In Brazil, A Once-High-Flying Economy Takes A Tumble : Parallels A few years ago, amid a global recession, Brazil was the darling of the financial markets. But last year, the country barely avoided recession. Prices are soaring, and investors are looking elsewhere.

In Brazil, A Once-High-Flying Economy Takes A Tumble

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Just a few years ago, the booming Brazilian economy was the darling of the business world. Then last year, Brazilians were shocked to find their country just barely avoiding a recession, especially when they started to feel the pinch at work and at home as the supercharged economy slowed. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It was a terrible Christmas season for stores in Brazil. For the first time in over a decade, since 2003 actually, sales went down. Roberta Pimienta owns a small shop selling children's clothes at the Butanta mall in Sao Paulo. The mall is aimed squarely at middle-class shoppers who live in the area.

ROBERTA PIMIENTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It was the worst drop in sales since I've had this store," she says. "In seven years, it was the worst year I've ever had," she says.

Back in the early and mid-2000s, Brazil was flying high. Part of the reason had to do with a boom in easy credit and the creation of an avid consumer class. Also global investors put their money in Brazil, running away from ailing Europe and America, regions that were going through the Great Recession. Finally, China was buying a lot of what Brazil was selling - soybeans and other commodities. Today, the story is very different. Luis Carlos Lemos is an economist at Brazil's Mackenzie University.

LUIS CARLOS LEMOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Looking at the short term, the expectation is that we will have a tough economy. There won't be much consumption, much growth, no better income distribution and we will have inflation that will be exploding over our heads," he says.

China isn't buying as much, international investors are putting their money back into the recovering U.S., and people here have taken on a lot of debt. Prices are also sky-high. The IPhone 6 costs almost $1,800 in Brazil. The one bright spot had been that despite slowing growth, unemployment had remained low. But that might be changing. Let's look at car sales. They, too, fell in 2014, down 7 percent in Brazil for the year. And when sales fall, layoffs often follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is audio from YouTube from a march held this week in Sao Paulo where thousands of people showed up. They were protesting hundreds of firings at some of the region's biggest car factories. Workers are also on strike at Volkswagen, where jobs have just been cut. Umberto Panini is a mechanic who works at Volkswagen. He still has a job, but he admits he's worried.

UMBERTO PANINI: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It would worry anyone," he tells me in their small townhouse close to the factory. "We feel insecure. It makes us not do certain things we might do otherwise because we are worried about money," he says.

He and his wife, Michele, have just had a daughter. Michele lost her job as a credit analyst right before giving birth, so they are living on one income about $3,000 a month, which is a pretty good salary in Brazil. When I asked them what things are different, they say this year instead of traveling abroad - in previous years, they have been to Spain and Chile - they will be vacationing inside the country.

The Brazilian currency's slide has made travel less affordable, and this is the thing. In the past decade, the economic changes here lifted millions of people out of abject poverty. Incomes rose. So did standards of living. Inequality dropped. In previous downturns, there's been hyperinflation and even real privation in Brazil. This time, Umberto Panini and his wife say they will be a little more cautious. But they own a house. They have a car. They remain optimistic about their - and Brazil's - prospects. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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