Yesterday, the ticket of Alberto Fernandez and Christina Kirchner crushed the hapless President of the Argentine Republic Mauricio Macri in a primary election. Their victory virtually guarantees that the Fernandez-Kirchner team will occupy the Casa Rosada after the presidential election scheduled for October.
For many, including the pollsters, Sunday’s results were a stunner. Not for me. I have been warning for over a year that gradualism, which is Macri’s mantra, is a formula for political disaster. If that wasn’t enough, the Argentine peso is another time bomb that has sent many politicians in Argentina into early retirement. And, to add insult to injury, Macri called in the “firefighters” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to salvage the peso. These three factors sealed Macri’s fate.
As it turns out, this movie has been played over-and-over again in Argentina. Argentina has seen many political gradualists bite the dust. What makes Macri unique is that he advertised gradualism as a virtue. Macri and his advisers obviously never studied the history of economic gradualism. When presidents are faced with a mountain of economic problems, it’s the Big Bangers who succeed.
As for the venom that can be injected by a peso crisis, the instances of the poison delivered by that snake bite are almost too numerous to count. To list but a few of Argentina’s major peso collapses: 1876, 1890, 1914, 1930, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1985, 1989, 2001, and 2018.
It is noteworthy that the frequency of peso crises picked up after the establishment of the Central Bank of Argentina (BCRA) in 1935. With that, serial monetary mismanagement ensued. The chart below tells the BCRA story. Before the BCRA, Argentina (the peso) held its own against the United States (the dollar), with the respective per capita GDPs being roughly equal in 1935. But, after the BCRA entered the picture, a great divergence began. Now, the U.S. GDP per capita is roughly three times higher than that of Argentina.
The BCRA’s most recent monetary mishap occurred last year, when the poor peso lost 58% of its value against the greenback from the start of 2018 until the end of May 2019. What was behind that collapse? On Macri’s watch, no less, the BCRA had been surreptitiously financing the government’s deficit spending. It did this through the sterilization of increases in the net foreign asset component of Argentina’s monetary base. This was done via the sale of bonds issued by the BCRA (LEBACS). The sterilization (and financing of the government’s deficit) was on a massive scale. In the January 2017—May 2018 period, the BCRA sterilized 50% of the total increase in the foreign asset component of the monetary base. In consequence, the BCRA was the largest source of financing for Argentina’s sizable primary fiscal deficit. These typical Argentine monetary-fiscal shenanigans were an invitation for yet another currency disaster.
After the peso rout, Macri went hat in hand to the IMF. This was the dagger in the heart of Macri’s political career. For one thing, the Argentine public distrusts, if not despises, the IMF—and for good reasons: namely, the IMF’s record of failure in Argentina. Yes, the IMF’s prescriptions have turned out to be the wrong medicine. To stabilize a half-baked currency’s (read: the Argentine peso) exchange rate, the IMF orders sky-high interest rates. With these rates, the economy collapses, as does the local currency that the IMF is trying to stabilize.
As Harvard University’s Robert Barro put it, the IMF reminds him of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 “in which the fire department’s mission is to start fires.” Barro’s basis for that conclusion is his own extensive research. His damning evidence finds that:
- A higher IMF loan participation rate reduces economic growth.
- IMF lending lowers investment.
- A greater involvement in IMF programs lowers the level of the rule of law and democracy.
And, if that’s not bad enough, countries that participate in IMF programs tend to be recidivists. The IMF programs don’t provide cures, but create addicts.
For a clear picture of the addiction problem (read: recidivism), review the chart below. It lists the number of IMF programs that 146 countries have participated in. Haiti leads the pack with 27 programs since joining the IMF in 1953. Argentina is a heavy hitter, too. It joined the IMF in 1956 and is now hooked on its 22nd IMF program. That’s a new program every 2.8 years on average.
Armed with this weekend’s election results, Argentines are exchanging pesos for greenbacks as fast as they can. The peso has shed a stunning 20.5% against the preferred greenback since last Friday. And, by my measure, which uses high-frequency data, Argentina’s inflation rate has exploded to 103%/yr (see the chart below).
To end Argentina’s never-ending monetary nightmare, the Central Bank of Argentina, along with the peso, should be mothballed and put in a museum. The peso should be replaced with the U.S. dollar. Argentina’s government should do officially what all Argentines do in times of trouble: dollarize. It’s time for the elites in Argentina to wake up and face reality.