Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Argentina on the brink

Capital continues to flow out of Argentina as the nation tries to defend the depreciating peso. Collapsing investor confidence is reducing deposits at banks as corporations and individuals convert cash into dollars. With interest rates now at 19% (to stem the peso decline), the potential for growth that Argentina's neighbors are experiencing is minimal. Being shut out of capital markets, Argentina has been working on restructuring it's debt again, (2005 was the last restructuring) with the goal to extend looming maturities. From Bloomberg:
Argentina will offer to swap $2.3 billion of short-term debt linked to inflation for bonds due in 2014 as it seeks to extend maturities after commodity export slumped revenue, Economy Minister Amado Boudou said.

“With this measure we are taking another step for Argentina to return to financial markets,” Boudou said during a news conference at the Economy Ministry. “The swap also aims to strengthen Argentina’s financial position next year with respect to the burden of the debt on the public accounts.”

The chart below shows the movements in currency values for Argentina's peso compared to some of it's neighboring nations' currencies.

Many believe that a key cause of such divergence between Argentina and other emerging nations has to do with it's government's policies. In particular people point to the nationalisation of the nation's pension fund in 2008. From Reuters:

Argentina's surprise plan to nationalize its private pension system caused chaos in local markets and spread gloom to other emerging markets on Wednesday as investors read it as a desperate government move to stave off default.

Argentina's government wanted to tap into the pension fund to obtain financing for it's own needs, so it decided to nationalize the fund. This action bought them some time, but created a larger problem down the road. From Dow Jones/Fitch:

"Argentina continues to stand apart due to the government's highly questionable response to the crisis, which, instead of injecting liquidity into the system, has reduced local capital markets' depth by nationalizing private pension funds in late 2008...

The disappearance of a major group of institutional investors is expected to reduce the depth of the local capital market, eliminating an important source of long-term financing for Argentine corporates..."

The nationalization of some $26 billion in assets, or 9.3% of gross domestic product, has "caused major concern within the international investment community," Fitch said.

What makes this situation so dire is that the corporate sector is now completely dependent on government funding. Argentina's private banks are too weak to provide support to corporations, with lending during this year coming entirely from state owned banks. But more importantly, the government now controls the pension fund's investment process, and when push comes to shove, the politicians will force the pension to buy government paper instead of corporate bonds.

Hat tip Ed!

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