For Rousseff-Hating Investors, a Bullish Trade Becomes Personal

  • Real and stocks among world's best performers this year
  • Skeptics say Brazil optimists getting ahead of themselves

The mood in Brazilian financial circles has been bordering on euphoric.

The real is the best-performing currency in the world this year, stocks have soared more than 30 percent, and bond yields are plunging. All this in a country with unemployment at a four-year high, a ballooning budget deficit, inflation near 10 percent and a credit rating that puts the government on par with Guatemala.

There’s a certain danger, as Alan Greenspan might say, of irrational exuberance here. And behind it all is the glee in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that the impending impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff will pave the way for a slew of austerity measures and reforms to stabilize the ailing economy. In private conversations with wealthy investors, it becomes clear that the extreme conviction that better times are ahead stems in part from their distaste for the leftist Rousseff and her Workers Party, a stance that risks underestimating how difficult it will be to pull Brazil out of its worst recession in a century.

"The market priced in that Temer will be able to do everything he needs to fix the economy," said Carlos Thadeu de Freitas, a former central bank director and current chief economist at the National Confederation of Commerce. "It assumes the political world is based on common sense."

The risk of Brazil’s political turmoil making a transition anything-but-smooth was on full display Monday as the head of the lower house called for a new vote on her impeachment, a surprise move that prompted a selloff across local markets. Stocks and the real pared losses later in the day as analysts said the decision won’t be enough to save Rousseff’s mandate, but the drama highlights how vulnerable the process is to legal challenges that could keep Latin America’s largest economy in limbo for a while longer.

Even aides to Vice President Michel Temer, who will take over for Rousseff on at least a temporary basis if the Senate votes to proceed with her ouster this week, are now scrambling to damp expectations. The reality is that despite all the optimism, Temer faces a list of challenges that is growing by the day and won’t be easy to fix.

He’s nearly as unpopular as Rousseff, and the corruption probe that rattled her administration is now encroaching on many of his allies. There is little appetite for further belt-tightening among the poor Brazilians already battered by recession or the legislators who depend on their votes, particularly ahead of October’s municipal elections.

Initial plans to eliminate a third of government ministries are already being scaled back and tax increases that would help shore up the country’s finances have been ruled out for the time being as being too unpopular to push through, according to two of his aides, who asked not to be identified because the discussion aren’t public. Even Temer’s top adviser, Wellington Moreira Franco, says he’ll only be able to make gradual improvements in fiscal accounts and is in no rush to raise the retirement age, an unpopular initiative that economists almost universally embrace as necessary.

Grim reality

The grim reality of the situation serves as a cautionary note for investors who drove Brazilian assets to world-beating gains. Stocks are in a bull market, and the cost of hedging Brazil’s sovereign debt against losses as measured by five-year credit default swaps is near the lowest since August. While the real’s rally this year is the biggest among about 150 currencies tracked worldwide by Bloomberg, analysts are forecasting it will tumble 9 percent by the end of December.

Investors mostly shrug off signs of potential trouble down the line. A fragmented Congress, they say, won’t be a problem for a seasoned politician like Temer; the high unfavorable ratings, in line with the public’s distaste for Rousseff, could be an advantage, since it means Temer doesn’t have to worry about tough measures chipping away at his approval ratings. Hardly anyone likes him anyway.

Paulo Bilyk, who helps oversee 10 billion reais of assets as chief investment officer at Rio Bravo Investimentos, said at an event in Rio de Janeiro last month that Temer’s team will act quickly and decisively to fix what ails Brazil.

"The people that are coming in know what needs to be done, and they know it needs to be done quickly," he said.

BNP Paribas changed its outlook on Brazil to positive last week, after years of downbeat assessments, saying Temer has a "golden opportunity" to engineer an economic turnaround if he manages to put in place a solid economic team and build support in Congress. The economy will grow 2 percent next year, the bank said -- a stark contrast with the consensus forecast among economists surveyed by the central bank for growth of just 0.5 percent.

Bulls say that Temer, a 75-year-old constitutional lawyer, has a lot going for him. He is a savvy political operator, espouses investor-friendly policies, and will likely attract a high-profile economic team to his administration, possibly including former central bank chief Henrique Meirelles as finance minister.

In an effort to avoid a backlash among voters already pinched by unemployment and falling real wages, Temer will shy from belt-tightening measures and instead focus on longer-term actions to gain investor confidence, according to his aides. Initiatives will likely include easing rules on government procurement, granting the private sector a bigger role in the oil industry, and cutting down on waste in public spending.

The problem is that approach takes time to produce results and risks stalling in a fractured Congress.

Carwash fallout

The announcement of the administration’s first measures and ministers "will tend to be market-friendly and help Brazilian assets appreciate," said Joao Pedro Ribeiro, a strategist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in New York. "In a second phase in which reforms face a divided Congress, there will be a shock of reality."

Perhaps the biggest risk for Temer, and by extension for Brazil bulls, is the potential for further fallout from the two-year probe into kickback schemes at state-run oil producer Petroleo Brasileiro SA that allegedly financed political parties, according to Christopher Garman, the head of country analysis at Eurasia Group, a political consulting company.

At least 43 legislators who are expected support Temer are being investigated on corruption allegations by the Supreme Court. Many are members of his own party.

That doesn’t bode well for an aggressive economic agenda in Congress and is precisely the type of political risk many investors are underestimating, said Andre Cesar, the founder of consulting company Hold Assessoria Legislativa in Brasilia. He has followed Brazil’s politics for more than two decades.

"Temer will be sitting on a jack-in-the-box without knowing when it’ll pop," Cesar said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE