Do Brazil’s woes mark the bottom for emerging markets?

Brazil's economy has suffered a triple whammy of political corruption, a strong dollar and depressed commodity prices. But now things are turning around. Are emerging markets now a buy?


Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff: impeachment process against her is under way

The stockmarket can be brutal on the ego.

We've all seen it. A chief executive or a high-ranking board member steps down and their company's share price goes up.

Ouch. Obviously, the bruised ego pains can be soothed by the corresponding increase in the value of their shares package. But still. It can't be nice to know that your contribution to the company effectively had a negative value.

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So think how much worse former Brazilian president Luiz Incio Lula da Silva must feel.

He gets taken in by the local police for questioning. And suddenly it's the end of an entire nation's bear market

Brazil's rich political soap opera

Investigations are ongoing. But it's all just part of Brazil's rich political soap opera.

Current president Dilma Rousseff (also of the ruling "Workers' Party") has separately been accused of knowingly manipulating public accounts. An impeachment process against her is also under way.

Yet markets have shot up on the Lula news. The Brazilian real jumped by more than 2% against the dollar, and the Brazilian stock exchange the Bovespa surged.

As Neil Shearing of Capital Economics notes, the key here is that if the investigation into Lula can prove that funds taken from Petrobras were used to finance Rousseff's re-election campaign in 2014, then that result could eventually end up being annulled, and fresh elections called.

But that's a long way into the future. As Shearing puts it, markets seem to be "looking through the possibility of a further period of political uncertainty and towards the possibility of new elections and a shift towards more centrist market-friendly policies".

This does seem somewhat hopeful, particularly as Shearing notes given "the backdrop of an economy that is in its worst recession since the 1930s, together with growing disenchantment with the ruling elite".

That's not exactly a recipe for electing a market-friendly government (as we've seen in both the US and the UK).

But could there be more to Brazil's rebound than this?

The real reason to buy emerging markets they're cheap

They're all good contrarian points, and they're exactly the sort of sentiment that John Authers was getting at in the Financial Times this weekend when he asked if Lula's predicament could mark the bottom for emerging markets.

As you'll have noticed, it's not just Brazil that's been suffering. Most emerging markets have been crushed by a combination of the strong dollar and collapsing commodity prices.

But that's left them looking cheap. Many emerging markets are trading at levels not seen since 2008. And many of their currencies are at record lows versus the US dollar.

Meanwhile, the kicker is that the two factors that have been crushing them have slowly but surely been turning around in the last few months. The prices of several key raw materials have been creeping back up.

And as for the US dollar, following the Fed's tiny rate rise in December, and the fit of market nerves that ensued, the market no longer expects rates to keep rising quite as rapidly as it once feared. As a result, the dollar's relentless rise has eased somewhat.

In short, while Lula's troubles are a nice, big, obvious news event to hang a "This is the bottom" sign on, the reality is more straightforward than that.

As Authers puts it: "It might well make sense to buy emerging markets again, simply because after long years of a bear market they are far cheaper, while the US market looks expensive by almost any sensible metric."

We look at Brazil and the best way to buy in, in the current issue of MoneyWeek magazine. (If you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up here.)

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.