By Evan Carlo
Once hailed as “an extraordinary triumph for Brazil’s achievement,” the Brazilian energy giant Petrobras is now caught in a corruption scandal that could lead to the very top of the country’s political establishment. For months corruption investigators have dug into Petrobras’ records and discovered illegally diverted funds going out of the company and into the pockets of politicians and party activists. Given that the Brazilian government owns 51 percent of the company’s stock, Petrobras essentially operates as a state-owned enterprise. The government uses Petrobras’ revenue and profits to aid in the country’s social development by requiring the company to invest part of its business in local development. Because of this, many Brazilian citizens are angry over the fact that public funds are being used to enrich the political and economic elite.
The scandal kicked off when authorities arrested Paulo Roberto Costa, Petrobras’ chief of refining from 2004 to 2012, in March of last year on money laundering charges. He confessed that construction companies in his division won contracts by diverting over $3.7 billion dollars to slush funds for politicians, making this the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. His testimony led the indiction of over 30 people, many of whom were members of the ruling Worker’s Party. Recently, the scandal reached new heights with the April 14 arrest of the party’s treasurer Joao Vaccari. Authorities charged him with handling $200 million of funds that were obtained from engineering and construction firms that over-charged Petrobras for their services and used their inflated profits to bribe the company and political officials to accept these contracts.
Given President Dilma Rousseff’s status as head of the Worker’s Party and her former role chairing Petrobras’ board of directors during its years under investigation, she has become increasingly connected to the scandal. President Rousseff has repeatedly denied involvement but that has not stopped calls for her impeachment and declines in her approval ratings. Politically this scandal may bring down her presidency and cost the Worker’s Party and its coalition many seats. But a new ruling coalition will unlikely change the political and economic structure that allowed and incentivized corruption.
This is a problem that we see time and time again in developing countries that operate under an extractive economic system. Political economists Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson extensively developed the idea of extractive economies. An economy is extractive when the ruling political elite exploits whatever economic rents they can from their existing economy to maintain their hold on to their power. This contrasts with an inclusive economic system that diversifies the economy and promotes inclusive growth from other sectors. In an inclusive economy, corruption is less widespread since the rule of law and property rights are strongly enforced. Policy examples of extractive economics include: monopolizing industries, excluding entry into the market, using political power to give an advantage to favored industries over new startups, corruption, the alignment of private and public interests, and more. The point of an extractive economic system is to keep political and economic elites in power and extract excess rents from the population. This system is easier to establish in commodity-based economies that focus mainly on extracting and exporting a basic commodity, which is exactly what is happening in the case of Petrobras.
Now it is a little unfair to call Brazil an extractive economy. Brazil, unlike say Russia or Kuwait, does not fully depend on the petroleum industry for its economic survival. Even in the areas of corruption and the rule of law, Brazil ranks higher than many Latin American countries on The World Bank’s Governance Indicators. Since the democratization of Brazil in the 1970s, the Worker’s Party has tried to develop an inclusive political and economic system to reduce inequality and oligarchy. While conditions in Brazil have improved since the 1970s, Brazil problems with income inequality and corruption persist.
The scandal with Petrobras demonstrates that aspects of the Brazilian economy still operate under an extractive system. Petrobras controls enough of the economy and suffers from enough corruption and inefficiencies to pose an economic threat. Economist Samuel Pessoa estimated that Petrobras and its various subcontractors are responsible for a tenth of Brazil’s economic output. Another study by the FGV Business School predicts that the scandal will cause Petrobras and its subcontractors to decrease spending and investment by $30 billion. The world economy is already beginning to slow down due to slower growth in East Asian and European countries. This poses a severe risk to Brazil, which operates mainly as a commodity exports economy. A slowdown in the petroleum industry combined with exogenous shocks can throw Brazil into a recession.
Even when Petrobras and the Worker’s Party try to pursue inclusive policies by using Petrobras to develop impoverished regions, it is executed in a way that makes Petrobras inefficient. Petrobras has a domestic content requirement to contract a certain percent of the goods and services from local businesses. This prevents Petrobras from contracting more experienced and efficient international companies, raising the cost of business. In addition, the government subsidizes fuel consumption through Petrobras by keeping prices artificially low. These two effects keep costs too high and prices too low for Petrobras to remain profitable. Therefore Petrobras is unable to finance its operations and expand its business without going into debt. Petrobras is now one of the most in debt businesses in the world because of how the government crafts their business strategy. The culmination of these policies turned one of the most promising companies in the world to an economic basket case.
The Brazilian government needs to loosen control over Petrobras and allow it to operate more as a private business. The Worker’s Party can create inclusive economic policies through the government and public policy instead of through a state-owned business. These policies not only make Petrobras inefficient but also incentivize corruption. If Petrobras operates more as a private business there will be a disincentive to accept inflated contracts in exchange for bribes since it must make a profit. Having the government divest more from Petrobras will keep the government out of the decision-making process at Petrobras, preventing private and public interests from aligning.
By allowing more competition in the bidding for Petrobras contracts, the Worker’s Party can fight corruption while still developing a more inclusive economic system. If they don’t reform Petrobras, corruption will continue and the emerging economy will suffer for it. The high debt and economic inefficiencies of Petrobras are preventing it from fully exploiting Brazil’s promising off-shore oil reserves that are estimated to hold 50 billion barrels of oil. With the scandal forcing Petrobras to cut back on investment spending, the company is unable to procure the equipment and skilled labor necessary to develop these oil sources. Because Petrobras is a large part of the economy, if it doesn’t recover quickly from the scandal it can weigh down Brazil’s already weak economic growth. Without these reforms, Brazil’s economy will stagnate for the foreseeable years to come.
Image by Agência Brasil