Page last updated at 22:40 GMT, Tuesday, 7 April 2009 23:40 UK

Brazil's consuming desire for status

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

Back in the late 1990s, Brazil's Pao de Acucar supermarket chain relaunched itself with a slogan that still speaks volumes about the country's aspirations to be a global power.

Brazilian supermarket
Even supermarkets bear witness to Brazil's hunger for acceptance

Henceforth, the company said, its biggest outlets, mainly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, would be "supermarkets worthy of the First World".

This turned out to mean that they were open 24 hours a day, six days a week (the exception being Sunday, the day when you are most likely to run short of groceries).

In fact, the one thing that was really reminiscent of the developed world was Pao de Acucar's pricing policy. Local corner shops were often considerably cheaper.

But the glamour of the "First World" pledge appealed to middle-class consumers with money to burn.

It caught the mood of a country that was busy burying its legacy of military rule and hyperinflation, while looking for a new role on the world stage.

Image issues

More than a decade later, Brazil has found that role as one of the Bric countries, grouped together in a handy acronym with Russia, India and China as one of the world's biggest emerging economies.

However, the Brics all want to do different things with their greater economic clout - assuming, that is, they survive the global recession in relatively good condition.

For Russia and China, secure in their status as members of the UN Security Council, it offers another way of fending off outsiders' attempts to intervene in their internal affairs.

Lula in London after the G20 summit
Lula is still making an impact on the world stage

Brazil, which continues to dream of a Security Council seat, is much more sensitive to concerns about how it is perceived abroad.

But given the international attention currently being lavished on Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, no-one can accuse him of not doing his bit to uphold the country's prestige.

At the G20 summit in London, no less a luminary than US President Barack Obama described his Brazilian counterpart as "the most popular politician on Earth".

And although Brazil has had its share of assistance from the International Monetary Fund in the past, Lula came away from the G20 gathering determined to position his country as an IMF creditor, not a debtor.

According to the Brazilian financial press, Lula is prepared to commit $10bn to the IMF - a full 5% of Brazil's international reserves.

The same Brazilian press jubilantly points out that China allocated a mere 2% of its international reserves to support the IMF expansion agreed at the summit, although that amounted to $40bn.

"I would like to go down in history as the president who lent money to the IMF," Lula was quoted as saying, adding, "Don't you think it is chic for Brazil to lend money to the IMF?"

Rate cuts

In fact, Brazil is having another "First World" moment at present as it struggles to respond to the global financial crisis.

For the first time, the authorities are able to respond to a downturn as a developed country would, by stimulating the economy instead of cutting back.

Safra bank building and other skyscrapers on Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo
Brazil's banks charge high interest rates, but they are coming down

Brazilian interest rates have traditionally been among the highest in the world, in part because of fears of a return to the runaway inflation that plagued the economy until 1994. In the late 1990s, rates were as high as 45%.

But in January, Brazil's central bank boss Henrique Meirelles cut the benchmark rate by a full percentage point, to 12.75%.

Then in March, rates came down by a further 1.5 percentage points to 11.25%, matching a record low last seen in April 2008.

At the next central bank committee meeting on 29 April, another one-point cut is likely. Single-digit rates are now expected before the end of the year, something most analysts never thought they would live to see.

Housing drive

As well as pursuing counter-cyclical monetary policy, Brazil is also seeking to produce its own fiscal stimulus package.

Last month, Finance Minister Guido Mantega announced plans to spend 34bn reais ($15.4bn; £10.3bn) on building one million homes for low-income workers.

He described it as "a bold programme" that would have "a significant impact on the Brazilian economy".

Morro da Providencia favela in Rio de Janeiro
For many poor Brazilians, owning your own home means living in a favela

Under the programme, families earning less than 1,395 reais a month will be able to acquire their own homes in exchange for payments of as little as 50 reais a month.

If the plan works, it will kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, it will address the financial crisis by increasing growth by up to 2%, and creating 1.5 million new jobs.

On the other, it will ease Brazil's housing problems, which are exacerbated by the fact that those high interest rates make it extremely difficult to afford a mortgage.

However, Brazil's overall macro-economic outlook is none too healthy at present.

In the final three months of 2008, gross domestic product shrank by 3.6% relative to the same period in 2007, representing its worst economic performance in more than a decade.

The government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had set a target of 4% growth for 2009, but that now appears hopelessly unrealistic.

Instead, the respected survey organisation Consensus Economics forecasts a contraction of 0.1%, which would still be the envy of many of the world's largest economies.

Grocery grandstand

If the IMF loan actually happens - and the central bank's Mr Meirelles stresses that it is still under "technical discussion" - it would certainly take Brazil's "First World" obsession to a whole new level.

But what about the current fortunes of the Pao de Acucar supermarket, more than a decade after its own bit of developed-country grandstanding?

Well, it has since gone from strength to strength. There are now 147 stores throughout Brazil bearing the Pao de Acucar brand, which is still targeted at more affluent consumers.

The group also operates another 434 stores under several more downmarket brands acquired through mergers and takeovers, making it the second-biggest retailer in Brazil with a market share of 13.3%.

But that expansion has come at a price. Once a wholly family-run firm, founded by Portuguese immigrant Valentim Dos Santos Diniz in Sao Paulo in 1948, it has been part-owned since 1999 by French retailer Casino.

Globalisation means that Brazilian firms can now compete internationally with developed-country rivals - but it also means that if you are successful, the "First World" may come looking for a piece of the action.

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