2014 will be a pivotal year for Brazil

Multinationals are struggling to assess whether and when Brazil will return to high-growth after three years of disappointing economic performance, and more specifically, they want to understand how 2014 – a pivotal year with the World Cup and the October presidential elections – will affect their businesses in the near future.

FSG recently published a report specifically addressing most of these questions. The report is intended to equip senior executives with the knowledge to:

  • Understand Brazil’s new economic reality: Over the last decade, Brazil’s ability to grow beyond 2–3% was driven by internal and external growth accelerators, which began to subside in 2011. These accelerators were: workforce growth; a massive credit expansion; a commodity super cycle driven by China’s demand for commodities; and high levels of capital flows into the country. A return to higher growth will depend on the government’s ability to pass key structural reforms, and implement effective policies that lift gross fixed investment and productivity levels in the economy. Unfortunately, 2014’s calendar will not be conducive to any major reforms or investments, and the likelihood of significant reforms emerging over the medium term will depend heavily on which candidate wins the elections in October.

Brazil Outlook and long range scenarios

  • Set expectations for 2014’s economic performance: Brazil is set to muddle through 2014 with the help of government spending and decent private consumption. However, investment will remain muted due to higher uncertainty about where the economy is headed. While FSG believes that Brazil is likely to grow around 2% in 2014, there are two major downside risks to our forecast: 1) persistent high inflation that forces the central bank to continue raising interest rates and limit credit growth; and 2) a rapid deterioration of fiscal accounts that prompts the government to reduce spending, raise taxes, and delay infrastructure investments, in order to avoid a sovereign risk downgrade by credit agencies.
  • Monitor signposts for the October presidential elections: Although FSG believes Rousseff remains the favorite to win in October’s elections, economic turmoil and social unrest during the World Cup could rapidly erode her popularity down to July 2013 levels, when Brazilians took the streets to protest against widespread corruption and the poor quality of public services. If momentum for change were to build, we could see Rousseff as more vulnerable to the Eduardo Campos-Marina Silva alliance (PSB-Rede) than to Aecio Neves (PSDB), despite Neves’s current strength in the polls.
  • Assess economic growth prospects for 2015 and beyond: Regardless of who wins the elections, 2015 will be a tough year of adjustment, as Brazil tries to regain credibility in its macroeconomic framework by restoring its fiscal balance and reducing transfers from the treasury to public banks. Over the long term, a return to high growth is less likely with Rousseff than with Campos, as we see Rousseff’s PT as less prone to undertake the reforms and policies that the country needs to unlock investment growth and produce productivity gains.

In the report we provide a detailed analysis of the key signposts to monitor ahead of the October presidential elections, as well as a comparison of the policy agendas of Rouseff and Campos, and their likely impact to multinationals in different sectors. FSG clients can access the full report here.

Download the podcast

Memo to EMEA and LATAM regional heads: time to pick up the phone and chat

Struggling to Combat Slowing Growth and Rising Costs in Key BRICS Markets?

A conversation with your regional counterpart in EMEA, LATAM, or APAC can help you understand the common structural factors driving lackluster growth and help you re-set corporate expectations for growth in 2014

BRIC deceleration

2013 has been a difficult year for the BRICs—economic growth has decelerated across the board due to the confluence of external headwinds and domestic inefficiencies, while the political will to push for necessary structural reforms has proven elusive.

For emerging markets executives seeking to respond to slowing growth in key BRICS markets, cross-regional conversations can be valuable for issue diagnosis and strategy development. The premise of the argument here is a simple one: common problems can and ought to be identified, so that viable strategies for driving profitable growth given less favorable medium-term prospects for the BRICs can be replicated and applied across regions.

I’ve been ruminating about Brazil’s slowdown and potential for recuperation in 2014 for several quarters now, while my EMEA colleague, Martina Bozadzhieva, has been doing the same with respect to Russia.  However,  it wasn’t until we had an opportunity to sit down together and discuss the dynamics driving Brazil and Russia that we learned how much these two seemingly disparate markets have in common.

Listen to our podcast below for a quick recap of the structural factors driving lackluster growth in Brazil and Russia, and get a cross-regional perspective on strategies for managing corporate expectations and improving bottom-line performance across the BRICS.

Download the podcast or access the entire FSG iTunes library here

Sluggish Growth in Brazil is Driving MNCs to Invest in Efficiency-Enhancing Measures

Brazil Economy

The case for Brazil is getting harder to make

While the Brazilian economy grew faster than expected during the second quarter, full-fledged recovery remains elusive and several rounds of interest rate hikes have yet to rein in stubbornly high inflation. FSG is expecting relatively weak GDP growth of 2-2.2% YOY in 2013, with potential for electorally-motivated fiscal stimulus to drive growth of around 2.7% YOY in 2014. These numbers are disappointing, and underscore the extent to which Brazil’s long-term potential remains constrained by structural bottlenecks and protectionist policies.

Most multinationals are in Brazil for the long haul, but many plan to limit investment

Here at FSG, we have been carefully tracking multinational sentiment with respect to Brazil, and on a recent trip to Miami, I had the opportunity to sit down with many of the LATAM executives we work with to discuss how the role of Brazil within their regional portfolios has changed as economic growth has slowed.

Suffice it to say that while weak prospects have put a damper on sentiment, few executives are contemplating pulling out of the market. However, many executives I have spoken with in recent weeks anticipate holding investment flat over the near- to medium-term, with the potential for scaling back presence if the situation does not improve over the course of 2014-2015.

Interestingly, this sort of pessimism is gaining ground in spite of high top-line growth. Most executives we work with don’t anticipate that Brazil’s slowdown will have a significant impact on their ability to reach ambitious revenue-growth targets, largely because in a market the size of Brazil, there is still white space to be found. Rather, they are concerned about hitting bottom-line targets, and with good reason: Brazil’s high-cost, protectionist operating environment poses a significant drag on margins for foreign multinationals.

Recent exchange rate volatility is making an already-difficult situation worse 

FSG Client Poll

The Brazilian real has been remarkably volatile over the course of Q3-early Q4, depreciating to a low of 2.45 BRL/USD in late August as investors were originally anticipating that the United States would begin to taper bond purchases in September. A majority of companies we work with report that they have built their budgets for 2013 around an anticipated exchange rate of exchange rate of 2.1–2.2 BRL/USD. As such, recent volatility has exacerbated their exposure to FX-related losses and made deal making a herculean endeavor.   

Companies able to take the long view are targeting their investments to improve efficiency

Top investment priority in Brazil

When all is said and done, there is little reason to believe that the protectionist bias of Brazilian labor, tax, and investment policies will change over the medium term. President Rousseff is likely to be re-elected, and domestic politics preclude any marked departure from the ad hoc interventionism that has defined her first term thus far. Executives that are able to plan for the long-term are increasingly coming to terms with this reality and targeting their investments accordingly in an effort to boost profitability. In the B2B space, many companies we work with view investing in local manufacturing as the best way to bring down costs over the medium to long run, while B2C companies are investing in their supply chains. 

Emerging Markets Opportunity Not Over

Currency-Volatility-Global-Performance-DriversRecent reversals in capital flows caused large and sudden currency devaluations, faster than many emerging markets expected or could manage. As a result, many market commentators have called this end of the emerging markets opportunity. That statement couldn’t be further from the truth. While companies should always expect challenges in emerging markets, the changing environment will also create a new set of opportunities.

FSG identified four ways companies can capture growth in this shifting environment:

  1. Leverage home-currency strength to win share back from emerging markets–based competition
  2. Double down on local production to reduce production costs
  3. Use balance sheet strength to earn financing margins
  4. Reassess customer segmentation to identify local customer “winners”

FSG looks at these strategies and the drivers of the changing global environment in our 2014 Global Performance Drivers report, now available for FSG clients.

What happened?

Capital flows reversed because of push and pull factors.  As the US economy continues to improve, the Federal Reserve is expected to reduce bond purchases, changing the risk-return payoff for portfolio investors, “pulling” capital out of emerging markets.  We also see slowing growth in emerging markets “pushing” capital to developed markets.  The outflow of capital is more concerning for countries like Turkey, Poland, and Ukraine, which have high levels of short-term external debt. Countries fitting this profile may run into short-term funding challenges that could drive up local interest rates, or in the worst case cause temporary liquidity problems. Other countries like India and Indonesia may now struggle with inflation as currencies decrease faster than is manageable, driving up costs for consumers.

Latin America’s Moment: Making the Case and Capturing Opportunity

Making the Case for Latin America Has Historically Revolved around the Region’s Untapped Growth Potential

Making the case for resources has long been a challenge for emerging markets executives—while emerging markets represent tremendous growth opportunities, they have historically been viewed as risky, volatile, and fragmented, undermining corporate willingness to commit large amounts of resources. On a regional level, many of the Latin America executives we work with have expressed frustration at having to defend the region’s potential when top-line growth has been higher elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia.

At Frontier Strategy Group, we have long strived to help our clients overcome such skepticism and communicate upwards effectively by emphasizing the region’s hard-won macroeconomic stability, relatively under-penetrated markets, and growing middle class. While these drivers remain in place and multinationals’ growth targets for Latin America are now on par with those seen in Asia, sluggish global growth has raised the stakes, and emerging markets are increasingly expected to deliver both top- and bottom-line growth.

However, Sluggish Global Growth & Underperformance in 2012 Have Undermined Confidence in Latin America

In the wake of Venezuela’s recent devaluation and the death of President Hugo Chávez, as Argentina continues to impose heterodox capital and import controls and Brazil edges towards stagflation, it is easy to understand why multinational executives face growing skepticism from risk-averse corporate centers as they strive to make the case for resources in Latin America.

Fortunately, Executives Compelled to Reassess the Region’s Potential Can Walk Away Reassured

While we certainly acknowledge the endogenous and exogenous factors undermining Latin America’s near-term outlook, we remain bullish about the region’s potential over the medium-to-long term, and our optimism is grounded in a demonstrable belief that the region’s core advantages have in fact remained intact, and will be reinforced by positive secular trends.

Not Only Do Latin America’s Core Advantages Remain Intact…

Latin America’s core advantages can be divided into four buckets, including profitability, relative growth, stability, and concentrated financial resources. Of these four advantages, profitability stands out as the most salient given the pivot to profitability that emerging markets executives are experiencing. As growth remains stalled in developed economies and corporate places increasing pressure on emerging markets, 73% of FSG clients in Latin America have experienced or expect to experience a shift in corporate emphasis towards bottom-line growth over the near-term. With this in mind, it is certainly reassuring to consider that available data on publicly traded companies indicate that average operating margins in Latin America are 55% higher than in the BRICs excluding Brazil.

At present, Latin America derives its profitability advantage vis-à-vis other emerging market regions primarily from a host of demand-side factors which allow multinationals to sell at higher margins and maximize the gains associated with realizing economies of scale. However, these advantages have the potential to diminish over time as competition within the region increases, meaning the time to build market share and brand loyalty is now.

When it comes to GDP growth, while the pace of growth in other emerging markets is expected to decelerate in comparison with pre-crisis rates, LATAM has remained relatively resilient and will accelerate in the coming years.

If you’re tempted to dismiss growth and profitability out of fear of resurgent instability, think again. More conservative corporate centers have historically associated Latin America with hyperinflation, uneven growth, and overexposure to commodity boom-and-bust cycles. Part of the story we’re striving to help our clients communicate is that while these sorts of risks persist in specific markets, the region as a whole has progressed tremendously thanks to orthodox macroeconomic reforms.

Inflation targeting regimes, reduced deficit spending, and the liberalization of trade and capital flows have brought down inflation, empowered consumers and provided the stability necessary for sustained growth. Latin America also remains well-positioned to ride out any future global downturn, as its economy is less dependent on trade than APAC, and less integrated into the global financial system, reducing the risk of Eurozone contagion. Concentrated financial resources also bode well for B2C and B2B multinationals—per capita private consumption spending and government expenditure in LATAM outpace other EM markets including India and EMEA, and are on par with China.

But investment and reform are positioning the region to build on these strengths moving forwards, unlocking new opportunities for multinationals:

Most importantly, Latin America is well-positioned to build on these core advantages, and secular trends are already yielding proof points. Trends we’re tracking range from Peña Nieto’s ambitious reform agenda and the resurgence of manufacturing in Mexico to Colombia’s peace dividend and Peru’s rapid rise. On a pan-regional level, energy resources will bolster government coffers and empower investment in infrastructure and human capital, while the rise of the Pacific Alliance will provide a decidedly pro-business counterweight to the increasingly anachronistic Mercosur. The region is on the rise, and there has never been a better moment to make—and win—the case.

Emerging Market View: What Our Analysts Are Reading – 3/1/2013

Many of this week’s US headlines primarily focused on the the imminent United States government sequestration.  In addition to following those developments, our research talent kept an eye on headlines pertaining to emerging markets, too.  Below are some headlines with FSG research analyst commentary:

Bloomberg News reported that Emerging Stocks Erase Weekly Gain on China, Commodities:

“Today’s headlines highlight the US budget sequester’s ripple effect on emerging-market growth. That could incrementally diminish the opportunities for MNCs in some EMs, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. We are more concerned that US-based MNCs will react to economic mismanagement at home by remaining overly risk-averse abroad, allowing local competitors to capture yet more market share.”
- Joel Whitaker, Senior Vice President and Head of Global Research

The Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal blog posted Doubts Over Returns Hit Fundraising in China:

“Look beyond headline GDP to gauge China’s economic performance. Look at corporate profits in China and return of PE investment is a good indicator.”
- Shijie Chen, Research Practice Leader for Asia Pacific

From Reuters - Brazil may use imports to curb inflation:

“Offhand comments by Brazil’s finance minister raise the possibility that the country could drop import tariffs in sectors and on goods where local producers have been raising prices aggressively. This would be a 180 turn from years past, when Brazil raised tariffs on imported goods in industries impacted by cheaper imports due to a strong currency.”
- Clinton Carter, Director of Research for Latin America

And lastly, another article from Reuters - Russia says central bank independence not at risk:

As CEE governments struggle to boost growth without increasing fiscal deficits, they are increasingly pushing regional central banks to cut interest rates, even at the expense of undermining the banks’ independence. This is a trend to watch in 2013, especially in Russia where reduced central bank autonomy could significantly undermine investor confidence.”
- Martina Bozadzhieva, Senior Analyst for Central and Eastern Europe


FSG Survey Reveals Latin America as High-Profit Region

Frontier Strategy Group’s survey of senior business executives was recently featured in a nationally syndicated article by Amy Guthrie of Dow Jones Newswire. The article, which was picked up by major news companies like Fox Business, highlighted Latin America’s high-profit performance relative to other emerging market regions.

FSG’s proprietary benchmarking data obtained from a survey of executives at multinational companies operating in Latin America’s emerging markets was highlighted in the piece as a solid indication that Latin America is well-poised for further growth.  Ryan Brier, Practice Leader for Latin America at FSG, was interviewed for the news piece and delivered further insight to the high-performing Latin America region:

“Optimism is skewed toward the region’s second-biggest economy, Mexico, aided by the country’s overhaul agenda and improved manufacturing competitiveness, as well as toward Colombia, whereas the outlook for Brazil is less certain given a slowing economy, burdensome regulation and a generally high cost of business in the region’s biggest economy. Yet executives still see Brazil’s long-term potential as promising, given the country’s large youthful population and natural-resource potential.”


Brazil’s Tech Execs are in for the Long Haul

I spent last week in São Paulo meeting with GMs of Brazil and Latin America based there. Among the highlights was a working breakfast with eight country and region heads of US technology and telecom companies. My colleague Antonio Martinez shared the LATAM research team’s latest outlook for Brazil and the region, and we had a robust discussion about the Brazilian business environment and its proper place in the Latin America portfolio. Here are a few of my top takeaways:

  • Tech has outperformed other industries recently in Brazil, but individual corporate performance divides largely by maturity in the market. Established firms are more impacted by the overall economy’s slowdown, but Brazil’s massive size still allows for rapid growth for tech companies that bring something innovative to the market.
  • Brazil’s fragmented tax regime is the biggest headache for country managers. The complexity of state and local tax codes (companies must comply with >200 taxes!) adds to the cost of doing business and impedes companies’ ability to expand into fast-growing cities beyond the highly developed southeast, especially in northern states where millions of people are taking on middle-class spending habits and governments continue to invest heavily in infrastructure. From the LATAM perspective, Mexico’s simple, if higher, tax rate looks better and better.
  • Country managers are in an uncomfortable dialogue with corporate headquarters. Top execs in the US are used to the BRICs story and are having a hard time wrapping their heads around the constant flow of downward revisions in the government’s growth forecasts. Everyone around the table believes in Brazil’s medium term growth prospects (on a 4-5 year horizon), but managing expectations for 2013 is tough. Particularly challenging is helping HQ understand currency volatility and inflation.
  • Horror stories about Brazil’s political culture were abundant. “Labor litigation is becoming a monster.” “The political mentality is: for the friends, everything, and for everyone else, the law.”  But frustrations aside, the group was unanimous in its belief in Brazil’s long-term opportunity and commitment to invest. The lessons learned and innovative practices shared around the table – some of which our clients may well see in case studies later this year – were the true highlight of the session.

Next week I look forward to sharing insights from a similar executive breakfast I’ll be attending in Shanghai, discussing the long-term outlook for China.


As Multinationals Plan for Growth in Brazil, Profitability is Key

FSG recently surveyed our clients and expert advisors regarding their expectations for their businesses in Brazil over the next 5-10 years, and the results reflect two important trends: cost-consciousness and path-dependency. For many years now, companies have invested in Brazil and been content with robust top-line growth. However, in the wake of the financial crisis, as the US and Eurozone markets have struggled and China is currently experiencing a slowdown, many multinationals are running out of patience. Increasingly, top-line growth in Brazil is not sufficient, and our clients are concerned with cutting costs and improving operational efficiency so as to improve their bottom-line performance.

As they do so, they remain cognizant of the potential for government action to address specific constraints—while many of our clients are skeptical about the true impact reforms will have, our view is that government actions will help mitigate the impact of some constraints, most notably infrastructure and access to financing, while failing to address others, due in large part to domestic politics. This variation is impacting our clients’ strategic plans in quite interesting ways.

For example, while companies continue to equate geographic expansion in the Northeast and Center-West with growth potential, they are primarily planning for product-led growth over the near term, due to the logistical costs associated with expanding to lesser-penetrated regions where infrastructure is poor or non-existent. It should be noted that a zero-sum approach is neither evident nor expected. FSG clients are not discounting geographic expansion, but many executives are being forced by cost concerns to make trade-offs, and this often results in short-term concerns dictating strategic priorities.

Over the medium-to-long term, we do expect that push and pull factors, including market saturation and the need to serve existing accounts will continue to drive expansion, and we also expect infrastructure reforms to decrease the marginal costs associated with geographic expansion, making this approach much more feasible from a cost-benefit perspective. Of critical importance are external urgency drivers, including the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, which help raise the stakes and motivate the government to engage the private sector in infrastructure projects.

As executives plan for growth in Brazil, their decisions are increasingly motivated by the need to ensure the growth they deliver is profitable. Trends worth tracking in light of this paradigm shift are those that promise to tilt the balance down the road in favor of outcomes that may not be feasible from a cost-benefit perspective at present.

Gerardo’s Cautionary Tale: Pharmaceutical Companies and Distributors in Brazil

Brazil Flag

Last week I interviewed Gerardo Mendoza, one of Frontier Strategy Group’s Expert Advisors.  Gerardo is originally from Mexico, and also spent some time working in Argentina, before landing in Brazil where he has been an entrepreneur and business advisor for the last fourteen years.  He has become a specialist on corporate tax concerns and the healthcare industry, but this post will be about neither of those themes, per se.  Instead, I want to discuss a trap that Gerardo has seen pharmaceutical companies fall into in Brazil.  This trap is a cautionary tale, because it could easily become a problem for companies in other countries and other industries.

Before I go further, since this is my first post on the FSG blog, let me also introduce myself.  My name is Dan Kornfield, and I spend my time interacting with clients and working with them to uncover useful perspectives on and solutions to common management challenges they face in emerging markets.  I tackle these challenges primarily from a thematic rather than geographic angle.  Specifically, I serve as FSG’s Director of Strategic Research.

One of the areas where I believe FSG is doing truly groundbreaking work is on “channel management,” which is business jargon for managing sales channels, or the variety of ways a company gets its products to end customers.  For many global businesses operating in emerging markets, the most common sales channel is to operate through distributors. In fact, a great deal of business in emerging markets would come to a screeching halt if distributors stopped offering their services.

Distributors are intermediary third party companies that serve as a sales organization (and usually logistics provider as well) for their clients, the producers.  Unlike wholesalers, transactional links in the value chain that simply purchase based on bulk discount and then resell, distributors become active agents for their business partners.  Some distributors work for one company, but most work for several at once.  Some companies have one distributor authorized to operate in a country or region, and others have many.

Distributors represent the producer client’s brand, and take its products to end customers more efficiently and/or more effectively than the client believes they could accomplish by themselves.  Sometimes, distributors are also hired by a company to avoid hassle, or, whether they know it or not, to take on risks that the producer would rather not assume.  For example, a company recently told me they employ a distributor to sell to the Mexican government, because they do not want to have to deal with all the paperwork.

Regardless of industry (e.g. consumer goods, healthcare, heavy industrial, or technology and telecom), about 94% of our clients rely at least partially on distributors, and just over 50% of our clients’ sales volume is brought in through these “indirect” (distribution) channels.

Okay, enough background.  Now back to Gerardo and his cautionary tale.

He explained that many pharmaceutical companies in Brazil have relied too heavily on distributors.  The distributors have grown up to become indispensable partners.  And as the market has grown, distributors have undergone a flurry of M&A activity amongst themselves.  Now some pharmaceutical companies have to reach their end customers through distributors that have larger annual revenues than their clients, and they gain that revenue from a more diversified set of partnerships.  This has led, and is continuing to lead, to a significant imbalance of power in the producer-distributor relationship.

At the end of the day, this means that it is hard for pharmaceutical manufacturers to be able to offer enough sales volume to really matter to some of the major distributors.  Now the only way they can gain preferential time and attention from their own third party agents is to pay them more – at the risk of beginning a margin-conceding arms race with other companies that employ the same distributor.  The alternative is to exit the distributor relationship and, if there are no good alternatives, to shift to operating their own direct sales force.  Now that the market is both complex and well developed, the easiest way to “go direct” would be to acquire some existing distributors.  Unfortunately, many of the good targets have already been gobbled up.

Gerardo believes pharmaceutical companies in Brazil waited far too long to make their move.  If they had diversified earlier into more of a hybrid model, employing distributors while simultaneously developing their own formidable sales force, they would be better off and less drastically dependent.  They also should have had their eyes on acquisition targets earlier, before the distribution market became more consolidated on someone else’s terms.

If you are operating in a fast-growing emerging market country, this story could happen to you.  In your team meeting this month, ask your team members whether they are concerned about overdependence and the potential for consolidation in the distribution space.  You’ve heard the warning that your value chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  But what happens when one of the links in your value chain becomes stronger than you are? That, too, is a problem.