The big story last week was the rapid devaluation of the official Argentine Peso (abbreviated, perfectly enough, ARS) exchange rate, which tumbled by 17% overnight from USDARS 6.8 to over 8.0, when the government decided to liberalize the exchange regime and "ease" capital controls, allowing citizens to purchase dollars in hopes of stabilizing the currency and halting the ongoing outflow of reserves. Other downstream effects aside - and there will be many - the most immediate outcome for the economy will be a surge in inflation, which is already overheating at 25% in 2013 based on analyst estimates even if the "official number" is half of this, and set to get even higher.
Here is how Reuters summarized the soaring price expectations in the country under its first day with "relaxed" controls:
Argentina's sudden relaxation of currency controls, long touted by the government as essential to the country's financial health, has left investors wondering what's next for Latin America's crisis-prone No. 3 economy. Shopkeepers around the country hurriedly placed new price tags over the weekend on imported items from Cuban cigars to Asia-made televisions, reflecting a more than 20 percent drop in the official peso rate over recent days.
The consumer price surge came after the government said on Friday it would lift a two-year-old ban on Argentines buying foreign currency, allowing savers access to coveted U.S. dollars while the peso was left to plummet. Friday's relaxation of controls came as central bank reserves fell beneath $30 billion, a level suggesting its interventions in support of the anemic peso had become unsustainable.
But allowing average wage-earners to access U.S. dollars was sure to pressure reserves as well, because the central bank is the main source of foreign exchange. The announcement on Friday ended a two-year ban on saving in the greenback.
So far inflation has been in check, mostly thanks to a price freeze imposed this month on staple foods which has kept a lid on basic supermarket items. Reuters says that "no one knows how long those prices can hold while labor unions prepare wage demands based on one of the world's highest inflation rates." For now, they are holding. They won't for long, and if Argentina reports 30 percent inflation this year, as private analysts expect, it would mark the fastest rate since the 2002 crisis, when inflation reached 41 percent.
However, one thing is certain: dollar demand by the general population is sure to flood the central banks, and force reserve depletion, which have been declining at a pace of over $100MM per day and were last at $29.1 billion, at the central bank to really pick up pace. To wit:
Conditioned by previous crises to save in dollars, Argentines are obsessed with the greenback. The currency control regime ending on Monday forced people to go to the black market for dollars needed to protect them from the weak peso and fast-rising consumer prices.
Luckily for the central bank, as Bloomberg calculates, at most 20% of the population will actually be able to take advantage of the "relaxed" capital controls, because only Argentines who earn at least 7,200 pesos ($901) per month will be allowed to buy dollars, Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich told reporters today. And since only 20% of Argentines earned 7,000 pesos or more as of 3Q 2013, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute, it means that 80% of the population will get all the "benefits" of inflation with zero benefits from dollar purchase price protection.
And it's not like even the rich will be able to truly benefit: he limit for FX purchases will be $2,000/month and will be taxed at 20% unless deposited with bank for at least a year.
So in other words, Argentina's capital control "fix" was largely a sham, designed to hide the real motive behind last week's announcement - push inflation far higher, perhaps under some persistent external influence, which in turn would lead to even more social instability. This could be a problem.
Consumer prices are a big worry on the street, but the issue has not sparked mass protests lately. Tensions could rise over the weeks ahead as labor demands pay increases in line with private economists' 2014 inflation estimates. Fernandez has mentioned neither consumer prices nor the peso's plight in recent speeches, leaving her cabinet to announce policy changes. The next presidential election is next year, with Fernandez unable to seek a third term.
Possible candidates from the main parties offer policies that lean in a more pro-investment direction that Fernandez's, as the outgoing leader tucks into her last two years in power.
"If the government fails to prevent inflation from accelerating it will probably hurt the chances of presidential aspirants who are aligned with the administration," said Ignacio Labaqui, an analyst with Medley Global Advisors.
"A deeper economic crisis could provide a window of opportunity for candidates who are more business friendly."
Such as technocrats from... Goldman Sachs?