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Investors keen on Brazil, but jury still out on Bolsonaro

·4-min read
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at a demonstration by farmers against the Supreme Court and calling for the end of Covid-19 restrictions

President Jair Bolsonaro boasts he has restored investor confidence in Brazil, but analysts and executives say he still has a long way to go to deliver his promised economic reforms.

Still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, Latin America's biggest economy got some good news last month with a major series of infrastructure auctions that raised far more than expected.

First, Brazil raked in $600 million for concessions to operate 22 airports, five port terminals and a railroad, plus around triple that amount in investment commitments over 30 years.

Then it raised $4.2 billion for concessions to operate the Rio de Janeiro water and sewer system, plus another $5.6 billion in investment commitments over 35 years.

"This moment will mark our history and our economy," Bolsonaro said at the time, boasting that Brazil had regained investors' confidence.

Not so fast, say some in the business world, still waiting for the far-right leader to follow through on most of his 2018 campaign promises of economic reforms and privatizations.

Now eying re-election in October next year -- and potentially facing a heavyweight opponent in leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who leads in the polls -- Bolsonaro is racing to push through around 100 more privatizations this year, for some $84 billion.

Another 85 are on the calendar for 2022.

- Market 'apprehensive' -

There are certainly things to lure investors: the massive size of the market in the sprawling country of 212 million people, its huge need for infrastructure and the relatively cheap price tag, given the depreciation of the Brazilian real during the pandemic.

But there are also risks: Brazil is being hammered by Covid-19, with accusations that Bolsonaro's chaotic management is to blame.

And investors are still waiting to see whether he delivers his promised fiscal, administrative and tax reforms.

"It's still very early to say whether the investment environment in Brazil has improved," said Eliel Lins, investment adviser at Mundo Investimentos.

"Without those reforms, the market is apprehensive, because we're approaching Bolsonaro's last year in office," he told AFP.

Bolsonaro's sliding popularity and a Senate inquiry into his government's pandemic response have meanwhile created political uncertainty.

"Those risks just cloud the picture," said Lins.

- 'Brazil premium' -

Brazil was seen as an emerging-market dynamo in the 2000s. But it was knocked off its pedestal by twin political and economic crises in 2015-16.

Bolsonaro won the business sector's backing by naming ultra-liberal economist Paulo Guedes as his economy minister and promising him free rein to implement sweeping reforms to cut down government bloat and relaunch the economy.

Bolsonaro and Guedes scored an early win with a major pension reform in 2019.

But then the pandemic arrived, causing Brazil's economy to shrink 4.1 percent last year and largely pushing the reform agenda to the back burner.

The administration is also fighting resistence to the reforms in Congress.

But investors say following through is vital to reduce the "Brazil premium," the high cost of doing business in the country.

"That includes extremely high taxation rates, the cost of waste due to poor infrastructure, the cost of bureaucracy -- everything that makes the business environment worse," said economist Alex Agostini of consulting firm Austin Rating.

Increasingly, foreign firms are also insisting their local partners in Brazil have sound environmental records -- a weak spot for Bolsonaro, who is accused of gutting environmental protection programs and has presided over a surge of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

- Playing the long game -

Upcoming plans include privatizing Latin America's biggest electric utility, Eletrobras, and the Brazilian postal service.

Infrastructure concessions due on the auction block include airports in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, a highway between the two cities, and a trans-Amazonian railroad -- not to mention a tender to develop Brazil's 5G mobile network.

The Bolsonaro administration will be hoping to woo investors looking to play the long game.

"Long-term investors never lost confidence in Brazil, because they can take a step back from the short-term volatility," said lawyer Massami Uyeda Jr, who specializes in infrastructure deals.

"They see reforms as important and necessary, but not the deciding factor on whether to invest."


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