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16/10/2009 | Argentina - In a tango of debt

Editorial

What a vexing puzzle Argentina is. Once a land of opportunity, as promising as the US, it has instead been mired in relative stagnation. There are those who say its only case for being in the Group of 20 is its superior knowledge of serial sovereign defaults.

 

To be fair, that is not the whole truth. In the 1990s Argentina was a paragon of sound money, its currency board fixing the money supply to its stock of dollars. Tying itself to the mast did wonders while the sailing was smooth, but was also a death trap. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis Argentina was sunk by capital flight and by an uncompetitive exchange rate when other countries devalued.

Nor have Argentines been unambiguous economic villains after the near-$100bn default in 2001. They paid off debts to the International Monetary Fund with the air of someone freed from indenture. Some private debt was settled. With help from the commodity boom, the budget has been in primary surplus. In any case, capital markets have short memories and will embrace Argentina again.

And yet. The state is locked in a precarious dance of forced roll-overs, including Treasury raids on the coffers of other public sector entities. Amado Boudou, the finance minister, repaid $2.25bn of debt in August, but is up against $5bn more coming due next year.

The public debt burden is hardly unbearable – 45 per cent of output, less than half to foreign lenders. Mr Boudou is ostensibly ready to negotiate on $6.7bn owed to the Paris Club of official lenders and $29bn of privately held defaulted bonds. But Argentina has pulled out of settlements before, and Mr Boudou is coy about what he will accept.

Efforts to hold out for a good deal – and to find ways to treat “vulture funds” more harshly than those who bought the debt in good faith, as Mr Boudou wants – are quite legitimate. But the pride that graces a tango can be a hindrance in debt management. The longer it takes to settle, the more Argentina will pay on new debt in the future.

Ultimately Argentina’s greatest handicap is its Peronist politics, which substitutes populism for policy. Twin windfalls – the commodity boom and the default – could have cushioned reforms to boost the export sector and reduce inefficiencies at home. Argentines have instead been subjected to harmful export taxes, expropriated pensions, and fudged inflation figures.

South America badly needs good regional leadership, but Argentina can barely lead itself. Until this improves, it continues to be a land of squandered opportunities.

Financial Times (Reino Unido)

 


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