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Paulo Guedes’ star fades as Brazil reform agenda stalls

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Jair Bolsonaro had some good news for Brazil’s young families ahead of Christmas. Taking to social media a few weeks ago, the country’s president announced that tariffs on imported toys would be slashed from 35 per cent to 20 per cent.

The move was part of his administration’s sweeping plans to revitalise the Brazilian economy through an ambitious programme of trade liberalisation, cuts to bureaucracy and structural reforms. It appeared to be a win for the rightwing populist leader, who took power in 2018, and Paulo Guedes, his free market finance minister.

But within days of the decision — made only after a year-long consultation with Brazilian manufacturers — the finance ministry faced a wave of industry lobbying and quickly backtracked. The reduction in tariffs would not start this month as planned but be implemented gradually over the course of next year, the ministry announced.

The laboriousness of a process that has been mired in vested interests exemplifies the difficulties facing Mr Guedes as he tries to pry open one of the most protectionist economies in the world. Brazil ranks alongside much poorer African nations on measures of protectionism, according to the trade freedom index of the Heritage Foundation, a US think-tank.

“The ministry was beaten from one side to the other. In the end, everyone was unsatisfied,” said a finance ministry official.

When he took the finance portfolio at the beginning of last year, Mr Guedes was hailed as a star who would restore Brazil’s economic fortunes.

The former fund manager notched up a notable early success, with the passage of a landmark reform of Brazil’s bloated pensions system, which is expected to save the government almost $200bn over the next 10 years.

But two years into his tenure, his glow has faded as his planned structural reforms, including a simplification of the tax system and administrative reform of the state, have foundered in Congress.

Successes on privatisation and cutting bureaucracy have also been rare. In August the two officials responsible for both portfolios quit, citing deep vested interests and a lack of political will.

The coronavirus pandemic has also thwarted Mr Guedes. Fiscal rectitude lay at the heart of his plans, but since April the government has handed out billions of dollars in crisis relief to Brazil’s poorest, tearing a hole in the nation’s increasingly shaky public finances and dominating the economic agenda.

“The Paulo Guedes that existed two years ago now faces reality. Reforms in Brazil are a slow, bit by bit process,” said one lobbyist in Brasília involved in the decision on toys. “Reforms are like heaven. Everyone wants to go, but just not right now.”

A toyshop in Rio de Janeiro. A plan by Brazil’s finance minister to cut tariffs on imported toys fell victim to industry lobbying © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Camila Abedelmalack, chief economist at Veedha Investments, highlighted the government’s lack of progress on even the most routine tasks, such as setting next year’s budget.

“We are crawling. We thought the main challenges would be tax reform and privatisation,” she said. “But at the moment we are struggling to get clarity on even the management of the budget for the coming year.”

Some foreign businesses have begun to express frustration at the glacial pace of change. Following the delay on toy tariffs, the US toymaker Hasbro said: “The sudden and unjustified change of positioning contradicted the announced economic policy, representing contradictory behaviour that violates good faith.”

Critics of the lack of action have turned their fire on Mr Guedes, who is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to progress rather than a driver of change.

Known for a pugnacious personal style, he has an acrimonious relationship with Congress — which must vote on almost all the government’s reform proposals — trading frequent barbs with the speaker and bickering with deputies over his plans.

“The next two years are going to be tense given the difficult relations the government has with Congress,” said Sergio Vale, an analyst at MB Associates.

“The [finance] ministry is out of focus, not as organised as it used to be in the past and more playing a supporting role. The minister has been making promises for two years but has nothing to show for it.”

But Adolfo Sachsida, secretary for political economy at the ministry, described the past year as a “huge success”.

“In the middle of a pandemic, we approved legislation for private investment in sanitation and for bankruptcy protection and we improved legislation for gas [market investment]. We also have a vote on central bank autonomy upcoming in the Senate,” he said.

Defending the slow progress on tax reform, he said it was a “very hard agenda” with which Brazil had been grappling for decades. “You have major challenges: you have to have the support of local governments and state governments, the industrial sector and financial sector and citizens. It is a lot of people at the same table,” Mr Sachsida said.

On trade tariffs and privatisations there were a chorus of voices “representing legitimate interests and they have the right to do so”.

“People will disagree over the speed of tariff reduction. People will disagree over the number of privatisations. [But] everyone agrees that we have to open our economy,” he added.

Opponents of reform have different agendas but have converged “around fear of change”, said the lobbyist in Brasília. “Our tax system has for so long accommodated advantages for certain groups, which do not want to change. On trade, it is the same thing: so many sectors have been protected for forever that they depend on it,” the lobbyist said.

“Brazil is a corporatist and clientelist country,” said Lucas de Aragão, a partner at consultancy Arko Advice. “There are battles that the government has identified as just not worth fighting,”

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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Turkey bans crypto payments for goods and services

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Turkey has barred the use of cryptocurrencies to purchase goods and services in an effort to protect consumers against volatility and illegal activity, threatening a boom in the country’s fast-growing digital money markets.

The central bank published a regulation in its official gazette on Friday that prohibits the direct and indirect use of crypto assets as payments. The anonymous use of virtual money “may cause non-recoverable losses” and “undermine the confidence in methods and instruments used currently in payments”, a statement from the bank said.

Turkey has the largest volume of cryptocurrency transactions in the Middle East and ranks 29th out of 154 countries worldwide, according to a report last year by Chainalysis, a US-based blockchain analysis company.

Turks have poured money into digital money in recent years to hedge against double-digit inflation and a 34 per cent drop in the value of the lira against the dollar since the start of 2019. The lack of regulation and taxation has also made the asset popular, and the trend mirrors a global surge in crypto investments.

The new measures come during a time when many countries are grappling with how to regulate digital currencies, which often fall between different national watchdogs and stretch through international boundaries. In the US, for example, tax authorities have this year sought information from exchanges about users executing large transactions.

Bitcoin, the word’s dominant digital coin, hit a record of almost $65,000 earlier this week, while Coinbase, one of the biggest crypto exchanges, listed on US public markets and is now valued at about $64bn.

The Turkish boom poses “significant risks” when crypto is used for payments, the central bank said, citing the lack of regulatory oversight, excessive volatility, the potential for use in illicit activities, theft of digital wallets and the irrevocable nature of transactions required.

The ban, the first of its kind in Turkey, comes after the financial authorities signalled regulations were in store. Last month the Treasury ministry said it was concerned about the level of growth.

The regulation does not prohibit ownership of crypto assets for investment but the new rules are unclear about when a purchase of these assets constitutes a payment, said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence. Banks are excluded, which means users may still transfer money from their bank accounts to crypto exchanges.

“Turkish authorities have been trying to keep a tight grip on the payment ecosystem for some time,” he said, pointing to the five-year ban on PayPal, the US-based online payment system.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged Turks to sell their vast foreign currency holdings to prop up the lira, particularly after he sacked the central bank governor last month and sparked a sell-off in financial markets over worries about his meddling in monetary policy.

The latest central bank move “may be aimed at protecting the value of the national currency and directing investment to the bourse”, said Enver Erkan, chief economist at Tera Securities in Istanbul, referring to the country’s regulated Borsa Istanbul financial exchange.

“Crypto has emerged as a very serious alternative because [Turkish investors] are afraid of the stock market, the exchange rate is unpredictable and gold is expensive,” he added.



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Korea’s Coupang hands cash to bereaved families at workers’ funerals

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When Park Mi-sook held a funeral ceremony for her late son Jang Duk-joon in Daegu, South Korea, last October, managers from his former employer Coupang gave her an envelope containing Won3m ($2,600) in cash.

According to handwritten funeral registries, the ecommerce company, which listed in New York last month with a valuation of $80bn, also handed cash to the families of at least two other recently deceased workers.

The payments have done little to assuage the families’ grief over the deaths, which they attribute to overwork. The bereaved families of the three people, who previously worked at logistics centres owned by Coupang, are considering suing the company and its subcontractors. 

“We are seeking an apology, preventive measures and compensation for my son’s death but have been unable to have talks with the company in earnest,” said Park. “We are considering a lawsuit in the US.”

Her son Jang, 27, was found dead in his bathtub in October after finishing his night shift at Coupang’s warehouse in Daegu.

Coupang initially denied responsibility for Jang’s death but an official investigation by the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) found that he died of a heart attack because of overwork. 

“We were devastated by his sudden death but there was no word of apology from them, let alone admitting that my son’s death was due to overwork,” Park told the Financial Times. 

Labour lawyers and union officials allege that eight Coupang workers, including two subcontractors, have died from overwork over the past year. 

The ecommerce company, which is backed by investors such as SoftBank, Sequoia and BlackRock, vehemently denies responsibility for the deaths, saying only one has officially been acknowledged as work-related. But it is facing increasing political pressure over the incidents.

The family of Park Hyun-kyung, 37, who died in June after working as a subcontractor at a cafeteria in Coupang’s facility in Cheonan, has filed a criminal complaint with the labour ministry against the ecommerce group and two other contractors for allegedly violating the country’s industrial safety law.

Her husband, Choi Dong-beom, said the companies had rejected his requests for meetings. Choi has filed a claim with KCOMWEL for compensation. The state-run Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute is looking into the cause of the death, according to KCOMWEL. 

South Korean companies pay insurance fees to KCOMWEL, which then compensates workers if their injuries are recognised as work-related.

“She had suffered from constant headaches and coughing for months before her death,” said Choi. “But the companies have shown no interest in her death, passing the buck to each other.”

Coupang has countered that a police investigation determined the company was not responsible for Park Hyun-kyung’s death. It said she worked for Dongwon Homefood, a food services conglomerate that provided goods and services to 7,000 companies nationwide, including Coupang. 

Park Mi-sook, the mother of the deceased worker Jang, accused Coupang of not being co-operative in providing work-related information needed to file compensation claims. “I felt humiliated in the process of seeking information from the company,” she said.

According to data provided by ruling party lawmaker Im Jong-sung, workers at Coupang Fulfillment Services, Coupang’s logistics arm, filed 239 claims of work injuries to KCOMWEL for compensation last year. 

Im said Coupang denied 28.5 per cent of claims as work-related, a rate three times higher than the average for Korean companies. However, KCOMWEL has said only 15 of these cases were not work-related.

“If the employer doesn’t admit to work injuries, claimants have to experience a lot of difficulties and pain to prove their injuries are work-related,” said Im.

When asked by the FT about the Won3m in cash payments at the funerals and potential compensation claims, Coupang said it offered support for bereaved families of employees regardless of the cause of death, “including group accident insurance, financial support for the funeral, and condolence money”.

“Any death is a tragedy, regardless of the reason,” Coupang said. “As is customary in Korea, it is our practice to visit the funeral of former workers, give condolences and provide support for families.” 

The company said that of the eight deaths, two were not Coupang employees but on-site contractors and these were not accident-related.

Of the other six deaths, Coupang said, three occurred at home or during vacation and three at work. The three on-site deaths were heart attack-related and none were due to accidents. All of the workers in question worked under 52 hours a week, it said.

“The union is trying to portray as work-related all heart and coronary-related incidents including those that occur at home or on vacation,” the company said. “Cardiac and cerebrovascular disorders are the second and fourth leading causes of death in Korea, and Coupang’s rate of both disorders are lower than the national average in Korea.”

Coupang is not legally obliged to compensate the families of deceased workers unless it loses lawsuits filed by the bereaved, according to South Korean labour laws.

Labour researcher Jang Kwi-yeon said the offer of cash at funerals did not mean the company was admitting legal liability. But she added: “It should be seen as an expression of their moral responsibility.”



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Putin’s sabre-rattling wins west’s attention and Biden summit

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If Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s border in the past few weeks was driven primarily by a desire to get the west’s attention, he did not have to wait too long for his reward.

Hours after his defence minister on Tuesday admitted Russia had mobilised two armies and three paratrooper divisions to positions close to the conflict-wracked frontier, US President Joe Biden phoned the Kremlin with an offer of a bilateral summit: a long sought-after prize for Putin who craves a seat at the world’s highest negotiating table.

By then, Moscow was only confirming what satellite imagery, social media footage and increasingly frantic statements from Kyiv had indicated: Russia had massed more troops on its western border than at any time since its 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Those 50,000 extra soldiers, scores of tanks and other heavy weaponry spooked Kyiv and other European powers, and sparked a hurried response from Nato and the US amid fears over a potential outbreak of fighting between the two countries. 

But while Russian officials have warned of a conflict that would “end” Ukraine, so far only a barrage of warlike rhetoric has crossed the border, with Russia’s troops merely lurking with intent.

That has led experts to conclude Moscow’s intention was to merely scare its neighbours, test the level of support for Ukraine among Biden’s new administration, and remind the White House of Russia’s leverage in European security.

“Russia sent a clear signal that in the current context of the deterioration of US-Russia relations, Moscow is not prepared to make any more concessions regarding Ukraine,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian defence think-tank. “The message was: we either stop where we are now, or we will move forward.”

Ukrainian soldiers near Marinka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers hold a position on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists near Marinka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine © AFP/Getty Images

Since Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, pro-Russian separatists have fought against Ukrainian forces for control of Donbas, the Ukrainian region on the border with Russia, killing more than 14,000.

Kyiv accuses Moscow of stoking the conflict with weapons, military support and irregular troops. Moscow denies direct involvement but says it has a duty to protect the Russian-speaking population who live there. 

Both sides accuse the other of failing to adhere to the Minsk agreements, a 2015 peace deal, and of constant provocations across the line of contact. Many see frustration at Kyiv as the major factor behind Moscow’s decision to remind its neighbour of its significantly larger military might.

“With the current state of Russia-Ukrainian relations, we have no other tools to influence Kyiv except the threat of force and the use of force. The other diplomatic tools are really limited,” said Pukhov, who is also a member of the Russian defence ministry’s public council.

“Russia does it not because it is cruel by nature, but because it is the only way to exert any pressure or influence on them,” he added.

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, on Tuesday said the troops had been deployed as part of “appropriate measures” in response to threats from Nato, which he said was preparing to move 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons to the Russian border.

The Russian troops were conducting exercises “at present”, he said, but “show full readiness and ability to fulfil tasks to ensure the country’s military security”.

Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggested that western support for Kyiv had increased the stakes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict by making it increasingly the focal point of broader tension between Moscow and Nato, and thus forcing the Kremlin to take a belligerent stance.

“Thanks to the uncritical and automatic support that Ukraine invariably gets from the US and its allies, Kyiv has the ability to put Russia in what Germans and chess players call Zugzwang,” he said. “Any move a player can or has to take only worsens the player’s position.”

In a move seen as an initiative to calm the situation, Biden on Monday used a telephone call with Putin to “propose a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months”, according to the White House readout of the conversation.

In the call, Biden also “voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up” and “emphasised the United State’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The summit format will also please the Kremlin by effectively cutting Kyiv out of any negotiations, and allow Putin to project the image of two global superpowers deciding the future fate of the conflict.

But a long-term settlement appears unattainable at present, with both sides failing to comply with the terms of the Minsk agreement and wary that any moves to de-escalate could be seized on by the other as an opportunity to extract more leverage. 

Russian and Nato warships have been dispatched to the Black Sea and the western alliance is preparing a number of large military exercises in eastern European states this summer, a move likely to keep tensions simmering. 

“Instead of making Russia behave, the west is adding to the dynamic which might ultimately lead to collision,” said Trenin. “There will be no second coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

“Let’s face it: regional war in Europe is again thought of as a possibility on both sides, and this should not make anyone happy. Even in the US, because such a war will not be limited to the Old Continent,” he added. “Fasten your seat belts.”



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