Argentina gets "red card"

Short-sighted and populist policies are sending the Latin American country backwards.

The Buenos Aires skyline Argentina 311 (R) (photo credit: Enrique Marcarian / Reuters)
The Buenos Aires skyline Argentina 311 (R)
(photo credit: Enrique Marcarian / Reuters)
Inflation continues to be a significant challenge to Argentina and its struggling economy.  The International Monetary Fund this week took a hard stand against the country’s leaders by demanding that the government significantly improve its measurement of inflation, growth and other key economic data.  Official reports traditionally understate inflation and other metrics significantly when compared to independent measures.
If Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner fails to comply with these demands, Argentina could face expulsion from the IMF and other key multinational groups, such as the G20.  Interestingly, Czechoslovakia was kicked out of the IMF for similar reasons in 1954.
Experts claim that the Argentinean government manipulates its economic data in order to portray a picture of the country at odds with the reality on the ground.  For example, while Kirchner’s government claimed GDP growth of approximately 9% in 2011, analysts calculated a growth rate of only 6%.  Similarly, an official inflation rate of 10% is far lower than the estimated 25% rate being felt on the streets.
While much of Latin America has progressed significantly in terms of good government over the past decade, Argentina has drifted sideways.  Favoring inconsistent and populist policies, Kirchner’s country has not benefited from recent economic growth as much as its neighbors have.  Unlike Brazil and Chile, which have made a number of hard, but prudent, decisions regarding reform and public finance, Argentina seems set on following the uninspiring example of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.
Despite immense wealth from natural resources, Venezuela has been unable to make sustained progress economically due to Chavez’s idiosyncratic approach to governing.  Kirchner seems to be following the Chavez playbook more and more closely.  Earlier this year, for example, her government took the dramatic step of nationalizing the country’s largest energy company, YPF.  Like other Latin American authoritarians, Kirchner enjoys positioning herself as the anti-imperialist champion of her people.
Argentina’s relationship with the IMF has been strained in recent years.  Many Argentines still hold the IMF responsible for the country’s current economic misfortunes and the difficulties the country has faced since it defaulted on its debts over a decade ago, in 2001.
Using the terminology of soccer, the high-profile international sport at which Argentina has historically excelled, IMF boss Christine Lagarde gave Argentina a “yellow card” in September for failing to produce reliable statistics, and threatened a “red card” if the economic data was not provided by this month.
IMF staff have offered to assist Argentina where needed, in order to ensure that the country remains in good standing internationally, but Kirchner and her supporters still blame the IMF for their underlying economic troubles, viewing these recent efforts to enforce fiscal accuracy and transparency as the functional equivalent of international blackmail.
It is difficult, however, to see how isolating the country internationally will improve prospects for Argentines and their families in the months and years to come.  Argentinean businesses, as well as the savers and investors within the country, continue to suffer greatly from Kirchner’s ambivalence to the effects of her short-sighted, populist policies.  Protests against the government have even broke out in the capital, Buenos Aires, in response to the relentless price hikes.
Ignoring the global markets is simply not an option for Argentina in the 21st century.  The country owes billions of dollars in debt to international borrowers, and a handful of hedge funds are still pushing a judge in New York to order the Argentinean government to fully repay the defaulted bonds that they hold.
Simply sticking their heads in the sand is not an effective strategy for Kirchner and her government.  Difficult decisions, requiring leadership and commitment, are required, not hollow words of jingoism and nationalism.
Argentina clearly possesses many of the ingredients necessary to build a bright and prosperous future for its citizens.  Other Latin American countries have made the transition away from mismanagement and demagoguery and towards stable governments and long-term economic policies.  Instead of making the hard choices, though, Kirchner’s government instead prefers to heap blame on the IMF and argue that Argentinean problems are best solved locally without the nuisance of foreign oversight and accountability.
In a “football mad” country such as Argentina, a helpful sporting analogy is usually always close to hand.  The best player in the world today, and perhaps the best player who may ever kick a ball competitively, is the Argentine Lionel Messi.  Messi is reportedly negotiating a contract extension with his club, FC Barcelona, that would make him the highest paid player in the world.
Importantly, while still a boy, Messi left his home country to go to Spain, join the Barcelona academy and prove his skills and worth on an international stage.  In doing so, the 25 year old has demonstrated very rapidly just how good he really is.  Early doubters quickly withdrew their caveats and qualifications.  When challenged on the pitch, Messi has risen to the occasion again and again.
Kirchner could learn from her country’s young football icon.  Instead of retreating from the bright lights of international scrutiny, her government and her country must be willing to operate in an open and transparent way.  Argentina can and should be accountable to the rest of the world for both its strengths and weaknesses.
Real talent can only fully develop through real competition.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.