Friday, January 27, 2012

Scary News

This graph on British GDP is very scary:

It shows that the economic recovery following the start of the recession is actually worse than the one observed during the Great Depression in the 30s.

In my humble opinion, it seems that the dosage of the austerity medicine is killing patients all over Europe.  

(Outsourced from Brad Delong's blog post)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Next US President?

It is becoming more and more likely that the US presidency will be contested by Obama and Mitt Romney. For those that don't know anything about him (like me), here is Vanity Fair's article on him. I found it a bit unfair on the private equity culture but it's still a good read.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Some ramblings on Brazil - Part II - Outlook

 Following up on my previous post, on this one I plan to talk a bit about the country's current situation and some (big) challenges and problems it has to solve, and quickly! Having spent the previous three weeks in Rio allowed me to chat to friends, listen to taxi drivers, and read the general news printed on newspapers to get a feel of "sentiment".

Unfortunately, my opinion is that we have all the signs of a bubble ready to burst. Outrageous real estate prices, overvalued currency, etc... Although things have improved a lot and it is obvious that great advances have been made, there are some clear signs that things are getting a little out of line. I heard someone say the other day that Brazil's growth was more of a catch-up with the present (following the lost decade in the 80s) than a new dawn that would allow the country to move up into developed status.

Everything in Rio is horribly expensive, with some things being simply ridiculous. When I moved to the UK in 2002,  living costs were way cheaper than in London. I felt like a king whenever I came back for holidays even though I was on a PhD stipend. Nowadays, things are radically different. Most things are cheaper in London and even rental prices, long a plight of London's non-investment bankers, are very close to the ones you pay in Rio.

Let me look at a few factors that might pose a problem:

i) Global Economy: I've actually been more negative about global growth prospects than now. My guess here is that the world will do better than consensus expectations while Brazil worse. Signs from the US indicate that the economic might be getting back on track while China seems to be managing to avoid a hard landing. Big risks to be careful are: (i) the Euro-mess is not sorted (God knows that politicians are trying hard to cause a disaster) (ii) the US recovery is derailed because of the presidential elections; and (iii) real estate markets crash in China. The main danger to Brazil comes from China. Its demand for raw materials have increased tremendously in past years, both in volume and prices. This was great for Brazil but the country's increasing reliance on primary products is dangerous in case international demand goes down. Since 2006, terms of trade have improved by more than 30% and if simply returns to the same levels it will have a big impact on how the current account balance is financed.

ii) Credit Growth: Because of high interest rates and some other problems, private debt to GDP ratios have always been way lower than international averages. Economic growth was bound to make (and was helped by it) grow. And grow it did. In 2003, credit amounted to 24.6% of GDP (for comparison it is way more above 100% in the US and the UK). It went to 40.5% in 2008 and reached 48% in Sep/2011, with an average growth rate of 16.3% even after the crisis period in 2009. Brazilian families' debt levels are at an all-time high and a decrease in growth or an increase in interest rates might trigger a wave of defaults that bring the house the down.

iii) Monetary / Fiscal Policy: Brazil has an official inflation target of 4.5% with 2% upper/lower bound. In 2011, it hit the upper bound but the Central Bank seems to have accepted inflation run above the target rather than increase interest rates (or implement other "macroprudential measures" as they say here) and reduce growth (always a politically tough call). Given that the public sector share of GDP keeps growing and the government does nothing to control a little its expenditures, worrying about inflation should be on investors' minds unless the Central Bank decides to change its current stance.

iv) Real Estate Prices: I might be biased since I've spent all of my time in Rio and the city had lots of good things going for it, but real estate prices are just surreal at the moment. From 2006 to 2010 prices increased by more than 150% and in 2011 alone went up by 35%. A square meter in Leblon costs around 6,000 pounds which is more than in Barcelona and similar to London. You can feel the same kind of madness that was going on in London circa 2008 and we all know how that turned out to be. Even if the nothing happens with the country as a whole, real estate in Rio is doomed to crash. When? I'd wish I knew.

All of these factors are in one way or another related to each other and while Brazil is now enjoying a virtuous cycle, things can change to a bad equilibrium and fall into a vicious cycle (kinda of like Spain and the UK at the moment). Alas, like in many countries, politicians haven't been using the good times to prepare for future lean years.

In the final post of this series I'll talk about the main challenges for the future.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Some ramblings on Brazil - Part I - Recent Past

Hello everyone. 

Happy Holidays! I'm currently in Rio enjoying the break under 30-degree weather (well, it's actually raining at the moment) rather than semi-freezing in London (to be honest the weather has been great this year).

As I take a break from meeting family & friends, eating good food, and preparing classes for my upcoming course at Cambridge, I sat down and started thinking a little about the current economic situation of Brazil and my humble predictions for the near future and I thought that this would make an interesting post to share. I'll start with a quick overview of the recent past. On the next post, I will talk more about some of the economic bottlenecks and my view on what is going to happen. I hope it is not too long! 

My biggest concern is that Brazil is quickly approaching a ceiling given its current structure. I'm very skeptical about whether the country can sustain 4-5% growth or not and I am seriously worried that the burst of the current bubble is just around the corner. Anyway, here is my take on the near past:

Following years of bad macroeconomic policies in the early 90s, the Brazilian Social Democrats party (the PSDB) finally put the house in order and pushed through some needed economic reforms (breaking up inefficient state monopolies, budgetary expenditure checks and balances, etc.). These reforms are really what made the "growth miracle" seen under former president Lula's Workers party (the PT) possible, riding the good international climate and the benefits of the sudden emergence of a large set of consumers enjoying better economic conditions. The country had given up so many growth opportunities before sorting out its inflation problem that a huge pent-up potential was unleashed after the Real plan, the privatization of major companies, and the improvement of the international situation after the late 90s financial crises.

To Lula's merit and contrary to many people's opinions (including mine), he didn't messed up with the economy and carried on the same sensible policies implemented by the PSDB. His party was strongly against the Real stabilization plan, the fiscal responsibility law, and the banking reforms (to mention just a few), which are now touted as the ones that enabled Brazil to withstand the nasty effects of the crisis. I'm not even going to talk about the large corruption schemes that have taken place after Lula stepped into power. What makes me the saddest is that he could have achieved so much more and squandered the opportunity to implement structural change at a time when the global climate was very favorable.

Unfortunately, if you look at the reforms that Brazil desperately needs to shift up a gear, nothing has really happened in the past 10 years. Labor, pension and tax law reforms are major bottlenecks of growth and will stifle any chance of sustainable long term growth beyond 3-4% a year. All of these changes need constitutional reforms that are very difficult to pass through parliament, specially under Brazil's crazy multi-party political system. Lula decided not to fight to push them through, opting to making minor changes through regular legislation, and even those were mostly a waste. His successor, Dilma Roussef, appears to be following the same path as well.
Nonetheless, here we are: Brazil is the current darling of markets. Dozens of large companies are trying to enter the country, the expansion of consumer credit is booming, and it will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Things look great, but now what? Stay tuned for the next post!