech that prioritized increasing welfare spending, reviving the rural economy and building new oil refineries. But the well-heeled crowd responded more enthusiastically to his political rivals, including Ricardo Anaya, candidate for a right-left alliance, who talked of bringing a 21st century knowledge economy to Mexico fueled by clean energy. Ruling party candidate, former finance minister Jose Antonio Meade, received rowdy applause for a speech that focused on improving the rule of law and economic stability. Meade is in third place in most polls after a damaging fight with Anaya, who has also lost support in recent polls. (Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Gabriel Stargardter; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O'Brien)