UPDATE 7-Argentina surprises markets by relaxing currency controls

Fri Jan 24, 2014 3:01pm EST

By Hugh Bronstein and Alejandro Lifschitz
    BUENOS AIRES, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Argentina said on Friday it
would relax currency controls it had long defended as essential,
a policy reversal forced by high inflation and a sharp fall in
the country's currency.
    The peso currency's official rate has fallen 20 percent
against the dollar so far this month, pressuring inflation even
higher as confidence falls in Latin America's No. 3 economy.
    The surprise policy shift was announced at the end of a week
in which central bank reserves had fallen to under $30 billion,
a level suggesting the bank's interventions in support of the
anemic peso had become unsustainable.
    A day after the peso had its hardest drop in more than 12
years, Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich said Argentina would
reduce the tax rate on dollar purchases to 20 percent from the
current 35 percent and allow the purchase of dollars for savings
accounts, measures that would go into effect on Monday.
    He said the move "reflects the government's belief that in
the context of a floating exchange rate, the price of the
currency, i.e. the dollar, has reached an acceptable level."
    Analysts said the government was forced to abandon one of
its signature policies due to its inflationary consequences as 
consumer prices are expected to rise by 30 percent in 2014.
 
    The currency controls had largely backfired by fueling a
scramble for dollars on the black market, which in turn
contributed to one of the highest inflation rates in the world.
    The spike in inflation has revived memories of the country's
2002 financial crisis that threw millions of middle class
Argentines into poverty.
    Auto dealers have stopped selling new cars because inflation
expectations are so volatile that prices are difficult to set.
The price of household appliances shot 20 percent higher between
Thursday night and Friday morning after the peso's Wednesday and
Thursday plunge.
    Stores were nonetheless full of buyers eager to lock in
prices before they rose still further.
    Latin American currencies slumped Friday in part due to 
worries over a looming foreign exchange crisis in Argentina.
 
    Wall Street welcomed Argentina's announcement of loosened
foreign currency controls, but analysts said more needs to be
done to combat Argentina's key problem of inflation.
    "If they do not complement this week's decisions with
further announcements that anchor inflation and devaluation
expectations, we should expect more inflation and foreign
exchange volatility," said Ignacio Labaqui, who analyses
Argentina for New York-based Medley Global Advisors. 
   "The announcement of a coherent strategy to tame inflation is
still missing," he added.  
    On Thursday, the peso interbank exchange rate 
fell 11 percent to 8 to the dollar, its biggest one-day
percentage fall in 12 years. On Friday it closed virtually
unchanged after erasing a drop of 1.23 percent early in the
session.
    Argentina's black market peso fell 7.25 percent on
Thursday to close at 13.1 per dollar. On Friday it roared back
11.97 percent to close at 11.7 per greenback.
       
 
       
    GRAINS TRADE PARALYZED
    Argentina's key grains sector has held back exports as
farmers hoard their crops rather than expose themselves to the
swooning local currency. This contributed to the scarcity of
dollars that has debilitated the peso. 
    The country is the world's top exporter of soymeal and
soyoil as well as its third biggest soybean and corn supplier.
    The currency controls were imposed more than two years ago
to curb capital flight as confidence in the economy fell
following years of heavy stimulus spending.   
    The peso's long slide has aggravated inflation, which ran
about 25 percent in 2013, according to analysts' estimates
although discredited official data clocks inflation at less than
half that.
    "The key to a more fundamental improvement in
competitiveness lies in bringing down the inflation rate,"
Capital Economics said. "This would require a significant
tightening of fiscal and monetary policies, including cutting a
reliance on money-printing by the central bank to finance
government spending."
    "But as things stand," it added, "measures that would
support a longer-lasting improvement in Argentina's competitive
position do not seem to be on the table."    
    The policies announced by the government should help
Argentina's finances by halting the drain on central bank
reserves, said Walter Molano, emerging markets analyst at
U.S.-based BCP Securities. 
    "This is a measure that should have been done a year ago,"
he said, adding that more reforms were needed to tame inflation
and open the country to the foreign investment it needs to
exploit its promising shale oil and gas resources.
    Central bank foreign reserves were at $29.3 billion at the
end of business on Thursday, having tumbled more than 30 percent
last year.
    This week's decline in reserves to below $30 billion helped
prompt the decision to relax currency controls, a policy switch
"that has the hallmarks of being an ad hoc decision that
reflects the government's tendency towards policy
improvisation," according to a note from Teneo Intelligence.
       
    A CRISIS-PRONE ECONOMY
    Every time President Cristina Fernandez has tightened
capital controls to shore up the country's wobbly balance of
payments, it increased the scramble for dollars. This
contributed to inflation and the fall in the value of the black
market peso.
    The controls meant that the black market was the only way
for average Argentines to get their hands on dollars amid high
inflation.
    If Argentina reports 30 percent inflation this year, as
private-sector economists expect, it would be the highest rate
since the 2002 crisis, which was punctuated by a mammoth
sovereign bond default and 41 percent inflation.
    Argentina has relatively little internationally traded debt,
having been locked out of the capital markets since the default.
    Inflation is a growing worry among Argentines. There have
been no mass protests over the problem in recent months but
tensions could rise as labor unions demand pay hikes in line
with private economists' 2014 inflation estimates.
    Fernandez has mentioned neither inflation nor the peso's
plight in recent speeches, leaving her cabinet to announce
policy changes.
    The next presidential election will be held next year with
Fernandez unable to seek a third term and the main early
candidates offering more market-friendly policies.
FILED UNDER:
A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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