Past and Present: Brazil’s Unfulfilled Expectations

Industrial Growth and Structural Change: Brazil in a Long-Run Perspective

by Dante Aldrighi ( and Renato P. Colistete (

Abstract: This paper presents a long-run analysis of industrial growth and structural change in Brazil, from the coffee export economy in the nineteenth century to the present day. We focus on Brazil’s high economic growth in most of the twentieth century and the disruption caused by the collapse of debt-led growth in the early 1980s. We then examine the recent trends in economic growth and structural change, with a sectoral analysis of output, employment and productivity growth. Employing new data and estimates, we identify a sharp break with the earlier period of high output and productivity growth in Brazil’s manufacturing industry before the 1980s. From the 1990s, the relatively successful process of learning and technological advance by manufacturing firms that took place since the early industrialization has lost strength and Brazil’s productivity growth has declined and stagnated.


Review by Sebastian Fleitas

They are playing soccer here.
There is much samba, much crying and rock’n’roll.
Some days it rains, on others, it shines.
But the thing I want to tell you is that things are really bad*

Chico Buarque, Brazilian musician, 1976

In four months time Brazil will be in everyone’s mind. Love it or hate it, coming June the FIFA World Cup 2014 will be in full swing and held in South America for the second time. According to Goldman Sachs, host nations can typically expect a 54pc increase in medals at the Olympic games. Assuming the relationship holds for football, this further increases the odd for the home team, which more often than not is marked as favourite by pundits across the globe, to win later this year in its home turf. Indeed, we are already hearing about Brazil because of the anti-World Cup protests. Protest which are more likely driven by unfulfilled economic expectations of Brazilians than by their rejection of the tournament.

Brazil occupies the biggest landmass in South America and has often been thought of as a big economic promise. For instance, large GDP growth rates in the late 1960s and early 1970s led people to talk about the “Brazilian miracle”. More recently, in 2009, Brazil was again a sound bite for big economic promise and the financial press coined the term “BRICs” to denominate it plus Russia, India and China as the “bright stars” in an otherwise gloomy world that was facing recession following the financial crisis. Such expectations, both in the past and today, have been fuelled by the idea of Brazil achieving a higher rate of development than others on the back of a big and highly productive manufacturing sector and long standing (and dynamic) agriculture. But Brazil has consistently failed to deliver on expectations. Even more, there is already talk of the “BIITS” to referrer to Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa, while focusing on their current-account deficits and structural weaknesses (as exposed by the cooling of demand from China and the potential of the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates in the USA). But just as the Brazilian manufacturing industry has fuelled expectations, it has also been a large part of the reason behind these apparent failures.

Patrick Chappatte, Protests in Brazil, New York Times (

Patrick Chappatte, Protests in Brazil, New York Times (

Dante Aldrighi and Renato Colistete in this paper, circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-08-31, offer a very detailed long-run description of industrial growth and structural change in Brazil: from the coffee export economy in the nineteenth century to the present day. They examine the recent trends in economic growth and structural change, with a sectoral analysis of output, employment and productivity growth.  Their estimates show that the expansion and diversification of Brazil’s manufacturing industry from the nineteenth century until the late 1970s was a remarkable process. Despite distortions and inefficiencies, the experience of accelerated industrialization provided the country with a diversified and relatively complex industrial structure. In the 1980s and 1990s, the debt crisis and the ensuing macroeconomic imbalances undermined the manufacturing industry’s performance, weakening the incentives to invest and to improve technological capabilities.

A point of particular importance in the paper by Aldrighi and Colistete is the study of productivity. The authors show that in the last two decades the productivity growth of Brazil’s manufacturing industry has been much lower that that achieved during the earlier period of accelerated industrialization. Moreover, using a shift-share analysis they suggest that before the 1980s productivity gains within industries were a stronger driving force for aggregate productivity growth than shifts of labor to higher productivity activities. However, since the 1980s the role of structural change has become relatively more important to explain productivity growth in Brazil’s manufacture. For the economy as a whole, structural change also revealed to be more important than sectoral productivity growth in the 1990s and 2000s. They conclude that there is evidence that the relatively successful process of learning and technological advance by manufacturing firms that took place since the early industrialization has lost strength as a major source of economic growth in Brazil during the recent decades. Most of productivity growth has now been coming from agricultural activities. They also show that, during most of the period of accelerated industrialization, industrial workers saw their wages, measured in local currency, lagging consistently behind labor productivity, which led to a declining share of wages in the total income of the manufacturing sector. Later, the unit labor costs adjusted by the exchange rate increased, mainly as a result of currency appreciation and lower productivity growth. However, the authors show that labor compensation growth was modest in real terms and had a minor role in increasing unit labor costs.

FIFA World Cup 2014

FIFA World Cup 2014

The paper concludes that the main sources of concern about the performance of the manufacturing sector in Brazil rests in its very low productivity growth and the tendency to currency appreciation, which together affect unit labor costs and competitiveness. They understand that the competitiveness of manufacture might be significantly higher if the costs of inputs and services other than labor (such as capital, taxes, infrastructure, bureaucracy and innovation) were lower or declining. However, they are not optimistic about the prospect of this happening. Some of the factors that they understand have conspired to reduce efficiency and productivity growth are the complex and burdensome tax system that tends to push firms to the informal, low-productivity sector; high and unstable real interest rates; a relatively low-skilled workforce; and expenditures on R&D below the levels attained in the most dynamic developing countries, which limits the technological spillovers that might benefit the whole economy. They also state that innovation activities have been negatively affected by uncertainty and the inability to make long-horizon investment plans, increased by low and volatile public investments and economic growth rates. All these factors explain why Brazil’s investment rates remain much lower than those prevailing in most developing countries. As a consequence, the authors think that it is unlikely that Brazil’s manufacturing sector’s low productivity growth is being offset by appropriate incentives or reductions in the costs of key components that affect competitiveness in the long run.

In my opinion, the authors’ description and conclusions clearly point out the need to go beyond description and embrace new lines of research that address the specific causes of the low productivity in Brazil. These new venues of research will lead to a better understanding of the Brazilian situation and will provide a better understanding of the policy instruments that could enhance Brazil’s development. This agenda would be very beneficial for other countries in Latin and South America too, which face similar problems. Focusing on the behavior of the productivity and from a microeconomic perspective.

I would like to very briefly mention here two recent lines of research that may shed light on the causes of low productivity. The first line is related to the productivity via labor supply. Productivity seems to be affected by the poor performance of Latin American students at school. In a recent paper, Hanushek and Woessmann (2012) find that in growth regressions, the positive growth effect of educational achievement fully accounts for the poor growth performance of Latin American countries. In addition, they find through a development accounting analysis that, once educational achievement is included, human capital can account for between half and two thirds of the income differences between Latin America and the rest of the world. More efforts than those already in place (see among others Carvalho Filho and Colistete, 2010; Colistete, 2013) are necessary to better understand the links between the development of education in the region and its impact on productivity in Brazil and the region as a whole.

Picture of the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil

Picture of the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil

The second line I would like to mention is related with the productivity of firms in Brazil (and Latin America), especially managerial abilities and their impact on productivity. Managerial abilities were for long time considered in the residual of the productivity or production function equations and no consistent efforts to measure managerial abilities had been carried out. Recently, Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen with different coauthors have been working on surveys, based on interviews to firms, to determine management practices scores**. They have conducted interviews to more than 10,000 firms in 20 countries in the period 2004-2010. They have used this data to publish several papers on the issue that are worth looking at. Their general conclusions are that management practices scores in manufacturing vary significantly across countries and are strongly linked to the level of development. In particular, the average management practices score appears in the place 18th in the ranking only above China and India and below countries like Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Greece. The methodology the authors use for these surveys is not easy to replicate for other periods. However, this type of study provides a good insight to causes of low productivity that are often forgotten in Latin American countries and in our historical explanations and that, when measured, show our relative backwardness.

To sum up, Colistete and Aldrighi do a great job describing the evolution of the manufacturing industry in Brazil in the long run. They show how, even with very important problems, Brazil’s period of import substitution generated increases in productivity and structural change. They also document the problems that Brazil has had since the early 1980s in terms of growth and productivity. Fortunately, in all aspects besides football (ie soccer in the US), samba and rock and roll, the Brazil we have now is not the Brazil that Chico Buarque described in 1976. Among other examples, income inequality in a country that has one of the worst income distributions in the world has been improving consistently during the last few years. However, the challenges of productivity remain. Focusing in understanding the causal relationships between microeconomic factors (e.g. education achievement or managerial abilities) and productivity could help to a better understand the historical evolution of economic development and to design better policies oriented to overcome these problems.


*Aqui na terra tão jogando futebol, Tem muito samba, muito choro e rock’n’roll,  Uns dias chove, noutros dias bate o sol, Mas o que eu quero é lhe dizer que a coisa aqui tá preta.

** Check Nicholas Bloom website at Stanford University (


Hanushek, A. and Woessmann, L (2012): Schooling, educational achievement, and the Latin American growth puzzle, Journal of Development Economics 99 (2012) 497–512

Carvalho Filho, I and Colistete, R (2010): Education Performance: Was It All Determined 100 Years Ago? Evidence From Sao Paulo, Brazil, MPRA working paper

Colistete (2013): A Política do Atraso Educacional: Visões e Conflitos sobre a Instrução Pública em São Paulo entre 1851 e 1892, Departamento de Economia, FEA-USP, working paper


5 thoughts on “Past and Present: Brazil’s Unfulfilled Expectations

  1. Pingback: Artigo recomendado: Brazil’s Unfulfilled Expectations | Gabriel Rega

  2. Guilherme Gontijo

    I think the discussion about the source of low productivity-low growth in Brazil and Latin America should, in relative terms, be left a bit aside and we should focus on a more informed discussion about our ability to do what we think we need be done (education, taxes, infrastructure, etc.). It may be important rather forget the reform agenda and give greater weight to the implementation schedule of the most basic reforms.
    I think the most important issue now is trying to understand the political economy of this process and explain the inability of Brazil to carry out these reforms. And do not discount the possibility that we will find that simply converge to a bad equilibrium – and worse, a stable equilibrium. What to do to move forward? That is the big question.

  3. Pingback: Unfulfilled expectations « Renato Perim Colistete

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