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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Future Is No Longer What It Used To Be

A very interesting piece from Morgan Stanley's Marcelo Carvalho.

Despite renewed turbulence in US markets, Brazilian asset prices have done well in recent weeks, with the local stock market close to all-time highs, and the currency remaining strong. As for the outlook for 2008, analysts continue to paint a rosy picture for Brazil. But what could be wrong with this picture?

The consensus remains too optimistic on Brazil’s trade balance outlook for 2008, in our opinion. We recently argued that the market consensus for a US$35 billion trade surplus next year is simply too upbeat (see “Brazil: Waiting for Godot”, WIB, October 26, 2007). Our out-of-consensus forecast instead looks for a much narrower surplus, of about US$20 billion. The consensus forecast for the 2008 trade balance has started to drift lower, but still has a long way to go.

The current account balance should soon dip into deficit. The market consensus still looks for a current account surplus in 2008. That should change soon. As prospects for the trade surplus are revised down, so should the current account balance. After running in surplus for several years, the actual current account balance could move into negative terrain as early as 2Q08, in our view.

The consensus assumes just more of the same. What are analysts missing? We think the main problem is that the market consensus seems to simply assume ‘business as usual’ for 2008. It fails to recognize an evolving global landscape and its implications for Brazil’s trade outlook, against the backdrop of robust domestic demand growth and a strong currency.

The future is no longer what it used to be

The global environment is changing. History may view the years since 2003 as a uniquely favorable backdrop for emerging markets, with a potent combination of strong global growth and rapidly rising commodity prices. That picture may be changing in the coming year. The IMF, for instance, foresees a decline of 7% in non-fuel commodity prices next year, and a slowdown in global growth from 5.2% in 2007 to 4.8% in 2008, with risks biased to the downside.

Global growth risks are biased to the downside. Morgan Stanley now judges that the risks of a US recession have risen to about 40% (from around one-in-three before), and has recently revised down its 2008 US growth forecast to 1.7% (on a 4Q-over-4Q basis) from 2.1% before (see “The Credit Recession”, WIB, November 9, 2007). At the start of the year, the US 2008 forecast called for 3.0% growth.

The implications of a euro area growth slowdown tend to be overlooked. Although much market attention focuses on the US, analysts often appear to forget the importance of Europe for emerging markets. In fact, while the US takes 19% of emerging market exports, the Eurozone takes 28%. For Brazil’s exports, the US represents 19% and the Eurozone 22%. Morgan Stanley has called for euro area growth of 2.0% in 2008, down from 2.6% in 2007. But high oil prices, a strong euro and tight credit conditions could slow euro area growth to 1.5% next year (see “Oil at 100, Euro at 1.5, Credit Crunch: The Bill”, Global Economic Forum, November 5, 2007).

In all, our global GDP growth forecast now stands at 4.6%, but risks still seem biased to the downside. After several years in which global growth figures were repeatedly revised upwards, we may be entering a cycle of growth downgrades.

Let’s do the math

Soaring export prices have been a major plus for Brazil’s trade performance, but that could change. Amid strong global growth, Brazil’s export prices have climbed more than 50% since 2002. The trade surplus, which has run above US$40 billion lately, would be already running close to the US$20 billion mark at 2002 average prices. Note that, at 2002 prices, the trade surplus has actually started to narrow already since 2006. And as we have argued before, even a moderate decline in export prices can make a significant dent in the trade surplus.

The outlook for export volumes in 2008 is uninspiring. A historical series gauging the external demand for Brazil’s exports can be constructed, based on total import growth at Brazil’s main export destinations, weighted by their share of Brazil’s exports. The correlation of that series with Brazil’s exports is high. In addition, we projected the global demand for Brazil’s exports, based on Morgan Stanley’s individual country forecasts. The upshot is that the external demand for Brazil’s exports is projected to slow from 18% in 2006 to 16% in 2007, and then to 12% in 2008.

And a strong currency does not help export competitiveness. Our econometric work suggests that a change of one percentage point in global real GDP growth implies a change of four percentage points in the external demand for Brazil’s exports. In other words, if global real GDP growth slides to the 3-4% range, external demand would slow to the 5-10% range. This in turn could easily pull Brazil’s export volume growth close to a halt, as currency appreciation since 2003 has already acted to slow export volume growth to about 6% in the latest data.

The consensus forecast for imports looks too sanguine. Imports look bound to keep growing at a strong pace next year. Imports are highly correlated with domestic demand, as proxied by industrial production. In fact, in light of steady currency appreciation since 2003, imports have grown even faster than industrial production would have suggested. Looking ahead, the market consensus sees industrial production growth at 4.5% in 2008, relatively stable compared to recent figures. But the consensus forecasts a slowdown in import growth to about 15% in 2008, from a pace of almost 30% in the latest data, despite the consensus view that the currency will remain strong next year. Something has to give.

For years, strong export growth has allowed fast import growth amid currency appreciation without trade deterioration. This is changing. Since 2003, strong global growth and rising commodity prices, and the resulting push for export growth, has allowed imports to grow quickly under an appreciating currency at the same time that the trade balance still kept improving. However, as the global economy slows and prospects for exports turn less exuberant, the combination of robust domestic demand and a strong currency will likely take its toll on the trade balance.

It does not take absurd assumptions to see potential for a significant erosion in the trade balance. A simple sensitivity analysis suggests that a range of plausible assumptions on import and export growth can result in relatively large swings in the trade balance next year. For instance, a 10% change in exports means a change of about US$15 billion in the trade balance, while a 10% change in imports alter the trade balance by about US$11 billion.

Bottom line
The market consensus forecast for Brazil seems to assume business as usual. It fails to recognize important changes in the global environment. As the outlook for exports turns more challenging while imports keep growing on strong domestic demand, the trade surplus is bound to narrow faster than the market expects. In turn, Brazil’s current account balance should soon dip into deficit.

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