Updated 1 year, 4 months ago

Brazil cut to 'junk' credit rating

WHEN Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president, presented a budget with a gaping primary deficit (before interest payments) of 0.5% of GDP last week, many (including this newspaper) despaired. It was only a matter of time, the worriers warned, before such fiscal incontinence would cost Brazil its cherished investment-grade credit rating. Few expected the raters to react quite so quickly. On September 9th Standard & Poor's, which in 2008 had led the way in upgrading Brazil to respectability, became the first agency to downgrade the country's foreign-currency government debt back to junk. S&P has kept Brazil on negative watch, saying it has a one-in-three chance of sinking deeper into speculative territory.

To some extent, S&P's decision had been priced in already. For months the cost of insuring Brazilian government bonds against default has been higher than for Turkish ones, which are rated as junk. Following last week's budget announcement the real slid by 6% against the dollar.

As our article went to press markets were nevertheless bracing for a jumpy Thursday (S&P moved after they closed the night before). In after-hours trading in New York, a basket of Brazilian equities lost 4%; Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, saw its American-listed shares drop by 5%. Another hint that not everything was priced in, notes Alberto Ramos of Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, were the 200 anxious e-mails which flooded his inbox in the hour following S&P's announcement.

Some capital flight is inevitable. Pension and mutual funds which can only hold investment-grade assets will now offload Brazilian government bonds at a brisker pace, in anticipation of similar downgrades by Moody's and Fitch (typically, two of the big three rating agencies need to declare junk status to force divestment). This will not cripple Brazil of today, with its diversified economy and plump foreign-exchange reserves, as it might have in more chaotic days. But the government's already-high borrowing costs will rise further, raising the risk of another downgrade. Capital will also become pricier for companies. None of this will help Brazil shake off the recession it slid into in the second quarter.

How politicians will react is less clear. The downgrade is certainly a slap in the face for the finance minister, Joaquim Levy, a hawkish former investment banker brought in last year mainly to prevent it. To be fair, many of his proposed fiscal measures, including modest cuts to welfare spending, were watered down by an unruly Congress over which Ms Rousseff—with her popularity in single digits and a huge corruption scandal plaguing her coalition—has no control. Only Congress can unlock the roughly 90% of the budget that is currently ring-fenced, that it might be sheared. S&P may yet motivate them to do so. Then again, now that the cosh has fallen, congressmen (and ministers inimical to Mr Levy's belt-tightening) may conclude that further austerity is pointless. It wouldn't be the first time.

The Economist |