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Argentine Default Chaos Relived as Blackouts Follow Looting

By Charlie Devereux and Camila Russo
January 23, 2014 6:57 PM EST 78 Comments
A member of the Socialist Workers Party, right, fights anarchists who try to burn a fast food restaurant with a Molotov cocktail, during a demonstration in downtown Buenos Aires.
Photographer: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images
A member of the Socialist Workers Party, right, fights anarchists who try to burn a fast food restaurant with a Molotov cocktail, during a demonstration in downtown Buenos Aires.

For Dominga Kanaza, it wasn’t just the soaring inflation or the weeklong blackouts or even the looting that frayed her nerves.

It was all of them combined.

At one point last month, the 37-year-old shop owner refused to open the metal shutters protecting her corner grocery in downtown Buenos Aires more than a few inches -- just enough to sell soda to passersby on a sweltering summer day.

“It was scary,” said Kanaza as she yelled out prices to customers while sipping on mate, Argentina’s caffeine-rich herbal drink. The looting that began in neighboring Cordoba province when police officers left streets unguarded to strike for higher pay had spread to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, sparking panic in Kanaza’s neighborhood. The chaos, she said, was like nothing she had seen since the rioting that followed the South American nation’s record $95 billion default in 2001.

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Thirteen years after that collapse, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is running out of time to avert another crisis. The policy mix that Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, used to usher in 7 percent average annual growth over the past decade -- higher government spending financed by printing money -- is unraveling.

Inflation soared to 28 percent last year, according to opposition lawmaker Patricia Bullrich, who divulges monthly estimates for economists cowed into silence by Fernandez’s crackdown on price reports that clash with official figures. By the government’s count, inflation was less than 11 percent.

Peso Tumble

The peso has plunged 13 percent over the past two days to a record low of 7.8825 per dollar as the central bank scaled back efforts to prop it up. The losses extend the selloff to more than 35 percent over the past year, the worst rout since the devaluation that followed the default. Currencies from only two countries in the world have fallen more: war-torn Syria and Iran.

Power outages like the one that sunk Kanaza’s shop into darkness are becoming more frequent, deepening the economic slump, after the nation’s grid atrophied under a decade of government-set electricity price controls. The International Monetary Fund, which censured Argentina last year for misreporting inflation, predicts economic growth will slow to 2.8 percent this year, about half the 5.1 percent average across developing nations.

Fernandez’s biggest financial problem is the loss of foreign reserves. They’ve tumbled 44 percent in the past three years to $29.5 billion as prices on the country’s soy and wheat exports slumped and Argentines circumvented currency controls created to keep dollars onshore. The government sought to stiffen those restrictions again yesterday, limiting people to two online purchases a year from overseas providers.

Default Concern

For a country that remains locked out of international debt markets as it haggles with billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer over lawsuits stemming from the default, the reserves are its main source of dollars to pay holders of $30 billion of bonds who accepted restructuring terms. When other foreign-currency obligations are included, the amount owed swells to $50 billion.

Investors are bracing for the possibility of another default. The country’s average dollar bond yield of 12.4 percent is the highest among major developing nations after Venezuela. Trading in swap contracts that insure bonds shows investors see a 79 percent probability of a halt in payments over the next five years, a reflection in part of concern that Singer’s demand of full reimbursement on the securities he kept from the 2001 default will disrupt debt servicing.

New Cabinet

“We’re seeing some sort of day of reckoning,” said Diego Ferro, co-chief investment officer in New York at Greylock Capital Management, which has been investing in the country’s debt since the 1990s. “The adjustment will have to happen if Argentina doesn’t want to hit a wall before 2015.”

Fernandez, 60, has overhauled her cabinet and reworked some policies in a bid to stem the capital flight. In her first day back on the job in November following surgery to remove a blood clot near her brain, she replaced the economy minister, cabinet chief, agriculture minister and central bank president. A day later, Guillermo Moreno, the trade secretary who played the strongman enforcing price controls, was gone.

The new cabinet pledged to work with the IMF to improve data, began talks to settle $6.5 billion of overdue debt with Paris Club creditor nations and unveiled plans to compensate Spain’s Repsol SA for the seizure of its local oil unit in 2012. Bonds advanced, driving yields on the country’s benchmark securities to a one-year low of 11.07 percent on Nov. 29.

Patagonia Getaway

Ferro doubts the measures are enough. Bolder steps, such as reaching a deal with Singer to regain access to overseas markets and lifting currency controls, are needed to regain investor confidence, he said. The bond rally began to falter in early December. By mid-month, all the gains had been erased.

An Economy Ministry spokeswoman didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment on the government’s financing plans.

Fernandez is giving no indication of what her next move is. After re-appearing following the five-week absence for surgery, she vanished again, spending much of December holed up in her 5,600-square-foot (520 square meters) brick villa in Patagonia. She went another five weeks out of public view before popping up at the presidential palace last night to unveil a new student aid program.

And that’s perhaps what angers Argentines like Miguel Llanes the most. While the looting spread across the country from Cordoba and the blackouts dragged on day after day in the capital city, Fernandez was nowhere to be seen. Llanes, unable to open his curtain shop in downtown Buenos Aires for over a week, vented by joining protesters who were burning tires and garbage in the streets.

“Where was the president?” he shouts.

And then he raises a question that holders of $50 billion of Argentine bonds are dying to know.

“How long will this last? They’ve spent all the money.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Charlie Devereux in London at cdevereux3@bloomberg.net; Camila Russo in Buenos Aires at crusso15@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Laura Zelenko at lzelenko@bloomberg.net

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