Special report: BRIC breaking: Brazil's China syndrome

SORRISO/NOVO HAMBURGO, Brazil (Reuters) - Even among emerging market powerhouses, Brazil and China stand out.

Brazilian workers are seen during a shoe-making process at a factory in Novo Hamburgo, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul August 4, 2010. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

With enviably strong growth rates, the largest economies in Latin America and Asia have come to represent the shift in global clout from developed to developing economies. And as they’ve grown, the two countries have become more intertwined than ever.

But the relationship, while mutually beneficial, is hardly equal. The sheer size of the Chinese economy means its needs have begun altering Brazil’s, in ways both salutary and worrisome. The lopsided relationship underscores the profound challenges that China’s emergence as an industrial force poses for developing nations.

China, the world’s second largest economy, is now Brazil’s top trading partner, surpassing the United States for the first time last year. Brazilian imports from China jumped 12-fold from 2000 to 2009, and exports went up a whopping 18 times. China consumed almost 14 percent of Brazil’s exports in 2009 -- and sent back almost 13 percent of Brazilian imports.

The Middle Kingdom has gone beyond merely influencing the Brazilian economy -- the world’s eighth largest -- and has begun reshaping it, bringing bonanzas to some industries and burdens to others.

Consider two slices of Brazilian industry: soy and shoes.

In the state of Mato Grosso, the emerald green fields of soy stretch to the horizon. Farmers with thousands of hectares to their name drive late-model pickups and discuss foreign exchange policy, and trucks bearing tonnes of the grain trundle past on their way to port. Cities that comprised only handfuls of families decades ago are bustling, with farmers and city officials talking of ever-increasing crop sizes.

About 1,600 miles further south, the Vale dos Sinos area in the state of Rio Grande do Sul is struggling. The center of Brazil’s footwear industry, the so-called Valley of the Bells has fought to hold on to jobs and factories, the industry that German and Italian immigrants brought over from the old country more than a century ago. Now, however, the companies headquartered here find themselves changing or dying.

What accounts for their vastly different fortunes? China. Its demand for commodities like soy is nearly insatiable. In recent years, China has steadily ramped up its imports of the grain. That’s boosted Brazilian farmers, helping areas far from metropolitan centers that might otherwise have missed out on an economic boom, while helping with national concerns such as trade balances.

At the same time, China has devastated Brazilian shoemakers and its factory workers, building an Asian industry that is now the world’s top shoe exporter, shipping out around 8 billion pairs last year alone.

China’s influence caught Brazil by surprise. Even now, many worry that Brazil hasn’t planned out the kind of deliberate relationship that will lead not just to pockets of prosperity but to a balanced relationship -- one that lets Brazil keep growing sustainably, and healthily, for decades to come.


Soy changed Carlos Favaro’s life. His father owned a small farm in the state of Parana, less than 30 hectares (74 acres), when the family decided to pack up for Mato Grosso, which means “Thick Forest.” Now, 24 years later, Favaro owns 2,300 hectares (5,680 acres) in the state.

“Mato Grosso was our new horizon,” Favaro says. “It’s a state of opportunity.”

Brazil’s soy exports have more than doubled in weight from 2000 to 2009, with prices and foreign exchange movements helping to boost the dollar value fourfold. Exports to China have rocketed up even more -- almost 18 more times by value.

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Mato Grosso state has especially benefited from China’s soy demand, with its own exports multiplying 27 times by tonne from 2000 to 2009, according to industry group Aprosoja.

That surge has helped everything from local schools to Brazil’s trade balance. The boost is much needed, as Brazilians, now with a strong currency and economy, are importing and spending abroad more -- without soy the numbers would be even more skewed.

The agricultural boom has also helped Brazil outshine more developed nations, with surging growth even as much of the rest of the world continues to struggle. The country notched its fastest annual growth in at least 14 years in the first quarter, a pace that has only slightly slowed as the year progresses.

“Today China buys practically one third of the soy grown in Mato Grosso,” says Favaro, who’s also the administrative director of Aprosoja. “And we still have lots of room to expand.”

The increase in exports came as China’s population began moving to cities, leaving behind their farms. In the cities, Chinese workers not only began earning more money, they began eating higher up the food chain, including more meat -- and soy is a major component in animal feed.

It’s not just soy that China buys. Brazilian mining giant Vale, for example, is the world’s biggest producer of iron ore, a key raw material in steel -- and China is the company’s single biggest customer.

Yet China overwhelmingly buys soy grains from Brazil not soy oil, a more expensive product. Crushing a tonne of soy beans and separating it into oil and soy meal would add about 12 percent to the pricetag, said Fabio Meneghin, an analyst at Agroconsult, an agricultural consulting firm headquartered in the state of Santa Catarina.

“The Brazilian soy industry is stagnating,” he said. “There hasn’t been any new investment in crushing in recent years. There’s been more bean production, but not oil and meal.”


Yet the commodities gains have not come without cost.

Shoes are so basic to the city of Novo Hamburgo that even a waitress, on hearing mention of China, immediately brings up the footwear industry. The town bills itself as Brazil’s shoe capital, with the motto painted on overpasses and sprinkled on city literature. About 70 percent of the city budget derives, directly or indirectly, from shoes, the mayor says.

The town bled jobs in recent years, as Chinese companies lured away Brazilian workers to jump-start the sector abroad. The town of Dongguan in southeastern China has drawn so many Brazilians it now reportedly has at least two churrascarias, the gut-busting, all-you-can eat barbecue places so favored in Brazil’s south.

Brazil’s shoe exports fell almost in half by weight from 2004 to 2009, or 22 percent by dollar value. Over the same time, Brazil’s footwear imports from China more than doubled through last year, when anti-dumping measures kicked in. The government has also slapped tariffs on goods ranging from tires to drillbits.

But even the anti-dumping regulations underscore the changes in the Valley: those laws only protect domestic markets. The Brazilian shoe industry used to be focused on exporting, the so-called private label business. Foreign companies brought in the designs for what they wanted, and Brazilian companies churned out models. No more.

That’s what happened to Grupo Dass, in the town of Ivoti next door to Novo Hamburgo. Cheaper production costs in China siphoned off the international shoe brands that had been Dass’s customer base. Dass had to become its own best customer. Take their Dilly brand of women’s shoes.

Fifteen years ago, Dilly made about 25,000 pairs of shoes per day. Now that’s down to about 2,000, says Rafael Uebel, Dilly’s export manager. Workers used to glue, nail and otherwise assemble the same model on an Ivoti assembly line for as long as a month; now the same model of brightly-colored high heel might not even run the entire day.

Before the company made shoes to order for customers abroad. “Today we create, present, sell and only then produce,” he says. The shoemakers in the Valley hope that focusing on designing their own goods, with an emphasis on quality over quantity, will keep them alive, even as China continues to make cheap shoes for the masses.

Other Brazilian industries have similarly faltered in the face of China’s economic muscle. Embraer, the world’s third-biggest plane maker, has had a tough time at its factory in Harbin, China. The Brazilian company had opened the factory expecting an influx of contracts, but with Chinese orders largely going to Chinese companies instead, Embraer at one point considered closing the Harbin factory.

And domino effects mean that even smaller companies, the ones who might not have been affected by a juggernaut like China, have hurt. At Cavage in Novo Hamburgo, daily shoe production is closer to 80 pairs, but each is crafted from top materials, with a painstaking attention to details. When the company wanted to make shoes that could go with jeans, for example, they introduced a blue sole, a subtle but snazzy detail that sets these shoes apart from mass-produced products. The shoes are more expensive, sure, but their exclusivity is part of the appeal.

The massive amounts of raw materials that China needs for its mountains of production means even the little guys pay more, says Vicente Hoffmann, who, with his wife, Geane Silva, started the company. “The volume of production in China makes leather scarcer and more expensive in the whole market.”


But as Andre Sacconato, an economist at Tendencias, a consulting firm in Sao Paulo, put it, China “is a fact.” Much like globalization itself, the question isn’t whether to deal with China, it’s how.

“What we have to do is wring the most advantage we can from China,” Sacconato said. “There’s nothing wrong in selling commodities, but sell some industrialized products, too.”

Brazil doesn’t have the scale or the competitiveness to confront China head-on, Sacconato says. So it needs to do what China doesn’t. Instead of huge volumes of low-cost, low-quality goods, make fewer, better and more expensive goods.

Getting there won’t be easy. Analysts say Brazil must beef up its infrastructure so that products can get out of the country faster and more cheaply; reform the notoriously byzantine tax code; and reduce the stultifying bureaucracy that hampers businesses in Brazil.

The government is also working to diminish the so-called Custo Brasil, the cost of doing business here, says Welber Barral, secretary of foreign trade at the Ministry of Trade. But industry representatives and economists have roundly criticized the slow pace of reform in a country only a few decades out of a constant string of economic crises.

“The great challenge is to diversify,” Barral says. The government is working on that, “but you don’t do this from one week to the next.”

As for Brazil’s beleaguered shoemakers, history may offer a somewhat comforting parallel.

In the 1970s, Italy dominated the world export market for footwear. But its share of world exports shrank steadily, as its companies found themselves ill-prepared for global competition. Brazil’s then-cheap production costs helped the shoe industry here go from less than 1 percent of the world export market in 1970 to more than 12 percent in 1990, even as Italy’s share was cut in half.

Today, Italian shoes are famous for their standout quality and design, rather than volume. (Editing by Todd Benson, Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons)