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Growing Middle Class Fuels Brazil's Economy

There are 210 million registered cell phones in Brazil, 10 million more than the estimated population of the entire country.

Mall in Sao Paolo, Brazil
Photo by: Robert Windrem
Mall in Sao Paolo, Brazil

More proof to this traveler that Brazil is a country bursting at the seams.

From the bustle of Sao Paulo, where a vista of modern steel and glass skyscrapers seems endless, to its vast farmlands, Brazilian optimism is on the rise and so is its growing consumer class.

They are consuming everything from cell phones and laptops to Coca-Cola and Nikes, and they were out en masse at the Morumbi shopping center in Sao Paulo on a recent Sunday.

As the developed world struggles, Brazil grows faster, on the strength of its export economy, but also rising domestic demand. Its middle class continues to expand — and spend. An estimated 35 million people joined the middle class between 2003 to 2009, and 20 million more are expected to be included by 2014. Unemployment is at a relatively low 6.5 percent.

Access: Brazil - A CNBC Special Report
Access: Brazil - A CNBC Special Report

The Brazil story is not without its problems — inflation is running at more than 6.4 percent, near the top of its central bank's target range, its currency is arguably overvalued and real estate has seen outsized gains that seem unsustainable.

Brazil has taken steps to curb hot capital inflows, and it is trying to cool consumer credit growth from about 20 percent annually, to about 12 percent, by raising taxes on credit. The hyper-inflation of the 1990s is not such a distant memory, and the central bank is battling inflation with rate hikes and a current interest rate of 12 percent.

The country's many advantages are not lost on Brazil's business community, though there is caution when discussing Brazil's success and future. Poverty remains a huge problem, with roughly 15 percent of the population estimated as living in absolute poverty.

The education system is also not sufficient to create the kind of workers the economy needs. The government is encouraging families to keep children in school by paying them a monthly stipend.

"If we are not so smart, but a little bit smart we will take advantage of (what we have) and become one of the important powers of the world," a senior Brazilian bank official said in his Sao Paulo offices recently.

Brazil is also saddled by huge infrastructure needs — and costs. Some private economists forecast that the country will have to spend some $700 billion to a trillion dollars to get roads, airports, sewers and sports facilities ready for both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (Watch video report from CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera about massive infrastructure construction for these events.)

Brazil officials privately disputed some of these lofty estimates, but this week President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff announced plans to hand over the country's five largest airports to the private sector in an effort to speed up much needed upgrades.

Known for its large agriculture industry, Brazil has not even tapped its potential for food production. It currently grazes cattle at a ratio of one hectare per animal, but it could increase the density and create more farmland. It also has an unusual advantage in its climate which allows the rotation of three crops a year, as opposed to the normal two per year.

Brazil also sits on one of the world's most promising oil finds. Some 300 kilometers off its Atlantic coast, giant Petrobras explores in deep water, hoping to take Brazil production to five million barrels per day and to the ranks of the world's major oil producers by 2020.

“We think Brazil has the potential and the resources to go from the 2 million barrels it produces today to five million by 2030,” said Enrique Sira, director of research for Latin America for IHS Cera. Petrobras forecasts an earlier time frame.

Brazil also is the biggest exporter of iron ore in the world, and has an increasingly close relationship with China, the biggest importer of iron ore. China, hungry for all types of Brazilian commodities, is its fastest growing trading partner, responsible for 15.3 percent of Brazilian exports at the end of last year, from 6.2 percent in 2003. In the same time frame, the portion of exports to the U.S. has fallen to 9.6 percent from 18.2 percent.

Sao Paolo, Brazil
Photo by: Robert Windrem
Sao Paolo, Brazil

There are also opportunities in Brazil's financial infrastructure. Currently, there are just 800,000 domestic and international investor accounts in Brazil, of a population of roughly 200 million people, according to Brazil's Bovespa exchange.

Bovespa is promoting educational campaigns for investors and projects that number could rise to 5 million in five years.

While the Bovespa exchange is one of the world's largest, trading stocks, commodities, and derivatives of all sorts, there is also no developed secondary corporate bond market in Brazil.

As far as consumer banking goes, Brazilian and international banks see big opportunities for growth as the new middle class seeks out banking services.

As for those cell phones, they also represent an opportunity. Brazilians are big users of mobile banking, or banking by cell phone.

Citigroup officials in Rio de Janeiro recently said the company will launch a bank by phone service later in the year, and a mobile transaction service by next year, joining Itau , Banco Bradesco , Banco do Brasil and HSBC.

Patti Domm recently visited Brazil with the Financial Women's Association of New York, and met with business and government officials in a three-city tour of the country.


Watch our special coverage, "Access Brazil,"Monday-Thursday, April 25-28. Maria Bartiromo and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera report from Brazil on Squawk On The Street, 9-11am ET, Power Lunch, 1-2pm ET and Closing Bell, 3-5pm ET on CNBC.