April 17, 2013 12:08 am

Foreign investment: Brazil is now ‘ugly mirror image of Mexico’ in beauty parade

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A vendor arranges fruits at a market in Rio de Janeiro©AFP

A market in Brazil. The country is looking less attractive to foreign investors

Brazil has become used to being top of the class rather than the dunce at the back as far as rating agencies have been concerned in recent years.

So it was with some surprise it recently received a slap on the wrist from Fitch, which warned that the country’s difficulties in kick-starting its flagging economic growth were “weighing” on its rating.

“With a slower growth trajectory, making inroads into fiscal consolidation becomes harder,” said Shelly Shetty, a Fitch analyst.

It is not that Brazil is facing any kind of crisis. It still has one of the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, at about $377bn, a sound financial system and a government and central bank still more or less committed to targeting inflation and maintaining a floating exchange rate.

It is just that Brazil, the original currency warrior accustomed to discouraging capital inflows during the boom years between 2009 and 2011, now finds itself in a different world in terms of foreign exchange and capital markets trading.

Brazil was a vocal critic of loose monetary policy in the US and other developed countries. This, it said, unleashed a flood of money in its direction, strengthening its exchange rate and making domestic industry uncompetitive. But the longer-term challenge looks increasingly like being how to attract flows rather than repel them.

While Japan’s recent shift to easier monetary policy and likely continued quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve are expected to boost flows to emerging markets in the near term, competition among developing countries for investors’ attention is increasing.

It is in this beauty parade that Brazil, with economic growth of less than 1 per cent last year and a deteriorating current account, is looking less attractive to portfolio and foreign direct investors compared with countries such as Mexico, which are engaging in political and economic reform.

“The years of accelerated foreign direct investment (FDI) flows are gone,” says Flavia Cattan-Naslausky of RBS. “Those were very much aligned with the commodity boom, and now I think that FDI has a lot more to do with positive momentum in both the economic and the political spheres,” she says. “That’s certainly why Mexico is in focus and, unfortunately, Brazil is the mirror of Mexico, and it’s the ugly mirror image.”

The Brazilian real-US dollar exchange rate tells the story. From a strongpoint of nearly R$1.50 to the dollar in mid-2011, when foreign portfolio investor interest in Brazil was strongest, the currency slipped to R$2.10 in December last year before returning to around R$1.98 in recent months.

The central bank maintains that the exchange rate is determined by markets. But analysts suspect that, since investor interest eased off in mid-2011, the Brazilian real-dollar value has been partly guided by policy makers.

With the pressure of appreciation gone, the government at first experimented with a weaker exchange rate to try to boost industry, but it was later forced to bring it back to below R$2 per dollar to contain rising inflation.

The forces weakening the Brazilian real are expected to continue into this year, with David Beker, Latin American economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, forecasting the current account deficit will rise to 3.1 per cent of gross domestic product this year from 2.4 per cent a year earlier.

He said 12-month net FDI hit a peak at $76.3bn in September 2011, “with momentum declining ever since”.

“Fewer FDI inflows and a wider current account deficit support the idea of a weaker Brazilian real in the medium term, consistent with our R$2.19 fair value,” Mr Beker said in a research note

The Brazilian government, however, still has a number of tricks up its sleeve to try to revive interest in its markets. Among these are potentially lifting its financial transactions tax, known as IOF, from fixed income markets.

Indeed, the real strengthened markedly earlier this month when rumours swirled that the 6 per cent IOF on foreign inflows into domestic fixed income markets and on short-term foreign loans to Brazilian firms was about to be abolished.

But many commentators believe the government will not be in a rush to relax its currency controls while it wrestles with the greater problems of inflation and low growth.

The government would prefer to see a weaker rather than a strong currency to help domestic industry. With Japan’s version of quantitative easing under way and the central bank expected to soon increase interest rates to tackle inflation, lowering the IOF now might result in too strong an appreciation of the real.

“We don’t see the government moving on a decision to partially remove capital controls quickly,” Chris Garman, an Eurasia Group analyst, said in a report.

That may be so in the near term, but in the new post-currency war world, Brazil will have to begin thinking more seriously about how to maintain its attractiveness to outside investors.

After all, those pesky foreign currency inflows are required to fund the current account deficit and much-needed investment in a country that is to play host to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later.

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