Brazil’s myriad problems

A report in the Economist discusses the mounting economic problems of Brazil, “THE longest recession in a century; the biggest bribery scandal in history; the most unpopular leader in living memory. These are not the sort of records Brazil was hoping to set in 2016, the year in which Rio de Janeiro hosts South America’s first-ever Olympic games. When the games were awarded to Brazil in 2009 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then president and in his pomp, pointed proudly to the ease with which a booming Brazil had weathered the global financial crisis. Now Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, who began her second term in January 2015, presides over an unprecedented roster of calamities”.

The author mentions that “By the end of 2016 Brazil’s economy may be 8% smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2014, when it last saw growth; GDP per person could be down by a fifth since its peak in 2010, which is not as bad as the situation in Greece, but not far off. Two ratings agencies have demoted Brazilian debt to junk status. Joaquim Levy, who was appointed as finance minister last January with a mandate to cut the deficit, quit in December. Any country where it is hard to tell the difference between the inflation rate—which has edged into double digits—and the president’s approval rating—currently 12%, having dipped into single figures—has serious problems”.

The report adds “Ms Rousseff’s political woes are as crippling as her economic ones. Thirty-two sitting members of Congress, mostly from the coalition led by her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), are under investigation for accepting billions of dollars in bribes in exchange for padded contracts with the state-controlled oil-and-gas company, Petrobras. On December 15th the police raided several offices of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), a partner in Ms Rousseff’s coalition led by the vice-president, Michel Temer”.

Worryingly for the future stability of the country it mentions “Brazil’s electoral tribunal is investigating whether to annul Ms Rousseff’s re-election in 2014 over dodgy campaign donations. In December members of Congress began debating her impeachment. The proceedings were launched by the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha (who though part of the PMDB considers himself in opposition) on the grounds that Ms Rousseff tampered with public accounts to hide the true size of the budgetary hole. Some see the impeachment as a way to divert attention from Mr Cunha’s own problems; Brazil’s chief prosecutor wants him stripped of his privileged position so that his role in the Petrobras affair can be investigated more freely. Mr Cunha denies any wrongdoing”.

The piece argues that both external and internal factors have come together, “Now prices of Brazilian commodities such as oil, iron ore and soya have slumped: a Brazilian commodities index compiled by Credit Suisse, a bank, has fallen by 41% since its peak in 2011. The commodities bust has hit economies around the world, but Brazil has fared particularly badly, with its structural weaknesses—poor productivity and unaffordable, misdirected public spending—exacerbating the damage. Regardless of what she may or may not have done with respect to the impeachment charge, Ms Rousseff’s cardinal sin is her failure to have confronted these problems in her previous term, when she had some political room for manoeuvre. Instead, that term was marked by loose fiscal and monetary policies, incessant microeconomic meddling and fickle policymaking that bloated the budget, stoked inflation and sapped confidence. Poor though her record has been, some of these problems have deeper roots in what is in some ways a great achievement: the federal constitution of 1988, which enshrined the transition from military to democratic rule. This 70,000-word doorstop of a document crams in as many social, political and economic rights as its drafters could dream up, some of them highly specific: a 44-hour working week; a retirement age of 65 for men and 60 for women. The “purchasing power” of benefits “shall be preserved”, it proclaims, creating a powerful ratchet on public spending”.

Pointedly it writes “Since the constitution’s enactment, federal outlays have nearly doubled to 18% of GDP; total public spending is over 40%. Some 90% of the federal budget is ring-fenced either by the constitution or by legislation. Constitutionally protected pensions alone now swallow 11.6% of GDP, a higher proportion than in Japan, whose citizens are a great deal older”.

The scale of the problem is seen when the author notes “Analysts at Barclays, a bank, expect debt to reach 93% of GDP by 2019; among big emerging markets only Ukraine and Hungary are more indebted. The figure may still seem on the safe side compared with 197% in Greece or 246% in Japan. But those are rich countries; Brazil is not. As a proportion of its wealth Brazil’s public debt is higher than that of Japan and nearly twice that of Greece. Unable to increase taxes, Ms Rousseff’s government may prefer something even more troubling to investors and consumers alike: inflation. Faced with the inflationary pressure that has come with the devalued real, the Central Bank has held its nerve, increasing its benchmark rate by three percentage points since October 2014 and keeping it at 14.25% since July in the face of the recession. But despite this juicy rate the real continues to depreciate”.

The article calls for harsh cuts, a policy that seems to not have worked, or at least worked at the expense of all other measures, “These efforts are meeting with some success: in December pro-government rallies drew more people than anti-government ones for the first time all year. It looks unlikely that the impeachment will indeed move to the Senate (which would trigger a further six months of turmoil). But this hardly provides a political climate conducive to belt-tightening, let alone to the amendment of the constitution which Mr Barbosa has said is needed to deal with the ratchet effect on benefits. Fiscal adjustment is anathema to the government workers and union members who are Ms Rousseff’s core supporters. Like the country’s economic problems, its political ones, while specific to today’s particular scandals and manoeuvring, can be traced to the transition of the 1980s. History reveals a consistent tendency towards negotiated consensus at Brazil’s political watersheds; it can be seen in the war- and regicide-free independence declared in 1822, the military coup of 1964, which was mild compared with the blood-soaked affairs in Chile and Argentina, and the transition that created the new constitution. One aspect of this often admirable trait is a resistance to purging. The mid-1980s saw a lot of institutions—the federal police, the public prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, assorted regulators—overhauled or created afresh. But many of the old regime kept their jobs in the civil service and elsewhere. The transition was thus bound to be a generational affair”.

It adds “In 2013 the average judge was 45 years old, meaning he entered university in a democratic Brazil. Civil servants are getting younger and better qualified, says Gleisson Rubin, who heads the National School of Public Administration. More than a quarter now boast a postgraduate degree, up from a tenth in 2002. Sérgio Moro, the crusading 43-year-old federal judge who oversees the Petrobras investigations, and Deltan Dallagnol, the case’s 35-year-old lead prosecutor, are the most famous faces of this new generation. Unfortunately, this rejuvenation does not extend to the institution most in need of it: Congress. Its younger faces typically have family ties to the old guard”.

On the scandals at Petrobras the writer notes “One of the causes of the mensalão scandal was corruption that provided Lula’s government with a way to get the votes it needed from the disparate small parties. The petrolão (“big oily”, as the Petrobras affair is widely known) apparently shared a similar aim. Such ruses may have helped PT governments pass some good laws, such as an extension of the successful Bolsa Família (family fund) cash-transfer programme. But the party was not able to do all that it had said it would; potentially helpful reforms in which it was less invested fell by the wayside. Raphael Di Cunto of Pinheiro Neto, a big law firm in São Paulo, points to many antiquated statutes in need of an update, such as the Mussolini-inspired labour code (from 1943) and laws governing foreign investments (1962) and capital markets (1974). A Congress in which dysfunction feeds corruption which feeds further dysfunction is not one likely to take the hard decisions that the economy needs”.

It ends “The strength of Brazil’s institutions suggests something shy of the failed populist experiments of some South American neighbours. And the fact that voters in Argentina and Venezuela rebuffed that populism in the past few months has not escaped the notice of Brazil’s politicians. But every month of dithering and every new petrolão revelation chips away at Brazil’s prospects. The 2010s are already certain to be another lost decade; GDP per person won’t rebound for years to come. It will be a long time before a president can match the pride with which Lula showed off his Olympic trophy. But if Brazil’s politicians get their act together, the 2020s could be cheerier. Alas, if they do not, things will get a great deal worse”.

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One Response to “Brazil’s myriad problems”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] ill-timed article suggests that failing Brazil can use its deep water oil reserves to salvage itself, “Brazil is wracked by the Zika virus, […]

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