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.

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

Downsides of Decentralization: Lessons from Peru

By Eric Hershberg
Embed from Getty Images
Decentralization – the buzzword among Washington-based specialists on governance during the 1990s and well into the first decade of the 21st century – failed to fulfill technocrats’ lofty expectations wherever it was implemented in the absence of a strong central government.  In one country after another, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID prescribed political and administrative decentralization as a recipe for deepening democracy and boosting efficiencies in the delivery of governmental services.  An alliance of strange bedfellows united behind the “good governance” cause of decentralization, including grassroots democracy activists of the left who, in the aftermath of authoritarian rule, valued the notion of devolving decision-making authority to the citizenry.  Neoliberal economists, in turn, were attracted to virtually any initiative that would diminish the authority of central states, which they considered to be incorrigible bastions of inefficiency, rent-seeking and patronage.  Cautionary notes from skeptical political scientists were routinely dismissed as anachronistic.  At a seminar in Lima around a decade ago, USAID staff were utterly perplexed by the suggestion that, in the absence of central institutions holding the new regional authorities accountable, the headlong quest to political decentralization in Peru could bring extremely serious adverse consequences for democratic governance.  In their view, the capabilities of the central government had nothing to do with the success of decentralization.

Their enthusiasm was not entirely misplaced – but in many places the reforms eventually backfired.  The authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori (1990- 2000) had centralized power excessively, eliminating the handful of regional governments that had been created during the 1980s and ensuring that the social programs they had administered would be entirely dependent on the executive branch.  Fiscal decentralization, already minimal, was eliminated to make provincial municipalities completely dependent on transfers from the central government.  The few regional authorities who survived the Fujimori period were appointed by the president.  When President Alejandro Toledo (2001-06) and his Peru Posible party took office, the need to restore some decentralization was clear, but the two traditional parties – the APRA and Acción Popular –gradually coopted the movimientos regionales, creating clientelistic networks employing mafia-style tactics.  In the Ancash Department, for example, a rogue president is associated not only with corruption scandals – common in regional governments – but also with the assassination of his political enemies, including a political opponent murdered in March.  President Ollanta Humala has frozen the region’s assets, thereby putting a stop to some of the corruption but at the same time delaying needed infrastructure projects and social services.

The emergence of authoritarian enclaves was predictable of fledgling democratic regimes in Latin America, and the phenomenon is not unique to Peru (click here).  Sub-national authorities have access to vast resources to distribute to their clients (and themselves), and all too often the central state lacks the capacity or control over the purse strings to rein them in.  Social scientists have long been aware of the “paradox of decentralization,” and indeed at American University it is a concept that we typically teach freshmen in Comparative Politics – that decentralization only promotes democracy when it follows the consolidation of a strong central state.  This insight escaped the gaze of the technocrats so enamored of decentralization in Peru.  There, as elsewhere, the absence of horizontal accountability – that is, the ability of different branches of government to check one another’s authority – is aggravated by the inability of civil society to hold leaders accountable and allows for the emergence of local mafias in control of sub-national institutions.  Decentralization took on such steam at a time when Latin America’s national governments had been weakened by the economic crisis of the 1980s and the ideological assault on the central state that continued well into the current century.  It will take many years to rectify the damage.  

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.

The Demise of Partnership?

Graphic: Summit of the Americas organization; public domain.

The real news at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April was the dissonance between the Obama administration – with its sincere but content-free rhetoric of partnership – and Latin American leaders across the political spectrum, even among the friendliest.  This was in sharp contrast to the Summit in 2009, when the region was palpably excited about the new American President.  This year, press reports portrayed President Obama as unaware that the hemisphere is changing, and noted that he oddly said that criticism of U.S. policy was reminiscent of the Cold War, while he put himself out on the fragile limb of defending a Cuba policy rooted in, precisely, the Cold War.

Most observers in the region judge that the main takeaway from Cartagena is that while Washington offers little and listens less, Latin America is moving away.  Over the past decade South America has sustained rates of economic growth higher than any since before the oil shock of 1973, and the U.S. is hardly an unchallenged source of trade and investment.  (Chinese and EU trade with South America has surpassed that with the United States.)  Chavez’s aid to Cuba and Nicaragua far exceeds Washington’s meager offerings to even best friends like El Salvador.  The Brazilian National Development Bank, BNDES, provides more loans in the region than the World Bank and Inter-American Bank combined.

Americans’ fascination with the Cartagena prostitutes dwarfs interest in the lessons of the serious regional dynamics that played out in the Summit.  Whether U.S. political leaders and pundits acknowledge it or not, failure to dialogue seriously with neighbors about the 50-year effort to change the Cuban regime or the failure of the 40-year “War on Drugs” will have consequences for the United States.  Washington rejects the region’s efforts to re-think issues, such as the wisdom of the current approach to narcotics, at its peril.  Central America was an unhappy front-page story in the 1980s and now threatens to reemerge as a major headache because of domestic crime (fueled by U.S. deportations) and the drug trade – while Washington fiddles with time-worn formulas and programs.  The Obama Administration still has time to make good on its pledge of “partnership” and get serious about listening to and working with our neighbors.