South of the Border, Down Brasilia Way

Brazil’s economy is finally growing now, a growth that it started getting credit for a few years ago, before the expansion really started — five years ago, it was enough that Brazil under President Lula seemed to have a handle on inflation and a reasonably pro-business government. Now, it’s one of the few large, stable economies in the world that’s really growing.

The commodity bull market came at the perfect time for Brazil, as they welcomed Chinese purchasers with open arms and shipped tankers full of iron ore, soybeans and oil around the world — and the whole country started to be valued by foreign investors as a commodity producer. Brazil is now China’s largest trading partner, surpassing the US.

That was perhaps the jump start that the economy needed, and the big multinational commodity companies in the country have certainly profited nicely … but Brazil is (arguably) becoming one of the stronger consumer markets in the world, too — an economy that didn’t experience irrational exuberance but does have a population that is (slowly) growing more affluent … and banks that have been largely rational, though Brazil’s homebuilding stocks had plenty of trouble last year, too, since even a strongly growing economy will suffer when its primary exports become less valuable. Brazil is a meld of cultures, and it also seems to be a mix of its neighbors — take a piece of frightening fiscal past from Argentina, a bit of stable European business center from Chile, and a chunk of agricultural powerhouse and melting pot from the United States, and you’d come close to getting something like Brazil. Throw in that they have more fresh water than anyone else in the world, a huge amount of land, plenty of oil for a growing economy, and a large, young, and growing population, and the big picture seems to favor this being Brazil’s century.

Or, given their past propensity for economic calamity, at least Brazil’s decade or so.

So how does one invest in the Brazilian consumer economy? The easy way to do it is through an index, but the country is broadly perceived by investors as being a commodity play, and the country stock market index (for our purposes, we’ll use the iShares EWZ ETF) is, likewise, dominated by a few large banks and resource companies. If you buy EWZ you’re really buying Vale (iron ore), Petrobras ...

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