Time, that fickle mistress, is persistently stalking Macri’s administration and is not on his side.
By Bianca Fernet, Argentina:
It’s been almost one year since President Mauricio Macri shocked the world by winning Argentina’s presidential elections, and the country is in a state of flux — hovering in an uncertainty characterized by hope, anxiety, fear and just a few whiffs of the dreaded stench of failure.
Besides displaying a shocking lack of political PR and taking on a few petty wastes of time, this government is doing most things within its power correctly to right the course of a vessel that seemed destined to crash.
Despite these positive steps, one sinister question looms: Has the Macri government managed to avert the looming economic crisis entirely, or is it merely kicking the can down the road? It’s scary, but Argentina is in uncharted territory. Rather than boom, the economy is in a prolonged recession that could be heading for an all too familiar outcome — bust.
Yet this time, the question really isn’t about economic fundamentals. The real variable threatening Macri isn’t economic at all — it is time. Time, that fickle mistress, is persistently stalking Macri’s administration and is not on his side. And Argentines aren’t exactly famous for patience.
Now that Argentina is back on the world stage, there seem to be no shortage of Argentina investment-themed symposiums, conferences, forums, delegations, road shows, panels, seminars, and other names they give to the indistinguishable gatherings of hundreds of white men in suits assembled in windowless spaces to watch powerpoints and exchange business cards over mediocre coffee and stale snacks.
In the past, representing Argentina at these business rituals meant repeating some variation of the tagline, “Argentina: it’s not so bad!” Now the conversation invariably veers first to new opportunity, but then quickly pivots to the question of Argentina — same old risk?
People love to say that “Argentina has a crisis every ten years.” A nice round number, except it is 2016 and the country’s last real crisis was in 2001 (no, the 2009 global downturn doesn’t count). The truth doesn’t follow simple formulas.
To understand the situation, let’s think of economies like dinner plates, spinning atop sticks. Balance is essential.
A poorly balanced plate will wobble dangerously and even crash to the floor from external conditions. Take a look at Argentina’s neighbors. Chile was thought to be as stable as they come, but a sudden drop in world copper prices have caused the country to wobble. Brazil was the next big thing in biofuels, technology, renewables — you name it. But a plunge in oil prices spun out the endemic corruption and tipped that plate right over.
So what do spinning plates and susceptibility to external crises have to do with Argentina?
From a purely economic standpoint, Argentina is just about the most stable, well-balanced, solid plate there ever was. The economy and the geography are large and diverse. Argentina was resilient through the global economic crisis of 2009. Sure, soy is important piece of the pie but even when soy prices took a nosedive in 2014, Argentina’s plate wobbled a bit but kept on spinning. The good news is that despite more than a decade of Kirchnerism, the plate was somehow able to keep spinning.
Macri’s government has acknowledged systemic flaws and is leading the country to come to terms with uncomfortable and unpopular realities, such as that 30 percent of Argentines live in poverty. The administration has acknowledged persistently high inflation and taken painful steps to bring it down. It has dismantled the capital controls that created a de-facto dual currency system (RIP Blue Dollar), settled with the holdout creditors (aka “vulture funds”) and are setting clear rules for doing business.
Perhaps most laudable, the administration has forced the population to acknowledge that energy subsidies for both electricity and gas are unsustainable and has launched a clear plan for prices to rise to meet generation costs. It’s not easy being Energy Minister Aranguren, the public face of these unpopular hikes. The man basically looks like he needs a hug all the time.
Yet that analysis misses a fundamental point of Macri’s challenge: to succeed, he won’t just have to right a plethora of economic distortions and rise above a mire of tragicomic corruption, he must also change a culture.
If Argentina’s economy is a plate, its next crisis won’t be caused by an external shock that throws an overweight area off balance. Argentina’s next crash will be caused by its people, who run from one side of the plate to the other, like an emotionally charged herd. Call it passion, color, soul, whatever you want — but we in Argentina are opinionated, loud, and most importantly impatient.
And without political patience, Macri will fail.
The key test will come next year, when the midterm elections will serve as a de facto referendum on his policies, many of which while are unarguably necessary albeit damningly unpopular.
Macri’s real challenge is not only to convince the world that Argentina can change; rather, he must lead his own people through a painful recession and politically maneuver entrenched powerful interests to restore an attractive labor market and an unsubsidized energy matrix.
There is no doubt he is dedicated, but the question looms as to whether it is possible to convince a country of fiery, passionate Argentinos to endure a recession without throwing a tantrum and inexplicably sprinting off the edge of the plate. By Bianca Fernet.
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