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The United States decided this week to put a black female abolitionist on their new $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson, the seventh president who was accused of keeping slaves.

The decision to honour Harriet Tubman got me thinking about Brazil and who we look up to here – or down to, as we flip through bank notes.

Brazil has in the past been much more egalitarian than the US, putting more women and more minorities (including indigenous people) on their notes. Over the years, composers and scientists, novelists and poets have been among those adorning the country’s paper money. (See this great slideshow for more.)

Brazil hasn’t had real people on its bank notes since 1994 when it introduced the real as its seventh currency in 27 years.

The Central Bank didn’t know how long the currency would last and so rather than subject historical figures to a short and ignominious stint in people’s pockets, they put generic Greek God like figures on the 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 real notes.

The Brazilian currency is robust and shows no signs of going the same way as the cruzado, the cruzado novo, the rei, the conto, the cruzeiro or the cruzeiro real., the currencies that preceded them.

So is it time to start honouring real Brazilians again on bank notes? Maybe now, in the midst of a financial crisis, is not the best time to implement such a costly change. But it’s time to at least begin a debate on the issue.

Off the top of my head, I suggest André Rebouças, Pelé, Ayrton Senna, Joaquim Nabuco, Orlando Villas Boas and Tom Jobim as possible new honorees. Suggestions?

 

 

 

 

 

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Adidas 2Adidas launched two tshirts this month that were ostensibly about the World Cup but had a sexual connotation. Their message was clear: Come to Brazil for the football and you might get lucky.

The tshirts were withdrawn from sale yesterday after the Brazilian government complained they were “a crime against all humanity” that encouraged sexual tourism.

The tshirts, pictured here, were in questionable taste and the company was right to remove them from shop windows.

But the Brazilian government’s response is not just over the top (a crime against all humanity?), it is also hypocritical.

Walk down any Brazilian street and you are assailed by sensual images, both real and virtual, that go far beyond what you see in Europe or the US. Infant girls get their ears pierced and are adorned with pink ribbons. Children are wheeled out on TV shows in hot pants and crop tops where they dance suggestively. Gorgeous and scantily clad women are a fixture in adverts and on television.Adidas 1

Beer companies, to quote perhaps the most egregious example, don’t just have semi-naked blondes (yes, they’re usually blondes) in every commercial, they give their beers names such as Devassa, Proibida, and Gostosa.

Most of this is down to the private sector and, lamentably, the media.

But federal, state and municipal government rarely object and certainly not with the vigor they showed yesterday.

Instead, they continue to do business with the guilty companies. They give their imprimatur to carnival, where semi-nude and second rate models shake themselves atop pedestals under the guise of culture. They advertise with the offending media conglomerates.

This isn’t a comment on sexual attitudes. It’s a comment on hypocrisy and perspective.

Brazil is always sensitive about its image and will be even more so in the run up to the World Cup. But there are many more important issues to be resolved right now than the sale of a few questionable tshirts.

The furor over the tshirts is not wrong. It’s just missing the bigger picture.

kitkatIn a country where almost everything is maddeningly expensive, one of the highlights of traveling is the stop at Duty Free on the way home.

In Brazil that means Dufry, the company with the contract to sell duty free items at Brazil’s airports.

I’ve long suspected that Dufry are ripping people off, much like Itau, whom I wrote about here last year.

My suspicions were aroused a couple of years ago. I forgot my headphones when heading to the US and bought a pair in duty free at Guarulhos airport. A day or so later I spotted the same pair in a store in Florida for almost half the price.

When I came back to Brazil I asked Dufry for an interview but their press officer said it wasn’t the right time to talk. A few weeks later his boss was in Folha boasting about how the firm was thinking of opening stores on Brazil’s land borders.

I came back to Brazil again this week and found one more example of how Dufry are ripping off unsuspecting customers.

A bag of 25 two-finger Kit Kats was on sale at the Dufry shop for 54 reais. That works out to be 1.08 reais per finger. It seemed expensive so when I got back to Sao Paulo I checked out the prices.

I picked up a four-finger Kit Kat at a pharmacy in Sao Paulo yesterday for 3.50 reais, or 0.875 reais per finger. Much cheaper than in Dufry’s duty free shop.

Remember the whole point of a duty free shop is that the items they sell are tax free and so should be cheaper than in regular stores.

It’s hard to look at Dufry and see a company that is willfully ripping off its customers.

One colleague called me a misanthrope the other day. Another often refers to me as Mr Angry. A Scottish pal in Rio calls me Begbie (after the notoriously angry character in Trainspotting).

They all mean it in jest (I hope!) and I usually take it with a pinch of salt and a laugh.

VWBut there’s a lot to be angry about these days and I don’t just mean big banks destroying the livelihoods of millions just to make a few more pennies, or the spinelessness of politicians who have allowed them to get away with it.

Case in point today in Brazil, where Bradley Brooks from the Associated Press just published this sensational story about how big car makers in Brazil are routinely churning out vehicles that fail the same safety tests they wouldn’t dare fail in the developed world.

FiatBrooks’ story says that thousands of Brazilians dying every year in auto accidents that in many cases shouldn’t have proven fatal. He writes:

Unsafe cars, coupled with the South American nation’s often dangerous driving conditions, have resulted in a Brazilian death rate from passenger car accidents that is nearly four times that of the United States.

The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil’s five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests.

Manufacturers earn a 10 percent profit on Brazilian-made cars, compared with 3 percent in the U.S. and a global average of 5 percent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm.

Only next year will laws require frontal air bags and antilock braking systems on all cars, safety features that have been standard in industrial countries for years. The country will also have new impact regulations on paper, at least; Brazilian regulators don’t have their own crash-test facility to verify automakers’ claims about vehicle performance, nor are there independent labs in the country.

ChevroletIn short, Brazil’s car makers are cutting corners and costing countless lives because it is cheaper to make poor quality cars than it is to spend more and make the cars as safe as they would in the US or Europe. And the government is quite happy to let them.

This in a nation where cars cost three times what they cost elsewhere.

Seriously, the question isn’t why am I angry. The question is: Why isn’t everyone?

 

When I first came to Brazil I was shocked at how many people wore football shirts. Everybody wore them, young and old, male and female, and they wore them everywhere.

It wasn’t unusual to see people in nightclubs or restaurants wearing the colours of Flamengo, Corinthians, Palmeiras and dozens of others. I thought it was weird (and still do).

If one thing has changed over the last decade it is that you no longer see people wearing just local shirts. Nowadays, for every Botafogo shirt there’s a Chelsea one, for every Cruzeiro a Barcelona, and for every Gremio a Liverpool.

Turned off by the corruption and mismanagement endemic in their domestic game and with the exotic attractions of Europe available on demand via TV, the internet and video games, many Brazilians – especially youngsters – are taking a greater interest in foreign football.

“Little by little, the big European clubs are silently ‘invading’ the hearts and minds of Brazilian football lovers, especially the young, who are seduced by competitions that are much more attractive than those we are used to seeing in Brazil,” said Fernando Ferreira, the director of Pluri, a sports consultancy firm. “The phenomenon of Brazilians supporting one team in Brazil and another abroad is more and more common.”

Read the full Reuters story here on how Brazilian fans are paying more and more attention to European clubs.

The reasons?

One is that Brazilian football is expensive and still a bit of a mess (even though it is slowly getting better). Another is that more Brazilians have more money to spend, as I’ve written about a thousand times. And third, the world is smaller and more people have more access to European football, via TV, the internet, social media and video games.

Brazilian clubs are trying to internationalise. But the truth is their fans have already taken that step.

DilmaPresident Dilma Rousseff today once again said Brazil needs to become more competitive, improve its infrastructure and cut down on red tape.

“Our country has to change, and change in the direction of greater competitiveness,” she said, according to this Reuters story. (And more here in Portuguese.)

I’d feel a lot more supportive of Dilma if there seemed to be any real action behind those rousing and sensible words.

Brazilians still pay more taxes than anyone in the developing world and the government hasn’t made any real attempt to cut them. Dilma has at least tried to encourage the private sector to get involved in building infrastructure. It’s still way too little, but it’s something.

And as for cutting bureaucracy, nothing meaningful has been done. Chile, for example, announced this week it would allow people to open a business in one working day. In Brazil it takes 119 days, according to this World Bank report.

Talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words. Brazil needs more of the former and more of the latter.

I almost went to a balada this weekend but instead arrived home early having went through one of those small but telling experiences that reinforce my belief Brazil is still a long way from ever fulfilling its true potential.

I arrived at the door to the Trackers club around 1 am with half a dozen friends, both foreign and Brazilian. Voodoo Hop, an otherwise admirable group that seeks to rejuvenate the city centre by running clubs and cultural events in abandoned buildings, were organising another of their successful club nights.

After waiting half an hour to edge up the queue and get in the door, we discovered that there was another queue inside the building to get into the actual club.

My friends – most of whom were a good deal younger than me – took it in their stride. I was outraged. After another 10 minutes waiting in the second queue that snaked up two flights of stairs, I left.

Brazil has problems with lots of things that won’t change overnight. Corruption, antiquated infrastructure, a putrid political system, and the obscene amount of power leveraged by multinationals and construction companies are all ingrained in the culture and will only improve with government intervention or massive pressure from society, neither of which looks like happening any time soon.

But the stupid invention of bureaucracy for simple tasks like getting in a night club is easy to resolve. One queue, fine. Two queues, pointless and self-defeating.

The big worry I have here – and this is the part that reinforce my belief Brazil is still a long way from fulfilling its potential – is that I was the only one who saw anything wrong with this.

Not only were the organizers of this young and hip nightclub happy to carry on with the same old bureaucratic and non-sensical rules imposed on them by an older generation. (If there’s a good reason from this, I’d be happy to hear it, VoodooHop…)

What was worse was that the young kids waiting in line accepted it as normal. There was no outrage at being made to stand passively in two different queues, much less being made to stand passively in two different queues for the right to hand over a 30 real entry fee.

Instead, anyone who complained was “uptight”, “stressed out” or “whining.”

I voted with my feet. Unless more people do the same, the bureaucracy and BS is never going away.

Deco, delighted he didn’t have to play against me, even on a concrete four-a-side pitch

In December I spent a week in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro interviewing players, directors, economists, marketing experts and media personalities for a Time magazine article.

The piece, written by my colleague Bobby Ghosh, came out yesterday to much consternation, thanks largely to a misleading headline that declared Neymar The Next Pele. (See more on that controversy here.)

Here’s five interesting things that never made it into the piece:

–          Botafogo have someone standing at the same of the pitch with team shirts to give to players who are going to be interviewed. At the end of the game or at half time the players have either swapped their shirts or taken them off because they are sweating and club officials realized sponsors logos weren’t appearing when they were being grilled on TV. The officials now make sure the players are suitably attired.

–          Brazilian clubs exaggerate the number of fans they have, or at least what constitutes a fan. Flamengo and Corinthians claim they have more than 30 million fans each and yet neither averages a crowd above 30,000. Only around 350,000 Brazilian fans are registered with their club’s socio-torcedor scheme, the closest thing Brazilians clubs have to season tickets. Clubs and sponsors have started a push to get more adherents through a deal that gives them discounts with major retailers such as SKY TV, Pepsi, Netshoes and Brahma. The target is to get 3.5 million fans signed as socio-torcedores.

–          Corinthians increased their revenue from 55 million reais in 2003 to 290 million reais in 2011 but marketing director Luis Paulo Rosenberg still believes the club has only scratched the surface of what is possible. “I am not saying we do everything right,” he told us. “But we stopped doing everything wrong and that was enough to multiply revenues by five or six.”

–          Santos have more fans in Sao Paulo  than in Santos, according to Stochos, a sports consultancy.  Their numbers show that 19.5 % of Santos fans live in the Baixada Santista, while 37.6 % live in the state capital. The number of young people who support Santos has increased greatly over the last few years, thanks largely, Stochos believes, due to the influence of Neymar.

–          Deco was lucky that he was late for his scheduled interview at the foundation for disadvantaged kids he set up in his home town of Indaiatuba. By turning up half an hour late he didn’t have to face me in the under 12-s four-a-side match. (Each team was allowed one over-age player). The former Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder would doubtlessly have struggled to contain my box-to-box running and overall stranglehold on midfield.

Great blog post on The Economist website today about Brazil’s planned $17 billion bullet train.

Brazil has been talking about this for years but plans have yet to get off the drawing board. No one wants to take on the challenge because they don’t think it’s an economically viable project.

The Economist piece takes a while to get to the point, which is this. And I quote:

“Most of Brazil’s roads are unpaved. Some important routes—including some interstate highways—are single-lane and extremely dangerous. Half the population is not connected to the sewage system. There are few (ordinary) commuter or freight rail lines, and they are mostly in very poor condition. Urban mass transport is grossly deficient: São Paulo, a metropolis of nearly 20m souls, has a mere 71km (44 miles) of metro, plus a few overland urban rail lines, which at peak hours are all terrifyingly overcrowded. It is so easy to think of a long list of more worthwhile infrastructure projects in Brazil that it is hard to understand why this one is not dismissed out of hand.”

I’d put it more succinctly:

The plan to spend at least 34 billion reais (and probably much more) on the bullet train is a classic example of Brazil’s delusions of grandeur. Brazil has hardly any rail system and yet wants to build a high speed train link. It has hardly any submarines and yet plans to build a nuclear sub. It has just published plans for its 4G network when its 3G doesn’t work properly.

Brazil should be concentrating on walking before it can run. It has taken laudable steps to reduce inequality but there is so much more to be done to make life liveable for the poorest sectors of society and those should take precedence over Pharaonic projects like a bullet train.

Why is it doing this? Who knows. It wants to be first world. It wants to show off. It wants to show it can. It’s not because it needs it.

So why do it? Not for consumers or passengers. As The Economist suggests, the number of passengers is likely to be half the government’s estimate and prices are likely to be double.

Who benefits? That one’s easier to answer. The same corrupt kleptocrats in the political class and their bosom buddies who run the construction companies.

The offending article

Just when you thought Brazilian laws couldn’t get any more backwards, another bit of needless bureaucracy leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

I bought a bottle of wine at the weekend in Pao de Acucar, my local supermarket. Over the years I’ve bought hundreds of bottle of wine, vodka, beer and rum at the same supermarket.

This time, though, I had to register.

REGISTER. Not just show ID – but register.

Like you have to do in the US to buy the kinds of fertilizer used to make bombs. Like you have to do in Scotland to buy certain kinds of hard drugs.

No matter that it was a bottle of wine, 13 % volume.

No matter that I am 45 years old.

No matter that it was a quiet Saturday lunchtime.

I still had to provide them with my personal data that they put on their central computer.

Sometimes Brazil beggars belief.

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