The Economist on Brazilian President’s Challenges

A moment of truth for Dilma

The president needs to do more to tackle the “Brazil cost”

Aug 18th 2012 | from the print edition


WRITING about the Brazil of a century ago, Warren Dean, an economic historian, noted that the country’s foreign trade “appears to have been limited to commodities in which overwhelming comparative advantage offset high costs of production and commercialisation and high internal taxes.” Both government and private sector paid “little attention to…competitiveness,” he added.

Those words ring uncannily true of the Brazil of recent years. For much of the past decade the country enjoyed faster growth because of China’s demand for its iron ore, soya beans and oil, and because higher wages and newly available credit boosted the purchasing power of tens of millions of Brazilians. But now the economy has stalled. Having slashed interest rates, intervened to weaken an overvalued currency and offered tax breaks and cheap loans to favoured sectors, officials insist that GDP will grow by 4.5% next year. In 2008, when the world economy tanked, the government engineered a quick recovery by stimulating demand. But now its lever-pulling seems to be having less effect. That is partly because of global economic gloom, and partly because Brazil’s consumers, like those elsewhere, are paying back debts. But it also reflects the harsh truth that Brazil has become a wildly expensive place in which to invest or manufacture. It is cheaper to import steel made in South Korea from Brazilian iron ore than to buy it locally, complains Carlos Ghosn, the boss of Renault-Nissan.

There are many reasons for this. Wages have risen without regard for stagnant productivity. Poor infrastructure adds to firms’ costs. But the remorseless expansion of the state is also to blame. Taxes take around 36% of GDP, a European-sized chunk. But Brazilians get nothing like European public services in return. Almost half of them lack sewerage connections. Although public investment has risen, it remains paltry. A disproportionate share of tax revenues is gobbled up by insiders. Under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former trade-union leader who was president between 2003 and 2010, the public-sector wage bill more than doubled in nominal terms, whereas inflation was less than 50%. Lula also pushed up both the minimum wage and pensions much faster than inflation.

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