Could high debt levels in Brazil threaten its packaging demand?
Fastmarkets’ economist for Latin America, Rafael Barisauskas, analyzes the impact of household debt and reduced consumption
Sales by the Brazilian paper packaging industry in the first quarter of 2023 did not reflect the positive economic growth recorded in the country in the same period, when preliminary data on gross domestic product (GDP) from the Brazil Central Bank (BCB) showed 2.4% quarterly growth compared with the last quarter of 2022.
Market adjusting from post-pandemic demand boom
According to Fastmarkets’ economist for Latin America, Rafael Barisauskas, packaging demand in the country is often related to households’ income levels, which are important drivers of consumption.
“The higher a household’s disposable income, the greater its overall demand for goods,” Barisauskas said. “However, households usually have a minimal subsistence consumption level, mainly composed of non-durable, essential goods such as food and hygiene items, and tend to consume similar levels of those products across time, regardless of their income level.”
The latest data from the Brazilian Tree Industry Association (Ibá) show that sales of packaging and wrapping domestic papers reached 413,000 tonnes in the first quarter of 2023, down by 7.4% year-on-year. Boxboard figures were 1.9% higher than a year before, totaling 157,000 tonnes in the first quarter, but also lower than the 165,000 tonnes sold in the last quarter of 2022.
“The fact that the first quarter of packaging sales is down by around 30,000 tonnes compared with last year’s figures shows that the market is simply [adjusting] after a boom in demand following the pandemic,” Barisauskas said.
Agriculture is driving most of Brazil’s GDP growth so far
Brazilian GDP growth this year is mainly coming from the agricultural sector, mainly grains, and positive numbers from the job market, he said. This suggests widespread growth across different service sectors, in tandem with governmental programs.
“Still, the contribution from agriculture was superior to all other factors,” he said, “which raises questions about the sustainability of the higher-than-expected growth in the first quarter, while data for domestic consumption still lacks solid growth drivers.”
Household debt at a historical high
From April onward, Barisauskas said, household debt levels had been at a historic high, with 78.3% of all households holding debt, according to data from the National Confederation of Commerce (CNC).
“At the same time,” he added, “the share of households with no money to pay their debts grew again to 11.6% of all in-debt households, due to higher interest rates and unstable economic conditions. As a result, debt levels in the country are historically high, and limiting a further recovery in domestic consumption, driven mainly by the growth of middle-class households in debt.”
One factor affecting packaging demand is that the middle-class households are usually caught off-guard during long crises, because they are not the target sector for government social programs in the same way as low-income households are and do not hold enough savings as high-income households do.
“Naturally, eroding purchasing power and turbulent economic conditions cause families to go into debt to maintain their lifestyles and to make ends meet,” Barisauskas said. “The situation worsens when there are rising interest rates.”
In 2022, when there was a presidential election in Brazil, credit was made easier, with about 7 million households granted more than 10.6 billion Reais ($2.1 billion) of easy credit. Default rates on that sum are above 80%, according to data from local news providers. Barisauskas emphasized that default rates among credit-card holders in Brazil were now nearly 50%.
Brazil’s reference interest rate remained stable at 13.75% in May, causing further complaints from market participants, Barisauskas said, given that inflation is quickly converging to the BCB target of 3.5%.
“Inflation has been cooling, primarily due to the high interest rates; year-on-year rates were 4.1% in April. If inflation slows down and remains low for long enough, it would allow consumers to at least partially restore the purchasing power eroded between 2021 and 2022,” Barisauskas said.
How does this impact the outlook for packaging demand?
The financial health of most Brazilian households is at risk to support the consumption of goods beyond minimal levels, although the outlook for packaging consumption is not harmful, he added.
“Packaging demand relies a lot on essential goods, which are the main driver for tonnage consumption, regardless of short-term income variations or debt levels,” he said. “According to the latest issue of our Latin American 5-Year Forecast, Brazil’s containerboard demand will grow by 0.3% in 2023 to 4.7 million tonnes, while boxboard consumption will increase by 6% to 1.1 million tonnes.”
Want to learn more? Speak to our team about accessing our Latin American 5-Year Forecast report to uncover more about the regional pulp and paper market.