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Brazil's FX Reserves: What's the REAL number?

|Includes:iShares MSCI Brazil Capped ETF (EWZ)

Last month, Brazil's government surprised the world when it said that it was prepared to lend reserves from the nation's central bank (NYSE:CB) to help finance the rescue package for the European Union. The Brazilian government would allegedly lend the money through a bilateral agreement with the IMF. A government official said also that, technically, Brazil's reserve levels, which it claims to stand at around US$350 billion, wouldn't change. Instead, they'd just be held at the IMF.

Well, perhaps it is time to explain briefly what these US$350B+ in reserves really mean.

The much touted growth in the Brazilian foreign reserves, must be very carefully looked at. Brazil's total debt has grown rapidly since 2007 (see graphic below). This can be explained by the high degree of external financing by the private sector (NYSE:FDI) and international funds transfer for investments such as the Brazilian stock and money markets. The net assets, in dollar terms, however, are only close to US$50 Billion if one subtracts debt (US$300B) from reserves (US$350B).

Although about half of the reserves are longer term government debt that will be stable in a financial crisis of some sort, the rest of the reserves can be extremely volatile. In fact, this volatility could be seen clearly this year between last July and October, when the BRL/USD almost touched 2.00 after a massive capital outflow. The CB then intervened and the FX stands at about 1.75 now. Brazil experienced such a scenario (in higher proportions) in 1998 when half of its foreign reserves evaporated in few days, which caused a huge currency devaluation and short-term interest hikes in excess of 40%. Of course, now the country's financial situation is much better than in 1998 when Brazil's CB had a huge net negative assets on its books.

The main point here is that the Brazilian government might be over-extending itself when it says it wants to aid Europe - these types of statements must always be taken with a grain of salt.

Stocks: EWZ