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Argentina: The boom before the bust

Argentina: The boom before the bust

Many of the news reports on Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner’s landslide reelection victory this past weekend contained a healthy dose of skepticism on the sustainability of her populist economic model. The skepticism is well-founded. We’ve all seen this movie before, and know exactly how it ends.

Heavy state intervention in the economy, massive subsidies, and the redistribution of income — the hallmarks of economic populism — have a way of playing themselves out, proving time and time again that lasting prosperity can never be built on acquiring unlimited debt or just printing more money.

As UCLA economist Sebastian Edwards, a Chilean, writes in his brilliant takedown of Latin American populism, Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism, all populist experiments begin with great euphoria and surges in economic growth, but invariably lead to rapid inflation, higher unemployment, and lower wages — and soon thereafter, stagnation and crisis.

There is no question that right now times are good in Argentina. Since the country hit rock bottom in 2002, when it defaulted on $100 billion in debt, the largest sovereign debt default in history, the country has undergone a seemingly remarkable turnaround under the stewardship of the late Nestor Kirchner and now his widow, Cristina. The economy is expected to grow by 8 percent this year and unemployment is at a 20-year low.

But the problem is that Argentina’s economic success has been built not on strong fundamentals, but on a tenuous foundation of heavy government spending, high commodity prices, and strong demand from China and Brazil for soy and other agricultural products. And what goes up in economics can always come down.

Other troubling signs are double-digit inflation, which private economists put at 25 to 30 percent; capital flight ($9.8 billion was pulled out of the economy in the first half of this year, compared with $11.4 billion in all of 2010); and plummeting foreign investment (down 30 percent in the first half of 2011).

The other elephant in the living room is the fact that Argentina has been shut out of credit markets since it left bondholders holding the bag in billions of dollars of unpaid debt from its 2002 default. Not only has there been no reconciliation, but the Kirchner government has gone out of its way to reject lawsuits and other claims from creditors. As a result, the Obama administration and multilateral lenders have refused further loans until Argentina begins to repay what it owes investors and settle with holders of defaulted debt, as well as adhere to its obligations with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

Yet despite warnings by economists that the government’s profligate spending, coupled with a global economic slump, could spell disaster, the Kirchner administration soldiers on. Indeed, why wouldn’t it see her overwhelming reelection victory as anything but a mandate to continue its unorthodox ways? "After a lifetime of pushing those ideas," she said after her victory, "We now see that they were not a mistake and that we are on the right path."

On the other side, former President Eduardo Duhalde, who unsuccessfully challenged Kirchner, said, "We’re happily dancing on the Titanic."

Given the prevailing capital flight and declining investment in Argentina, the smart money is obviously on Duhalde. Fortunately, those players are in a position to avoid the risk; what’s unfortunate are the millions of poor and middle-class Argentineans who will once again pay the price for Argentina’s populist folly when the inevitable day of reckoning returns.