Argentina’s war on US dollars is backfiring on its central bank—to the tune of $9 billion

President Kirchner is taking Argentina on a scary ride.
President Kirchner is taking Argentina on a scary ride.
Image: Reuters
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A few weeks ago, the president of Argentina’s central bank, Mercedes Marcó del Pont, lauded the country’s balanced current account. Defending a war on dollars policy launched by Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, Marcó del Pont said Argentina “doesn’t need more US dollars and won’t need more US dollars.” But that’s rapidly changing.

In an attempt to tamp down capital flight and prevent Argentines from hoarding dollars—both of which deprive the central bank of foreign reserves—Kirchner has, since late 2011, progressively introduced a series of forcible measures known as the “dollar clamp” that restrict Argentines’ ability to buy them. But a problem has surfaced. By limiting access to dollars, the government has made them more desirable, and led to even fewer of them reaching the central bank than before.

Argentina’s international reserves, which its central bank uses to trade with other countries’ central banks and back its liabilities—like, say, its volatile local currency and bank reserves—have fallen by roughly 19% since the onset of the dollar clamp in late 2011, according to the latest data report released by Argentina’s central bank (PDF, Spanish link). And this year has been particularly tough. The central bank lost $2.84 billion in international reserves in the first quarter of 2013, almost as much as in the whole of last year ($3.08 billion).

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And while the dollar clamp is supposed to keep dollars in the country, it appears that Argentines are spending way more abroad than foreigners are spending in Argentina. The country’s first quarter trade surplus shrank by $688 million (Spanish link) compared to the same period last year, led by a 57% increase in fuel imports and decline in wheat exports. And its services deficit, which is largely affected by the health of its tourism industry, ballooned to $1.6 billion, $212 million more than the same period last year.

What’s going on? Basically, a total lack confidence in Argentina’s financial system and, consequently, its local currency, the peso. Argentines are probably holding on to any dollars they earn (from foreign tourists, for instance) instead of letting them get to the central bank; and are using any pesos they can spare to buy dollars and save them up or spend them abroad—despite a black—or “blue”—market exchange rate for dollars that is as much as twice the official exchange rate. Exporters, too, are likely diverting part of their revenues to cashing in on the black market for dollars by feeding them to Argentines at inflated, underground rates.

There are two potential solutions for this, Latin American economist Manuel Hinds told Quartz. “One is to introduce fiscal and monetary discipline—that is, to stop creating pesos and balance the accounts of the government. The other is to devalue the currency, which would encourage people to buy less dollars since buying dollars with pesos would become more expensive.”

But Kirchner isn’t about to reduce government expenditures, which would be painful, Hinds explained. And nor does she want to devalue the peso, “because it would increase the already high inflation.” Hence her attempt to stop Argentines from buying dollars—which is failing spectacularly.