Brazilian Economy in the Café Filho Administration

Middle-aged man wearing glasses, dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting behind an office desk. He appears focused on a stack of papers he is holding with his right hand. On the desk, there are more documents, a black rotary phone, and a stamp. The desk has a plaque in front with the inscription "VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC DIPLOMA 1951-1956". In the background, a striped curtain and a desk lamp with a decorated shade hanging above him.
Café Filho, president of Brazil from 1954 to 1955. Public domain image.

From 1954 to 1955, Brazil was governed by President João Fernandes Campos Café Filho, commonly known as Café Filho. He was the vice-president during Getúlio Vargas’s second term and ascended to the presidency following the latter’s suicide. Upon taking office, he initially implemented a significant shift in economic policy, during Eugênio Gudin’s tenure as Finance Minister. In 1955, however, political pressures led to Gudin being replaced by José Maria Whitaker, who executed another turnabout in Brazilian economy — from contraction to expansion. By the end of Café Filho’s government, Whitaker resigned because he was unable to implement all his ideas about economic policy. His successor, Mário Câmara, was unable to do much in the administration’s last three months.

Gudin’s term as Finance Minister

Following President Vargas’s suicide on August 24, 1954, Café Filho assumed the role of interim president until new elections were held. He inherited a scenario of inflation, fiscal deficit, and balance of payments crisis. The first two were due to the previous government’s expansionist policies, which sought to use state power to stimulate economic growth. The third issue, in turn, stemmed from excessive levels of external debt and a boycott of Brazilian coffee promoted by American buyers, leading to a price drop that harmed Brazil’s exports.

To address this unfavorable scenario, Café Filho appointed proponents of economic liberalism to all the main bodies that were in charge of managing the economy. Clemente Mariani was at the Bank of Brazil (Banco do Brasil). Otávio Gouveia de Bulhões was at the Superintendency of Currency and Credit (Superintendência da Moeda e do Crédito, SUMOC), a kind of central bank. Eugênio Gudin was at the Ministry of Finance.

In terms of domestic economic policy, Gudin adopted a fairly orthodox stabilization plan, characterized by the following measures:

  • Contractionary monetary policy: Interest rates, rediscount rates, and compulsory reserve ratios were increased. Moreover, bank funds that were compulsorily retained by the government would now be held not by the Bank of Brazil but by SUMOC, with the aim of ensuring credit contraction.
  • Contractionary fiscal policy: There was a reduction in public investments and a fruitless attempt to increase taxes, which was blocked by Congress. Additionally, the government maintained the system of multiple exchange rates, which had been introduced by Instruction 70 of SUMOC in the previous government. This contradicted the wishes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which sent a technical mission to Brazil in March 1955 to try to change this. However, the government demonstrated to the technicians that the fiscal revenue provided by auctions of foreign currency at different rates was essential for the country.

The orthodox policies of Gudin had immediate detrimental effects. As liquidity in the economy suddenly dried up, there was a decrease in private investments and a series of bankruptcies and compositions. The crisis was so severe that the government was forced to carry out emergency rediscount operations, providing immediate cash to banks in exchange for debt securities they owned. Despite all this, there was no significant decline in the level of Brazilian industrial activity. Moreover, it’s true that the inflation inherited from Vargas decreased. However, this was not a consequence of contractionist policies — it was a result of falling international prices for agricultural products. An evidence of this is the fact that Brazilian industrial prices increased significantly during the same period.

Eugênio Gudin’s priority, however, was to stabilize the country’s balance of payments, which was experiencing severe problems. An initial measure in this regard was securing external loans. Brazil had already secured 80 million dollars, obtained by former Finance Minister Oswaldo Aranha from the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington. Thanks to Gudin’s prestige among the international financial community, Brazil managed to secure another official loan, of the same amount, from the US government. However, as the new amount was deemed insufficient and the Eisenhower administration was reluctant to assist Brazil, Gudin had to seek an additional 200 million dollars in loans from private banks. This credit would be repaid over five years, at an interest rate of 2.5% per year, and would be backed by the country’s international gold reserves. Although involving large sums, these loans only solved the foreign exchange problems in the short term.

The long-term solution came with Instruction 113 of SUMOC, issued in January 1955. In practical terms, it was a measure to facilitate the importation of machinery, equipment, and inputs for the Brazilian industry. It worked like this:

  • Previously, the Foreign Trade Department of the Bank of Brazil (Carteira de Comércio Exterior do Banco do Brasil, CACEX) only issued import licenses if there was the so-called ‘exchange cover’: importers were required to obtain a commitment that Bank of Brazil would sell them foreign currencies to be sent abroad, in exchange for the imported product. This mechanism was unfavorable to foreign investors, because they first had to bring currency into Brazil at the (devalued) free exchange rate and then purchase import licenses at the (valued) exchange rate for the importation of capital goods.
  • With the issuance of Instruction 113, CACEX was authorized to issue import licenses for capital goods without exchange cover — that is, without the acquisition of dollars by the importers. In exchange for the importation, foreign companies could simply have a stake in the shares of the importing company. This gave an indirect subsidy to foreign companies, which would no longer lose money on foreign exchange operations.
  • Furthermore, Instruction 113 also authorized CACEX to issue licenses for national companies to import capital goods financed abroad for a term not less than five years. The exchange rate that would be used to settle these financings would, in practice, give a ~30% advantage to national companies. However, as there were no financings abroad that met the requirements demanded by the law, national investors, in practice, did not benefit from the changes brought by Instruction 113.

For Brazilian economist Demosthenes Pinho Neto, Instruction 113 did nothing more than deregulate imports without exchange cover. Such imports were already occurring previously, but depended on the authorization of bodies subject to political pressures. As a consequence of the new import regime, the demand for dollars fell — which benefited the government and society as a whole — and numerous multinational companies expanded their investments in Brazil. This would be of considerable relevance in the government of Juscelino Kubitschek, when there would be strong incentives for the establishment of automotive industries in the country. On the other hand, Instruction 113 was strongly criticized, because it favored foreign investors (to the detriment of national companies) and because it facilitated the importation of less advanced equipment, which could come to Brazil without monetary compensation.

Regarding the Brazilian coffee sector, which had been of excessive importance since the Imperial Period, Eugênio Gudin maintained the policy pejoratively known as ‘foreign exchange confiscation’ (confisco cambial). This policy stemmed from Instruction 70 of SUMOC, which discouraged coffee exports by stipulating a more valued exchange rate for this operation. In April 1955, facing opposition because of his orthodoxy and his policies against the interests of coffee exporters, Eugênio Gudin resigned from the Finance Ministry and was replaced by José Maria Whitaker — a name that pleased coffee growers.

Whitaker’s term as Finance Minister

Upon taking office as Finance Minister, José Maria Whitaker implemented an expansionist monetary policy, aiming to address the harms of the orthodox adjustment made by Gudin. There was a reduction in rediscount rates and compulsory reserve ratios, along with an expansion of credit. However, this shift was not supposed to cause the return of high levels of inflation. Therefore, Whitaker determined that credit would only be expanded for the agricultural, industrial, and commercial sectors, with a maximum repayment term of 120 days. He believed in the ‘real bills doctrine’, according to which the provision of short-term credits to productive sectors would not lead to an inflationary spiral.

Although Whitaker was supported by coffee growers, he believed that artificially sustaining high coffee prices was a mistake. He thought the Brazilian government bore all the costs of this policy, yet it equally benefited foreign competitors in the coffee market. Thus, he determined the temporary suspension of government purchases of coffee, to reduce prices, harm the competition, and conquer new markets. This shift was vehemently criticized by Alkindar Junqueira, president of the Brazilian Coffee Institute (Instituto Brasileiro do Café). Junqueira argued that reducing the international price of this product would not be favorable to Brazil, given that it is a product with inelastic demand — that is, a demand that does not increase as much when the price falls. He then established a plan with Brazil’s competitors to contract the coffee supply, but this was rejected by the government and resulted in his dismissal.

Whitaker’s priority was to end the so-called ‘foreign exchange confiscation’ (confisco cambial), by instituting a single floating exchange rate, which would be devalued, for any type of import or export. Although this could potentially exacerbate inflation, the minister was convinced it was the right thing to do. In this regard, he gave autonomy to the superintendent of the National Economic Development Bank (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico, BNDE), Roberto Campos, to draft a currency reform.

Campos knew that to unify the exchange rates, Brazil needed to reduce pressures on the balance of payments. This would be done through three measures:

  • Consolidate short-term debts into a single long-term debt.
  • Obtain a reserve line of credit to stabilize the foreign exchange market.
  • Reform import tariffs to protect the national industry from the detrimental effects of the anticipated exchange rate devaluation. To this end, Brazil notified the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of its intention to replace its specific tariffs (charged as a fixed amount per quantity of imported products) with ad valorem tariffs (percentage tariffs, which would vary according to the prices of imported products) starting from 1956.

In June 1956, the director of the IMF, Edward Bernstein, published a report proposing how to reform Brazil’s foreign currency policy: either maintain a fixed exchange rate but devalue and unify the exchange rates (except for imports), or adopt a floating exchange rate, with unique rates for imports and exports, respectively, in addition to surcharges for imports.

Based on the Bernstein Report, Roberto Campos drafted a SUMOC instruction that envisioned adopting a floating exchange rate and unifying the exchange rates. The exception to this would be the exchange rate for coffee exports, which would be progressively devalued until it reached the level of the unified rate. Although José Maria Whitaker advocated for the immediate abolition of ‘exchange rate confiscation’ (confisco cambial), Roberto Campos convinced him to support a gradual abolition, over two years, to avoid disturbances in the coffee sector. In addition, the income of coffee growers in Brazilian currency (the cruzeiro) would be backed by the government, because the pace of devaluations would be proportional to any potential drops in the price of coffee.

Roberto Campos’ project reflected a critical view of import substitution industrialization — a model adopted in Latin America that hindered imports through artificially overvalued exchange rates. For the superintendent of the BNDE, this policy negatively affected the balance of payments. Not surprisingly, the project was enthusiastically approved by the IMF.

However, the staff of the Finance Ministry and the economic elites opposed such a sweeping reform in a provisional administration that was nearing its end. Because of this, Café Filho decided to send the foreign currency reform project to the assessment of the Congress. In practice, this represented the abandonment of any hope of implementing the project.

As he was unable to unify the exchange rate, Whitaker resigned from the Finance Ministry and was replaced by Mário Câmara. In the last three months of the Café Filho administration, the new minister adopted monetary contraction, through the increase of rediscount rates, but this had little effect.


For a significant part of historians, the Café Filho administration is considered merely an interim period (interregnum) between presidents who reflected the preferences of the Brazilian people at that time: Getúlio Vargas and Juscelino Kubitschek (JK), both interested in stimulating national development. Café Filho began governing with a contractionist economic policy, conducted by Eugênio Gudin, but was soon forced to change course due to pressure from coffee growers. The new minister, José Maria Whitaker, sought to expand economic growth and unify exchange rates, but only succeeded in the first objective. In 1954 and 1955, Brazil’s GDP maintained high growth levels — 7.8% and 8.8%, respectively. From 1956 onwards, under the leadership of Juscelino Kubitschek, the country would experience even greater economic progress.




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