Wednesday, December 25, 2019

What to expect from the incoming government in Argentina

The government in Argentina has less than two weeks at this point. It is too early to pass judgment. But we can look at the legacy of the Macri administration, and indicate a few things about the current strategy. A paper I have just received from Fabian Amico, that will soon be published in Circus, will be invaluable for my very brief comments here (the new issue of Circus and his paper will eventually be linked here, in Spanish).

The first thing that should be evident is that the 4 years of the Macri administration, that were supposed to restore economic growth, something that had faltered since 2011, essentially as a result of an external constraint, were a failure. Using IMF data, the average GDP growth in the period was -0.2 percent. Yep, negative. Amico uses a local activity index and the results are visibly not very different (his numbers give an overall decline of 1.7 percent for the whole period).

Macri's administration also lifted capital controls, paid the Vulture Funds more than US$ 9 billion, and open the doors to additional foreign borrowing. The Macri government had put all of their bets on the notion that growth would come from private investment and exports, rather than the combination of government spending and higher wages, which allows for higher consumption. Below you can see how well that worked out for them.

As it should be clear only exports grew (Amico calls, aptly, the Macri period an export-led stagnation one), and not as a result of the real devaluation, since they grew at about 2 percent per year, more or less in tandem with the growth of global GDP. So much for the notion that devaluation provides space for policy, and higher growth. The collapse of government consumption, and the fall in real wages were crucial to explain the poor performance. Investment followed the accelerator and collapses with the fall in GDP.

The real depreciation of the exchange rate, as is well-know, affects negatively the real wages, that fell approximately 30 percent during his government, and as I had noted back in 2015, that was the real objective of his government. In that sense, one can say that his government did achieve its main goal. The participation of wages in total income fell 8 percent, as shown below.
The worst mistake was the increase in foreign debt in foreign currency, of course, the currency crisis and the return of the IMF, which I've already discussed (here and here) so I'll not delve again into this.

The Fernández administration, and the new Finance Minister, Martín Guzmán, are doing what was expected, and what seems reasonable under the current circumstances. The increased the retentions, taxes on exports, mostly of the agribusiness sector, started to tax assets held abroad, and eliminated taxes on assets held domestically in pesos, which are measures to try to increase the reserves in dollars. This will certainly complemented with measures to alleviate hunger, and poverty, including the pensions of the elderly poor. They are most likely in negotiations with the IMF to avoid a default, and that is crucial for the success of the economic program.

As Fernández said, his administration inherited the chaos. But there are reasons for hope in the dark.

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