Monday, May 24, 2010

Brazil's economy and the government's spending "cuts"

Two weeks ago, Brazil's Finance Minister promised what seemed like incredible amounts of budget cuts, totaling R$10 billion, in response to the country's "overheating" economy - without affecting social programs or infrastructure investment. The press, Brazilian and international alike, fell for it - hook, line and sinker - and thus made no investigations into its veracity.

Meanwhile, Leandro Roque had the crazy idea of actually looking up the budget figures and seeing how the government planned to cut R$10 billion in an election year. Interestingly enough, Mr. Roque discovered that the "approved" budget from 2009 to 2010 increased by R$168 billion. So the "cuts" are actually an increase of R$158 billion. Nice.

The Economist published a story last week entitled "Flying too high for safety".

NEW skyscrapers are going up along Avenida Faria Lima in the business district of São Paulo. Sales of computers and cars are booming, while a glut of passengers has clogged the main airports. Brazil created 962,000 new formal-sector jobs between January and April—the highest figure for these months since records began in 1992. Everything indicates that over the past six months the economy has grown at an annualised pace of over 10%. Even allowing for an expected slackening, many analysts forecast that growth in 2010 will be 7%—the highest rate since 1986.
The problem is that while it may be growing at Chinese speeds, Brazil is not China. Because it still saves and invests too little, most economists think it is restricted to a speed limit of 5% at the most, if it is not to crash. The growth spurt is partly the result of the stimulus measures taken by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government when the world financial crisis briefly tipped the country into recession late in 2008. The trouble, say critics, is that much of the extra government spending is turning out to be permanent—and so the economy is starting to resemble a Toyota with the accelerator stuck to the floor.
The government is still injecting money into the economy in two controversial ways. First, the National Development Bank (BNDES), whose loans cost about half the Selic rate, has expanded its lending by almost half. It has been able to do this because the treasury granted it two long-term credits totalling 180 billion reais. Those credits, for which the BNDES has offered IOUs, have led to accusations of creative accounting. While adding to the government’s gross debt, they have not driven up the more closely watched figure for public debt, net of assets: at 42.7% of GDP, this is back to its level of mid-2008, and is much lower than the debt burdens of European countries.
Second, the government has jacked up its payroll spending. The number of federal civil servants has increased fairly modestly since 2003 (by around 10%). But they have been treated generously: the total federal wage bill more than doubled in nominal terms between 2003 and 2009, while inflation was less than 50%. Lula has pushed up the minimum wage much faster than inflation too. That has helped to make the income distribution less skewed, and boosted consumer demand. But it has a knock-on effect on pension benefits.
What's the bottom line? Well, Brazil is indeed growing quickly, no doubt about that. But it seems to be doing so without making any real structural change. There have been no reductions in the sky-high importation duties. There have been no reductions in runaway government spending. Corruption continues to haunt both companies and individuals. And it's difficult to do business in Brazil - which is ranked #129 in ease of doing business, just ahead of Lesotho and Tanzania. How long will the party last?

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