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Why Brazil must try harder

July 19th, 2010

Brazil is the country of the future – and always will be. So goes an old joke. But is it a joke on the world at last? Has Brazil – anointed by Goldman Sachs as the B in Brics – at last become a country of the present?

The answer is yes, but only up to a point. Brazil is still a long way from matching the performance of India and China. It can, and should, do far better.

Brazil’s great achievements of the past decade and a half are those of stability – political and economic. Under the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-), it has achieved stable democratic rule. The era of military rule, which ended in 1985, seems distant; so, too, do the days ofinflation, which peaked at an annual rate of 2,950 per cent in 1990.

Under the “real plan” launched by Cardoso in 1994, inflation was at last tamed. After lowering inflation via a quasi-fixed exchange rate, a currency crisis in 1999 drove Brazil to adopt a floating exchange rate. Since then, the central bank has reduced the interest rate from 45 per cent to a low of 8.75 per cent in 2009.

Buttressing this stability has been the accumulation of foreign currency reserves, which reached $235bn by February 2010, up from $33bn in January 1999.

Yet stability is not dynamism. Growth averaged only 2.9 per cent a year between 1995 and 2009. While the contraction in 2009 was modest, at a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP, the International Monetary Fund forecasts growth from 2010-13 at an average of 4.5 per cent, far below rates in China and India.

At least as important a failing is Brazil’s inequality of income. According to the World Bank, its distribution of income is among the most unequal in the world. Even if growth were to accelerate, most of the benefits are likely to go to the richest part of the population.

In 1980, China’s GDP per head (at purchasing power parity) was just 7 per cent of Brazil’s, while India’s was 11 per cent. By 1995, these ratios had reached 23 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively. By 2009, they had reached 63 per cent and 28 per cent. Between 1995 and 2009, the increase in Brazilian GDP per head was only 22 per cent, against 100 per cent for India and 226 per cent for China.

As a result, Brazil’s share of world output, at purchasing power parity, declined from 3.1 per cent in 1995 to 2.9 per cent in 2009. Over the same period, China’s jumped from 5.7 per cent to 12.5 per cent and India’s from 3.2 per cent to 5.1 per cent. This, then, is the rise of the “ICs”, not the Brics.

Brazil is a paradigmatic example of countries that have fallen into what economists call the “middle-income trap”. Can it do better in future?

If the answer is to be yes, Brazil must overcome huge structural disadvantages. Most important is its extremely low level of savings. In 2008, according to the World Bank, its gross savings were a mere 17 per cent of GDP, against India’s 38 per cent and China’s incredible 54 per cent. Unless this is raised to at least 30 per cent of GDP, the chances of sustained and fast growth in living standards are low.

Moreover, only 45 per cent of Brazil’s merchandise exports were manufactured goods in 2008, against 63 per cent for India and 93 per cent for China: industrialisation through trade will be hard to achieve. Brazil has also suffered a massive appreciation of the real exchange rate, estimated by JP Morgan at 156 per cent between October 2002 and April 2010.

In addition, the ratio of trade to GDP was 28 per cent in 2008, against India’s 51 per cent and China’s 65 per cent. The appreciation of the real exchange rate makes a rise in the economy’s openness to trade unlikely.

The challenge then is clear and daunting: to move from today’s stability to tomorrow’s growth. With a population of 192m in 2008, Brazil cannot become as big a player in the world as the two Asian giants, but it could still achieve something far more important than power and influence in the world – a prosperous society at home.

Much still has to change if that dream is to become reality.

By Martin Wolf

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