Last updated: 21:14 / Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Standard Life Investments

The Inevitable Levy Let-Down

The Inevitable Levy Let-Down

Since Joaquim Levy took over as Brazil’s finance minister, Brazilian markets have been surprisingly resilient. On the back of Levy’s commitment to produce a primary surplus of 1.2% of GDP, expectations that Brazil will avoid losing its investment grade status had increased sharply prior to the Petrobras downgrade last week. As a consequence the real gained 4.8% against the dollar, and 10-year sovereign bond yields were down since Levy's appointment (see Chart 10).

Although gross public debt and the fiscal deficit have deteriorated sharply since 2011, many view Levy’s presence as enough to prevent a sovereign downgrade. Such confidence that Brazil will evade a downgrade indicates a belief that Levy can and will do whatever it takes to solve Brazil’s fiscal problems. This assumes that he will be given autonomy by President Dilma Rousseff to implement fiscal reforms and that Congress will pass a budget with sufficient cuts to achieve the targeted primary surplus. Given the scope of the recently announced deficit, we are not confident that Brazil will be able to achieve its fiscal target and are sceptical that Brazil will avoid a downgrade.

The 2014 Brazilian deficit, the largest since 1999, increased sharply from last year. The Brazilian central bank announced a primary budget deficit of 32 billion Real ($13.76 billion) for 2014, equal to 0.63% of gross domestic product. This was the first primary deficit in over a decade and a sharp fall from the 91.3 billion Real surplus of 2013 (see Chart 11). The country's overall budget gap, which takes into account debt servicing costs, doubled in 2014 to 6.7% of GDP, one of the highest among the major economies according to the IMF. Additionally, the steady decline of public sector finances is leading to a wider current account deficit, despite weaker growth and low investment.

Levy appears committed to repairing the severely unbalanced macro conditions through deep fiscal adjustment. However the true extent of the fiscal gap is unclear and it is doubtful Levy will have support from Rousseff and Congress to implement the necessary reforms. Due to Rousseff’s lack of fiscal transparency in her first term, additional outlays exist which make the deficit even larger; an investigation by the Federal Audit Court may conclude that 40 billion Real ($15.6 billion) in expenditures were improperly accounted for since 2012 and must now be fully recognized in the government’s budget; and as much as 8 billion Real ($3.1 billion) of an estimated 30 billion Real ($11.7 billion) in public investment subsidies that have been deferred since 2012 will need to be registered in 2015. This off-balance-sheet spending will deepen the fiscal shortfall and complicate Levy’s efforts to produce a primary budget surplus. Levy recently announced plans to raise taxes on fuel, financial transactions and imports, which will boost revenues by 0.4%of GDP. However, the reforms represent the limits of his powers to improve fiscal conditions without additional congressional approval. As the unfolding Petrobras scandal increasingly occupies Rousseff’s attention and impairs her ability to govern, congressional gridlock is becoming more likely. Despite the optimism surrounding Levy’s efforts, once the true extent of his challenge comes to the fore, markets could be brought back to reality.

Opinion article by Alex Wolf, Emerging Markets Economist at Standard Life Investments

About Alex Wolf

Alex Wolf, Emerging Markets Economist at Standard Life Investments. Alex analyses the key emerging markets, such as China and India, and helps to expand Standard Life Investments' understanding of the global business cycle.  He has eight years of investment experience and joins from the U.S. State Department, where he served as a U.S. Diplomat in Beijing and Taipei. Prior to that, he held posts at BAE Systems and Lehman Brothers. Also based in Edinburgh, Alex reports to Jeremy Lawson, Chief Economist.