President Trump has Brazil all wrong. And the market seems to think so as well, because the country’s stock market is beating the S&P 500 and the rest of the emerging markets index again on Wednesday.
The self-described “tariff man” reinstated tariffs on Brazilian steel on Tuesday. He blamed a weak Brazilian real for his decision, saying the weakened currency makes Brazilian steel more attractive to world markets, including in the States. A weaker currency definitely makes Brazilian goods more price-competitive. But despite the currency weakening significantly since late July—going from R$3.72 on July 18 to a five-year low of R$4.23 on November 29 —Brazil’s revenue from steel exports is in decline.
In other words, Brazil is not gaming the forex market to sell more steel, as Trump alludes.
Brazil’s Economic Minister Paulo Guedes, a market fave, said today that Trump was making a “very serious mistake” in accusing Brazil of deliberately pushing down the value of its currency.
The Brazil Steelers?
Depending on the product line and product code set by the Brazilian Foreign Trade Ministry, export value of semi-manufactured steel products fell 21.67% in November, worldwide. Steel laminate exports fell even more, by 51%.
Year-to-date exports of steel products have not been helped one bit by the foreign exchange rate. Semi-manufactured steel exports fell 15.9%. Steel laminate exports are down 18%.
The Brazilian real is down roughly 8% against the dollar year-to-date, so these values are not all due to a weaker currency eating up export profits.
The U.S. is the No. 2 destination for Brazilian goods after China. Steel products are second only to crude oil. But like crude oil, steel shipment values are also down from January to November. The U.S. imported 12.7% less worth of Brazilian steel over an 11-month period than a year ago, totaling $2.5 billion.
All told, Brazil exports to the U.S. for the year are up 2.7% to $26.9 billion, helped along primarily by a surge in gasoline, ethanol and coffee bean exports—not steel.
China is not a a major steel importer. It produces its own steel and instead buys the iron ore pellets used to make steel. China imported 21% more iron ore from Brazil so far this year, according to the Foreign Trade Ministry.
Brazil’s other top trading partners are not importing ship-loads of steel either. Holland, Brazil’s No. 3 export market, saw a 0.5% increase in certain steel products, such as steel rebar, for a total of $1.02 billion.
Perhaps Trump is looking at Mexico imports of semi-manufactured steel. That’s a top 10 export market for Brazil, and steel sales rose 26.7% to $157 million.
Spain increased its purchase of Brazilian steel this year, too, rising 21.4% to $54 million.
It is unclear if any of these buyers sourced from Brazil instead of the U.S. But even if they did, this happens worldwide every day in market economies. What should worry Trump, if anything, is more Brazilian steel coming into the United States at the expense of local producers.
According to Gerdau, a Brazilian multinational steel producer with steel mills in the U.S., volume of Brazilian steel shipments in the third quarter fell 17%. Volumes of steel shipments over the last 9 months compared to the same period a year ago fell 20.1%.
See: Market Totally Ignores Brazil Tariffs — Forbes
The weaker real is not helping Brazilian steel.
Trump also noted that the weaker real makes Brazilian soy more competitive, to the detriment to American farmers.
Brazilian soybeans are priced in dollars. The only price differential is due to Brazil’s logistical cost, which sometimes makes Brazilian soy more expensive in dollar terms.
The good news for Brazilian farmers is that they can transfer their dollar revenue into their local currency and get more reals because of the strong dollar. But overall, Brazil’s weaker currency does not give it a pricing power beyond what Brazil has always had in comparison to the U.S. The Brazilian real averages at least two times cheaper than the dollar.
Like in the U.S., China is Brazil’s largest soy buyer. China is basically boycotting U.S. soy and buying more Brazilian soy, taking the U.S. out of the top spot as world’s leading soybean exporter. That’s not Brazil’s fault.
Unless Trump thinks Brazilian agribusiness firms should tell the Chinese to buy from their American friends instead, Brazil’s soy export boom of last year is because China turned away from the U.S. in revenge for Trump’s trade war.
Even though last year was a banner year for Brazilian soy exports to China, this year is not turning out as well in terms of revenue. Soy exports to China in dollar terms are down 23.8% year to date to $19.5 billion.
Agroconsult, a Brazilian agribusiness market intelligence firm, estimates that China imports of Brazilian soybeans will decline in this next harvest by around 10%.
Brazil’s Currency: Not The Renminbi
This year, the U.S. Treasury went against its long-standing tradition of refraining from calling China a currency manipulator. This week, Trump hinted that Brazil was practicing competitive devaluations in order to make its currency weaker. So now Brazil is a currency manipulator, of sorts.
No one in the market believes for a second that Brazil manipulates their forex market.
In 2008, months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, Brazil’s finance minister at the time—Guido Mantega—lamented the Brazilian real trading at a strong R$1.60 to the dollar. Mantega famously said the U.S. was engaging in a “currency war” with the weak dollar.
Then the market collapsed. The Great Recession hit, and all emerging market currencies tumbled. The currency war was forgotten until around 2011 when quantitative easing was in full effect. The real strengthened again to around R$1.55 in intraday trading in June of that year. It was the strongest the Brazilian real has ever been. The real weakened over the next several years for a number of factors, including more money flowing into the advanced economies thanks to the Fed and European Central Bank—and a growing political crisis in Brazil that led to an economic crisis. Brazil is only now clawing its way out of its own Great Recession.
The Brazilian Central Bank intervened twice in the forex market last week, selling between $2 billion to $3 billion to avoid an even weaker currency. It was the first intervention in the spot market since 2009, but it clearly triggered Trump.
“The real has weakened this year for ‘good’ reasons,” says Jan Dehn, head of research for the Ashmore Group, a $95 billion asset manager primarily invested in emerging market debt.
Local interest rates have declined to the lowest level ever thanks to declining inflation rates and a full restoration of central bank credibility under the new government.
Low rates have in turn allowed companies to repay dollar-denominated debt and borrow in local currency at similar levels of interest rates instead.
This has led to an increase in the demand for dollars to repay debt. More demand for dollars means less demand for reals as companies sell reals to buy dollars to pay back loans. That’s pushing the currency lower in the short term.
Dehn says the Brazilian real also weakened recently for pure technical reasons. “Investors went long the real in anticipation of large foreign direct investment into the oil and gas sector in the recent concessions. The auction was a success for Petrobras, which secured the right to operate very productive assets. However, foreign participation was slim (only 10% of one field), which left currency speculators frustrated,” he notes, as expectations for dollar inflows into Brazil’s oil and gas market fell flat.
The unwinding of the bullish real bet coincided with well-known year-end seasonal dividend remittances. And then the currency took another hit from a data release, which showed Brazil’s trade deficit was growing when it really was not.
Last week, November export numbers were corrected showing the trade balance is in surplus to the tune of $37.6 billion year to date. That surplus is not to the detriment of U.S. steel manufacturers, or the U.S. farmer, as Trump believes.
The U.S. has an $8.1 billion trade surplus with Brazil, according to Census data.
The problem is China tariffs on U.S. soy leading to what amounts to bans on Chinese companies buying American soy. They’ve turned to Brazil.
American steel may have its own issues that have little to do with Brazil. Trump and his Commerce Department have provided no words on Brazil flooding the U.S. with cheap steel products.
How long before Trump rescinds these tariffs on Brazilian steel is anybody’s guess.
Brazil was exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs in May 2018 and never really put in place to begin with. Quotas were put in place instead.
“To change the quotas to tariffs would require new Presidential Proclamations as tariffs can’t be reimposed by a tweet. At this writing, we are still awaiting these proclamations,” says Paul Nathanson, executive director of the Coalition of American Metal Manufacturers and Users. “If the President does move forward with these tariffs, it would likely lead to an immediate legal challenge,” he says.
A current U.S. Court of International Trade case on steel tariffs involves an earlier decision by President Trump to raise the so-called Section 232 steel tariff on Turkey to 50%. The Court ruled against the president’s actions against Turkey because he did not give a reason for raising the tariff only on Turkish steel and he did not follow proper procedures in issuing the Proclamation on the matter, Nathanson says.
It might be for this reason that Wall Street doesn’t seem too worried about Brazilian steel being roadblocked at the ports by Trump.