Global Investing

Lower rates give no respite to Brazil stocks

May 29, 2012

In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.

Brazil’s central bank and government are understandably worried about a Chinese growth slowdown that would eat into Brazilian commodity exports. They are therefore hoping that rate cuts will prepare the domestic economy to take up the slack.

But the haste to cut interest rates appears to have spooked some foreign investors, with many seeing the moves as evidence of political pressure on the central bank. A closely-watched survey from Bank of America/Merill Lynch showed that fund managers had swung into a net 14 percent underweight on Brazil in May from a net overweight of over 20 percent in April (See graphic). This is the first time investors have turned negative on Brazil since February 2011, BofA/ML said.

Brazil is the least favoured BRIC play forNick Timberlake, who oversees more than $10 billion in BRIC equities at  HSBC Global Asset Management. It accounts for just 17 percent of the portfolio (India is 22 percent, China 29 percent and Russia 31 percent). That’s because:

Valuation signals in Brazil and companies’ profitability are not as strong as the other BRICs…and it’s fair to say there are question marks over the independence of the central bank.

Moreover, Brazil’s banks are bearing the brunt of the government’s drive to boost cheap credit, with shares in banks such as Bradesco and Itau suffering heavy losses this year. First, loan delinquencies are rising, with the default ratio the highest since November 2009.  But as big state-run banks dish out cheap loans, private banks are also facing pressure to lend more and at lower rates. That is likely to further drive up default rates.  Timberlake says:

(The government) has been trying to squeeze spreads on bank loans and these are not good things as far as stocks are concerned.

And in spite of the policymakers’ rate-cutting spree, growth is slumping. Analysts polled by Reuters see the economy growing by less than 3 percent this year, well below levels expected from India, China and Russia. All eyes will be on China now, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Prices (for Brazilian stocks) have come off a long way but what keeps me negative is my view on the Chinese economy, that it will slow further. If that happens, the biggest victims will be Brazil and Russia.

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