Threadneedle’s Ilan Furman asks if Brazil is a crumbling BRIC

Ilan Furman, emerging markets equity fund manager at Threadneedle Investments, has looked into the factors determining Brazil’s growth trajectory currently.

With slower growth, higher inflation and, more recently, the street protests, it’s a pressing question. And, judging by recent outflows from Brazil, many investors aren’t waiting for a considered answer. I recently spent two weeks in Brazil, visiting companies and talking to economists and government officials to get a better picture of the prospects for equity investors.

Sluggish growth

Since 2010, when GDP in Brazil grew by 7.5%, growth has disappointed. Last year’s GDP came in at just 0.9%. But it’s not only the absolute outcome of GDP growth that’s frustrating, but also the forecast process. Every year since 2011 has started with growth expectations of 4-4.5%, only for these to be revised downwards over and over again as the year progresses. Speaking to local economists, I learned that this dynamic resulted from a belief that the potential GDP growth for Brazil was 3.5-4%. Today, they are coming to accept that under current conditions, Brazil’s potential GDP growth is around 2.5%. The main drag on GDP growth potential is low productivity, a result of unskilled labour and poor infrastructure. A good example here is 2012 – a year in which unemployment as low as 4.6% nevertheless resulted in growth of just 0.9%.

In 2012, the government was still trying to boost growth through consumption and credit (by increasing loans from the public banks and pressuring the private banks to reduce lending spreads, among other measures). More recently, the government seems to have realised that boosting investment is the only way to shift Brazil onto a sustainable growth path.

Infrastructure – the main focus

Travelling in Brazil provides a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the infrastructure challenge. In just ten days we had protests, major traffic jams, airport problems, cancelled flights and the declaration of a spontaneous holiday in one of the states, resulting in cancelled meeting and a changing agenda. Everything seemed to take two or three times longer than expected. This is well reflected in international rankings. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, Brazil’s overall infrastructure is ranked 104th out of 142 countries. Its ports, air transport and highways were ranked 130th, 122nd and 118th, respectively.

The government is determined to spur investments in the country. Public banks are ready to lend cheap money for infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the government is determined to attract foreign investors, as domestic capital will not be enough.

The potential for investment in Brazil is huge, partially as the flip side of so many years of sustained underinvestment. In the past 20 years, Brazil invested an average of around 18% of its GDP, 4-5 percentage points below the average for emerging markets. For sustainable growth in the 3.5-4.0% range, the required ratio of investment to GDP in Brazil is estimated at around 22%-24%.

The investment framework in Brazil is still very complicated, bureaucratic and inefficient. It is a significant obstacle for rolling out a meaningful investment plan. But a few successful and transparent auctions for private concessions for toll road or airports in the second half of this year may help to improve investment sentiment towards the country.

High inflation…

Inflation is running at 6.5%, although the government is likely to pull out all the stops to prevent it rising above this level; any further increase would be extremely damaging politically, especially with the presidential elections looming next year. But capital flight has been driving down the Brazilian real, posing a conundrum for the authorities: a significantly weaker currency would make the country’s exporters globally competitive again, but each 10% fall in the real is likely to increase inflation by 0.5-1 percentage points.

Social protest

The demonstrators are far from a cohesive group, and their demands are not always clear. There is general dissatisfaction with the government’s management, including, high taxes, poor public services and widespread crime and corruption. The vast expenditure entailed by international football tournaments provides an obvious focus. In the short term, the government’s response to the protest indicates continued pressure on regulated industries in Brazil, as an administration looking to restore its popularity will be reluctant to allow price increases. In the medium-to-long term, this could be positive, putting pressure on future government to emphasise a more sustainable policy mix. For now, though, it is too soon to tell.

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