Brazil – can she be everybody’s friend?

Brazil’s diplomats must be quietly pleased with their week’s work.

Last weekend, the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, fresh from being named the world’s second most powerful woman (after Chancellor Merkel of Germany) by Forbes magazine, was one of the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Ethiopia. A few days later she was playing host to the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, who confirmed Ms Rousseff has been invited to Washington on a state visit in October.

This one week in President Rousseff’s diary demonstrates something significant that has changed without much coverage in the western media – the unique role Brazil has been carving out for itself in world affairs. Brasilia sees itself as the emerging power  that’s uniquely placed to be the intermediary between the established powers in the global North and the global South.

So far, Brazil has played this role with some success in international trade talks and climate change negotiations, but has had less success persuading other countries to support its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council or its ill-fated attempt – along with Turkey – in 2010 to broker a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

What lies behind this ambition? Continue reading

The “fifth BRIC” motors along

Indonesia, sometimes known as the “fifth BRIC” (after Brazil Russia India China) because of its population size and growth potential, now has debt rated at investment grade for the first time since the Asian financial crisis:

While a credit-rating cut hangs over some nations, the Southeast Asian giant’s sovereign debt has been bumped back up to investment grade by Fitch Ratings, in December, and Moody’s Investors Service this week. Standard & Poor’s will surely follow suit.

Investors have already rewarded the country for solid fundamentals—foreign direct investment grew 20.2% last year to a record $19.3 billion, the government said Thursday, and, earlier this month, Indonesia sold 30-year bonds at a record-low yield of 5.375%. Meanwhile, gross domestic product growth is trotting along at a healthy 6%-plus, public debt is under control, and inflation is relatively benign at under 6%. Still, there are reasons to be cautious.

Corruption and weak infrastructure are perennial problems. Crumbling roads and inadequate ports especially stifle trade, costing as much as 1% of GDP, according to analysts. A recently enacted land acquisition bill should help. But there is much work to be done.

While India and China gain many more headlines, Indonesia may be both a more attractive bet for investors and a better case study for development professionals trying to find lessons applicable to less developed countries.

From BRICs to PIGS: what’s in a name?

First there was BRICs. Then came CIVETS. Then we were presented with BASIC, CRIM, BRICK, CEMENT, BEM, N11 and the 7% Club. Now barely a week goes by before someone tries to float another ‘useful’ investment acronym.

Behind the dense forest of exotic acronyms is a simple fact: the catch-all classification ‘emerging markets’ has lost much of its usefulness. It was invented in the 1980s, by World Bank economist Antoine van Agtmael, to replace the now-defunct acronym LEDCs (or ‘less economically developed countries’) by which the West had until then blithely referred to the rest of the world. The term ‘emerging markets’ served as a useful way to refer to fast-growing although crisis-prone markets like Russia, China and Mexico.

Within the term ‘emerging markets’ was quite a 1980s-assumption: these markets would follow the development route laid down by ‘developed’ economies, until they arrived in the neo-liberal end point reached by the US, the UK and other western countries. And the phrase also came to have strong associations with the currency and debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s.

But things have changed. The bigger emerging market countries have now overtaken the weaker developed markets, not just in total GDP, but also in the pricing they pay on their sovereign debt. Emerging market countries like China and Russia have accumulated trillions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves, and are now the main creditors of western sovereigns. In the 1980s, emerging markets depended on the west for capital inflows. Now the situation is reversed, and the US and EU depend on China to buy their sovereign debt.

It was partly to recognize this shift in economic power to emerging markets that Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill introduced the now-famous acronym BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in 2001. It was a runaway success. A decade on, and MSCI has launched a BRIC index, there are several BRIC-focused funds, BRIC-focused blogs, BRIC conferences, and the leaders of the BRIC countries even held their own BRIC summit in 2009. 

However, the success of the acronym, and the increase in capital flows to BRIC markets that followed, quickly led to questions and criticisms of the BRIC tag. In 2008, for example, when Russia’s economy slid into recession following the war with Georgia and the Credit Crunch, some analysts suggested Russia should be dropped from the grouping. This suggestion was sufficiently alarming to Russia that it organized not one but two BRIC summits in Russia in 2009. . Continue reading

On the web: history and economics, the voice of the BRICs, and the UK’s emerging three-party politics…

– Writing in the The New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells highlight the importance of historical perspective in understanding the financial crisis. Experience, they suggest, shows that a failure to implement significant post-crisis reforms leads to “a resurgence of financial folly, which always flourishes given a chance.”

Michael Pomerleano explains the need for a new institution with the necessary legitimacy to provide global financial stability, arguing that “[n]ational public policies can no longer be independent of global collective-action problems”. Amartya Sen, meanwhile, explores the continuing significance of the 18th Century ideas of Adam Smith to contemporary global economic troubles.

– Elsewhere, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Henry Kissinger offers his views on Obama’s recent nuclear initiatives, US-China relations, and coherence among the BRICs. Over at World Politics Review, Nikolas Gvosdev reports on the lack of support forthcoming among BRIC countries for strict sanctions on Iran and highlights some of the other options open to the US administration in dealing with Tehran. Jonathan Holslag, meanwhile, assesses China’s recent diplomatic “charm offensive”, concluding that this will yield little over the long-term if words aren’t backed up by meaningful action.

– Finally, two television debates and nearly three weeks into the British general election campaign, David Marquand explains why this is “a moment for careful historical reconnaissance”. Assessing the rise of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, he explores comparisons with the three-party politics of Britain in the early 1920s. The FT’s Philip Stephens, meanwhile, assesses the impact of the debates and the implications of a hung parliament for the British electoral system.