Improving Economic Prospects in the Land of Silver

Plaza Congreso BA

The Thinker in El Plaza Congreso, adjacent to official government buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. December 9, 2010 (David Berkowitz/Wikimedia Commons)

Argentina was a gold mine of economic opportunity in the early 20th century. Blessed with trade surpluses in commodities, an influx of foreign technological innovation and development, and a growth rate of 6% (the fastest in the world at the time), Argentina attracted hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.

With the exception of commodity exportation, Argentina’s recent economic condition has soured. The last half-century has been marked by economic decline, political instability, and diminishing geopolitical influence. Consider that when President Obama visited the Southern Cone in 2011, he flew from Chile to Brazil deliberately passing over Argentina. While significant capital inflows from China largely insulated Argentina from the global economic crisis, economic and political turmoil persist to this day. Inflation estimates are above 30%, its expropriation of Spanish petroleum giant Repsol have made those in the international business community wary of FDI, and its export and import quotas have proven disastrous to farmers, businessmen, and consumers alike.

If President Kirchner’s successor seeks to guide Argentina towards a path of economic and political stability, he/she must assuage concerns of an impending crisis, and work swiftly to ignite a stagnant economy. Reviving the economy will be easier said than done in a country whose Ease of Doing Business ranking is 127 out of 189, trailing, among others, Nigeria and Pakistan. A more challenging hurdle will be reducing Argentinean dependence on natural resource exports. As tempting as it may be to ride the commodity wave to economic solvency, diversification of the nation’s income will prove imperative to Argentina’s future growth and stability. Developments in added-value manufacturing and the service industries will better isolate Argentina’s economy from fluctuations in global commodity prices. Diversification will also require improvements in education and infrastructure, areas in which Argentina is particularly deficient.

ArgentinayChile1929.TouringclubitalianoMilano

Map of Argentina circa 1929 depicting recent territorial acquisitions (Ufficio cartografico del Touring Club Italiano/Wikimedia Commons)

One thing Argentina is not deficient in is unfounded optimism. An Argentinean economist once lamented that his nation is destined for lackluster development, positing, “Argentina has always been a country with mediocre growth, believing that spectacular growth and riches are right around the corner, and when a good year comes, Argentines say, ‘Ah, here comes the life we’ve been waiting for and so deserve.’” Such misguided expectations must be replaced by shrewdness and sacrifice. Recovering from the current economic turmoil and moving towards a trajectory of sustainable growth will require drastic fiscal and monetary reforms.

Attempts to curtail government spending will likely aggravate an already sluggish growth rate, particularly after several years of costly welfare programs and President Kirchner’s wasteful spending. Also unpopular will be the inevitable currency devaluation once Argentina’s currency exchange is liberalized. Such unpopular policies have been postponed for far too long. Argentina must follow in Chile’s footsteps by increasing economic competitiveness in the global arena. For a country blessed with bountiful resources, its political malfeasance and bureaucracy remains the only thing slowing down what would otherwise be impressive growth. By fostering more competitive industries and implementing basic economic reforms, Argentina may become the gold mine it once was.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Blessed by Resources, Cursed by Politicians

The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, built in 1671 is Argentina's oldest church; Argentina's oldest university is on the same block. (Jacob W. Roberts)

The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, built in 1671 is Argentina’s oldest church; Argentina’s oldest university is on the same block. (Jacob W. Roberts)

President Cristina Kirchner’s health concerns last year are emblematic of the issues that have enshrouded Argentina’s economy and political scene for the past half-century. Over the past few decades Argentina has suffered economic crises, political scandals, and national tragedies. From a failed invasion of the Falkland Islands to the La Guerra Sucia (The Dirty War), in which the Argentinian military killed thousands of its own citizens and kidnapped thousands more infant children, the land of silver has had its share of national embarrassments. More recently in 2001, an attempt to peg the Argentinian peso to the US dollar resulted in default, runs on banks, and an enduring distrust in their financial system.

This distrust continues to manifest itself today. So much as stroll down Florida Street in Buenos Aires and shout, ‘Yo tengo dólares’ and you will be attacked by swarms of porteños (people of Buenos Aires) desperate to buy American currency for many pesos above the government-regulated exchange rate. Even a decade after the economic crash, there remains tremendous distrust in banks. Many Argentinians choose to stash loose cash under their mattresses rather than confront the risk of entrusting it in a financial institution.

Cristina’s leadership has hardly put her citizens’ fears to rest. Over a year ago, she expropriated YPF, a Spanish-owned oil company that her husband sold the rights to decades earlier while governor of Santa Fe. Curiously enough, the money from this deal has never resurfaced. As if encroaching on international law isn’t enough, Cristina has sought to alter the constitution to eliminate the term limits that prohibit her from seeking re-election. While she did not hesitate to dole out welfare benefits to the poor prior during the 2011 election, she was quick to scrap these pay outs following her successful re-election.

In spite of the billions of dollars in agricultural products and commodities being exported to China and other nations in recent years, little of this money has led to domestic development. Driving from San Isidro into the capital, one will pass by thousands of impoverished Argentinians squatting in sevillas, shack-like dwellings constructed out of discarded metal, wood, and concrete. Critics of Cristina are quick to point out that when Cristina entered office there were only one-story shacks in this shantytown, but now it is hard to find a single shack under three-stories high.

These failures as both a nation and as an economy are difficult for many Argentinians to face. Their sense of national pride is nothing to scoff at. In the 1980’s there was a common saying in Europe that one should buy an Argentinian for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth. Even a century after Argentina’s position as the hegemon of the Americas was usurped, many still feel as though their nation is destined to regain its past glory. What few Argentinians will deny is that their country is a land blessed by resources and cursed by politicians. From Peron to Cristina, there have been many crises of leadership. Only time will tell if Cristina’s inevitable downfall will lead to a century of progress and internal development or continued stagnation and corruption. Until then it would be unwise to make any large deposits into El Banco de La Nación.