Our Opinion: 2019

Optimism in Brazil

Many emerging markets had a dismal 2018. Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy, was a rare exception. The benchmark Ibovespa index gained more than 15%; it has also jumped by a further 15% since Christmas, making it one of the world’s top-performing stockmarkets at the start of the year. The Brazilian currency, the real, has climbed against the US dollar. So what’s got the bulls so excited?

On 1st January, the newly elected right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro struck a vehemently pro-business tone in his inauguration speech. He vowed to “free” Brazil from “socialism” and end “state gigantism.” To that end, finance minister Paulo Guedes promised to simplify taxes, privatise, free the economy, decentralise”and other structural reforms. Brazil has hitherto leaned toward big-state policies, especially under the leftist Worker’s party rule over the last 14 years, notes Andres Schipani in the Financial Times.

Liberalisation should give the economy’s potential growth rate a big boost. It would be especially helpful now: Brazil suffered its worst-ever recession in 2014-2016 and the recovery has been lacklustre. GDP only grew at an annualised rate of 1.3% in the fourth quarter, and the unemployment rate is still above 12%.

Popular outrage about the previous government’s corruption scandals helped to propel the new president to power. But is Bolsonaro likely to live up to his promises? A crucial step towards getting state spending and public debt – now worth around 80% of GDP – under control would be radical pension reform. The current public pensions system is overly generous and unjust. But to push through the reforms Bolsonaro would need 60% of votes in Congress.

But that will be an uphill struggle, and could ultimately prove impossible. Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party only controls 10% of the seats; the rest are split among 30 other parties. So Congress is highly fragmented. And that probably won’t change any time soon. There’s little sign Bolsonaro, whose role models include Donald Trump and the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, has the ability to forge such a consensus.

In a promise to push for ‘small government.’ Bolsonaro has already culled and merged various ministries. But while further steps to shrink the size of government seem likely in the months to come, the good news is now surely priced in. Over the next few months, Bolsonaro is more likely to under-deliver rather than over-deliver. That means we shouldn’t expect the rally in Brazilian markets to last much longer.

5th February 2019