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The Trade Numerologist: The Brazilian Election’s Impact on Global Trade

15 October 2018 John Miller

This column is based on data from Global Trade Atlas.

If Jair Bolsonaro beats Fernando Haddad for Brazil's presidency on Oct. 28, it's expected to spur Brazilian exports at the expense of environmental protections, domestic inflation, and US farmers.

Brazil is the world's eighth largest economy, and a major exporter of commodities like coffee, sugar, iron ore, petroleum and soybeans, but this decade, it's been in turmoil because of recession, political corruption, inflation, unemployment, and conflict over whether to develop its western Amazon region for farming and mining.

Mr. Bolsonaro, a provocative former army captain who commands the Social Liberal Party, is favored. He won the first round with 46%. Mr. Haddad of the Workers' Party finished in second place with 29%.

Dubbed the Trump of the Tropics for his arguments for torture, looser gun laws, and less pay for women than men, Mr. Bolsonaro runs a campaign that also includes a broad platform for deregulating the economy. He wants to privatize state-owned businesses, reduce public debt, create a private pension system, and lighten environmental rules on mining and agriculture.

The underdog, Mr. Haddad, mayor of São Paulo and a former minister of education, is running on a platform of improving social programs and helping the poor. Instead of focusing on exports, the lawyer and economist has promised to boost public spending, stop privatization and crack down on tax evasion to boost public coffers.

The area where policy changes could make the biggest difference is agriculture, especially soybeans. Brazil is one of the world's biggest producers.

China has a protein deficit, and needs soybean imports to make cooking oil, animal feed and substitutes for protein. As part of the trade war with the US, China has imposed steep import tariffs on shipment of soybeans from the US.

With US offerings more expensive because of tariffs, Chinese buyers are getting more soybeans from Brazil, boosting exports to record levels.

Brazil soybeans exports to China, first 9 months

  • 2013: $16.4 billion
  • 2014: $16.4 billion
  • 2015: $14.6 billion
  • 2016: $13.8 billion
  • 2017: $18 billion
  • 2018: $21.9 billion

Brazil planted record acreage last year, and could export even more, if it's willing to convert more of its rainforest into soybean fields. Environmental policies limit planting, something Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to reverse. He favors cutting back on fines for farmers who break environmental rules.

But soybeans are not the only thing Brazil makes for the world. The country is also a big exporter of petroleum, iron ore, meat, and wood.

Top Brazilian exports, first 9 months, 2018

  • Soybeans $27.6 billion (+19.5%)
  • Oil and gas $20.5 billion (+37%)
  • Iron ore $14.2 billion (+1.7%)
  • Electrical machinery $11.1 billion (+12%)
  • Cars and trucks $10 billion (-7%)
  • Meat $9.8 billion (-5.5%)
  • Iron and steel $8.1 billion (+6%)
  • Wood and pulp $6.3 billion (+36%)
  • Animal feed $5.5 billion (+30.5%)
  • Cereals $5.2 billion (+79%)
  • Sugar $5.1 billion (-44%)

Last decade, during the world's last major trade negotiations, for the Doha Round meant to help developing countries after the 9/11 attacks, Brazil emerged as a kingmaker along with India and China.

But the dream of building the country of 208 million, and an economy of over $3 trillion, into an export titan never really materialized.

Last year, Brazil was only the world's 24th biggest exporter, between Saudi Arabia and India. And this decade, it's has suffered from sluggish economic growth, unemployment and inflation. Its political class has been rocked by corruption. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016.

Although Brazil still has a trade surplus, it shrunk in 2017. And overall exports are up this year, but still below levels at the start of the decade.

Total Brazilian exports, first 9 months

  • 2009: $111.8 billion
  • 2010: $144.9 billion
  • 2011: $190 billion
  • 2012: $180.6 billion
  • 2013: $177.6 billion
  • 2014: $173.6 billion
  • 2015: $144.5 billion
  • 2016: $139.4 billion
  • 2017: $164.6 billion
  • 2018: $179.7 billion

Like other countries in the region, Brazil has grown more reliant on imports from China, which has passed the US as the country's top supplier. Like the US president, Mr. Bolsonaro has called for reexamining, and if necessary renegotiating, Brazil's trade relationships.

Top sources of Brazilian imports, first 9 months, 2018

  • China $26.8 billion
  • US $21.1 billion
  • Argentina $8.2 billion
  • Germany $8.1 billion
  • South Korea $4.2 billion
  • Mexico $3.8 billion
  • Italy $3.5 billion
  • Japan $3.3 billion
  • France $3 billion
  • India $2.6 billion

Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to appoint as economic and trade chief a University of Chicago-trained adviser named Paulo Guedes who advocates Milton Friedman-style deregulation.

And although Brazilians have mixed feelings about Mr. Bolsonaro's stances on crime, women's issues and minorities, they're frustrated by their economy, and seem to be willing to forgive divisive rhetoric and give laissez-faire policies a shot. A big part of that dream is boosting exports.

Posted 15 October 2018 by John Miller, Guest Blogger


The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit's unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit's Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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