Argentina: From Gradualism to Shock Therapy

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri announced yesterday to deal with the sharp depreciation of the Argentine peso and acceleration of inflation in the past couple of months are a belated but entirely appropriate effort to stem the country’s massive capital flight.  His administration intends to lower government spending and reimpose taxes on exports to reduce the fiscal deficit faster than envisioned in May, when a three-year economic program was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is in addition to a previously announced government hiring freeze and cuts to subsidies for electricity and other services.

  • Specifically, the goal now is to minimize the public sector’s financing requirement for 2019, limiting it to rolling over debt maturities coming due plus borrowing $15 billion mostly from the IMF, World Bank, and Latin America’s development banks (CAF and IADB), to cover the interest payments coming due next year. All told, the fiscal deficit contraction that would be achieved between 2017 and 2019 is equivalent to about four percentage points of GDP, compared to the previously pledged 2¾ percent of GDP in savings embodied in the IMF program.
  • In return, Macri’s government has requested the IMF to speed up disbursements under the $50 billion loan facility, which had envisioned a $15 billion up-front payment in June, made on schedule, plus installments of about $3 billion per quarter through June 2021, depending on performance and need. The Fund’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has instructed IMF staff to work with the Argentines to reach a rapid conclusion of discussions to present to the Executive Board for approval.

Macri’s announcement was an admission that what had been advertised in May as a strictly “precautionary” loan must now be amended to provide emergency financing full-throttle.  While a number of emerging-market currencies have come under downward pressure in recent months, the sell-off in Argentina is only comparable to that in Turkey: both the Argentine peso and the Turkish lira currently buy about half as many U.S. dollars as they did at the start of the year (now 100 pesos = $2.60 vs. $5.40 then).  The currency downdraft has dragged Argentine stocks and bonds down when measured in dollar terms; the probability of a debt default in Argentina, as deduced from bond yields, currently ranks highest of all in the emerging markets but for Venezuela, in default since late 2017.

  • Last December, the central bank of Argentina (BCRA) committed itself to achieving an inflation rate of 15 percent during 2018, but prices rose more than that just in the first six months of the year. Given the cost-push pressures unleashed by the peso’s sharp depreciation since May, Argentina would be lucky to end the year with inflation cumulating less than 40 percent.  The patent failure of monetary policy to stabilize the currency and curb inflation thus far will probably be hotly discussed during the government’s negotiations with the IMF.  Last week the BCRA hiked its target interest rate to 60 percent from 40 percent in early August, which is more than double the level that prevailed through May.  Chances are that the IMF will pressure the central bank to keep interest rates significantly above expected inflation until the fever breaks.

We wrote in mid-May that we were witnessing in Argentina the demise of President Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism in tackling the poisoned inheritance left after 12 years of populism under presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.  Now we are beholding the embrace of “shock therapy” in fiscal and monetary policies by the Macri administration.

  • Macri and his economic team keep blaming adverse circumstances, such as the worst drought in 30 years, which has delivered the poorest harvest since 2009; risk aversion among investors because of the tightening of U.S. monetary policy; and uncertainty generated by the “corruption copybooks” scandal involving Kirchner government officials and construction industry businesspersons. Their diagnosis is patently wrong.  Despite the poor harvest, Argentine export earnings through July have increased in the best performance in several years.  The tightening of U.S. monetary policy has been very gradual and well telegraphed in advance; it has not caused problems in prudently managed countries.  And the recent scandal is tarnishing Macri’s opposition in the legislature and has not reached the scope of the “carwash” scandal in Brazil.
  • Macri and his team are reaping what they sowed. In 2016-17 they claimed that they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose precious seats in midterm congressional elections and end up as lame ducks.  And then, after Macri’s party Cambiemos did well in the October 2017 contest, they claimed that in 2018-19 they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose the presidential elections in October of next year.  Up until February, local and foreign investors were willing to give the Macri administration the benefit of the doubt, but then they got impatient, started to pare their positions especially in short-term government bonds, and subsequently decided to exit on a large scale when the central bank failed to tighten monetary conditions sufficiently to keep the peso from depreciating rapidly.

September 4, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

Behind Argentina’s Making up with its Creditors

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Pensive Macri

Photo Credit: Mauricio Macri / Flickr / Creative Commons

A recently concluded agreement in principle between Argentina and most of its holdout creditors is part of a 180-degree turn in economic policy that the new administration of Mauricio Macri is attempting to make in order to end five years of economic stagnation, 10 years of double-digit inflation, and 15 years of isolation from the international capital markets.  President Macri has to navigate very carefully, however.  First, he does not have a majority in either congressional chamber, so he has to work hard to persuade legislators to support his policy initiatives.  Second, the judiciary and the Executive branch are packed with political appointees from the Néstor and Cristina Kirchner administrations, and while some of them have been fired, Macri and his economic team must still tread cautiously.  Third, all the key economic institutions, such as the government’s commercial and development bank (BNA), the central bank (BCRA), and the social security administration (ANSES) have been stuffed to the gills with either risky or unprofitable assets (from bad loans to government IOUs), thereby compromising their effectiveness.  Last but not least, Macri must be mindful of his very fickle electorate: over the past seven decades, Argentines have periodically voted non-Peronists into office to clean up the mess left behind by the Peronists, but then they have soured and yanked their support.  It is a sobering fact that not a single non-Peronist government has ever made it to the end of its constitutional term in office.

This is why the Macri administration is going for some “quick wins” rather than for major structural reforms or the necessary dose of fiscal austerity and monetary restraint.  And this is the context within which his willingness to “bury the hatchet” with private and official creditors must be understood.  As a former businessman, Macri realizes that if one takes over a money-losing enterprise – in this case the public sector, which is running a deficit equivalent to more than five percent of GDP – one needs to cultivate sources of interim financing until the enterprise can be turned around.  After all, the prior government had been living hand-to-mouth on loans from the BNA, the BCRA, and ANSES, with increasingly inflationary consequences.  Having lost official international reserves and seen the currency depreciate rapidly after abolishing capital controls, the authorities are now under great pressure to obtain interim financing from abroad to help stabilize international reserves and support the weak currency.

President Macri faces a very difficult governance challenge in the months and years ahead.  His ability to mend fences with private creditors – Argentina has been in arrears to all its bondholders since mid-2014 – as well as with the IMF, multilateral development banks, and official creditors such as the Ex-Im banks – is crucial to the restoration of financing to the private and public sectors and the fostering of an investment-friendly climate.  Macri’s agreement in principle with most holdout creditors is a big step in the right direction, but he must now secure the requisite congressional approvals to dismantle Kirchner-era legislation inimical to a settlement and obtain interim financing at reasonable interest rates to clear all overdue debts.  These are early and relatively easy tests for a government that is yet to adopt most of the divisive and unpopular austerity measures that circumstances warrant.

March 10, 2016

*Dr. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at the School of International Service.

Bracing for Economic Pain in Brazil and Beyond

By Kevin P. Gallagher*

Brazilian Real

Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s warning to U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2012 – that his monetary-easing policies were creating a harmful tsunami of financial flows to emerging markets – was spot-on.  U.S. growth and interest rates have been appreciating currencies, causing asset bubbles, and exporting financial instability to the developing world.  Brazil and other emerging-market countries may soon be facing capital flight and exchange rate depreciation that could lead to financial instability and weak growth for years to come.  From 2009 to 2013 countries like Brazil, South Korea, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia and Taiwan all had wide interest rate differentials with the U.S. and experienced massive surges of capital flows.  The differential between Brazil and the U.S. was more than 10 percentage points for a while.  According to the latest estimates by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), emerging markets now hold a staggering $2.6 trillion in international debt securities and $3.1 trillion in cross-border loans – the majority in dollars.

Now the tides are turning.  Many emerging market growth forecasts are continually being revised downward.  China’s economy is undergoing a structural transformation that necessitates slower growth and less reliance on primary commodities.  The prices of oil and other major commodities are stabilizing or declining.  As growth and interest rates pick up in the United States, the dollar gains strength – and emerging market currencies fall.  Brazil’s real hit a 10-year low last week, down to 2.87 to the dollar, amid continuing predictions of zero growth for the country this year.

The traditional tools for weathering the storm may not be available or enough for developing economies.  Floating exchange rates and the resulting depreciation can cause the debt burden on firms and fiscal budgets can bloat overnight, especially in a lower growth environment.  Increasing competitiveness would have helped boost exports, but an IMF study shows that Latin America failed to use one of the biggest commodity windfalls in its history to invest, hindering competitiveness to ride out the tsunami in short-term inflows.  Local bond markets help, but most debt is indeed in dollars, and most local debt is held by foreigners who are always the first to dump such debt.  Interest rate hikes can also be dangerous; they don’t reverse flight and can choke off what little growth there is to be had in a downturn.  Depleting foreign exchange reserves doesn’t always work; increasing debt could bring financial instability but threaten prospects for growth and employment.  Having no good options, emerging-market and developing countries may need to resort to regulating the outflow of capital alongside these other measures.  Such moves have traditionally been shunned by international institutions and capital markets, and new U.S. trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stripped out balance-of-payment exceptions that allow nations to regulate capital.  But new research in cutting edge of economics by the IMF and others now justifies such measures to prevent or mitigate a full-blown crisis.  If we have learned anything from the global financial crisis since 2008, it is that nations need as many tools at their disposal to prevent and mitigate financial instability.  Instability anywhere can lead to instability everywhere, so we need all tools and hands on deck.

February 19, 2015

* Kevin P. Gallagher is an associate professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Pardee School for Global Studies, where he co-directs the Global Economic Governance Initiative.  His new book is Ruling Capital: Emerging Markets and the Reregulation of Cross-Border Finance.

Argentine Debt and the U.S. Dollar

By Leslie Elliott Armijo

Images Money / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Multiple economic and political challenges have called into question the future status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency, but backlash from Argentina’s recent spat with the United States over defaulted bonds appears to be fueling interest in reforms that may have beneficial implications.  According to the IMF, some 61 percent of the world’s known foreign exchange reserves held by central banks around the world remain in low-yielding dollar-denominated assets, mainly U.S. Treasury bonds.  The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China, and heavyweights in the Global South, including Brazil, are calling for international trade agreements that would give emerging economies “policy space” – allowing national governments to impose capital controls, fund exports, subsidize local industry, and keep financial services national.  Private U.S. banks, however, claim that continued U.S. dominance of world capital markets – a crucial pillar of continued reserve currency status – requires ever more open trade in financial services.  The BRICS complain about the U.S. government’s “exorbitant privilege” as the reserve currency country, with some of the sharpest complaints coming from joint statements by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Chinese officials, though, worried about their own large dollar investments and ambivalent about the implications of renminbi internationalization, more than once have pulled the group toward a softer tone.

Argentina’s ongoing sovereign debt negotiations provide a different window onto the dollar’s reserve currency status.  Like most countries, Argentina has held a large chunk of its government’s savings in the U.S. and hired private U.S. financial institutions as its international bankers.  Today it is trying to extricate itself from U.S. markets and do its saving and financial intermediation elsewhere. Iran and Russia are doing the same, but Argentina has no foreign policy quarrel with the Obama Administration – and is not subject to U.S. financial sanctions over nuclear or military adventurism.  Buenos Aires is among those who chafe at U.S. power through the dollar, but it is primarily motivated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in July to let stand a lower court judgment in favor of investors holding bonds from Argentina’s $82 billion sovereign debt default in December 2001.  Although 92 percent of the original bondholders accepted the Argentine government’s restructured (lower value) bonds in 2005 and 2010, New York Federal District Court Judge Thomas P. Griesa ruled that Argentina’s failure to settle with the holdouts means that any U.S. financial institutions, or their international affiliates, that intermediate funds enabling Argentina to stay current on payments to the majority will themselves be in contempt of court.  This has sent Argentina into “technical default.” Argentina is suing the U.S. in the International Court of Justice (whose jurisdiction the U.S. refuses to recognize) and in the court of global public opinion – pushing, for example, a recent proposal for global financial reform before the U.N. General Assembly. It has also welcomed an $11 billion currency swap agreement with China, and Chinese state banks have since pledged $6.8 billion in new infrastructure loans.  Some observers speculate that the very first loan of the New Development Bank, newly organized by the BRICS countries, could go to Argentina.

The Argentine bond case harms the perceived fairness and credibility of U.S. financial markets and, by extension, the strength of the U.S. dollar because the recent legal judgments seem capricious to many.  Senior figures at the IMF have long supported the routine inclusion in all international sovereign bond issues of a so-called “collective action clause,” which would make any restructuring accepted by two-thirds of bondholders binding on all.  The European Union already has ruled that sovereign bonds issued within the EU, including many for troubled Eastern or Southern European governments, must contain such clauses.  Moreover, the International Capital Markets Association, representing more than 400 of the world’s largest private investment institutions, has just issued a position paper endorsing obligatory collective action clauses, placing it on the same side of this issue as non-governmental organizations advocating financial architecture reform such as the New Rules for Global Finance and the Jubilee Debt Campaign.  This would give taxpayers in emerging economies – the ultimate backstop of the creditworthiness of their governments – the same bankruptcy rights as firms and households.  It is not in the interest of Latin American and other emerging economies for U.S. currency and financial dominance to end anytime soon – a tripolar reserve currency system based on the dollar, euro, and reniminbi does not yet appear able to sustain the worldwide growth and prosperity of recent decades and may in fact entail significant risks – but fairer rules for sovereign financing would benefit everyone.

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is a Visiting Scholar at Portland State University and a Research Fellow at CLALS.  She has just published The Financial Statecraft of Emerging Powers: Shield and Sword in Asia and Latin America (London: Palgrave, 2014).

September 23, 2014