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Amazon fires fuel investor concern



It was designed to prove Brazil’s commitment to protecting the Amazon, to highlight how much virgin rainforest remains and to underline the effectiveness of thousands of troops in combating illegal forest fires.

“What I wanted to show them is that we don’t have our arms crossed, we are trying to do the best that we can,” vice-president Hamilton Mourão says of the Amazon tour he hosted for 12 ambassadors last month. “They had freedom to ask whatever they wanted. It was a chance for them to see with their own eyes what they read [about] in the newspapers, books, so they can make a better analysis of what is really happening here in Brazil.”

But days before the plane carrying Mr Mourão and the diplomats took off, fresh data was published showing Amazon forest fires had more than doubled in October from the same month last year. A week after their trip, new figures showed deforestation had shot up 50 per cent in October. The government found itself on the back foot again.

The episode demonstrated one of the difficulties facing global investors as environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations come to the fore: Brazil generates some of the world’s best and worst numbers, with much of the analysis dominated by an increasingly fierce confrontation over the Amazon.

Satellite monitoring shows a surge in illegal deforestation since hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro took power in 2018, but Brazil still has more preserved rainforest than any other nation. Its energy mix is one of the world’s cleanest, with more than 80 per cent of electricity generated by renewable energy. Its biodiversity exceeds that of any other country. Its Forest Code is one of the world’s most advanced pieces of environmental legislation. Its carbon reduction targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change are among the most ambitious of any large developing economy.

Special report: Brazil and its biomes

Yet all the world sees, government officials complain, are images of burning trees in the Amazon.

“We are a kind people,” insisted finance minister Paulo Guedes to an audience of US investors in October. “All this story about killing Indians and burning forests is an exaggeration. We have a year and a half [in power]. I don’t believe that the Amazon was burnt in a year and a half. If something is wrong, it was wrong for the last 30 years.”

Essential ESG

The controversy over Brazil’s failure to protect the Amazon is indeed
decades-old, though it has intensified under Mr Bolsonaro because of his rhetoric against environmentalists and the cutbacks his government has made to enforcement. Jaws dropped when he made a speech in September to a remote session of the UN General Assembly claiming that indigenous people were mainly responsible for the forest fires and insisting that Brazil was the victim of a “brutal disinformation campaign”.

This has distracted attention from what financiers in Brazil say is an important new trend: a far greater awareness among local companies of the need to adhere to ESG criteria.

Cassio Gouveia, managing director for investment banking at corporate and investment bank Itaú BBA, says attitudes have changed “dramatically”. Fulfilling ESG criteria, he says, “is a must for any company considering raising equity or debt locally or internationally”.

Brazilian asset managers are also starting to focus on ESG. Fabio Alperowitch, portfolio manager at FAMA Investimentos, an asset management firm, started ethically investing in 1993, the year after Brazil hosted the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro — a groundbreaking event at which countries agreed to tackle climate change.

“For nearly 30 years, practically nothing happened in Brazil in ESG,” Mr Alperowitch says. “Its main topics, human rights and the environment, were seen as topics of the left and as financial markets tend to be conservative, they were repulsed by these topics.

“Now there is suddenly a big demand from investors to talk about ESG.”

But he warns that it may have shallow roots. “Many people are waking up to ESG but doing so without any depth, in a very superficial way. Others simply have a commercial interest in fulfilling a demand for ESG products . . . but are really just greenwashing.”

External investor pressure has been growing. More than two dozen global financial institutions managing over $3.7tn in assets demanded in June that the government curb deforestation, which had created “uncertainty about the conditions for investing in or providing financial services to Brazil”. 

Change of tone

Mr Mourão’s tour for ambassadors was partly a response to that pressure. Other arms of the Brazilian government have also reacted. The central bank has issued guidance on green finance and the agriculture ministry has drawn up a “green investment roadmap” with $163bn of sustainable projects. “I’ve been very impressed with how the central bank has been in the forefront of trying to support sustainable finance in Brazil,” says Paloma Anós Casero, World Bank country director for Brazil.

“Since June we have seen a change of tone in the government,” says one ambassador in Brazil who went on the trip with Mr Mourão. “Criticisms by investors and the private sector have had an economic impact. They did not expect that. They ignore what NGOs say but when private business says there is a problem, they go quiet and listen.”

Listening to investor concerns is one thing; producing results in the war on illegal deforestation across the vast Amazon basin is another.

“We have not yet seen much progress on the [deforestation] numbers,” says Graham Stock, head of emerging markets sovereign research at BlueBay, one of the authors of the June investor initiative. “The fire season was pretty bad this year in Brazil. We need to see progress.”

Last week Inpe, Brazil’s space agency, reported that 11,088 sq km of forest were destroyed between August 2019 and July 2020 — the biggest loss since 2008, and a 9.5 per cent increase on the same period the previous year.

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president next year, the pressure will only increase. Mr Biden has promised a $20bn global fund to save the Amazon and warned of “economic consequences” if Brazil does not join — a ploy that drew a typically combative response from Mr Bolsonaro.

Special report: Brazil deforestation chart

One thing business people and investors agree on is that unless Amazon deforestation numbers go down and stay down, and Mr Bolsonaro takes a more pro-conservation line, Brazil risks scaring away more investment money. 

“I’m impressed by the companies . . . by the way we are all thinking in Brazil in the private sector,” says Ilan Goldfajn, the former head of Brazil’s central bank. “But the main challenge has to do with having a macro framework and we cannot avoid having the government involved in that. The government has to embrace sustainability.”

Or, as German ambassador Heiko Thoms puts it when referring to the Amazon: “Only action will matter. We now need to see a clear long-term action plan with clearly defined objectives and numbers.”

Additional reporting by Bryan Harris in Brasília

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Emerging Markets

Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown




Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.

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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan




Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.

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Australia’s treasurer warns global stimulus threatens financial stability




Australia has warned that unprecedented global stimulus efforts during the coronavirus pandemic are creating financial stability risks that will only intensify when interest rates inevitably rise.

Canberra has also defended tough new foreign investment rules that have led to a collapse in Chinese investment, arguing the number of proposed deals motivated by strategic, rather than purely commercial gain, was increasing.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the Pacific nation was in a strong economic position as its net debt to gross domestic product was about half that of other advanced economies, even as it begins unwinding fiscal stimulus.

“There is no doubt elevated debt levels will create challenges for many countries. While global interest rates are low those debt levels can be serviceable — but there will be a time when the monetary policy settings change,” he told the Financial Times.

Frydenberg’s comments on the risks posed by global stimulus followed a similar warning delivered last week by Peter Costello, a close political ally and former Australia treasurer.

Australia will be among the first advanced economies to taper off Covid-19 fiscal stimulus with the closure of its A$90bn (US$70bn) JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme this month.

Canberra has argued that the recovery is already under way, citing a fall in unemployment to 6.4 per cent in January and a 3.3 per cent economic expansion in the three months to September last year.

Frydenberg, who counts Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan among his role models, said the government’s A$250bn stimulus was required to stabilise the economy during the pandemic. But he said JobKeeper, which supported 3.6m workers at its peak, was no longer needed as the recovery could be supported by tax cuts, which were announced last year.

Asked if he thought the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan were still relevant, he said: “[Reagan and Thatcher] achieved a lot when they were in office and they were committed to lower taxes. They were committed to cutting regulation and that’s certainly what I’ve been committed to as well.”

But trade unions and businesses that are still suffering as a result of border closures and restrictions, particularly in the tourism and entertainment sectors, have warned that the scheme’s closure will dent the economy.

“JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by coronavirus. [Through] no fault of their own, they are suffering that downturn,” said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, last week. “And we say that because that will save jobs.”

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, is a rising star in the country’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister © AP

Frydenberg, who was the architect of foreign investment rules aimed at countering rising Chinese influence, said he made no apologies for putting “national interest” at the heart of Australia’s investment policies.

Chinese investment fell 61 per cent last year to A$1bn, down from A$2.6bn in 2019 and a peak in 2016 of A$16.5bn, data showed. Frydenberg was instrumental in blocking two potential deals: China Mengniu’s A$600m bid for Japan-owned Lion Dairy and China State Construction Engineering Corp’s A$300m bid for Probuild, a South Africa-owned construction company.

“We absolutely reserve the right to make decisions around foreign investment based on national interest and having put in place an explicit national security test allows us to do that,” he said.

“Increasingly we’ve seen foreign investment proposals that have been motivated not by purely commercial gains but more strategic ones. When those foreign investment proposals potentially compromise the national interest, then we reserve the right to say no.”

Frydenberg said Australia was not alone in tightening its rules, noting that other countries shared Canberra’s views on national sovereignty and foreign investment.

“Obviously we have had some challenges with China,” he said when asked about Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on a range of Australia’s exports following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Frydenberg insisted that Australian ministers were prepared to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the bilateral relationship but only on a “no conditions attached” basis.

“It is a mutually beneficial trading relationship — we supply the bulk of their iron ore and that iron ore has helped underpin their economic growth,” he said.

Frydenberg is a rising star in Australia’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Last week, he shot to global attention following several days of negotiation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the social media company’s decision to block news on its platforms in Australia in response to a law forcing it to pay news publishers.

On Friday, Facebook “refriended Australia” and returned news to its Australian platform following amendments that may make it easier for the company to avoid the toughest elements of the law.

“Trying to negotiate with these guys is a bit like playing chess against a chess master,” said Frydenberg, who joked that he spoke to Zuckerberg more than his own wife last week.

“The reality is they are massive companies with huge balance sheets and global reach. If this was easy other countries would have done it [made Big Tech pay for news] long ago.” 

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