The last couple of days financial markets in Argentina have shown capital flowing away from government bonds and into buying dollars (hoarding them, “jus in case”). This might seem at first glance controversial with the apparently sound macroeconomic figures: fiscal surplus, current account surplus, high growth rate, low official inflation rates, etc. I will argue that it shouldn’t.
Many commentators are suggesting that this is just a political problem—the government vs. farm producers conflict. In my opinion, if anything, the political frictions are just the trigger that shows how the market is internalizing the 5-year long macroeconomic mismanagement—with no long-term view. It clearly reflects the fact that, as I mentioned many times in my postings, even though the flow figures show an apparently solid economy the stock (i.e. intertemporal sustainability) show exactly the opposite.
The fiscal fragility is evident once one considers the heavy debt repayments due this and the coming years, the fragility on relying of very volatile (and temporary) sources of tax revenues to finance permanent expenditures. The former not only includes the export taxes, but also the inflation tax (this last one eventually decreasing as inflation gets out of controls—as it is currently happening—and the Olivera-Tanzi effect jointly with higher tax evasion and lower GDP growth).
Of course, decreasing government expenditures is political impossible for now, as it is appreciating the currency. On the latter, everyone would have expected the domestic currency to appreciate if let to float instead of depreciating; unless this is the starting point of a standard textbook balance of payment crises… We can not rule out this happening (although with a low probability for now it is likely to increase over time). Why? The huge amount of debt needed to roll over in times of dry international financial markets (not to forget that Argentina has not even had a great amount of access to it in the so-called savings glut times) plus an election coming next year. Because let’s face it, the Kirchners receive political support due to the asymmetries in the tax revenue collection (mostly Federal) as opposed to the local (Provincial) expenditures that they manage to control the provincial and local governments.
By the way, the figures in the real side of the economy don’t look that promising either. GDP growth is decelerating as well as house sales, credit is still very limited, inflation is accelerating, provincial fiscal deficits are arising and increasing, lack of investment, energy shortages, wages indexations (although they are already running from behind to the inflation rate), ineffective price controls, increasing crossed subsidies to ineffectively trying to reduce price increases to middle-class, increasing income inequality (the more so the greater the inflation rate), lack of a nominal anchor, no long-term growth plans, lack of productivity-based wage increases, a reasonable exchange rate policy, serious anti-inflationary strategy, respect for the rule of law, etc. (the list can be extended as long as necessary, unfortunately).
It is true that there exist an international inflation problem. But Argentina’s inflation rate has dramatically separated from world inflation. Most of the other Latin American countries raised interest rates to try to reign in their inflation rates. Will Argentina be forced to do it in trying to stop a currency crisis? Hopefully the wrong macro-polices of the past will be recognized in a timely manner and the changes will be made. Even those that originally promoted the so-called “productive model” are now being cautious on reporting the need to correct the deviations. Aren’t they the smart ones that should have anticipated these effects?
The problem is that the longer it takes for corrective measures to be applied the greater the real effects and the more drastic adjustment would need to be. This resembles more and more over time the famous “war of attrition” of Alesina and Drazen (AER 1991): reforms are delayed until they are inevitable; but the costs of such lengthy wait are non-trivial. It also rings a bell in the credibility of inflation stabilization literature (Calvo and his co-authors have been teaching us this since the 1980s!)
Conclusion: I hear a tic-tac. Argentina is running out of time at an accelerating rate (as the inflation rate is clearly indicating). Things are still correctable. But the longer it takes, the greater the pain (i.e. real effects). Commentators presume it is just a political problem. If true, it is because the market is internalizing the huge macroeconomic mismanagement (that I have elaborated on in my previous posts). The market, being forward-looking, is signaling it. The political conflict is just the trigger of economic problems that the society in internalizing. Let’s hope that this time the government is able to interpret the signals and avoid repeating the same mistakes of the past.
 And the central bank could be so creative as to claim responsibility for increasing exchange rate volatility on purpose to stop speculative capital flows.