An economy set to rebound. A president committed to implementing reform. A government of competent technocrats. A crackdown on corruption. A set of new CEOs to oversee inefficient state-owned companies. A central bank embarking on a rate cutting cycle. A country with deep, liquid capital markets.
Would anyone believe us if we said this is Brazil?
Before tagging on the requisite caveats, we tip our hat to the country’s impressive turnaround in policymaking. As always, much will ride on the ability to push through fiscal reforms and improve the supply side of the economy. But with confidence in the government returning, Brazil could be set for a comeback ‒ one that could restore nominal interest rates to single digits and put credit rating upgrades back on the table.
Not politics as usual
On our recent trip to Brazil we witnessed a stark change in what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called the “counterproductive” politics and policymaking of the previous administration. Impeachment has paved the way for a centrist, business-friendly government under President Michel Temer, who has a team that can get things done. This coincides with Brazil starting to exit the worst recession in its history and a turn in inflation from double-digit figures earlier in the year.
The change in sentiment has sparked a strong rally in Brazilian assets (see chart), but as the new administration’s honeymoon draws to a close, the country’s prospects ride on reform. Will the government’s proposals be enough to bring about the necessary changes?
Brazil’s challenges ahead
The positive sentiment for Brazil notwithstanding, we see three main risks to President Temer’s plans.
- Brazil’s debt-to-GDP is set to reach 90% of GDP by the end of this decade. While the vast majority of the debt is in local currency, that level still ranks among the highest in the emerging markets. Reforms cannot change the near-term fiscal and debt path; they can merely seek to avoid an even more dire scenario. And they will take more than one political cycle to be effective.
- Disinflation could be lower than expected. Years of indexation and supply-side bottlenecks could limit the disinflationary pressures from high unemployment and a large output gap and keep inflation “stuck” at high levels. Moreover, the multiple levels of subsidized lending that de-fanged monetary policy may take years to unwind or simplify.
- Public opinion may prove to be more sensitive to increasing unemployment and the realities of lower social security and pension benefits. In fact, Brazilian voters still generally favor large governments and a strong social safety net. In addition, Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) corruption investigations could spill over to the government. The risk is that Temer’s popularity fades and political noise around the 2018 election race increases.
The positive scenario
If Temer’s reforms are successful, they could trigger a virtuous circle of deeper reforms after the 2018 elections. A sustained return of confidence would likely increase foreign direct investment and portfolio flows; and a return of “animal spirits” would lift consumption and prompt faster lift-off for the economy. All of this bodes well for the currency. And while the real is unlikely to have the same uninterrupted climb as in recent months, its high carry of nearly 13% offers a decent cushion against potential weakness.
The Brazilian Central Bank has recently initiated what we anticipate will be an extended cutting cycle, lowering the overnight rate by 25 bps to 14%. Although the local yield curve is pricing in cuts of just over 320 basis points (bps) to January 2018, we believe the total cycle – subject to meeting the requisite fiscal milestones – could total about 500 bps or more, bringing nominal rates back to single digits. Thus, while local rates are less attractive than they were at the height of the political crisis, they offer potential to rally further, particularly given their starting point which is by far the highest in the G-20! An even bigger prize would be to reduce the high real rate burden the country is facing – nearly 6%.
Just as poor fiscal management took Brazilian securities into a downward spiral, reform could improve valuations on Brazilian sovereign and corporate credit versus those of higher-rated EM peers. As a result, we believe the country’s fixed income assets continue to present compelling opportunities.
Yacov Arnopolin and Lupin Rahman are emerging market portfolio managers.