Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Recently, a number of people have insisted to me that Iran has squandered its chance to joint the ranks of the BRICs—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—which count as the great emerging markets of the world. As sanctions return, as the rial sheds value, and as protests become routine, Iran is increasingly portrayed as an economic basket case where state collapse is just around the corner.
But even a cursory look to the recent experiences of BRIC markets makes it clear that Iran’s pains are not unique. In particular, Brazil has been in a near constant state of political and economic crisis since 2014, when an investigation called Operation Carwash uncovered massive corruption within Petrobras, a state-owned energy company, which was at the center of a “corruption machine” enriching allies of then President Dilma Rousseff. Since these revelations, millions of Brazilians have participated in protests around the country, their anger only increasing as a recession brings higher inflation and rising unemployment.
As I relayed in an interview with Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paolo, in January of this year, the slogans of the protests then emerging across Iran and still visible today, echo those of the protests that have been roiling in Brazil. The reason for this is simple. From a developmental standpoint, Iran’s economy is very similar to those of the BRIC countries, especially Brazil.
The policy failures of the Iranian government have garnered much attention in light of the recent protests. But they are not unique. They are the same failures that can be observed in Brazil, as well as other upper-middle income economies undergoing complex economic transitions. The frustrated cry of the Iranian protestor is the same cry as that of the Brazilian protestor. Sure, there is some local political and economic dialect. But the language of corruption and inequality is the same.
Despite this, the economic crisis in Iran has been characterized as a uniquely Iranian phenomenon, resulting from a set of political circumstances which can be traced back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Looking to Iran and Brazil in a comparative framework offers an important corrective to this characterization. Similar combinations of macroeconomic conditions produce similar political manifestations—protests against corruption, anger at social injustice, even calls to overthrow the government.
Put in its proper context, what is most unique about the crisis in Iran is not the economic reality, but the political reaction. Despite the clear parallels between the cases in Brazil and Iran, we do not see foreign powers “reaching for a regime change strategy” to alleviate the frustrations of the Brazilian people. No doubt, the failures of the Iranian government to create a robust economy are partially political failures. The country has an antagonistic relationship with the world’s superpower and its political elites are continually embroiled in needless scandal.
But as the seven charts below show, Iran is not an outlier when it comes to its economic performance. Governments of very different political persuasions and institutional frameworks—like those of Brazil and Iran—routinely fail to solve the fundamental challenges of economic development precisely because economic growth is difficult to achieve, harder to sustain, and insufficient to improve living standards. This is the context in which we ought to objectively understand and grapple with the idea of economic reform in Iran.
1. Struggles with Inflation
Both Iran and Brazil have long tried to keep inflation in check. Brazil suffered from extreme inflation in the early 1990s, hitting nearly 3000 percent. Iran also went through a period of chronic inflation, hitting an official rate of 50 percent in 1995. By the later part of the decade, both countries began to bring inflation under control. In 2016, the inflation rates in Brazil and Iran converged. Both are back on an upward trend, contributing to public frustration over the cost of living.
2. Stubborn Unemployment
One of the main drivers of recent protests in both Iran and Brazil has been anger over chronic unemploument. In Brazil, unemployment has risen sharply due to the recent economic downturn, and is now approaching levels seen in Iran. Revelations of deep-seated corruption in government have led Iranians and Brazilians to share the belief that their government officials are more concerned about their personal economic wellbeing than about creating jobs and tackling inequality.
3. Ease of Doing Business Rankings
Weak rule of law and the lack of transparency which enable corruption also serve as barriers to investors and entrepreneurs. Iran and Brazil are ranked 124th and 125th respectively in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. While the performance of Iran and Brazil varies across the constituent parts of the overall score, it is clear that conducting business in the two countries is similarly onerous and risky.
4. The Role of Foreign Direct Investment
However, despite the fact that Brazil is just as difficult a place to do business as Iran, the Brazilian economy has attracted nearly 25 times more net foreign direct investment (FDI) than Iran in the period from 1980 to 2016. Brazil’s economy has been burnished with over USD 1 trillion dollars in FDI, while Iran’s economy has secured just USD 44 billion in the same period. Brazil’s success in attracting foreign investment began around 1995, when the country was coming out of its hyperinflation crisis and when a new class of emerging market investors began to finance the new wave of globalization. Iran missed out on this emerging markets gold-rush. The passing of the Iran Libya Sanctions Act in 1996 by the U.S. Congress and the intensification of sanctions in 2008 at a time when global investors sought elusive growth in emerging markets in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, saw Iran’s FDI inflows stagnate.
5. Similar Growth, Differing Volatility
Despite missing out on FDI inflows, Iran has not been a growth laggard. Over the period of 1980 to 2017, Brazil and Iran achieved the exact same average annual GDP growth: 2.45 percent. The key difference is that Iran’s growth has been more volatile given that it is principally driven by oil revenues and is therefore tied to fluctuations in the global oil price. International sanctions have also frustrated economic growth in Iran.
6. Brazil’s Debt-Fueled Growth
But if Iran’s growth has been fueled by oil, Brazil’s growth has been fueled by its own global market—the debt market. Brazil’s external debt has skyrocketed, exceeding 70 percent of GDP, as the country has repeatedly turned to international bond markets and IMF loans in order to counteract domestic economic fragility and soften the impact of recessions. The recourse to debt allows Brazil to reduce economic volatility. While Iran’s oil buyers can be fickle, creditors are always ready to offer Brazil more financing.
7. GDP Per Capita
Iran and Brazil have seen similar overall levels of economic growth in the last four decades and standards of living, as measured by purchasing power, have likewise been improving at a similar rate. But this is all the more remarkable given that Brazil has enjoyed much greater access to international investment and financing. Even so, the average Iranian today enjoys greater purchasing power than the average Brazilian. The gap in GDP per capita widened during Brazil’s recent economic downturn, but it will likely narrow again as Iran enters its own economic crisis, marked by returning inflation and a devalued currency. Nonetheless, Iran can be said to have delivered greater economic dividends to its population than one of the vaunted BRICs, even without the stimulus of international finance.