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Brazil Leader's Credibility Tested as She Woos US Investment

  • Reuters

FILE - A handout picture released by the Brazilian presidency's press office shows President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting with representatives of Trade Unions at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, April 30, 2015.

FILE - A handout picture released by the Brazilian presidency's press office shows President Dilma Rousseff during a meeting with representatives of Trade Unions at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, April 30, 2015.

The economy is sliding into recession, her popularity has hit rock bottom, her party's treasurer is behind bars for alleged corruption and her enemies want to impeach her.

When she visits New York on Monday, President Dilma Rousseff will have a tough time convincing Wall Street her weakened government can pull Brazil out of a stall and save the once-booming nation's investment-grade credit rating.

Many doubt her willingness to go to the mat against anti-austerity forces in her own leftist Workers' Party to rein in the country's gaping fiscal deficit.

"She will be greeted with a healthy amount of skepticism. I hope difficult questions are asked," said Paul DeNoon, senior debt portfolio manager at AllianceBernstein in New York.

While many U.S. companies are still betting on Brazil's long-term growth prospects, given the huge potential for the nation of 200 million, short-term financial investors are more wary.

Rousseff needs to publicly embrace as her own the fiscal adjustment plan of Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, because the market is still pricing in a probability of backtracking, or worse, that Levy could be fired, investors said.

"It is not clear yet if the change in economic policy is being institutionalized or if it only has the lifespan of this one man in the administration," said Bryan Carter, emerging markets debt portfolio manager for Acadian, a Boston-based fund manager with about $60 billion in assets.

Carter said it was too early to put money into Brazil.

"The downgrade risk is there. The potential that Levy is dismissed is the most important risk that she needs to dispel," he said.

Rousseff, whose popularity has been hammered by a bribery scandal engulfing state-run oil company Petrobras, may face pressure to further shake up her team as unemployment rises and target-breaking inflation persists.

Rousseff will meet President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday and then fly west to visit Google Inc. and see top executives of other Silicon Valley companies such as Apple and Facebook, for which Brazil represents the second-largest market by users.

Business leaders hope Rousseff's trip will open up the untapped potential for trade and investment between the hemisphere's two largest economies by restoring high-level ties frozen in 2013 following revelations leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden that the United States spied on Rousseff and other Brazilians.

New Chapter

Rousseff has good reasons to turn the page on the NSA eavesdropping incident and seek closer U.S. relations as she tries to kick-start the economy: The United States is Brazil's fifth-largest export market and the only one where Brazilian exports grew last year, by 8.9 percent.

China overtook the United States as Brazil's top trade partner in 2009, but it only buys commodities. The United States is the main market for Brazil's manufactured goods, from software to passenger jets, and is its best hope for the capital and technology it needs to innovate, boost growth and employment, and modernize its deficient infrastructure.

"President Rousseff made it very clear to us that they want to attract more U.S. investment," U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews said last week after a meeting of Brazilian and American CEOs with Rousseff in Brasilia.

U.S. oil companies are keen to get a crack at Brazil's huge offshore deposits known as the subsalt region, especially if a proposal before the Brazilian Congress succeeds in reducing the current mandatory 30 percent stake and sole operator role for Petrobras.

Political-military talks will resume for the first time in two years, opening the way to increased defense and security cooperation that will foster closer ties between the two countries' aerospace and defense industries.

"We are very encouraged by all of this," Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Latin America and a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, said last week at the Woodrow Wilson think tank in Washington via video link.

Boeing was "arguably the most serious victim of the downturn in Brazil-U.S. relations following the Snowden revelations," Hrinak said. The U.S. company was close to landing a $4.3 billion sale of F-18 fighters, but the espionage scandal led Brazil to pick Sweden's Gripen jet instead.

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