THE legend is that Brazil never lives up to its vast potential. When Stefan Zweig, an exiled Austrian writer, said in 1941 of his new home that it was the “country of the future”, popular humour quickly added the rider “and it always will be”. More recently, when Goldman Sachs bracketed Brazil with Russia, India and China as the “BRIC” countries that collectively represent the world's economic future, there was much muttering that its mediocre rate of economic growth condemned it to be an interloper in such dynamic company.
Yet there are reasons to believe that South America's economic powerhouse of 190m people is starting to count in the world. Economic growth has risen steadily, to 5.4% last year. That is modest by Chinese standards—but the comparison is misleading. Brazil enjoyed Chinese rates of growth in the third quarter of the 20th century. That was when it was almost as poor as China. It is much harder for a middle-income country, as Brazil now is, to grow at such rates. And now it looks as if Brazil will become an oil power, too. if Brazil's previous growth spurt was derailed by debt and high oil prices, a debacle that obliged its then military government to give way to civilian rule. The early years of restored democracy saw chronic inflation, economic torpor and political drift. In the past decade and a half, however, under reforming democratic governments, Brazil has conquered inflation, opened a protected economy to the world and begun to tackle its social problems. Poverty and inequality are falling steadily. Under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the left came to power in 2002 and, to the surprise of some, maintained its commitment to economic stability and openness. All this has gradually created a new mood among business people. Brazilian companies, traditionally inward-looking family-owned affairs, are going to the stockmarket to raise funds, in many cases to finance expansion abroad. Some, such as Vale, the world's second-biggest mining company, and Embraer, its third-largest maker of civilian aircraft, both privatised in the 1990s, are well-known. A string of others are about to become so. Outsiders have caught the mood: foreign direct investment reached a record $34.6 billion last year.
Beware of bonanzas
Many of these companies are linked to agribusiness or other primary commodities. One reason to worry that Brazil is again flattering only to deceive is that it has been a huge beneficiary of high commodity prices—that same trend that is pushing up the cost of food around the world. Strip out this cyclical stimulus and the country's performance would look less sprightly. But some economists argue that Brazil is the beneficiary of a structural shift, in which the industrialisation of Asia and the rise of a new middle class in the developing world will keep commodity prices high. Besides, Brazil produces more than just soyabeans. It has a lot of manufacturing industry too. And its newly discovered offshore fields of oil and natural gas may turn out to be bigger than those in the North Sea in the 1960s.
Oil wealth is lovely, of course. But it is also a cause for concern. Brazil's currency, the real, has already soared to levels that make manufacturers wince. If it becomes a petro-currency, many factories will be forced to close unless the needlessly high costs of doing business in Brazil are slashed. Moreover, the most impressive economic achievements of Brazil as a democracy have tended to come when the government has had little room to manoeuvre.
The worry now is that a bonanza of oil will weaken an already infirm resolve to drill deeper into the economy's structural problems. These difficulties include an oppressive tax system and a labour code that makes firms wary of hiring. Between them these have confined some 40% of the workforce to the informal economy. Though he needs to spend much more on infrastructure, Lula has squandered a chunk of record tax revenues on padding the public payroll.
An oil gusher could also sharpen Brazil's already voracious appetite for the politics of the pork barrel. Lula has done much to make Brazil's democracy more genuine. But he was re-elected in 2006 despite a corruption scandal that would have felled a politician of lesser skills. Since then he has basked in popularity derived from sunny economic times and well-designed social policies. The danger is complacency. Compared with its past, Brazil is indeed doing much better. But before oil euphoria kicks in, Brazil's leaders should ask themselves why so many other countries have made bigger returns from a much smaller natural endowment.