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A special report on business and finance in Brazil
Getting it together at last Nov 12th 2009 From The Economist print edition
Brazil used to be all promise. Now it is beginning to deliver, says John Prideaux (interviewed here)
AFP BRAZIL has long been known as a place of vast potential. It has the world’s largest freshwater supplies, the largest tropical forests, land so fertile that in some places farmers manage three harvests a year, and huge mineral and hydrocarbon wealth. Foreign investors have staked fortunes on the idea that Brazil is indeed the country of the future. And foreign investors have lost fortunes; most spectacularly, Henry Ford, who made a huge investment in a rubber plantation in the Amazon which he intended to tap for car tyres. Fordlândia, a long-forgotten municipality in the state of Pará, with its faded clapboard houses now slowly being swallowed up by jungle, is perhaps Brazil’s most poignant monument to that repeated triumph of experience over hope.
Foreigners have short memories, but Brazilians have learned to temper their optimism with caution—even now, when the country is enjoying probably its best moment since a group of Portuguese sailors (looking for India) washed up on its shores in 1500. Brazil has been democratic before, it has had economic growth before and it has had low inflation before. But it has never before sustained all three at the same time. If current trends hold (which is a big if), Brazil, with a population of 192m and growing fast, could be one of the world’s five biggest economies by the middle of this century, along with China, America, India and Japan.
Despite the financial crisis that has shaken the world, a lot of good things seem to be happening in Brazil right now. It is already self-sufficient in oil, and large new offshore discoveries in 2007 are likely to make it a big oil exporter by the end of the next decade. All three main rating agencies classify Brazil’s government paper as investment grade. The government has announced that it will lend money to the IMF, an institution that only a decade ago attached stringent conditions to the money it was lending to Brazil. As the whole world seemed to be heading into a long winter last year, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Brazil was 30% up on the year before—even as FDI inflows into the rest of the world fell by 14%.
Much of the country’s current success was due to the good sense of its recent governments, in particular those of Fernando Henrique Cardoso from 1995 to 2003, which created a stable, predictable macroeconomic environment in which businesses could flourish (though even now the government continues to get in the way of companies trying to earn profits and create jobs). How did this remarkable transformation come about? And how can Brazilian and foreign firms, from lipstick-makers to investment banks, take advantage of the country’s new stability?
To see why Brazil currently seems so exciting to both Brazilians and foreigners, it helps to understand just how deep it had sunk by the early 1990s. Past disappointments also explain three things about Brazil which outsiders sometimes find hard to fathom: its suspicion of free markets; its faith in the wisdom of government intervention in business and finance; and persistently high interest rates.
When Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822, British merchants, delighted to discover a big new market, flooded Brazil with manufactures, including, according to one possibly apocryphal story, ice-skates—an early example of emerging-market fever. Even so, real income per person remained stagnant throughout the 19th century, perhaps because an inadequate education system and an economy dependent on slaves producing commodities for export combined to get in the way of development. Ever since the Brazilians have tended to view free trade with suspicion, despite their country’s recent success as an exporter.
In the mid-20th century Brazil seemed to have found a formula for stimulating growth and enjoyed what appeared to be an economic miracle. At one point its economy grew faster than that of any other big country bar Japan and South Korea. That growth relied on a state-led development model, financed with foreign debt within a semi-closed economy. But growth also brought inflation, which crippled Brazil until the mid-1990s and still accounts for some odd characteristics, such as the country’s painfully high interest rates and its disinclination to save. All the same, the “miracle” wrought by the military government persuaded Brazilians that the state knew best, at least in the economic sphere, and even the subsequent mess did not quite persuade them otherwise.
Unhappy memories When this development model broke down amid the oil shocks of the 1970s, Brazil was left without the growth but with horrendous inflation and lots of foreign debt. There followed two volatile decades, when Brazil started being likened to Nigeria instead of South Korea. Productivity growth went into reverse. Many of the country’s current problems, including crime and poor education and health care, either date from that period or were exacerbated by it. Between 1990 and 1995 inflation averaged 764% a year.
Cardoso (left) did Lula a big favourThen a real miracle happened. In 1994 a team of economists under Mr Cardoso, then the finance minister, introduced a new currency, the real, which succeeded where previous attempts had failed. Within a year the Real Plan had managed to curb price rises. In 1999 the exchange-rate peg was abandoned and the currency allowed to float, and the central bank was told to target inflation. The ten-year anniversary of this event has just passed, and although there is continuing debate about how to make the real less volatile, none of the big political parties advocates going back to a managed rate.
More than that, the reforms brought discipline to the government’s finances. Both federal and state governments now have to live within their means. A requirement to run a primary surplus (before interest payments on the public debt) was introduced in 1999, and the federal government has hit the target for it every year since, though there is a good chance that it will miss it this year. This has allowed Brazil to get rid of most of the dollar-denominated foreign debt that caused such instability every time the economy wobbled. Now international creditors trust the government to honour its commitments. Moody’s, a rating agency, elevated Brazil’s government paper in September to investment grade just as the governments of many richer countries fretted about being able to meet their obligations.
Yet growth still proved elusive. It took a buoyant world economy and a surge in commodity prices to procure it. Although Brazil’s economy is still relatively closed (trade accounted for a modest 24% of GDP in 2008, less than 60 years earlier), its growth is closely correlated with commodity prices, the Chinese economy, the Baltic Dry index and other measures of global trade. But at last in 2006 GDP outpaced inflation for the first time in over 50 years.
Lucky Lula’s legacy Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been able to take much of the credit for the country’s recent growth that perhaps properly belongs to his predecessor. Yet Lula’s achievement has been to keep the reforms he was bequeathed and add a few of his own—not a meagre accomplishment given that for the past seven years his own party has been trying to drag him to the left.
Lula is often mocked for beginning his sentences with the phrase, “never before in the history of this country”. What his political opponents find even more infuriating is that he is often right. Brazil was able to cut interest rates and inject money into the economy as the world economy faltered at the end of last year, the first time it has been able to do this in a crisis. Whereas others predicted that world events would tip Brazil into recession, Lula reckoned that the crisis would amount to nothing more than a small tide breaking on his country’s beaches. The economy shrank for only two quarters and is now growing again. The contrast with Brazil’s performance in previous crises could not be more stark (see article).
Plenty of problems remain. The central bank’s headline interest rate is 8.75%, one of the highest real rates anywhere in the world. If the government wants a long-term loan in its own currency it still has to link its bonds to inflation, making debt expensive to service.
Productivity growth is sluggish. That may not seem the end of the world, but it reflects realities such as the two-hour bus journey into work endured by people living on the periphery of São Paulo, the country’s largest city, during which they often risk assault before arriving too tired to be very useful. The government invests too little and has longstanding gaps in policing and education to fill. The legal system is dysfunctional. And so on.
Yet other countries face similar problems, and Brazil has made real progress. In a country where businesses became used to headline interest rates of 30% or more, a rate below 9% comes as a relief. “It’s like the difference between running a marathon with 50 kilos on your shoulders and 20 kilos,” says Luis Stuhlberger of Credit Suisse Hedging-Griffo, one of Brazil’s most successful fund managers. Mr Stuhlberger thinks that Brazil’s recent past was so awful, and its expansion of education and credit is so young, that the country can reasonably be expected to continue on its current trajectory, even without further big reforms. Even so, he argues, “we are not going to have a Harvard or a Google here.” The blame for that, he says, lies largely with government policies.
Brazil’s economic story could certainly be made more exciting with some reforms to its business environment. The country’s potential growth without a risk of overheating can only be guessed at, but it is probably below the 6.8% it reached in the third quarter of 2008. Most economists put it at 4-5%. This suggests that interest rates will not be coming down to levels considered normal in other countries soon.
Still, stability has its own rewards. Edmar Bacha, one of the economists who worked on the introduction of the real in 1994, is pleased that the debates about Brazil’s economy have become so narrow. Back in 1993, when he joined the ministry of finance, inflation at one point hit 2,489%. Nowadays, he notes with a wry smile, “the big debates are about whether interest rates could come down from 8.75% to 8.25%; or whether the central bank should have started cutting a month earlier than it did.” That change has been good for Brazil, and particularly good for its banks and its financial system.
Brazil takes off Nov 12th 2009 From The Economist print edition
Now the risk for Latin America’s big success story is hubris
Rex FeaturesWHEN, back in 2001, economists at Goldman Sachs bracketed Brazil with Russia, India and China as the economies that would come to dominate the world, there was much sniping about the B in the BRIC acronym. Brazil? A country with a growth rate as skimpy as its swimsuits, prey to any financial crisis that was around, a place of chronic political instability, whose infinite capacity to squander its obvious potential was as legendary as its talent for football and carnivals, did not seem to belong with those emerging titans.
Now that scepticism looks misplaced. China may be leading the world economy out of recession but Brazil is also on a roll. It did not avoid the downturn, but was among the last in and the first out. Its economy is growing again at an annualised rate of 5%. It should pick up more speed over the next few years as big new deep-sea oilfields come on stream, and as Asian countries still hunger for food and minerals from Brazil’s vast and bountiful land. Forecasts vary, but sometime in the decade after 2014—rather sooner than Goldman Sachs envisaged—Brazil is likely to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, overtaking Britain and France. By 2025 São Paulo will be its fifth-wealthiest city, according to PwC, a consultancy.
And, in some ways, Brazil outclasses the other BRICs. Unlike China, it is a democracy. Unlike India, it has no insurgents, no ethnic and religious conflicts nor hostile neighbours. Unlike Russia, it exports more than oil and arms, and treats foreign investors with respect. Under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former trade-union leader born in poverty, its government has moved to reduce the searing inequalities that have long disfigured it. Indeed, when it comes to smart social policy and boosting consumption at home, the developing world has much more to learn from Brazil than from China. In short, Brazil suddenly seems to have made an entrance onto the world stage. Its arrival was symbolically marked last month by the award of the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro; two years earlier, Brazil will host football’s World Cup.
At last, economic sense In fact, Brazil’s emergence has been steady, not sudden. The first steps were taken in the 1990s when, having exhausted all other options, it settled on a sensible set of economic policies. Inflation was tamed, and spendthrift local and federal governments were required by law to rein in their debts. The Central Bank was granted autonomy, charged with keeping inflation low and ensuring that banks eschew the adventurism that has damaged Britain and America. The economy was thrown open to foreign trade and investment, and many state industries were privatised.
All this helped spawn a troupe of new and ambitious Brazilian multinationals (see our special report). Some are formerly state-owned companies that are flourishing as a result of being allowed to operate at arm’s length from the government. That goes for the national oil company, Petrobras, for Vale, a mining giant, and Embraer, an aircraft-maker. Others are private firms, like Gerdau, a steelmaker, or JBS, soon to be the world’s biggest meat producer. Below them stands a new cohort of nimble entrepreneurs, battle-hardened by that bad old past. Foreign investment is pouring in, attracted by a market boosted by falling poverty and a swelling lower-middle class. The country has established some strong political institutions. A free and vigorous press uncovers corruption—though there is plenty of it, and it mostly goes unpunished.
Just as it would be a mistake to underestimate the new Brazil, so it would be to gloss over its weaknesses. Some of these are depressingly familiar. Government spending is growing faster than the economy as a whole, but both private and public sectors still invest too little, planting a question-mark over those rosy growth forecasts. Too much public money is going on the wrong things. The federal government’s payroll has increased by 13% since September 2008. Social-security and pension spending rose by 7% over the same period although the population is relatively young. Despite recent improvements, education and infrastructure still lag behind China’s or South Korea’s (as a big power cut this week reminded Brazilians). In some parts of Brazil, violent crime is still rampant.
National champions and national handicaps There are new problems on the horizon, just beyond those oil platforms offshore. The real has gained almost 50% against the dollar since early December. That boosts Brazilians’ living standards by making imports cheaper. But it makes life hard for exporters. The government last month imposed a tax on short-term capital inflows. But that is unlikely to stop the currency’s appreciation, especially once the oil starts pumping.
Lula’s instinctive response to this dilemma is industrial policy. The government will require oil-industry supplies—from pipes to ships—to be produced locally. It is bossing Vale into building a big new steelworks. It is true that public policy helped to create Brazil’s industrial base. But privatisation and openness whipped this into shape. Meanwhile, the government is doing nothing to dismantle many of the obstacles to doing business—notably the baroque rules on everything from paying taxes to employing people. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s candidate in next October’s presidential election, insists that no reform of the archaic labour law is needed (see article).
And perhaps that is the biggest danger facing Brazil: hubris. Lula is right to say that his country deserves respect, just as he deserves much of the adulation he enjoys. But he has also been a lucky president, reaping the rewards of the commodity boom and operating from the solid platform for growth erected by his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Maintaining Brazil’s improved performance in a world suffering harder times means that Lula’s successor will have to tackle some of the problems that he has felt able to ignore. So the outcome of the election may determine the speed with which Brazil advances in the post-Lula era. Nevertheless, the country’s course seems to be set. Its take-off is all the more admirable because it has been achieved through reform and democratic consensus-building. If only China could say the same.