Is the election in Brazil just another missed opportunity?
The São Paulo market’s iBovespa index jumped 5% on Monday, while the Brazilian real recouped most of its losses from last week, when pollsters began talking about a first-round victory for Lula. Shares of Petrobras, the state-run energy giant that Bolsonaro wants to privatize and Lula wants to roll out as national champion, jumped nearly 15%.
Investors hope Lula’s failure to win the first round will, at the very least, temper the leftist politician’s dreams of a big government and force him to look to the right to capture independent voters. He might even deliver on his not-quite-solid promise of running a primary budget surplus.
But the set of hopes and dreams that nurture Brazil’s assets has little to offer the Brazilian people.
The Brazilian economy is still stuck in the past. After what came to be known as the “lost decade,” as it struggled to remain solvent under a mountain of external debt, Brazil emerged in 1990 with a gross domestic product per capita equivalent to 24.5% of that of the industrial nations united in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Last year, 30 years after this difficult period, the country’s GDP per capita was still only 22.7% of the OECD average.
This regression is at the heart of Brazil’s most fundamental failure: its inability to ensure sustained and equitable economic growth. Unfortunately for most Brazilians, neither Lula nor Bolsonaro seem to know how to align Brazil’s future more closely with the “Progress” printed on their flag.
Bolsonaro, who garnered more than 51 million votes on Sunday, could still win in the second round on October 30. It is hard to say, however, whether he has an economic platform, given the inconsistency between his vow to cut taxes, his promise of orthodoxy and his adoption of cash transfers to struggling families, an attempt naked to buy voters with taxpayers’ money.
Its ostensibly liberal economic strategy does not fit with its “anti-globalist”, nationalist position. He hired a Chicago Boy, Paulo Guedes, as economy minister to pursue a radical version of free-market economics, but then routinely ignored his advice. Bolsonaro’s only ironclad economic commitment is to allow agribusiness to do its will, in the Amazon and beyond.
Lula, who pundits still expect to win in the second round, has a stronger record. But he also doesn’t have much of a plan to fill Brazil’s gaps.
At 76, Lula’s main goal is redemption. He wants to be remembered not as the president imprisoned for bribes in Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal, but as the steward of one of the most prosperous eras in the world. he country’s recent history – from 2003 to 2010, when the economy grew and, perhaps for the first time, the fruits of growth were widely shared.
Unfortunately, the playbook that worked in the first decade of the millennium, funded by China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Brazilian commodities, will not work in today’s unforgiving macroeconomic environment. Redistribution will be much more difficult with China no longer buying as many Brazilian products and the Federal Reserve aggressively raising interest rates, drawing chilling parallels with a previous episode of US monetary policy tightening 40 years ago that helped launch Brazil’s lost decade.
Meeting Brazil’s longstanding and persistent challenge—in three words: lackluster and inequitable growth—requires much more ambition. Whether or not Lula decides to run a primary fiscal surplus, his toolbox doesn’t match the moment.
Even before the pandemic, three out of ten Brazilian households lived on less than $4.50 a day, according to a World Bank study. One in twelve people lived on less than $1.10. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Brazil still suffers from one of the highest inequalities in the region – already one of the most unequal in the world.
Redistribution alone cannot heal these wounds. Brazil needs robust growth to pay for it. Who knows where it will come from? The country has grown at less than 0.4% per year for the past decade, which is barely enough to fund any kind of prosperity. In real terms, its GDP per capita was lower last year than in 2010.
Its eternal aspiration to develop a modern industrial base has been shattered. More than half of Brazil’s exports consist of raw materials, mainly agricultural products and minerals, which are vulnerable to fluctuations in global demand. Value added in the manufacturing sector amounts to 10% of GDP, compared to 23% in 1990.
Even hope is hard to find. Productivity growth is woefully low and there are few ways to improve it. Only 23% of Brazilians aged 25-34 have attended university, less than half the proportion in the OECD.
Overcoming these obstacles is, of course, difficult. Even President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, arguably Brazil’s most successful economic steward of the past half-century, who brought hyperinflation under control and put the nation on a path to semblance of development, failed to Try the challenge.
But in a way, the challenge is simple: it’s about confronting the powerful, entrenched constituencies that benefit from the status quo and stand in the way of meaningful change.
For example, the Brazilian government has resources. General government tax revenues amount to almost 40% of GDP, according to the IMF, putting them on par with many wealthy social democracies in Europe. But much of the money is wasted on one of the most inflated public payrolls in the world.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is a business class that has relied too long on a variety of state patronage. With its protected markets, subsidies and other benefits, Brazil’s state economy enriches a pampered business elite but serves most Brazilians poorly.
When Brazilians return to the polls at the end of October, it would be nice if their options included someone willing to acknowledge this reality and finally begin to change it.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• With Bolsonaro Down and Not Out, Buckle Up: Clara Ferreira Marques
• Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ cannot revive the past: Eduardo Porter
• Brazilian democracy needs more friends in high places: editorial
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost”.
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