Argentina: The Downside of Gradualism

Tortoise heads down a dirt path surrounded by greenery

Towards Turtle Path / Maxpixel / Creative Commons

By Arturo C.  Porzecanski*

President Mauricio Macri made a surprise announcement on May 8 that his government would seek financial support from the IMF to enable the country to “avoid a crisis like the ones we have faced before in our history” – essentially, an admission that time may be up for his policy of gradualism in dealing with the legacy of populism.  Sources in his administration expressed confidence that Argentina could obtain some $30 billion in “precautionary” loans at low interest rates and with few strings attached as an alternative to more borrowing in the international capital markets at higher and rising rates.  His finance minister, Nicolás Dujovne, and other members of the economic team departed Buenos Aires for Washington, DC, that same evening to formalize the request at IMF headquarters and to meet with a top Trump administration official at the U.S. Treasury.  After an initial round of friendly conversations, the parties agreed to meet again starting on May 14 to initiate a negotiation process that they acknowledged would take several weeks.

  • Macri blamed downward pressure on the Argentine peso (despite drastic hikes in short-term interest rates and the sale of one-tenth of hard-currency official reserves), on tighter monetary conditions and on volatility abroad at a time when the government must still raise money internationally to finance its large fiscal deficit.  “The problem that we have today is that we are one of the countries in the world that most depends on external finance, as a result of the enormous public spending that we inherited and are restoring order to,” the President stated.
  • The decision to turn to the IMF surprised observers because it came at an unusually early point in the country’s financial cycle.  Argentina’s central bank still has about $55 billion in international reserves, the equivalent of some 10 months of imports, or three times the amount of foreign-currency government debt maturing in 2018.  Also, foreign investors by no means have slammed the door on Argentina’s face, though admittedly the government probably could not sell another 100-year dollar bond like it did last June, raising $2.75 billion from die-hard optimists.  Argentina in the past, like most other countries, has generally turned to the IMF only in desperation once they were unwelcomed by Wall Street and their vaults were almost bare.
  • The onus placed by Macri on deteriorating financial conditions abroad was also surprising.  After all, the U.S. Federal Reserve has barely begun its monetary tightening process: the overnight fed funds rate, currently around 1.7 percent per annum, is still below U.S. inflation of 2.1 percent, so it has yet to enter positive territory.  Moreover, U.S. bond yields now in the vicinity of 3 percent for 10-year Treasuries, are up from 2.3 percent a year ago but have merely bounced back to a level they were at as of end-2013.  And the financial markets’ “fear” index VIX, a measure of expectations implied by options on the S&P 500 index, has fluctuated in the teens, which while higher than last year’s mostly single digits, remains very far from the range of 30 to 80 seen during prior episodes of extreme risk aversion in the financial markets.

 President Macri’s announcement did not have the favorable intended effect on confidence and market behavior, as evidenced by the peso remaining under downward pressure in the three business days that followed.  Despite renewed central bank intervention to boost the currency, it now takes almost 24 pesos to buy a U.S. dollar when it took fewer than 16 pesos to do so a year ago – a loss of about one-third in the currency’s purchasing power.  One reason is that Macri’s blaming adverse developments abroad for his currency’s woes rings hollow with investors, given how very slowly his administration has moved to reduce a fiscal deficit running above 6 percent of GDP since 2015; how much debt (around $100 billion) he has taken on in just a couple of years; and how timid his central bank has been in its attempt to bring down inflation running at about 2 percent per month.  And the other reason is that it quickly became apparent that any loan from the IMF will come with strict conditionality attached, because Argentina’s request was routed to the Fund’s regular, “stand-by” window – and not to its easier-access, precautionary lending window for highly creditworthy borrowers.  The Fund spelled out its economic policy advice for Argentina in its December 2017 “Staff Report for the 2017 Article IV Consultation,” and it calls for a more assertive reduction in the fiscal deficit, especially by cutting government spending, and for supply-side reforms it called “indispensable” to support economic growth, raise labor productivity, attract private investment, and enhance the country’s competitiveness.  These are all recommendations that fly in the face of President Macri’s gradualist approach to defusing the economic minefield left behind by his populist predecessor, Cristina Fernández Kirchner, and will therefore paint his government into a politically fragile corner.  We are witnessing the demise of Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism.

 May 14, 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.

 

Brexit: Limited Implications for Latin America

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

brexit-image

Photo Credit: Elionas2 / Pixabay / Creative Commons

The June 23rd British referendum result – a 52-to-48 percent vote to leave the European Union (EU) – has roiled the world’s leading financial markets, but contrary to many opinions issued in the referendum’s wake, the economic and financial implications of Brexit for Latin America have been either mild or favorable.  Hard line Brexit statements made earlier this month by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and various rebukes from policymakers on the Continent, have had financial-market repercussions for the pound.  Most notably, sterling has fallen sharply, and it is now down more than 15 percent from its high on the day of the fateful vote, plummeting to three-decade lows against the dollar.

  • The market reaction initially led to a mostly regional (UK and Europe) correction in stock prices. Even this was short-lived: for example, the FTSE 250, an index of domestically focused UK firms, at first dropped by 14 percent but recovered fully by early August – and has since been trading above the pre-referendum level.  Moreover, the UK recession many feared did not materialize, at least not during 3Q16.
  • Financial markets priced in fairly quickly the conclusion that the Brexit shock would lead to greater dovishness among the world’s major central banks. Most relevant to Latin America and the emerging markets (EM) generally, the Brexit helped to persuade the U.S. Federal Reserve to delay its tightening until at least the end of 2016.  While Latin America’s trade and investment ties to Europe are not insignificant, the region’s major economies are far more dependent on the health of the U.S. economy and on the mood in the U.S. financial markets, and secondarily on trends in China.
  • If the UK and the Eurozone had stumbled and were headed for a recession, however, one likely casualty of Brexit would have been a noticeable drop in world commodity prices, with strong implications for the major economies of Latin America. While commodity prices have softened somewhat (non-oil commodities have averaged 2¼ percent lower since the Brexit vote, and oil has traded 7½ percent below), confirmed expectations of loose monetary conditions in the U.S. and Europe during 3Q16 have more than compensated.  This is why most EM stocks, bonds and currencies have rallied, with the parade led by the Brazilian Real (BRL), so far the best-performing of 24 EM currencies tracked by Bloomberg (up about 20 percent year-to-date).

The medium-term implications of Brexit for Latin America will depend on how much “noise” emanates from London, Brussels and other European capitals during the negotiation process (likely, 2Q17-2Q19).  Prime Minister May has now made three statements that define her bargaining position: Article 50 (exit) negotiations will begin by next March; the imposition of migration controls on EU citizens coming to the UK is non-negotiable; and the UK will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  The latter two points mean that Britain cannot remain a member of the single market, and is therefore committed to forging a customized free-trade agreement with the EU, which could sow uncertainty and thus depress economic growth in Europe and beyond.

The most probable scenario – slow and halting Brexit negotiations, with progress hard to achieve until close to the end (in 2019) – will encourage uncertainty and speculation among economic agents and thus will be a drag on economic growth especially in the UK, and much less so in the rest of the EU.  However, it need not generate the kinds of waves that will reach, never mind derail, Latin America’s economic trajectory.  It is much more likely that what does or does not happen in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Caracas or Mexico City, and above all in Washington, DC – courtesy of the Fed, the White House, and the U.S. Congress, in that order – will overshadow just about any headlines generated by the Brexit negotiations in Europe.  There is room for Latin America to clock higher GDP growth numbers in the years ahead when compared to the disappointing regional averages of 1 percent growth in 2014, zero growth in 2015, and a contraction of about -0.6 percent in the current year (as per IMF estimates).  This assumes that the Fed’s tightening is gradual (namely, no more than 0.25 percent increases in the Fed’s target rate per trimester) and that the UK’s divorce proceedings are not overly hostile.  This scenario foresees that creditworthy governments, banks and corporations in Latin America will retain access to the international capital markets on reasonable terms, despite some initial retraction in investor interest ahead of, and right after, the resumption of the Fed tightening cycle.

 October 17, 2016

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

Bolivia: Evo Wins Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Evo Morales’s landslide election to a third term – fueled by a combination of moderate policies and fiery leftist rhetoric – portends continued stability in the near term, with still no indication of how his party will continue its project after him.  Although official results have yet to be announced, and some preliminary data show Evo garnering around 54 percent of the vote, exit poll estimates gave Evo a massive lead of 60 to 25 percent over the next closest candidate, a wealthy cement magnate named Samuel Doria Medina.  Regardless, the enormous margin separating Evo from his competitors precludes a runoff race.  Doria, who also ran against Evo in 2005 and 2009, claimed that OAS praise for the elections before the polls closed was “not normal,” but he is not disputing the results and has conceded defeat.  Congratulations to Evo poured in first from his left-leaning allies – Presidents Maduro (Venezuela), Mujica (Uruguay), Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), and Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador) – but other voices soon followed.  The victory set Evo on track to be the longest-serving president in Bolivian history since national founder Andrés de Santa Cruz lost power in 1839.  His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is also reported to have expanded its control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, although vote tallies are not final.

Evo has achieved things his domestic and foreign detractors said were impossible.  While his rhetoric has been stridently leftist and anti-U.S. – he even dedicated his “anti-imperialist triumph” to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro – his policies have been decidedly pragmatic and disciplined, and the results have curried favor for him among foes.  His economic czar has emphasized Bolivia’s commitment to “have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium … applying economic science.”  The economy grew 6.8 percent last year and is on course to grow another 5 percent this year.  Foreign reserves have skyrocketed; Bolivia’s are proportionately the largest in the world.  Poverty has declined; one in five Bolivians now lives in extreme poverty, as compared to one in three eight years ago.  IMF and World Bank officials, whose policies Evo largely rejected, have grudgingly conceded he has managed the economy well.  Some of his projects, such as a teleférico cable car system linking La Paz with the sprawling city of El Alto, have garnered praise for their economic and political vision.  He even won in the province of Santa Cruz, a cradle of anti-Evo conspiracy several years ago.  In foreign policy, he has good ties across the continent, but strains with Washington continue.  The two countries have been without ambassadors in each other’s capital since 2008, and talks to resolve differences over the activities of DEA and USAID failed and led to their expulsion from Bolivia.

Sixty-plus percent in a clean election for a third term – rare if your initials aren’t FDR – signals that Evo, like Roosevelt, is a transformative figure.  No matter how brilliantly Evo has led the country, however, the big gap between his MAS party and the opposition suggests political imbalances that could threaten progress over time if he doesn’t move to spread out the power.  Evo has given the MAS power to implement his agenda, but he has not given space to rising potential successors.  He has said he will “respect the Constitution” regarding a now-disallowed fourth term, but it would take great discipline not to encourage his two-thirds majority in the Senate to go ahead with an amendment allowing him yet another term.  It would be naïve, moreover, to dismiss out of hand the opposition’s allegations of corruption by Evo’s government, but his ability to grow his base above the poor and well into the middle class suggests that, for now, the fraud and abuse do not appear to be very debilitating … yet.  Washington, for its part, seems content with a relationship lacking substance rather than joining the rest of the hemisphere in cooperating with Bolivia where it can.

Other AULABLOG posts on this and related topics:  ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession; Lessons from the MAS; and Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

October 14, 2014

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

Nicaragua: Government-Private Sector Tactical Cooperation

Leaders of Nicaragua’s private sector and political opposition have teamed up with the government to press Washington not to go overboard with sanctions in response to flawed elections last November.  Their traditional allies in Congress, including the Cuban-Americans who dominate the Obama Administration policy toward Latin America, are pressing for suspension of two waivers to U.S. laws that suspend bilateral and multilateral aid to Nicaragua.  One waiver depends on progress on fiscal “transparency,” and the other on the resolution of property disputes from the 1980s.  The former, which would affect several million US dollars in bilateral aid (apparently for an AIDS program), is doomed, according to insiders.  But a decision on the property waiver – suspension of which would require the United States to oppose Nicaraguan loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and IMF worth more than $200 million in 2011 – has not yet been made.

In public and private appearances, leaders of the Nicaraguan business community and political opposition, including Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance standard-bearer and Presidential Candidate Eduardo Montealegre, have forcefully stated their differences with the government of President Daniel Ortega, particularly regarding the conduct of elections and the lack of “institutionality” – i.e., the politicization of government institutions.  But the business community has pleaded for U.S. flexibility.  They estimate that suspension of the property waiver would threaten $1.4 billion in development assistance, deal a serious blow to their own prospects, and thrust Nicaragua into deep crisis.  Montealagre said he would lobby “neither for nor against” the waiver, but his participation in the delegation signaled a clear preference for Washington to be cautious.  Ortega’s personal emissary for foreign investment, Alvaro Baltodano, has emphasized the growing commercial links between the two countries and the benefit it provides directly to the Nicaraguan people.

The private sector and opposition are in the odd position of trying to persuade their own friends in Washington to be practical – not to be more anti-Sandinista than they.  Suspension of the property waiver would not only hurt them in the pocketbook; it would give a propaganda boost to President Daniel Ortega and make the population even more dependent on his social programs, heavily subsidized by Venezuela.  All of the U.S. aid and most of the multilateral aid provides direct benefit to the Nicaraguan people.  Ortega’s opponents do not want U.S. sanctions to close the business and political operating space they have enjoyed in recent years, despite Ortega’s excesses.