Brazilian Lessons for Industrial Policy

SAO PAULO – Few economic ideas are more lauded and reviled than that of industrial policy. Proponents, such as those who studied the rise of the East Asian economies, swear by it. Opponents see red at its very mention. The former point to economic development; the latter maintain that tens, even hundreds, of billions of dollars have been squandered.

One recent theatre of (dis)content is that of renewable fuels. Worldwide, $184 billion is being allocated in public stimulus investments to promote clean energy, led by the United States ($67 billion) and China ($47 billion). Of course, there is some progress – wind power meets 20% of the electricity demand in Denmark and about 15% in Spain and Portugal, for example – but the recipe for success remains elusive.

In this vein, Brazil’s experience at promoting renewable fuels, beginning in the 1970’s, is directly relevant to today’s polarized views of industrial policy. A 10-year industrial policy program called Pro-álcool was crucial in the development of the industry. Today, Brazil is the world’s most competitive producer of renewable fuels, based primarily on bioethanol. Ethanol accounts for more than 50% of current light-vehicle fuel demand in the country, and Petrobras – Brazil’s energy giant and one of the largest companies in Latin America – expects this share to increase to more than 80% by 2020.

Our research shows that industrial policy was successful in promoting a competitive bioethanol industry in Brazil. A massive stimulus package, prompted by the 1970’s rise in oil prices, gave rise to an entirely new industry. But it would not have worked without the crucial role played by competition.