Sep 24th 2011 | BRASÍLIA | from the print edition | The Economist
ON SEPTEMBER 15th Guido Mantega, Brazil’s finance minister, announced a 30-point increase in the country’s industrial-product tax on cars. The amount was startling, but the purpose familiar. Cars that are mostly made in Brazil, Mexico or the Mercosur trade block will be exempt; only importers will pay. “Brazilian consumption has been appropriated by imports,” he said in announcing the tax.
According to the National Carmakers’ Association, poor infrastructure and pricey credit and labour mean that making cars is 60% more expensive in Brazil than in China. Local manufacturers have long relied on high tariffs. Imports are gaining market share, from 16% of sales in 2009 to 23% this year. The new measure will probably reverse that trend, since it will increase the price of imports by a quarter.
The government has taken small steps to help local firms. In August it cut payroll taxes for a few labour-intensive industries. But mostly it has tried to keep out foreign goods and capital. Mr Mantega says Brazil is “under siege” from imports. Last month the government tweaked procurement rules to favour local products (Chinese-made army uniforms were an irritant). In the past year Mr Mantega has raised taxes on foreign capital. He wants the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to let countries levy tariffs on imports from places that artificially weaken their currencies.
This muscular approach continues a practice of rewriting rules to favour locals. Foreign firms can only pump oil in the recently discovered pré-sal oilfields as junior partners of the state-controlled Petrobras. Previously they could bid for all concessions on equal terms. Tax breaks will soon make locally built tablet computers a third cheaper than imports, leading Foxconn to set up a Brazilian plant to make iPads. The national development bank, BNDES, has transformed from a stodgy local lender into a chooser of national champions. Its loan book is now twice as big as the World Bank’s, and it funds foreign buying sprees by Brazilian firms.
Farmland is being treated as a strategic asset on a par with oil. Last year, spooked by the idea of foreign sovereign-wealth funds and state-owned firms buying up vast tracts, the government resurrected a 1971 law limiting the amount of rural land foreigners can buy. It was revived even though in the 1990s it was deemed incompatible with the new democratic constitution and open economy. The details are under review: foreigners may be allowed to buy a bit more without restriction, and still more if the government thinks it is in the national interest. But there is no timetable for passing a new law. The Brazilian Rural Society estimates that $15 billion of planned foreign agriculture investments are being dropped.
The strength of the new protectionist mood can be gauged by the government’s willingness to tolerate legal uncertainty and collateral damage. It reintroduced the antique land-ownership law despite knowing that its flawed design would almost halt much-needed foreign investment. Since it limits the total share of each district that can be owned by foreigners, many land registries are playing it safe and rejecting all foreign purchasers. Kory Melby, an agricultural consultant, advises foreigners on land purchases in Brazil. He says he has heard from furious sellers whose deals are now “as good as garbage”.
Car importers are mulling a challenge to the tax increase at the WTO. At issue is whether a tax that can be avoided by producing locally is an import tariff in disguise. Their trade group is trying a different legal tack: it says that the government was obliged to give 90 days’ notice (it gave only one). Chinese carmakers building Brazilian factories are lobbying hard. They say that they will be unfairly hit, since ramping up production in a new plant takes years. Foreigners whose plans are less advanced may opt for a complete rethink.
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