By Jamie McGeever
BRASILIA (Reuters) – As if things were not difficult enough for markets in Brazil, whose stocks and currency are among the world’s worst-performing this year, an unexpected twist in the country’s fragile politics threatens to make the situation even tougher.
Brazil’s Congress voted late on Wednesday to overturn an earlier veto on spending by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, adding an as yet unbudgeted 20 billion reais a year ($4.2 billion) to social assistance for elderly and disabled people, known locally as “BPC.”
Brazil’s government is in its seventh consecutive year of budget deficit, which is pegged at 124 billion reais this year. If the 20 billion-reais additional spending cannot be clawed back from elsewhere, the budget will be blown.
Bolsonaro’s administration has made it an economic priority to fix the nation’s public finances, in large part via aggressive spending cuts.
While the extra spending will provide a welcome fiscal boost to the struggling economy, analysts say it puts the government’s budget goals and economic reform agenda in serious peril, greatly diminishing the appeal of holding Brazilian assets.
“The economy and markets will suffer from a lack of confidence in the government, and the president’s capacity to deliver at a time of crisis,” said Creomar de Souza, founder of Brasilia-based consultancy Dharma Political Risk and Strategy.
“This appearance of division between the president and Congress is not good at all,” he said.
Analysts at Morgan Stanley said the vote marked a major turning point and recommended clients reduce their exposure to Brazilian credit and the currency.
“The timing of this decision could not be worse. Such a serious setback for the reform agenda along with a more-than-challenging global backdrop will keep Brazilian local assets under pressure in the weeks to come,” they said.
On Thursday morning, Brazil’s real slumped below the 5.00 per dollar level for the first time ever <BRBY>, bringing its depreciation so far this year to a staggering 20%.
Only a week ago, when the real was trading around 4.60 per dollar, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said the real could sink as low as 5.00 per dollar “if we (politicians) really mess up.”
BAD BLOOD IN BRASILIA
Guedes and his team argue that shrinking the budget deficit, national debt and public sector would lay the foundation for lower borrowing costs and a surge in private-sector investment, confidence, spending and ultimately economic growth.
The government cut its 2020 economic growth forecast on Wednesday, but insisted it would not relax its fiscal discipline, particularly an existing spending cap, to give a boost to an economy hit by coronavirus outbreak and tumbling oil prices.
According to Treasury Secretary Mansueto Almeida, the 20 billion-reais hole in the budget created by the BPC vote on Wednesday cannot be filled.
“We don’t have the resources for new mandatory expenditures of 20 billion reais per year,” he told Reuters. “To do this we would need to cut a corresponding amount of public investment, which is the only discretionary expense that could quickly be reduced that much.”
Brazilian public investment, including on such key areas as infrastructure and education, is already its lowest on record.
Analysts at Barclays said the BPC vote marked the most serious blow yet dealt by Congress to the Bolsonaro government, noting that the new expenditure, coupled with plunging oil prices, could put the deficit well above target.
They said Bolsonaro’s apparent backing for a controversial public rally in Brasilia favoring his administration – and widely seen as opposing Congress – scheduled for Sunday, March 15, has not been well-received among lawmakers.
“Bad blood appears to be widespread in Brasilia. We view this significant blow as a loud signal of discontent from Congress to the President,” Barclays said in a note to clients on Thursday.
Hammered by international market volatility and this latest domestic political blow, Brazilian stocks <.BVSP> sank 16% on Thursday, bringing their cumulative decline so far this year to 38%.
(Reporting by Jamie McGeever in Brasilia; Editing by Christian Plumb and Matthew Lewis)