Brazil may need to sacrifice GDP growth to tame inflation

Solange Srour — Foto: Silvia Costanti/Valor

Solange Srour — Foto: Silvia Costanti/Valor

Faced with a complicated scenario for inflation, which threatens to stay above the target cap for the third year in a row, as well as an exchange rate that may remain depreciated, despite a super-attractive interest differential compared to foreign countries, Brazil may face the possibility of having to “sacrifice” economic growth to control the pace of price hikes. This analysis comes from Solange Srour, chief economist of Credit Suisse Brazil. According to her, the country may have to face expansion rates around 1% or below in the coming years to enforce the target system.

The higher- than-expected reading of mid-month inflation index IPCA-15 for May strengthened the understanding that the Central Bank, contrary to its recent communication, will need to extend the monetary tightening cycle until August.

This change is close to the scenario already outlined by the Credit Suisse team, for whom the monetary authority will end the tightening cycle with the Selic interest rate at 14%. Despite the fact that the price dynamics continue to be qualitatively bad – a deflation was expected in May, but it does not look like it will happen – the economist sees a low chance that the cycle will extend much beyond its current projection.

On the other hand, Ms. Srour believes that the idea of trying to “exchange” an additional increase in the Selic in August for a more distant start to the cycle of cuts is risky. A recent study by Credit Suisse shows that since 1999, when the inflation targeting regime was implemented, the Central Bank has never ended a tightening cycle before seeing expectations stabilize or converge back to the target – which is not the case today. The same happens with the break-even inflation measures, which continue to deteriorate. “If the Central Bank stops in June, it will need to change communication,” she says, citing the decision to bring forward the change of monetary policy horizon and also new inflation projections.

Read the main excerpts from the interview below:

Valor: Credit Suisse recently raised its 2022 GDP projection to 1.4% from 0.2%, but cut 2023 projection from 2.1%. That is, the fall next year will more than offset the rise this year. Why is that?

Solange Srour: Starting in the second half of the year, we will see not only the lagged effect of monetary policy on activity, but also the high inflation starting to strongly affect disposable income. At the beginning of the year, it is harder to notice this because most salaries are raised by June and July, so people feel they have a higher income, then consumer spending gains steam. But as the year comes to an end, this is lost. Another factor that holds back GDP expansion next year is global growth. We are seeing substantial revisions of projections, this year driven by China and Europe, next year more by the United States, because we believe that the monetary policy there will be tighter than anticipated. Besides this, we cannot rule out the uncertainty about the prevailing agenda in Brazil from 2023 on. Today, this seems to be a topic that the market does not want to discuss much, but it certainly affects investment and consumer spending decisions. If there is too much uncertainty, this affects current activity. Current investment is not so weak because the commodities sector has holding up the ends, but the other industries already see a relevant drop, which is likely to be accentuated in the second half of the year. Considering a real interest rate of 6% in the next few years, it is very difficult to think of a higher growth rate than something close to 1%, which is what we project for 2023. On the contrary, we risk seeing a lower rate than that.

Valor: Why will we need to keep real interest rates so high?

Ms. Srour: Every time Brazil had a real interest rate as high as the current one, we also had a very expressive currency appreciation that helped to bring down inflation. This time, we see real interest rates high for a long time without a strong real. It reached R$4.6 to the dollar just to return to R$5, and is still oscillating. A stronger real is not enough. It must be seen as something more permanent in order for us to see a pass-through effect. The price takers need to see a consistent appreciation in order to pass this on to prices. There is a lag in all of this. So, if this happens, it will help a lot. If it doesn’t, the weight will fall on activity. A 1% growth is not enough to bring inflation down fast. Without a strong real, disinflation is going to be much more costly, slower and gradual, especially because inertial inflation increases after two and a half years of very high inflation.

Valor: Why do you believe the real will remain weak?

Ms. Srour: If you look at the fundamentals of a given model, commodities and real interest differential, the real should have been stronger in the past two years. There are several reasons for that. The main one is the uncertainty about what Brazil will be like over the next few years. It is very difficult to draw medium-term investments if it is unclear what is going to happen. Much of this uncertainty is related to the fiscal situation. As much as the spending cap [a rule that limits growth in public spending to the previous year’s inflation] is up, several expenses are held back, including pay increases for civil servants. There are also developments out there. The tightening of the U.S. monetary policy may strengthen the dollar, should the Federal Reserve need to tighten further than expected. And the slowdown in China may also be longer and start in 2023, which also makes it more difficult for the real to appreciate.

Valor: We have seen a very intense cycle of Selic (Brazil’s benchmark interest rate) hikes in the last months. Wasn’t it time for it to start having an effect on the activity?

Ms. Srour: I don’t think that it is not having an effect. Credit is more expensive, spreads are on the rise. The activity is not showing that because the effect of the opening has been much more intense and much slower than expected. Economists thought that the effect of the reopening on the economy would peak between January and February, but people seem to have accumulated some savings, so we see a very strong effect in services and consumer spending. This is not happening in Brazil alone. The same happened in Europe, where recent indicators from some countries did not come as bad as expected, precisely because of the longer effect of the opening.

Valor: In its statements, the Brazilian central bank has been trying to support a longer cycle of high Selic instead of additional hikes later this year.

Ms. Srour: Our study shows that in all monetary tightening cycles, the monetary authority paused when the difference between inflation expectations and the target was falling. In the current cycle, the Central Bank is trying to end the tightening while the gap is still rising. If this happens, it will be the first time. We believe this is complex, dangerous, considering that we have been missing the [inflation] target for two years. It is complicated to stop the cycle with expectations still rising and risking being above the target for the third year in a row. We have projected that the Selic would rise by August for some time now, which has now become a more consensual scenario. The [last reading of] IPCA-15 [Brazil’s mid-month inflation index, known as a reliable predictor for official inflation] was qualitatively bad and is likely to worsen projections for 2023.

Valor: Will the Central Bank still follow the path it has communicated?

Ms. Srour: If the Central Bank stops in June, it will need to lengthen the convergence period, admitting that the monetary policy horizon is now 2023 and also, to some extent, 2024. This is something we expected to happen in August, which is when the Central Bank typically starts to give more weight to the following year. So it will need to say that, or even that it will pursue this adjusted target, and no longer that of 2023. I think it is more likely to lengthen the horizon, but this will only be more credible if it puts projections closer to those of the market – today the Central Bank’s projections are very far from them. If the Central Bank wants to signal that it will stay put for a long time, but its projections are low, nobody will buy this for a long time, since the Central Bank’s own projections allow it to start cutting earlier as well. That is why I think it is very complicated to reconcile all this: to stop rising in a bad environment, with expectations moving away from the target, and to extend the horizon as it argues that it will stay still for a longer time to try and prevent expectations from unanchoring further.

Valor: Do you see any chance of the Selic going beyond the projected 14% a year?

Ms. Srour: I do not think the Central Bank will go much beyond 14%. We cannot rule it out at all, given what we have seen about inflation in Brazil and in the world. But I think it is very difficult to go beyond this because the Central Bank has communicated that the cycle is nearing its end, financial conditions are tight and this is going to have an impact on activity – it should already be influencing it, but some extraordinary factors, mainly fiscal, are preventing this. The real ex-ante interest rate is at a very high level, close to the peak. But we cannot rule out that the next move will be a hike, or that the cycle will stop for very long, especially because it may stop for the first time with a very large gap between expectations and the target.

Valor: How do you see the new change of Petrobras CEO?

Ms. Srour: We are facing a global problem of energy and food prices. Several countries, supported by international mechanisms, are creating policies to mitigate this shock. I believe Brazil should be adopting some more transparent measure for the budget, as was done by [President Michel] Temer at the time of the truck drivers’ strike. It could be even an extraordinary credit, instead of trying to make Petrobras hold prices or reduce taxes, because tax collection is surprisingly well, but this is something temporary, and tax breaks tend to be more permanent. A transparent mechanism avoids a greater impact on inflation and also a greater political impact.

Source: Valor International