MacroScope

Brazil’s capital controls and the law of unintended consequences

Brazilian economic policy is fast becoming a shining example of the law of unintended consequences. As activity fades and inflation picks up, the government has tried several different measures to fix the economy – and almost every time, it ended up creating surprise side-effects that made matters worse. Controls on gasoline prices tamed inflation, but opened a hole in the trade balance. Efforts to reduce electricity fares ended up curbing, not boosting, investment plans.

Perhaps that’s the case with yesterday’s surprise decision to scrap a key tax on foreign inflows into fixed-income investments. The so-called IOF tax was one of Brazil’s main defenses in its currency war, making local bonds less appealing to speculators and helping prevent an excessive appreciation of the real.

As the Federal Reserve started to discuss tapering off its massive bond-buying stimulus, investors began to flock back to the United States. So with less need to impose capital controls, Brazil thought it would be a good idea to open its doors again to hot money. Analysts overall also welcomed the move, announced by Finance Minister Guido Mantega in a quick press conference on Tuesday, in which he said that excessive volatility is “not good” for markets and that Brazil was headed to a period of “lesser” intervention in currency markets.

So what happened in the first morning after the move?

Volatility spiked, with the real swinging from a 2 percent rise to a 1 percent drop within hours. The central bank came to the rescue, offering to sell as much as $2 billion in derivatives designed to curb currency losses. Although fewer capital controls are usually welcome in the long term, at first they boost volatility. That will only get worse if a U.S. payrolls report due Friday strenghtens the case for tapering off stimulus.

Argue Guilherme Loureiro and Marcelo Salomon, from Barclays:

Zeroing the IOF tax eliminates an important barrier that prevented foreign investors from liquidating local rates positions (as they would have had to pay tax again to push money into Brazil). And the elimination of this barrier should, in fact, increase the volatility of USD/BRL, especially in moments of stress in global capital markets. While the decision to cut the IOF tax helps attract foreign flows, it also will demand more FX intervention from the BCB to dampen excessive volatility.

from Global Investing:

Show us the (Japanese) money

Where is the Japanese money? Mostly it has been heading back to home shores as we wrote here yesterday.

The assumption was that the Bank of Japan's huge money-printing campaign would push Japanese retail and institutional investors out in search of yield.  Emerging markets were expected to capture at least part of a potentially huge outflow from Japan and also benefit from rising allocations from other international funds as a result.  But almost a month after the BOJ announced its plans, the cash has not yet arrived.

EM investors, who seem to have been banking the most on the arrival of Japanese cash, may be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Data from EPFR Global shows no notable pick-up in flows to EM bond funds while cash continues to flee EM equities ($2 billion left last week).

Not again, please! Brazil and India more vulnerable now to another crisis

After bad economic news from Germany, China and the United States over the past few weeks, here are two more. Brazil and India, two of the world’s largest emerging economies, are increasingly vulnerable to another crisis or to the eventual end of the ultra-loose monetary policies in developed economies after five years of a severe global slowdown.

Weak demand for Brazil’s exports and the voracious appetite of local consumers for imported goods widened the country’s current account deficit to 2.93 percent of GDP in the 12 months through March, the widest gap in nearly eleven years. In dollar terms, that amounts to $67 billion.

To help fund this gap, Brazil could at first loosen the currency controls adopted in the past few years and let more dollars in. But if the dollar flows change too swiftly, Brazil would find itself with three other options: curb spending by growing less, allow a decline in the foreign exchange rate at the risk of fueling inflation, or burn part of its international reserves – which are large, at $377 billion, but not infinite.

Investors call for interest rate hike in Brazil

Two analyses published this week highlight how alarmed investors are about inflation in Brazil.

In the first, published on Wednesday following a poll on global stock markets, equity investors say an interest rate hike wouldn’t be a bad idea – a paradox, since stocks usually drop when borrowing costs rise. Are they keen to move to bonds? Not really; their argument is that an interest rate hike could assuage inflation fears after eight consecutive months of above-forecast price rises. A rate hike could also reduce concerns of economic mismanagement after several government attempts to intervene in key sectors such as banking and power generation.

The central bank signalled it could act later this year, but would rather wait because the recent inflation surge could be just temporary. Bond investors disagree, according to a separate analysis published today. In their view, inflation will remain above the 4.5 percent target mid-point through at least 2018, raising uncertainty about long-term investments needed to bridge the gap between Brazil’s booming demand and its clogged roads and ports.

Quickening Brazil inflation tops forecasts for 8 straight months

Brazil inflation jumped above expectations in February, despite a steep cut in electricity rates. It was not the first time, though; inflation has been running higher than consensus forecasts since July, considering the market view one month before the data release:

 

 

The total gap between market consensus and the actual inflation figures amounts to 1.19 percentage point – about one quarter of the inflation rate reported. Reuters polls conducted a few days before the official numbers come out have also proved wrong since July, with a total error of 0.37 point.

Why is that? Part of the difference was due to an unexpected jump in food inflation. But another part has to do with the mix of strong demand and weak supply that has dragged down the Brazilian economy over the past two years.

Self-inflicted ‘sudden stop’? Brazil blocked by its own currency war trench

In times of currency wars, it’s best not to shoot yourself in the foot. By imposing several capital controls in the past years, Brazil might have tightened monetary policy right when the economy started to falter, Nomura’s strategist Tony Volpon wrote in a research note on Friday.

Brazil’s mediocre economic growth in the past two years has been a mystery, indeed. Some say it has been due to the global slowdown – which contrasts with steady growth elsewhere in Latin America. Many others blame Brazil’s several supply bottlenecks. But then, why don’t businesses see them as an investment opportunity?

The missing link, Volpon argues, has been the imposition of capital controls. Inflows dropped suddenly, reducing the supply of cheap foreign money available for banks and companies. So, even though the central bank cut local interest rates ten straight times to a record low of 7.25 percent, money supply growth has actually slowed since January 2012.

Brazil: Something’s got to give

How about living in a fast-growing economy with tame inflation, record-low interest rates, stable exchange rate and shrinking public debt. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? But Brazil may be starting to realize that this is also impossible.

Inflation hit the highest monthly reading in nearly eight years in January, rising 0.86 percent from December. It also came close to the top-end of the official target, accelerating to a rise of 6.15 percent in the 12 months through January.

That conflicts with key pillars of Brazil’s want-it-all economic policy. The central bank cut interest rates ten straight times through October 2012 to a record-low of 7.25 percent, saying Brazil no longer needed one of the world’s highest borrowing costs. The government also forced a currency depreciation of around 20 percent last year, aiming at boosting exports and stopping a flurry of cheap imports.

Brazilian industrial rebound: wishful thinking?

2012 has been a year to forget for Brazil’s struggling industry – just like the year before. But a weekly central bank survey of around 90 financial institutions says that will all change next year and industry will grow at healthy 4 percent pace.

Will it?  One year ago, the same survey predicted 4.1 percent growth for 2012. Despite massive stimulus by President Dilma Rousseff’s government, including record-low interest rates and billions of dollars in tax cuts that were off everyone’s radar, industrial output in Latin America’s largest economy is set to fall by 2.3 percent.

The same pattern happened the year before. Two months before the start of 2011, analysts expected an expansion of 5.3 percent in Brazil’s industrial output but in the end it grew by only 0.3 percent.

Has the Brazilian FX market lost its swing?

Tiago Pariz in Brasilia also contributed to this post.

Brazil’s Trade Minister Fernando Pimentel was the latest authority this week to fire warning shots in a resurging currency war. The government is “focused” on keeping the real at its current level of 2 per U.S. dollar, he told journalists after a meeting with fellow ministers and businessmen.

Using market rules, we are going to try to keep (foreign exchange) rates steady every time the currency is under attack.

These words came days after Finance Minister Guido Mantega admitted Brazil now has a “dirty-floating” regime. “We cannot continue watching as others take ownership of our market and bring down our industry,” he told a local newspaper.

When interest rates rise, credit growth should… accelerate?

Latin America has defied one of the most elementary rules of macroeconomics in the past decade, Citigroup economists Joaquin Cottani and Camilo Gonzalez found in a report.

Lower interest rates reduce the cost of money and therefore should encourage businesses and consumers to borrow, as we’ve repeatedly heard from analysts and government officials for decades. Puzzlingly enough, credit growth accelerated after central banks in countries like Brazil and Peru raised rates, and slowed when borrowing costs fell. Why is that?

The keyword here is confidence. In this commodity-exporter region, with a long history of deep, painful crises caused by currency devaluations and global downturns, perhaps it’s worth paying more attention to what happens abroad than to the cost of money – and how the global background might affect the local business cycle.