RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — In a fading neighborhood near this city's beachfront, a giant, 893-unit apartment complex still under construction is almost completely sold out, thanks to cheap financing that's helped hundreds of middle-class Brazilians buy in.
A few blocks away, stores are filled with shoppers snapping up imported televisions and household appliances, with many also buying on credit. Prices for such goods have dropped since the start of the year, thanks to Brazil's strengthening currency, the real.
With inflation low and the real strengthening against the dollar, this may be Brazil's finest economic moment in at least a decade. And people are taking advantage of it.
"Without a doubt, this is a new era for us," said Mauricio Costa, who manages two Rio de Janeiro area household appliance stores and has seen sales boom. "Before, only people with a certain amount of wealth could afford to buy here. Now, everybody is coming in."
According to some economists, Brazil, which is notorious for its booms and busts, has finally turned a corner. They predict a good, long spell of stable growth.
Most Brazilians over the age of 30 can remember when that wasn't the case. The price of bread could double within days, and the local currency was on such a downward spiral that four times since World War II the government dropped three zeros and changed the currency's name.
Yet for more than a year now, Latin America's biggest economy has been on a roll.
Inflation and interest rates have hit record lows, which has spurred businesses to offer affordable credit for the first time in years and fuel a wave of consumer spending.
Foreign investors are also taking notice as Brazil's Bovespa stock index climbs to all-time highs, and the federal government runs huge primary budget surpluses on the strength of booming exports of iron, soy and other commodities.
Imports also have taken off as the real reaches its strongest levels against the dollar in six years, although some are concerned that the real may be overvalued.
Most importantly, Brazil has built the foundations for long-term prosperity by diversifying its economy and reining in government spending, said Evaldo Alves, a Sao Paulo-based economics professor at the business and law school the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
"There's no doubt that we're in the strongest position we've been in in a long time," he said. "The challenge now is for people to take advantage of this moment and build on it."
Many Brazilians say they're making long-term economic plans for the first time in years.
Real estate agent Adhemar Costa, who has sold many of the units at the Rio de Janeiro apartment complex, said he remembers the days when hyperinflation, expensive credit and economic turmoil made his job a daily struggle.
With triple-digit interest rates, practically no one could afford financing, which meant people could buy property only by coughing up enormous down payments and paying off the principal within a few years.
These days, many first-time homebuyers are receiving financing of as little as — by Brazilian standards — 18 percent annually and paying it off over as many as 20 years, Costa said. Inflation last year dipped to 3.1 percent, the lowest rate in nearly a decade.
"There's been a big change," he said. "These new conditions have opened up the market."
The Brazilian restaurant chain Spoleto, with 164 branches in Brazil, has taken advantage of cheaper financing to invest more than $3 million in foreign expansion and equipment, including U.S.-made ovens made more affordable by the stronger real.
"We expect these conditions to continue, and we're investing for the long term," said Spoleto's financial director, Paulo Correa.
Others, however, aren't as optimistic and point out that Brazil still has a long way to go to compete globally.
Brazilians still pay the highest tax rate among developing countries, about 40 percent of salaries, and must deal with enormous government bureaucracies to do business. The International Finance Corporation, a private-sector branch of the World Bank, recently ranked Brazil 121st out of 175 countries in the ease of doing business.
And although the country's economy is expected to grow by 4.5 percent this year, that's about half the rate of other developing countries such as China, India and neighboring Argentina.
Export-based industries such as agriculture have been hurt by the strong real.
"We have two realities in Brazil at the moment," said Alencar Burti, president of the Sao Paulo Business Association. "We have immense potential, like in our energy sector with ethanol production, but we're far behind elsewhere with our awful infrastructure and bureaucracy."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has tried to spur growth with an economic package that improves infrastructure, offers more credit to businesses and reduces taxes. Yet economists and business people say more dramatic changes, such as slashing government spending and reducing labor restrictions, are needed.
"There's a lot of reserve capacity in Brazil," said economist David Kupfer of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "We're in a good situation in the context of our history, but not so good in the international picture. This is the time to tackle the hard issues and make the reforms that will keep the country growing."