Argentina Since Default: The IMF and the Depression

By Alan B. Cibils, Mark Weisbrot, and Debayani Kar

September 3, 2002

Alan Cibils is Research Associate, Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director, and Debayani Kar is Research Associate at the
Center for Economic and Policy Research.

It is now more than eight months since the economic crisis led to demonstrations and riots that toppled the government of President Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina, and the country defaulted on its public debt. Argentina’s economy has continued to decline, with the recession now having lasted more than four years. At this moment it is not yet clear when this downward spiral will end.

This paper looks at Argentina’s crisis since the default in an attempt to find a way out of the depression. After more than half a year of negotiations, there has been no loan agreement with the IMF, nor is it clear when there may be one. Furthermore, it is not clear if a loan agreement will provide new resources—as opposed to simply providing money for multilateral debt payment. In addition, the costs to the Argentine economy of conditions attached to IMF loans may exceed the benefits. For these reasons, and others detailed below, it is important to consider the prospects for reviving the economy, whether or not an agreement with the IMF is reached.

Background and Origins of the Crisis

The IMF is still insisting that “failures in fiscal policy constitute the root cause of the current crisis,”2 and recommending fiscal and monetary austerity as a means of reviving investor confidence and thereby stimulating economic recovery. But this approach has failed for more than four years, as the economy remains mired in a depression, with a loss of more than 20 percent of GDP since the last business cycle peak in 1998.

Furthermore, the crisis was not caused by fiscal profligacy: the worsening of the central government’s fiscal balance from 1993 to 2002 was not a result of increased government spending (other than interest payments). Rather, there was a decline in government revenue due to the recession, which began in the third quarter of 1998. More importantly, Argentina got stuck in a debt spiral in which higher interest rates increased the debt and the country’s risk premium, which led to ever higher interest rates and debt service until its default in December of 2001. The interest rate shocks came from outside, starting with the US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise short-term rates in February of 1994, and on through the Mexican, Asian, Russian, and Brazilian financial crises (1995-1999).

Argentina’s currency board system contributed significantly to the depression, because economic activity was directly reduced by the large capital outflows during various episodes international financial turbulence.

2
Press briefing, Buenos Aires, April 10, 2002 (at http://www.imf.org/external/np/tr/2002/tr020410.htm). Dr. Singh replaced Claudio Loser as Director of the Western Hemisphere department in June.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
3
It is also worth noting that the government’s decision to privatize its social security system in 1994 had a major impact on the central government budget deficit: in fact, the lost revenue, plus accumulated interest costs, amounted to nearly the entire government budget deficit in 2001.3 Inspite of all these things, the central government’s deficit was never very large, peaking at 3.2 percent of GDP in 2001 (all attributable to interest payments). Much has been made of provincial spending, but the provincial deficits totaled 1.1 percent of GDP in 2000 and peaked at 1.9 percent in 2001. All told, none of this deficit spending is very large in the face of such a deep depression.

This was a truly unviable system. It is difficult to imagine any fiscal policy—assuming it were even politically possible to cut enormous amounts of government spending—that could have avoided the fate of December 2001, given the overvalued currency, the size and growth of Argentina’s debt (mostly denominated in foreign currency) relative to export earnings, and the free mobility of capital. Deficit spending did not cause the current crisis, and attempts to bring about an economic recovery through continued fiscal and monetary austerity are not likely to be more successful in the near future than they have been in the past.

The Current Situation

GDP has declined at a record 16.3 percent annual rate in the first quarter of 2002. Unemployment stands at 21.5 percent of the labor force, and real monthly wages have declined by 18 percent over the course of the year. Official poverty and indigence rates have reached record levels: 53% of Argentines now live below the official poverty line, while 25% are indigent (basic needs unmet). Since October 2001, 5.2 million Argentines have fallen below the poverty line, while seven out of ten Argentine children are poor today. While this is the worst economic crisis in Argentine history, there are a number of reasons to view the economy as poised for a rapid recovery, and one that can take place without external financing. Most importantly, Argentina is running a large current account and trade surplus. Primarily a result of the devaluation, the export sector has vastly expanded as a share of the economy (see below), and is considerably more competitive internationally.

The Road Ahead

Even if the IMF eventually proves willing to reach a new loan agreement with the government of Argentina, it is still an open question whether the country would be better off with an economic recovery program of its own. While there are risks to both paths, it seems that Argentina would be better off declaring a moratorium on its debt and using its available resources to put the economy on a sustainable growth path.

3
See Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, “The Role of Social Security Privatization in Argentina’s Economic Crisis,”
Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2002.
4

One risk of going the IMF route is that the policy conditions imposed by the Fund would themselves prolong and/or worsen the depression. As noted above, the recommended fiscal and monetary policies would almost certainly have that effect.  Even assuming that the economy recovers, an IMF agreement might well put Argentina into a type of receivership in which slow growth, permanently high interest rates, and a continued unsustainable debt burden cause the country to limp along from one crisis to the next.4

What is the alternative to an IMF agreement? Most importantly, the government would have to begin to revive economic activity directly, instead of waiting for foreign or even domestic investment to resume on its own. Once the economy begins to recover, and investors no longer fear a worsening breakdown, private investment would return. (This is not so unusual as it may seem from looking at IMF packages in these situations: in the United States, the most recent (mild) recession and continued economic weakness has been countered by a shift from a Federal budget surplus of about 2 percent of GDP to a deficit of 1.5 percent, or about $350 billion dollars. Business investment has yet to recover).

Demand could be stimulated through public works programs, along with income support for the families of the unemployed and the poor. A subsidy for unemployed workers or at the very least a food stamp program of some sort would be particularly important, due to the lack of access that many poor families now have to adequate food.

The export sector can potentially play an even bigger role in jump-starting a recovery. First, the export sector has gone from a relatively small to a sizeable part of the Argentine economy. Before the devaluation, exports of goods and services were only 11.5 percent of GDP. Now they are about 37 percent of GDP. This is not only because of the contraction of GDP, but mostly
because the devaluation makes each dollar of export earnings worth (currently) about 3.6 pesos. Of course the devaluation also makes Argentine exports much more competitive.

The government could work directly with private banks in major export markets (e.g. Brazil) to arrange for letters of credit and allow exports to expand more rapidly.5

One of the great advantages that Argentina has over other countries in such situations, in terms of recovering on its own, is that the country is running large surpluses on both its trade and current accounts. For the first quarter of 2002, the current account surplus was $1.5 billion, or 7.1 percent of GDP on an annual basis. The merchandise trade surplus is 3.75 billion dollars, or
17.8 percent of GDP on an annual basis. The current account surplus is not a result of debt default: net foreign interest payments in the first quarter of 2002 actually exceeded those of a year ago.

4
This is essentially what happened to Brazil, which was fortunate enough to have its fixed exchange rate collapse three years earlier than Argentina. Nonetheless the extremely high interest rates combined with slow growth have led to an explosive debt burden which now places the country, three and a half years after devaluation, once again on the brink of default.
5
Brazil’s Central Bank recently intervened in this way. (See “Brazil will lend money to troubled companies,” by Raymond Colitt, Financial Times, August 12, 2002).
5

What has happened is that imports have collapsed — for the first quarter of 2002, imports of goods and services are down 60 percent from a year ago, and even more from their level during the 1998 business cycle peak. The importance of this change cannot be over-emphasized. It means that the Argentine economy has already gone through an enormous “structural adjustment,” as a result of the depression. In other words, as a result of a steep and painful shrinking of the economy (which automatically reduces imports), Argentina has already accomplished the adjustment that is necessary to set the stage for sustainable and even rapid growth. Furthermore, the current account surplus is not likely to disappear any time soon, since
the full effect of the devaluation—in terms of increasing exports and reducing imports—has not yet been felt.

The country is therefore capable of paying for the imports that it needs, for the foreseeable future, without any need for foreign financing. This means that the Argentine economy is ready to recover without new loans from the IMF or other international institutions.

The details of an economic recovery program remain to be worked out, but it is certainly feasible. Aside from meeting the most basic needs of the poor, the most important thing is to come up with a plan that revives production and consumer demand, and allows exports to grow without unnecessary constraints. Even if an IMF agreement is reached it cannot be assured that such an agreement will provide net new resources to the economy, or lead to increased private investment. Moreover, any new credits will almost certainly be disbursed in tranches (installments), with conditions that might hinder or even abort an economic recovery. Therefore, regardless of when IMF and US Treasury officials decide that they are ready to sign an agreement, Argentina must have a viable economic recovery plan of its own. The alternative is to leave the economy at the mercy of the IMF/US Treasury and the forces of economic contraction.

6

“In our view, failures in fiscal policy constitute the root cause of the current crisis.”–Anoop Singh, IMF Director of Special Operations, Buenos Aires, April 10, 2002

It is now more than eight months since the economic crisis led to demonstrations and riots that toppled the government of President Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina, and the country defaulted on its public debt. Argentina’s economy has continued to decline, with the recession now having lasted more than four years. GDP for the first quarter of 2002 was down 16.3 percent from the prior year, the worst decline on record. At this moment it is not yet clear when this downward spiral will end.

This paper will look at Argentina’s crisis since the default in an attempt to find a way out of the depression. After more than half a year of negotiations, there has been no loan agreement with the IMF, nor is it clear when there may be one. Furthermore, it is not clear if a loan agreement will provide new resources—as opposed to simply providing money for multilateral debt payment. In addition, the costs to the Argentine economy of conditions attached to IMF loans may exceed the benefits. For these reasons, and others detailed below, it is important to consider the prospects for reviving the economy, whether or not an agreement with the IMF is reached.

The role of the IMF is important, not so much because of its own resources or expertise, but because of its power—together with the US Treasury department7—as head of a creditors’ cartel that can deny Argentina access to sources of credit. In the rare situation of sovereign default that Argentina faces, the role of the IMF/Treasury is even more pronounced, because there are
creditors that are already not lending as a result of the default, and others that are looking to the Fund to represent their interests in negotiating the terms of an eventual debt restructuring and repayment.

A brief overview of the origins of the current crisis is important for much more than historical reasons. The IMF, which is presently the most powerful voice in the negotiations for an economic recovery program, has a primary explanation on which it bases its policy recommendations. As Anoop Singh (the former head of the IMF’s delegation to Argentina and

6
Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna stated that he did not expect any “fresh cash” from the IMF. (See “Otra etapa en la crisis: Lavagna admitio que no habra “plata fresca” del FMI para la Argentina,” Clarín, May 14, 2002).
7
Although the IMF is in principle run by a board of Executive Directors from its member countries and regions, the US Treasury department is the primary decision-maker, especially for Latin America.

INTRODUCTION

ORIGINS OF THE CRISIS

now in charge of the entire Western Hemisphere department) stated in an April press conference, “In our view, failures in fiscal policy constitute the root cause of the current crisis.” It follows from this analysis that fiscal tightening is a vital first step on the road to recovery. In the Fund’s view, it is extremely important to cut the government (both central and provincial)
budget deficits, in order to restore the confidence of investors. This will ostensibly lead to increased investment, both from foreign and domestic residents, and lead an economic recovery.

Table 1 shows the central government’s revenue, spending, interest payments, budget deficit or surplus, and primary deficit or surplus from 1993 to the first quarter of 2002. It is difficult to find  evidence that the government’s fiscal policy played a significant role in bringing about the current economic crisis. Although the government budget does move from a surplus of 2.7 billion pesos in 1993 (1.2 percent of GDP) to a peak deficit of 8.7 billion pesos (3.2 percent of GDP) in 2001, this worsening of the fiscal balance is not a result of increases in government spending.

Table One

Argentina, National Government Spending and Revenues (1993-2002) In millions of current pesos

YEAR 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002-Q1
Total Revenue  50,726.551,078.250,293.647,668.955,376.756,726.158,455.456,570.551,318.6 10,519.6
Total Spending 47,996.051,364.351,666.952,933.359,653.360,799.663,223.863,362.160,037.9 13,037.9
– Total Spending as % of GDP 20.29% 19.95% 20.07% 19.45% 20.37% 20.34% 22.30% 22.29% 22.34% 5.56%
– Interest Payments
(included in Total Spending) 2,914.0 3,150.3 4,083.5 4,607.9 5,745.0 6,660.3 8,223.6 9,656.010,174.6 668.5
– Interest Payments as % of GDP 1.23% 1.22% 1.58% 1.69% 1.96% 2.23% 2.90% 3.40% 3.79% .29%
Deficit or Surplus (Rev-Spend) 2,730.5 -285.9 -1,373.3 -5,264.4 -4,276.6 -4,073.5 -4,768.4 -6,791.6 -8,719.3 -2,518.3
Deficit or Surplus as % of GDP 1.15% -0.11% -0.53% -1.93% -1.46% -1.36% -1.68% -2.39% -3.25% -1.07%
Primary Spending (excl. interest) 45,082.048,214.047,583.448,325.453,908.354,139.355,000.253,706.149,863.3 12,369.4
Primary Surplus or Deficit 5,644.5 2,864.2 2,710.2 -656.5 1,468.4 2,586.8 3,455.2 2,864.4 1,455.3 -1,849.8
Primary Spending as % of GDP 19.06% 18.73% 18.44% 17.76% 18.41% 18.11% 19.40% 18.90% 18.56% 5.28%
Primary Surplus or Deficit
as % of GDP 2.39% 1.11% 1.05% -0.24% 0.50% 0.87% 1.22% 1.01% 0.54% -0.79%

Source: Economic Information, Ministry of Economy, Argentina

Rather, the country was hit with a series of interest rate increases that caused a debt spiral and
eventually a default. This can be seen from the data on the government’s primary balance
(excluding interest payments) in Table 1. The primary balance moves from a surplus of 5.6
billion pesos in 1993 (2.4 percent of GDP) to a surplus of 1.5 billion (0.5 percent of GDP) in
2001. But this worsening of the primary balance was not a result of government decisions to

8
Press briefing, Buenos Aires, April 10, 2002 (at http://www.imf.org/external/np/tr/2002/tr020410.htm). Dr. Singh replaced
Claudio Loser as Director of the Western Hemisphere department in June.
8
increase spending. Primary spending was 19.1 percent of GDP in 1993, and 18.6 percent for
2001.

In other words, there was a decline in government revenue due to the recession, which began in the third quarter of 1998. Much more importantly, Argentina got stuck in a debt spiral in which higher interest rates increased the debt and the country’s risk premium, which led to ever higher interest rates and debt service until its default in December of 2001.

The interest rate shocks were exogenous, starting with the US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise short-term rates in February of 1994. US interest rates went from 3 to 6 percent over the following year, and since Argentina’s currency was pegged to the dollar, its interest rates rose
accordingly, with an additional rise in the risk premium (due to the increased possibility of
devaluation and default). This was followed by the Mexican peso crisis (December 1994), itself
precipitated by the Fed’s rate hikes and resulting capital outflows from Mexico. Capital fled
Argentina as well, causing a steep recession, with GDP declining by 7.6 percent from the last
quarter of 1994 to the first quarter of 1996.

Capital inflows resumed in the second half of 1996, but the country’s risk premium and cost of
borrowing went up again with the onset of the Asian financial crisis in August of 1997. The
Argentine peso was also growing increasingly overvalued, since the US dollar, to which it was
pegged, was overvalued. This worsened the current account, especially in services. The current
account was also hit by the interest rate increases: in 1998, when the current account deficit
peaked at 14.6 billion pesos, or 4.9 percent of GDP, 71 percent of the deficit was due to interest
payments.

Further shocks from the Russian devaluation in October of 1998, and then the floating of the
Brazilian real in January of 1999, made Argentina’s devaluation and default inevitable. It is clear
then, that fiscal policy was not the problem that led to Argentina’s economic collapse. Rather it
was the result of a series of external shocks, which due to Argentina’s unrestricted capital
mobility and currency board system—a deadly combination—were impossible for the economy
to withstand.

This point must be emphasized, because under a currency board system these external shocks not
only increase the risk premium for borrowing (since people believe the overvalued currency will
not hold), but macroeconomic activity is also directly reduced by the capital outflows, which
reduce the monetary base. Figure 1 shows the net capital inflows in the public and private sector
for 1993-2001. There is a recovery from the first huge private outflow (1995), but it takes more
than three years; in the meantime, as the graph shows, official creditors such as the IMF and the
World Bank increasingly replace the lost private capital flows. The second major private
outflow, which coincides with the Asian, Russian, and Brazilian crises, sent the economy into a
recession from which it has never recovered.

9

This was a truly unviable system.9 It is difficult to imagine any fiscal policy—assuming it were
even politically possible to cut enormous amounts of government spending—that could have
avoided the fate of December 2001, given the overvalued currency, the size and growth of
Argentina’s debt (mostly denominated in foreign currency) relative to export earnings, and the

9
Some economists have argued that the economy could have adjusted to the external shocks, and recovered, if only
wages had fallen enough: “If Argentina had a more flexible economic system, especially in its labor markets, its
economy would have been more able to adapt to the rigors of the Convertibility Plan; unemployment would have been
lower; growth would have been stronger; fiscal deficits would have been smaller; and interest rates would have been
lower because creditors would have had more confidence in the capacity of the Argentine government to service its
obligations.” (From Michael Mussa, Argentina and the Fund: From Triumph to Tragedy, Institute for International
Economics, 2002, p 9). Any macroeconomic policy regime that requires such a fall in nominal wages is, as a practical
matter, untenable. Also, it is not clear that such a recovery scenario is plausible in theory, since falling prices would raise
the real interest rate.
10
free mobility of capital. It is also worth noting that the government’s decision to privatize its
social security system in 1994 had a major impact on the central government budget deficit: in
fact, the lost revenue, plus accumulated interest costs, amounted to nearly the entire government
budget deficit in 2001.10

Since the default some analysts, including IMF economists, have focused on the provincial
deficits as the cause of the problem. But this does not fit with the evidence either. First,
provincial borrowing was not guaranteed by the central government (and had higher interest
rates as a result). Thus a default on the provincial debt would not be expected to cause the central
government to default. (In February, the central government did agree to guarantee the debt of
the provinces, but this was after the fact and cannot be said to have contributed to the central
government’s default).11

Second, the central government’s payments to the provinces were fixed by law as a percentage of
central government revenue, and this percentage did not increase as the provinces increased their
deficit spending. Finally, the provinces’ combined deficit spending was not all that large in any
case. Provincial deficits totaled 1.1 percent of GDP in 2000 and peaked at 1.9 percent in 2001.12
The provinces were picking up some of the burden of counter-cyclical fiscal policy during the
recession, since the central government was not carrying it. For a recession of this depth, with
more than a fifth of the labor force unemployed, these deficits are not large. (For comparison, the
United States government ran deficits of 4.7 percent of GDP in 1992 and 6.1 percent in 1982,
coming out of our previous two recessions; the combined deficit of the Argentine federal
government and provinces in 2001 was 5.1 percent). All told, this deficit spending was a result of
the crisis, rather than the cause of it.

The Argentine recession (now a depression) is currently four years old, and through the whole of
it the IMF has asserted that fiscal tightening will restore investor confidence and thereby lead to
recovery. It now looks as though the opposite is more likely: that fiscal tightening may have
contributed to slower growth, which then lowered government revenue, thus necessitating even
more fiscal tightening to balance the budget; and the downward spiral further lowered the
confidence of investors.

Finally, it is worth noting the general role of the IMF in the policy decisions that led to this
crisis. The Fund and its defenders13 have insisted that the decisions to establish and maintain the

10
See Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, “The Role of Social Security Privatization in Argentina’s Economic Crisis,”
Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2002.
11
The pact President Duhalde signed with the provinces in February 2002 included commitments by the provincial
governments to cut their deficits by 60 percent, replaced the guaranteed minimum monthly transfer from the central
government with a fixed percentage of tax revenues, and required the central government to absorb the provincial debts,
at a 1.40 peso to 1 dollar conversion rate with the debts being refinanced over 16 years at an interest rate of 4 percent.
(See “Argentina provinces, government reach revenue-sharing deal, paving way for aid,” AFX News, February 28,
2002).
12
Source: Center for Buenos Aires Studies, with data taken from Ministry of Economy, Argentina.
13
Thomas Dawson, External Relations Director at the IMF, indicated in May 2002 that the Fund only publicly supported
the Argentine government while they disagreed in private: “When the authorities, without consulting with us, instituted
the zero-deficit law, we indicated we thought this was excessive….We were advising them at the time that policy should
11
currency board, to privatize the social security system, and other policies that contributed to the
crisis, were made solely by the Argentine government. They therefore conclude that the Fund has
no responsibility for the economic collapse.

The problem with this argument is that the IMF did support Argentina’s policy decisions,
including the continuation of the currency board through 2001, with tens of billions of dollars in
loans, as well as with public statements. The IMF does not generally approve money for policies
that it opposes. As can be seen from the current crisis, the Fund has not only refused to lend
money for policies it disagrees with, but has used its immense power to pressure the government
to adopt a whole set of economic policy prescriptions, to rewrite its laws, and to reinterpret the
constitutionally defined relationship between the provinces and the central government.14 And
this is during a time of Argentina’s worst ever economic crisis, with the resulting political
instability posing a serious threat to the country’s democratic institutions. It is difficult to believe,
therefore, that Fund decision-makers felt obligated to support the Argentine government’s
economic policies in the 1990s and through most of 2001, simply because the government chose
them, and in spite of their beliefs that these policies were wrong and would fail. While there are
certainly differences of opinion among Fund economists about issues such as what kind of
exchange rate regime is best, the idea that the Fund was simply going along with whatever
policies were chosen by the Argentine government is contradicted by decades of IMF policy-
based lending, as well as the Fund’s behavior in the last eight months of negotiations with
Argentina.15

Table 2 shows the data for GDP, unemployment, consumer prices, wages, gross domestic
investment, the exchange rate, central bank reserves, international trade and the balance of
payments for 1993-2002. Output peaked in the second quarter of 1998, and has contracted about
20 percent since then.16 The contraction has accelerated since the default, with GDP down 16.3
percent in the first quarter of 2002, from its year-ago level. If the contraction were to continue at

be relaxed, not tightened….When you make a decision to support a program, your public support has to be full-fledged.”
(See “Argentine 2001 Budget Cuts Defied IMF, Fund Now Says,” by Mark Drajem, Bloomberg, May 20, 2002).
Michael Mussa, former Research Director at the IMF, also asserts the government’s primary responsibility for mistaken
policies in his recent book: “In general, the Fund supported these policies, both with its statements and with its financing,
but the Fund did not press the Argentine government to adopt policies that it did not willingly choose to implement.”
(See Mussa 2002).
14
Prior to the passage of the 2002 budget, which contained the provisions from the pact Duhalde had signed with the
provinces, the central government had guaranteed a minimum monthly transfer to the provinces, as according to the
Argentine constitution. The Constitution was essentially reinterpreted to allow for the new law which instead requires a
fixed percentage transfer of tax revenues to the provinces. (See also footnote 4 above).
15
The Fund was also very clear in insisting that the Duhalde government’s abandon any attempt at a dual exchange rate,
in order to be eligible for an agreement. (See “Argentina Pressed to End Dual Exchange Rate,” by Richard Lapper,
Financial Times, January 17, 2002, p 8).
16
Since the quarterly GDP data are not seasonally adjusted, and there are large seasonal variations, this number (20
percent) compares Q1 1998 with Q1 2002.

THE CURRENT SITUATION
12
this pace for the rest of the year, the total decline since the last peak would be about 27 percent.
For comparison, the loss of output during the United States Great Depression downturn (1929-
33) was about 33 percent.

Table Two

Argentina, Economic Data (1993-2002)

YEAR
1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 20021
GDP Market Prices
(in millions of 1993 pesos) 236,505 250,308 243,186 256,626 277,441 288,123278,3692 276,1732263,9972 217,0672,3
Unemployment 9.6% 11.5% 17.5% 17.2% 14.9% 12.9% 14.3% 15.1% 17.4% 21.5%4
Consumer Price Index
(1991=100)  147.49 152.47 152.71 153.52 154.94 153.13 151.69 150.08 193.505
Annual Change in CPI   3.38% 0.16% 0.53% 0.92% -1.17% -0.94% -1.07% 30.5%5
Real Wages (in 1994 pesos)  931 909 893 876 879 902 916 914 7166
Gross Domestic Investment
(in millions of 1993 pesos)   44,528 48,484 57,047 60,781 53,116 49,502 41,650

Exchange Rate (Pesos to Dollar) 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00 3.657
Reserves (in US$)  16,870 14,693 15,401 16,603 17,837 17,665 16,796 19,004 9,0607
Trade Balance (in US$) -2,364 -4,139 2,357 1,760 -2,123 -3,097 -795 2,558 7,507 3,7508
Exports F.O.B. (in US$) 13,269 16,023 21,162 24,043 26,431 26,434 23,309 26,410 26,655 5,7058
Imports F.O.B. (in US$) 15,633 20,162 18,804 22,283 28,554 29,531 24,103 23,852 19,148 1,9558
Current Acct Balance (in US$) -8,162 -11,157 -5,211 -6,873 -12,333 -14,624 -11,898 -8,864 -4,429 1,5118

1
Latest available data for each category
2
Estimates
3
Quarterly data (annualized, not seasonally adjusted)
4
May data
5
For the first half of 2002
6
April data
7
July data
8
Q1 data
Source: National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC), Ministry of Economy , and Central Bank, Argentina

The drop in business investment over the course of the depression has been severe. Real Gross
Domestic Fixed Investment for 2001 was down 31 percent from its 1998 peak; measured by the
last quarter of 2001, which registered a sharp drop, the decline is 40 percent.

Unemployment stands at 21.5 percent of the labor force, with underemployment at 18.6 percent;
real monthly wages have declined by 18 percent over the course of the year.

13
Official poverty and indigence rates have reached record levels: 53% of Argentines now live
below the official poverty line, including 70 percent of children, while 25% are indigent (basic
needs unmet). Since October 2001, 5.2 million Argentines have fallen below the poverty line.17
Children have been particularly hard hit, as noted in recent reports of malnutrition and hunger in
various provinces and in the capital’s suburbs.18 Stories of children fainting in school for lack of
adequate nutrition, and stories of people hunting down cats, dogs, rats, and horses in order to
survive have been commonly reported in the press.19

By most measures, this is the worst economic crisis in Argentine history. However there are a
number of reasons to view the economy as poised for a rapid recovery, and one that can take
place without external financing. Most importantly, Argentina is running a large current account
and trade surplus (7.1 and 17.8 percent of GDP, respectively). Primarily a result of the
devaluation, the export sector has increased from 11.5 to 37 percent of GDP, and is considerably
more competitive internationally. These and other recent changes will be discussed in detail in
the last section, which looks at the prospects for recovery.

Due to the secrecy surrounding the IMF’s negotiations with borrowing governments, and the lack
of transparency within the Fund itself, it is difficult to get complete information about the IMF’s
actions, demands, goals, and analysis in situations such as this. Nonetheless there is much that is
known, both from the IMF’s public statements and press interviews with both Fund and
Argentine government officials.

Fiscal Policy: The IMF has demanded further fiscal tightening from both the central and
provincial governments. The central government’s 2002 budget, passed at the beginning of
March, cut spending by about 15 percent and set its deficit target at 3 billion pesos (the deficit
was $8.7 billion in 2001, with interest payments totaling $10.2 billion). The spending cuts were
to include a 10 percent across the board reduction, a 30 percent decrease in outlays for goods and
services, and salary and pension cuts of 13 percent for government employees. For the provincial
governments, the Fund had put forth deficit reduction targets of 60 percent as compared to last
year, or 3 billion pesos. The combined impact of these reductions, if fully implemented, would
have a significant contractionary effect on the economy and almost certainly prolong and/or
deepen the current depression.

17
Source: National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC), Ministry of Economy, Argentina. Also see “La Crisis
Provocó que haya 5,2 millones de pobres nuevos,” La Nación, August 22, 2002.
18
See for example “Despair in Once-Proud Argentina” by Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post, August 6, 2002, “Los
chicos del país del hambre,” by Christian Alarcón, Página/12, May 20, 2002, and “Quilmes, a pocos kilómetros de la
Rosada,” by Alejandra Dandan, Página/12, June 6, 2002.
19
See also “Caballo y perro, parte del menú habitual en una zona de Paraná,” by Cristian Alarcón, Página/12, May 16,
2002.

THE ROLE OF THE IMF SINCE DEFAULT
14
Monetary Policy: In April, Anoop Singh called for the central bank to “strictly limit the growth
of its own credit” and to move toward establishing “a full-fledged inflation-targeting regime—
such as that adopted by other countries, including Brazil after its own difficulties in 1999.”20
Without more information it is difficult to say for certain what the Fund has in mind, but the
reference to Brazil’s monetary policy since 1999 does not augur well. Brazil’s short-term real
interest rates have been among the very highest in the world (currently 18 percent nominal with 7
percent inflation). More importantly, given the depth of Argentina’s depression and lack of
private investment, tight restrictions on credit from the central bank may prevent the government
from playing its necessary role in an economic recovery.

Another problem is that the IMF has demanded that the provincial currencies be phased out as
soon as possible, with no new issuing of these currencies. These currencies are presently used to
pay provincial wages and salaries; eliminating them, together with a 60 percent cut in provincial
deficits, could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time of extremely high unemployment. It
is worth noting that the provincial currencies do not appear to have contributed to inflation in the
past: in 2001, inflation was negative 1.1 percent, despite an estimated 5 billion pesos of
provincial currency in circulation. While it is certainly a good idea to go back to a single
currency, it appears that the provincial currencies have played a necessary role in this recession,
and in their absence the loss of output would have been worse; it would seem that care should be
taken in phasing them out.

Changes in Argentine law: The IMF also demanded that Argentina repeal its “economic
subversion” law21, under which the government can investigate broad categories of acts by firms,
banks, or business people that cause economic harm to large sectors of the population, or damage
the economy as a whole. Among other things, the law was being used to investigate capital flight
that violated the banking restrictions implemented over the last year (known as the “corralito”).
The targets of investigation under this law have included top executives from major banks,
including foreign banks such as Citibank and Bank of Boston.

The IMF has also objected to the Argentine Bankruptcy Code, stating that “the international
community could not be expected to support Argentina without the early adoption of a
framework that provides an appropriate balance between creditor and debtor interests.”22
According to press reports, the main parts of the law that the IMF objected to were (1) an article
that provides those filing for bankruptcy with protection from creditors for 180 days and (2)
another article that allows the debtor a 360 day period to request a rescheduling of debt.23

20
Singh press briefing, Buenos Aires, April 10, 2002 (at http://www.imp.or/external/np/tr/2002/tr020410.htm).
21
Both Argentine and worldwide press reported during the IMF’s missions to Argentina in spring 2002 led by Singh that
the Fund wanted the economic subversion law repealed. (See “Duhalde orders moves to repeal/modify Argentina
economic subversion law,” AFX News, March 19, 2002, and “IMF to restart Argentine talks in April,” by Alan Beattie
and Thomas Catan, Financial Times, March 23, 2002). Singh disclosed this demand, albeit in softer language, at his
April 10 press conference, referenced earlier above: “Other legal reforms that inhibit engagement by the international
community should also be undertaken as soon as possible, such as of the economic subversion law.”
22
See again Singh press briefing, April 2002.
23
See “Time is running out, Argentina admits,” by Mark Mulligan, Financial Times, May 9, 2002, and “Para dejar
tranquilo a Singh,” by Cledis Candelaresi, Página/12, April 19, 2002.
15
Over the last few months, the government of Argentina has agreed to the IMF’s demands,
although it has not been an easy task internally to do so. The fiscal tightening was not popular in
Congress, and the repeal of those provisions of the economic subversion and bankruptcy laws
that the Fund found objectionable generated even more animosity among legislators.24 The
provinces, at the urging of the IMF, signed an agreement with the Federal government that
reduced their revenue sharing payments, and committed them to painful budget cuts.

Yet this wholesale surrender to the IMF’s demands has still not brought Argentina a loan
agreement with the Fund. It seems that the goal posts have been continuously moved, so that new
conditions are added after the government has agreed to satisfy previous ones. The most recent
round of IMF demands are that Argentina adopt a freely floating exchange rate regime (with
some nominal anchor) and that there be an end to “amparos,” judicial injunctions against banks
allowing savers to withdraw their deposits. Disagreements between the IMF and Argentine
officials led the Fund to send four former central bankers from Europe and Canada to Argentina,
dubbed “wise men” in the press, to provide counsel on how Argentina should reform its banking
system. The panel’s report stressed that “Sacrifices will be needed, probably beyond those with
which society has already come to terms.”25

This raises the question of what the IMF is really trying to accomplish in Argentina. One
possibility is that the Fund wants to punish Argentina, so as to discourage other countries26 from
defaulting. The possibility that this is a conscious goal of creditors in this situation was raised by
financier George Soros, who noted that in contrast to corporate borrowers, “sovereign states do
not provide any tangible security…The only security the lender has is the pain that the borrower
will suffer if it defaults. That is why the private sector has been so strenuously opposed to any
measure that would reduce the pain…”27 The official logic, however, behind such punishment is
not revenge, or even the protection of creditors from future default risks, but the idea that
increased risk of further defaults would lead to reduced capital flows to developing countries. In
this view, Argentina must suffer for the greater good of financing for development—to the extent
that the existing mix of portfolio capital flows actually does that—in other low and middle-
income countries.

Another possibility is that the Fund’s failure to reach an agreement with Argentina is the result of
divisions among the policy-makers—the IMF, US Treasury Department and the White House
(which has gotten more directly involved than usual after the collapse of the De la Rua
government). Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs John Taylor and White
House chief economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey represent a more “free-market” trend than
existed in previous administrations. During Taylor’s time at Stanford University he advocated the

24
At one point President Duhalde resorted to threatening his resignation, if the economic subversion law were not
repealed. (See “Back me or I’ll go, says Duhalde,” by Thomas Catan, Financial Times, May 24, 2002).
25
See IMF News Brief, July 29, 2002 (at http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/nb/2002/nb0280.htm).
26
As of this writing, there are several other countries, most notably Uruguay and Brazil, whose debt problems are severe
enough that some kind of default is a very real possibility.
27
Soros 2002, p 144.
16
abolition of the IMF.28 Together with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, this group opposes
“bailouts,” even if it means that US banks and other creditors suffer greater losses in a crisis or
default situation than they did, for example, in South Korea during the Asian economic crisis,
where the Fund helped arrange for the Korean government to guarantee the debt of foreign
creditors.

However, this group is surrounded by more traditional officials who are more concerned about
minimizing the losses of US financial institutions, as well as the continuing economic and
political deterioration in Argentina, especially insofar as the latter has political fallout here (since
the press and foreign policy establishment expect Treasury and the IMF to “do something.”) The
current stalemate between the IMF and Argentina may result, at least in part, from the conflicting
goals of these factions, one of which (Taylor/Lindsey) may not even want an agreement,
especially if it involves net new lending. The Fund’s recent decision to approve a $30 billion
credit to Brazil, as well as the US loan to Uruguay, indicate that when push comes to shove, the
more traditional voices do prevail. It may be that the Bush Administration and Treasury still do
not see the economic meltdown in Argentina as politically important enough, in order for the
Taylor/Lindsey faction’s opposition to “bailouts” to be overridden. Or it may be that there is also
general agreement from all factions that the country must be punished, at least for some time, in
order to discourage further defaults.

It is important to distinguish these conflicts from the more commonly held view of a debate
between those who want to “help” Argentina and those who do not. It is not clear that a
traditional “bailout,” which would provide funds to resume debt service payments until the next
crisis, would help the Argentine economy. The amount of money that the Argentine government
is currently asking for from the IMF is the $18 billion in credits that was suspended back in
December 2001—though a G-7 official recently speculated that $7.5 billion is more realistic.29
This would cover their debt service to the multilateral lenders for the rest of this year and the
next, but leave no net new funds for anything else. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which such
an agreement would lead to further stagnation and depression: the required fiscal and monetary
austerity would slow the economy, resulting in continuing social unrest, along with continued
uncertainty about further disbursements from the Fund, and investment would continue to
stagnate.

The IMF is widely seen as an international lender of last resort, a global role analogous to that of
a central bank in the domestic economy. Within a country, the central bank provides liquidity to
banks that are in danger of failure due to bad loans, in order to prevent a run on the banking
system and a collapse of normal business activity. The Fund is often portrayed as playing a
similar role in the global economy, in crisis situations. But this is not generally true. As can be
seen from the case of Argentina (as well as the Asian and Russian crises a few years ago), the
IMF generally plays an altogether different role: it is the lead negotiator and organizer of a

28
In a transcript of an interview for Stanford’s Hoover Institute-sponsored TV program “Uncommon Knowledge,”
Taylor asserted that the IMF “should be abolished…in a way that takes some of the talents there and use[s] it in a more
effective way.” (See http://www.uncommonknowledge.org/99winter/320.html).
29
See “Respite for Gasping Argentina as I.M.F. Defers Loan Payment,” by Larry Rohter, New York Times, July 16,
2002, and “G7 Source Says IMF Aid for Argentina to be US$ 7 Billion,” Reuters, August 9, 2002.
17
creditors’ cartel. In this role, it attempts to secure as much repayment of debt as possible, and
generally more than would be possible if the individual creditors were left to negotiate on their
own with the defaulting borrower.30

In Argentina, it is clear that the Fund has done nothing to help the country avoid the breakdown
of normal business activity, although there is much that it could have done in the past eight
months, including helping to restore the functioning of the banking system, preventing
unnecessary bankruptcies and the resulting reduction in employment, and providing much-
needed export credits for industries that could actually benefit from the devaluation. Instead, the
Fund has played the opposite role: making sure, insofar as it can enforce discipline among
lenders, that credit from all sources is denied until an overall agreement—whose terms are
sufficiently favorable to creditors, as determined by the IMF—can be reached. Even loans
targeted for assistance to social programs—$700 million approved by the World Bank—are
being withheld until there is an agreement with the Fund.31 Most private lenders, as well as
European governments, are waiting for IMF approval before they extend credit.32 Even export
credits have become more difficult to obtain, as a result of the lack of agreement between the
IMF and the Argentine government.33

The IMF itself has about $15 billion of loans outstanding to Argentina. It has deferred payments
on these loans three times so far in 2002: $933 million in January, $136 million in May, and
$985 million in July. The ultimate threat that the IMF has in this situation, and one of the
defining points of its leadership of the creditors’ cartel, is the threat of default to the Fund itself.
Official default to the Fund is rare, and has generally been confined to “pariah” or “failed” states
(Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, and Sudan). In such cases, day-to-day trade credits
in the private sector, such as letters of credit from banks, which are generally necessary to
maintain normal trade flows, can be denied. This is one of the threats that the Fund holds over
Argentina; whether it would use this “nuclear option” in any given situation would be determined
by political circumstances, including the foreign policy concerns of the US State Department as
well as Treasury, and international public opinion. In other words, there are political costs to
these actors of administering such a rarely used and extreme punishment, especially given the

30
One example which illustrates this is Russia, where foreign banks received a small fraction of the debt owed to them,
after the government failed to reach agreement with the IMF. (See “Russia reaches debt deal with Western banks,” AP,
February 11, 2000).
31
See
http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:20055157~menuPK:34466~pagePK:34370~p
iPK:34424~theSitePK:4607,00.html.
32
See “No Argentina/EU aid talks until deal signed with IMF—Ruckauf,” AFX News, May 22, 2002.
33
The head of the Argentine Chamber of Exports, Enrique Mantilla, has signaled a disruption in the terms by which
normal credit relations function; Foreign Minister Carlos Ruckauf and other Argentine government officials have also
highlighted the lack of export credit. (See “Agonizing week for the peso,” by Lourdes Heredia, BBC, March 16, 2002,
and “Brazilians Find Political Cost for Help From I.M.F.,” by Larry Rohter, The New York Times, August 11, 2002).
The World Bank, in recognition of this drying up of export credit, has pledged money for trade financing in its promises
of aid, but only once an IMF agreement comes through. (See “Argentina Gets $100 Million World Bank Emergency
Aid,” by Mark Drajem, Bloomberg, March 8, 2002).
The Mexican government gave symbolic support to Argentina in July 2002, by providing $1million in revolving lines of
credit for exports and imports. (See “Troubled South America trade bloc reaches auto deal,” by Gilbert Le Gras, Reuters,
July 4, 2002).
18
IMF’s shared responsibility for creating the conditions that led to Argentina’s default and ongoing
crisis.

Arreglándonos con lo Nuestro? 34

Even if the IMF eventually proves willing to reach a new loan agreement with the government of
Argentina, it is still an open question whether the country would be better off with an economic
recovery program of its own. While there are risks to both paths, it seems that Argentina would
be better off declaring a moratorium on its debt and using its available resources to put the
economy on a sustainable growth path.

This first risk of going the IMF route is the risk of further economic decline before any such
agreement leads to recovery. As noted above, the economy has been shrinking at an annual rate
of about 16 percent. Negotiations could drag on for many more months, and more importantly, it
could be very much longer than that before an agreement has any positive effect on the economy
(see below). The costs of delaying economic recovery at this rate of decline are substantial, and
would take years to recuperate, even assuming that the resulting disintegration of political and
social institutions does not throw further roadblocks in the way of recovery.

Since an agreement would provide little or no net new resources to the economy, but rather allow
for resumption of multilateral debt service, the best (hoped for) result of such an agreement
would be its positive effect on the investment climate. There are two impacts here: first, a
resurgence of investor confidence as a result of the agreement. The idea is that the IMF
agreement would serve as a signal to investors, particularly foreign investors, that the country
was now safe for investment. Given the current investment climate in Latin America, this impact
could be small. The risk premium on Brazil’s sovereign debt is now worse than Nigeria’s,
Uruguay has lost a third of its reserves in the last month, and capital inflows to the region have
dropped off sharply over the last year and a half. The United States economy, which has a major
impact on Latin America through its demand for imports, is also weak. In these economic
environs, it is not clear how long it would take for the IMF agreement to have any significant
positive impact on foreign investment in Argentina.

The other impact of an IMF agreement would be to release credit from other sources, and allow
for governments, multilateral lenders, and even some private creditors to “lend into arrears,”

34
The Argentine daily Clarín reported in July 2002, “Si no hay acuerdo con el FMI nos arreglaremos con lo
nuestro,” or, “If there is no agreement with the IMF we will take care of things with what we have.” The article was
referring to a statement made to that effect by governor José Luis Lizurume of the Chubut province. See Clarín, July
4, 2002.

THE ROAD AHEAD

19
which they may not do in the absence of such an agreement. This differs from the first impact
(above) in that these are lenders that are refusing to extend credit now, not because of perceived
risk, but because they are respecting the creditors’ cartel headed by the Fund/US Treasury. Since
the IMF’s influence here is based on arrangements that are informal and under-the-table—e.g.
even the World Bank is not formally required to deny credit to a government that does not meet
IMF requirements—it is difficult to estimate the size of this impact. The relevant comparison
would depend on how long the cartel would hold up under a serious challenge, i.e., if Argentina
sought international support for a reasonable economic recovery program, while suspending its
debt payments.
An IMF agreement carries further risks that the policy conditions imposed by the Fund
would themselves prolong and/or worsen the depression. As noted above, the recommended
fiscal and monetary policies would almost certainly have that effect.  Even assuming that the
economy recovers, an IMF agreement might well put Argentina into a type of receivership in
which slow growth, permanently high interest rates, and a continued unsustainable debt burden
cause the country to limp along from one crisis to the next.35 The debt burden is especially
important; Argentina is in default on its international debt, but very little of this debt has been
taken off the books. The IMF has been remarkably silent on what the terms of any restructuring,
or debt write-down, would be. It is easy to imagine that the Fund, together with other creditors,
would keep as much of this debt on the books as possible, in the hope of collecting it in the
future; and that this would make the country vulnerable to future debt crises.

In sum, an IMF loan would not necessarily restore growth, and could even delay or abort any
economic recovery. There is no telling where the bottom might be. Russia lost half of its national
income under an IMF program, and it was only after that program collapsed (with the
devaluation of the ruble in 1998) that the economy began to recover. Aside from the danger of
the Fund’s policy prescriptions, the Argentine economy is in a serious depression, with an
attendant political crisis and enormous loss of confidence in its democratic institutions. The
government will need all the flexibility that is possible in order to get out of this crisis, and
constraints on fiscal and monetary policy could prove much more damaging than they would be
in the case of a normal economic downturn.

What is the alternative to an IMF agreement? Most importantly, the government would have to
begin to revive economic activity directly, instead of waiting for foreign or even domestic
investment to resume on its own. Once the economy begins to recover, and investors no longer
fear a worsening breakdown, private investment would return. (This is not so unusual as it may
seem from looking at IMF packages in these situations: in the United States, the most recent
(mild) recession and continued economic weakness has been countered by a shift from a Federal
budget surplus of about 2 percent of GDP to a deficit of 1.5 percent, or about $350 billion
dollars. Business investment has yet to recover).

35
This is essentially what happened to Brazil, which was fortunate enough to have its fixed exchange rate collapse three
years earlier than Argentina. Nonetheless the extremely high interest rates combined with slow growth have led to an
explosive debt burden which now places the country, three and a half years after devaluation, once again on the brink of
default.
20
Demand could be stimulated through public works programs, along with income support for the
families of the unemployed and the poor. A subsidy for unemployed workers36 or at the very
least a food stamp program of some sort would be particularly important, due to the lack of
access that many poor families now have to adequate food.

The export sector can potentially play an even bigger role in jump-starting a recovery. First, the
export sector has gone from a relatively small to a sizeable part of the Argentine economy.
Before the devaluation, exports of goods and services were only 11.5 percent of GDP. Now they
are about 37 percent of GDP. This is not only because of the contraction of GDP, but mostly
because the devaluation makes each dollar of export earnings worth (currently) about 3.6 pesos.
Of course the devaluation also makes Argentine exports much more competitive.

The major constraint on an export-led recovery is credit: i.e., how much does the default and lack
of an IMF agreement prevent exporters from obtaining the necessary credit? The monthly data
for 2002 show that exports are beginning to respond positively to the devaluation (see Table 3).
Total exports increased by 29 percent from January to May. Although some of this is due to
seasonal variation, past data indicate that most of it is not. Nonetheless, there have been
numerous reports in the press of exporters having trouble getting credit (see footnote 24), and of
course there is no telling whether the creditors’ cartel will be tightened if Argentina is not able to
reach an agreement that is satisfactory to the Fund (and US Treasury). For these reasons it is very
important that the central bank and government make arrangements to assist with credit for
exporters. The government could work directly with private banks in major export markets (e.g.
Brazil) to arrange for letters of credit and allow exports to expand more rapidly.37]

Table Three

Argentina, Monthly Export Data (2002)
In millions of US$
MONTH
Jan Feb March April May
Exports F.O.B  1,812 1,855 2,075 2,146 2,343
PRIMARY PRODUCTS 473 408 552 549 644
MANUFACTURES –
AGRICULTURAL 559 497 539 647 708
MANUFACTURES –
INDUSTRIAL 523 687 658 613 704
FUELS AND ENERGY 258 263 326 337 287

36
One such subsidy has been proposed by the Frente Nacional Contra la Pobreza, or FreNaPo (National Front Against
Poverty), which Argentines overwhelmingly voted for in a non-binding popular consultation in December 2001
(3.1million people voted in favor of the proposal). For a full description of this proposal  see:
http://www.consultapop.com.ar/documentos/propuesta%20del%20frente.doc.
37
Brazil’s Central Bank recently intervened in this way. (See “Brazil will lend money to troubled companies,” by
Raymond Colitt, Financial Times, August 12, 2002).
21
Source: National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC), Ministry of Economy, Argentina

One of the great advantages that Argentina has over other countries confronting the creditors’
cartel in such situations, in terms of recovering on its own, is that the country is running large
surpluses on both its trade and current accounts. For the first quarter of 2002, the current account
surplus was $1.5 billion, or 7.1 percent of GDP on an annual basis. The merchandise trade
surplus is 3.75 billion dollars, or 17.8 percent of GDP on an annual basis. The current account
surplus is not a result of debt default: net foreign interest payments in the first quarter of 2002
actually exceeded those of a year ago.38

What has happened is that imports have collapsed—for the first quarter of 2002, imports of
goods and services are down 60 percent from a year ago, and even more from their level during
the 1998 business cycle peak. The importance of this change cannot be over-emphasized. It
means that the Argentine economy has already gone through an enormous “structural
adjustment”—this is the true economic meaning of this often misused phrase—as a result of the
depression. In other words, as a result of a steep and painful shrinking of the economy (which
automatically reduces imports), Argentina has already accomplished the adjustment that is
necessary to set the stage for sustainable and even rapid growth. Furthermore, the current
account surplus is not likely to disappear any time soon, since the full effect of the devaluation—
in terms of increasing exports and reducing imports—has not yet been felt.

The country is therefore capable of paying for the imports that it needs, for the foreseeable
future, without any need for foreign financing. This means that the Argentine economy is ready
to recover without new loans from the IMF or other international institutions.

But to make this capability a reality, the government will have to cut down on capital outflows.
For the first quarter of 2002, these totaled nearly $2.7 billion. Furthermore, reserves shrank by
$2.1 billion, and the latest figures (July) show central bank reserves at $9.1 billion, down from
$19.6 billion in January. This loss of reserves must be drastically slowed, probably through some
form of currency controls. This is another potentially important source of conflict with the IMF,
since the Fund generally does not permit currency controls. Although it is not always easy to
stop money from leaving the country, there is no reason for the central bank to provide dollars to
all who want to convert their pesos, especially for speculative purposes. It should not be that
difficult to curtail the net outflow of foreign exchange, and reserves can be kept from depleting
to dangerously low levels.

As for the problem of restoring public confidence in the banking system, this is a longer-term
project that is not, as the IMF has implied, a pre-condition for economic recovery. Whatever is
done about the corralito, it may be some time before the public regains confidence in the banking
system. But there is no reason that economic recovery should have to wait until that happens;
household savings do not need to be deposited in banks in order for consumption, government
spending, or even business investment, to revive.

38
This is in spite of the official default on the public debt, because private and some public interest payments are still
being made.
22

There is also the problem of exchange rate policy, which in Argentina is complicated by the fact
that there is a large amount of informal dollarization that already exists. Unlike Brazil, for
example, dollars are accepted almost everywhere, and people keep much of their savings in
dollars. This adds to the risk of inflation due to currency depreciation. In other words, if people
lose confidence in the peso, and move increasingly to dollars, the peso price of goods and
services can rise rapidly even while their price in dollars remains stable. Over the long run,
Argentina will probably want to reduce the level of informal dollarization of its economy. For
now, the added risk of inflation due to the existing dollarization must be taken into account.

The IMF is also recommending a free-floating exchange rate, without any intervention by the
central bank.39 While intervention to support a falling currency often proves costly and
ineffective, it would seem foolish to publicly forsake this option altogether. To do so could
encourage speculation against the currency when it is falling, since people would know that there
would be no intervention to support the peso. The government might also want to consider the
option of deliberately causing the currency to be undervalued for a period of time, as a way of
convincing people to hold pesos (as they see it rising). In either case, it would be a mistake to
commit to a free-floating currency as an absolute principle.

So far, there does not seem to be any serious risk of hyperinflation. The Consumer Price Index
has increased by 30.5 percent over the first 6 months of 2002. However, inflation peaked at 10.4
percent for the month of April; in May it dropped to 4.0 percent, and 3.6 percent for June. For a
devaluation of the magnitude that Argentina has undergone—74 percent—this is not in excess of
what would be expected.40 Furthermore, there is little danger of a wage-price spiral that could
lead to hyperinflation: real wages fell by 18 percent in the first four months of 2002. The
government could minimize the danger of a wage-price spiral by focusing on job creation, rather
than trying to reverse the entire wage decline brought on by the devaluation—although the
decline will have to be stopped soon to avoid pushing even more of the employed work force
below the poverty line. In any case, there seems to be enough room for the government to pursue
expansionary fiscal and monetary policies without causing inflation to get out of control.

Of course, the feasibility of a home-grown economic recovery program is still related to
international political factors. If the IMF (and the Bush Administration) were to deploy the
“nuclear option”—that is, declare Argentina in default to the Fund itself and seek to cut off all
sources of credit, this could potentially cause serious harm, to the extent that such a cut-off could
be enforced. But this outcome does not seem likely. The government could announce that it fully
intends to reach a fair settlement with its creditors, but is temporarily suspending debt payments
until the economy recovers. For a country in the throes of a Great Depression, with consequent
poverty and even malnutrition, this would seem reasonable to most of the world. It would be

39
See again IMF News Brief, July 29, 2002 (at http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/nb/2002/nb0280.htm).
40
An important factor keeping inflation in check so far has been that privatized utility companies (electric, gas,
telephone, water) have not been able to increase their rates. The same can be said for public transportation. At the time of
this writing there is an all-out lobbying effort by utilities to renegotiate their contracts. If they win, there could be
considerable rate increases (30-50%) resulting in a higher rate of inflation.
23
very difficult politically for the IMF/US Treasury to declare Argentina to be a “pariah state” and
enforce a credit embargo.

The details of an economic recovery program remain to be worked out, but it is certainly
feasible. Aside from meeting the most basic needs of the poor, the most important thing is to
come up with a plan that revives production and consumer demand, and allows exports to grow
without unnecessary constraints. An IMF agreement will probably be reached, but it cannot be
assured that such an agreement will provide net new resources to the economy, or lead to
increased private investment. Moreover, any new credits will almost certainly be disbursed in
tranches (installments), with conditions that might hinder or even abort an economic recovery.
Therefore, regardless of when IMF and US Treasury officials decide that they are ready to sign
an agreement, Argentina must have a viable economic recovery plan of its own. The alternative
is to leave the economy at the mercy of the IMF/US Treasury and the forces of economic
contraction.
24
References

Alarcón, Christian, 2002. “Caballo y perro, parte del menú habitual en una zona de Paraná.”
Página/12 (May 16).

_______, 2002. “Los chicos del país del hambre.” Página/12 (May 20).

Dandan, Alejandra, 2002. “Quilmes, a pocos kilómetros de la Rosada.” Página/12 (June 6).

Baker, Dean and Mark Weisbrot, 2002. “The Role of Social Security Privatization in Argentina’s
Economic Crisis.” Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Beattie, Alan, and Thomas Catan, 2002. “IMF to restart Argentine talks in April.” Financial
Times (March 23).

Candelaresi, Cledis, 2002. “Para dejar tranquilo a Singh.” Página/12 (April 19).

Catan, Thomas, 2002. “Back me or I’ll go, says Duhalde.” Financial Times (May 24).

Colitt, Raymond, 2002. “Brazil will lend money to troubled companies.” Financial Times
(August 12).

Drajem, Mark, 2002. “Argentina Gets $100 Million World Bank Emergency Aid.” Bloomberg
(March 8).

_______, 2002. “Argentine 2001 Budget Cuts Defied IMF, Fund Now Says.” Bloomberg (May
20).

Faiola, Anthony, 2002. “Despair in Once-Proud Argentina.” The Washington Post (August 6).

Heredia, Lourdes, 2002. “Agonizing week for the peso.” BBC (March 16).

Lapper, Richard, 2002. “Argentina Pressed to End Dual Exchange Rate.” Financial Times
(January 17).

Le Gras, Gilbert, 2002. “Troubled South America trade bloc reaches auto deal.” Reuters (July 4).

Mulligan, Mark, 2002. “Time is running out, Argentina admits.” Financial Times (May 9).

Mussa, Michael, 2002. Argentina and the Fund: From Triumph to Tragedy. Washington, D.C.:
Institute for International Economics.

Rohter, Larry, 2002. “Respite for Gasping Argentina as I.M.F. Defers Loan Payment.” The New
York Times (July 16).

25
______, 2002. “Brazilians Find Political Cost for Help From I.M.F.” The New York Times
(August 11).

Soros, George, 2002. George Soros on Globalization. New York: PublicAffairs.

2000. “Russia reaches debt deal with Western banks.” AP (February 11).

2002. “Argentina provinces, government reach revenue-sharing deal, paving way for aid.” AFX
News (February 28).

2002. “Duhalde orders moves to repeal/modify Argentina economic subversion law.” AFX News
(March 19).

2002. “Otra etapa en la crisis: Lavagna admitio que no habra “plata fresca” del FMI para la
Argentina.” Clarín (May 14).

2002. “No Argentina/EU aid talks until deal signed with IMF—Ruckauf.” AFX News (May 22).

2002. “Si no hay acuerdo con el FMI nos arreglaremos con lo nuestro.” Clarín (July 4).

2002. “G7 Source Says IMF Aid for Argentina to be US$ 7 Billion.” Reuters (August 9).

2002. “La Crisis Provocó que haya 5,2 millones de pobres nuevos.” La Nación (August 22).

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