From The Economist print edition
Why Brazil looks in better shape than many other emerging markets
RIGHT now it is hard to walk around swanky parts of São Paulo without running into someone who has an uncle, a cousin or a brother involved in a company float. As many as 27 firms made their debut on the São Paulo exchange, known as Bovespa, in the first half of the year, surpassing the total number of floats in the whole of 2006. And they keep coming.
IPO-fever is such that shares in the exchange itself were due to start trading on October 26th, as The Economist went to press. It should be a coming-of-age party for a market that has broadened, deepened and bounded ahead recently (see chart).
This is quite a turnaround. Five years ago interest rates were so high that investing in equities was an esoteric pastime. Trading volumes were languishing and companies were rushing to delist.
Since then, three things have happened. First, interest rates have come down. Second, steps have been taken to improve corporate governance. And third, Brazil's public finances have been tidied up by a combination of good housekeeping and the commodities boom. Even Warren Buffett, a shrewd American investor, has been buying the Brazilian currency.
The flirtation with equities is still in its infancy. Years of high interest rates have given Brazil a fixed-income culture, says Eduardo Mufarej of Tarpon Investment Group. Only a tiny proportion of Brazilians own shares. As interest rates continue to head down, Brazilian pension funds should increase their exposure to equities, which now lies at just 16%, excluding those of state-owned Banco de Brasil. Itaú, a Brazilian bank, reckons this will add up to an annual flow to the Bovespa worth between 18.5 and 24.5 billion reais ($10.2 billion and $13.6 billion) until 2010, which is more than foreign investors have put into the market during the past decade.
The same forces that have benefited equities have brought all sorts of snazzy new debt products to Brazil in the past couple of years. Mortgage and credit-card debts, which did not exist when interest rates hovered somewhere above the Corcovado mountain, are now being bundled together into securities and sold. The adventurous are even getting excited about more exotic products, such as precatórios, which bundle local-government debts.
How sustainable is all this? On the one hand, the IPO activity has been good for corporate governance. In order to attract interest, the recent IPOs have had to sign up to so-called novo mercado guidelines, which do away with the dual share classes, over-friendly board members and non-existent protection for minority shareholders that made life hazardous for outside investors. A further boost to confidence should come when Brazil's sovereign debt is upgraded to investment grade, which most people expect will happen within the next 18 months.
Familiar dangers lurk, though. Lots of good companies have taken advantage of favourable conditions to come to the market, but some pretty dreadful ones have too, according to Paulo Bilyk of Rio Bravo Investments. Brazil is more open than many other emerging markets and so more vulnerable to hot money. Some 70% of the money for the IPOs has come from foreign investors. That money would probably be the first to head for the exits in any wobble. And some of the new stocks are illiquid. Still, for the moment things are looking good. If you don't believe us, say São Paulo's financiers, ask Mr Buffett.