MacroScope

Brazil’s foreign reserves are not all that big

Traumatized by several currency crises in the past, Brazil has made a dedicated effort in recent years to amass $374 billion in foreign reserves as China bought mountains of its iron ore and soybeans. When the next crisis came, policymakers figured, the reserves would act as Brazil’s first line of defense.

It turns out that those reserves, which jumped from just $50 billion in 2006, may still not be large enough, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch analysts found in a report on the increased volatility in foreign exchange markets as the U.S. Federal Reserve prepares to scale back part of its monetary stimulus.

Using central bank monthly data on the stock of foreign investments in Brazil, David Beker and Claudio Irigoyen estimated that foreigners hold about $1.2 trillion in Brazil. While most ($785 billion) of that amount consists in longer-term direct investments, portfolio investments such as equities and debt still far exceed the central bank’s reserve cushion at $415 billion.

That’s why the monetary authorities have preferred to offer derivative contracts such as currency swaps rather than simply burning through its reserves, the BofA-Merill analysts said. Brazil’s central bank, led by Alexandre Tombini, has already sold over $30 billion in currency swaps in just two months, nearly a record high, and yet the real has traded at four-year lows.

“Our perception is international reserves need to be managed with caution given the high stock of investments in Brazil and the potential for FX hedging, as reserves could decline quickly if global uncertainty increases,” Beker and Irigoyen wrote.

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.

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.

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.

Latin America: the risks of being too attractive

Ironically, an increase of capital inflows to Latin America in the last few years due to unappealing ultralow yields in industrialized countries and the region’s relative economic success is posing a threat for development, according to a recent paper that provides wider background to BRIC criticism of the latest U.S. Federal Reserve´s quantitative easing.

The article, written by Argentine economists Roberto Frenkel and Martin Rapetti for the World Economic Review – an international journal of heterodox economics –  warns about the possibility of a Latin American variant of the so-called “Dutch Disease”. This is a situation where a country suddenly finds a new source of wealth that makes its currency more expensive, hurting local exports and causing traumatic de-industrialization.

“Our concern is that massive capital inflows to Latin America may have pernicious effects via an excessive appreciation of the real exchange rates, which could lead to a contraction in output and employment in tradable activities with negative effects on long-run growth”, says the paper.

Return of the currency wars

Maybe it never went away at all. But if the war was dormant, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff certainly launched what appeared to be an opening salvo for a new round of battles – rhetorical ones for now.

Rousseff reached for some cataclysmic language to describe the recent appreciation of the real, which Brazil worries will crimp exports and hurt the domestic economy. The culprit, according to Rousseff, is an irresponsible “monetary tsunami” resulting from the ultra-loose monetary policies of rich nations like the United States.

Alonso Soto and Tiago Pariz offer some background in this Reuters article out of Brasilia: