Wrong Choices

This is a (translated and edited) text of the blog of Miriam Leitão, economist and columnist for O Globo
The response of Lula’s government to the financial crisis has serious defects: some market sectors are benefiting but not the entire economy, and incentives are given without something in return. The car, a product for the middle class and the rich got a tax waiver, the employees of the automakers received an employment guarantee, but the sugar-alcohol sector has neither, not even a guarantee of the labour laws.

In the United States, aid to the automakers was given under the condition of environmental Justify Fullimprovements. Here, nothing was requested from the automakers, except to keep labour employed, which creates a distortion in the economy: all Brazilians can be dismissed, except employees of the automotive sector and public officials.

March 30 was the “Day of Cars”, here and in the US. There, the president of General Motors fell in disgrace because the government refused his plan for the adjustment and adaptation to the requirements. I do not want to compare the aid of billions of direct tax-dollars to the coffers of the auto-industry in the US, to the tax waiver here, but insist that this was a great opportunity to induce changes upon the Brazilian auto-manufacturers.

The new president of GM will have 60 days to submit a new plan, but already started to say that the new cars will be different. Frederick Henderson said that the automaker is one or two generations behind in green technology for cars and that the company will have to learn to make money on light cars, and not just SUVs. Another requirement is that of a fiscal adjustment in the company, which will separate good assets and problematic liabilities difficult to digest, such as the employees’ pension fund.

Over in the U.S. it is entirely different, but it is important to see the attitude of governments, in helping the industry. The Obama administration has asked something in return. The Lula government extended the reduction of the IPI-tax for cars and trucks requiring only keeping employment at the same level. It is worth remembering that the manufacturers of trucks did not meet the requirement, from the beginning of 2009, to manufacture only trucks with clean diesel engines. After seven years of delay, they said they were not prepared and needed three more years to deliver here in Brazil, what they deliver in other countries already for years. This, for example, could have been a consideration, a quid pro quo.

The complete absence of concern of the Lula government for the environment is shocking. Yesterday the government reduced the IPI-tax to zero for electric showers, high consumers of energy, and a product which has been abandoned in other countries. Electric showers have had a reduction of the IPI before and have now been set to zero along with other conventional building materials such as cement and brick. The Ministry of the Environment had asked to equalize the tax for the electric shower (which was 5%) with solar panels (which pay 18%). The decision “has not yet been taken” and is still in consideration by the Treasury.

End of March Banco do Brasil got authorized to extend the credit line of the FAT Giro Rural for two years. The credit line is BRL 4 billion (USD 1,8 billion) and the first trance will be paid from April 1. The agribusiness is getting an aid package for the sugar-alcohol sector and the production of meat, two flagrant champions of slave labour. Livestock breeding is directly related to the deforestation of the Amazon. The BNDES (Development Bank) will make a classic rescue operation, supplying BRL 200 million (USD 87 million) for a bankrupt slaughterhouse, which operates in a deforested area. In none of the aid programmes any change in conduct was negotiated, neither in relation to the workers, nor in regard to the environment. This all happens as if the Brazilian government is not of this world.

The vehicle per capita in Brazil, according to Anfavea (Automobile Manufacturers Association), is one vehicle for every eight inhabitants. This is the overall average, taking into account the population and the fleet of 25.5 million cars. Just to compare, the same density in the US. is one vehicle for every 1.2 inhabitants, in Japan it is one vehicle for every 1.7 inhabitants, in Mexico it is one for 4.7 inhabitants, in Argentina it is a car for every 5.2 inhabitants, all data from Anfavea.

The 2000 census said that 54.4 million Brazilians lived in households that had one or more cars, which then represented 32% of the population. Imagining that this percentage has grown a bit, as the sales of vehicles increased – though most new cars have been bought by the same families who had cars before, but some new entered the market – who owns a car belongs to the middle class and from there upwards. The two figures show that the motorized do not reach 40% of the population. The ones who buy a new car are exactly the ones who have a higher income.

The government did something that will benefit only the middle class and the rich, protected only employees of automakers and support the agribusiness without requiring any change of conduct.

Lula is losing the chance to change opened up by the crisis.