Monetary Policy

Brazil's Mysteriously Timed Interest Rate Cut


Who sets interest rates in Brazil: Is it Central Bank President Alexandre Tombini or the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff? That question hung over financial markets after the Central Bank of Brazil cut the benchmark Selic interest rate by half a point, to 12 percent, on Aug. 31. The move was unexpected: The bank’s rate-setting committee had ratcheted up the Selic at its five previous meetings to combat inflation and had not signaled a change in its stance. Yet Rousseff in an Aug. 30 radio broadcast had said rates should begin to fall as the government curbs spending.

The abruptness of the shift in monetary policy left money managers such as Guilherme Figueiredo, director of M. Safra, a São Paulo investment firm, with the impression that Tombini had caved in to political pressure. “This is the worst possible decision our central bank could have made at such a moment,” Figueiredo says. “The loss of credibility is going to be large.” Rousseff’s press office declined to comment when asked about the rate decision.

New data indicate that Tombini may have acted prematurely. On Sept. 6, Brazil’s statistics agency said inflation accelerated to an annualized 7.23 percent in August—its fastest pace since 2005 and well above the 6.5 percent upper end of the target range set by monetary authorities for the full year. In an Aug. 31 statement the central bank defended the rate cut, saying it will help shield the economy from the effects of a “substantial deterioration” in the world growth outlook.

It’s true that Brazil shows signs of cooling. The central bank’s economic activity index shrank in June for the first time since 2008, and business confidence in the second quarter slid to its lowest level since 2009. Economists expect growth to slow to 3.7 percent this year, from 7.5 percent in 2010.

Finance Minister Guido Mantega has pledged that the government won’t resort to fiscal stimulus to spur the economy. Whether Rousseff, who took office on Jan. 1, can discipline the spending habits of the multiparty ruling coalition remains an open question, however. Congress rebelled against her first attempts at frugality by proposing bigger salaries for police officers and an increase in health-care spending. Cutting rates in these circumstances “is really risky, with inflation building and wages set to rise,” says Elson Teles, chief economist at Maxima Asset Management in Rio de Janeiro. The central bank is “weighing such subjective things like whether there’s going to be another global recession. What if it doesn’t happen?”

The bottom line: Brazil’s central bank may have bowed to government pressure for a rate cut, endangering its goal of containing inflation.

Ragir is a reporter for Bloomberg News.
Bristow is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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