Lies, damned lies, and statistics: Argentina data chief pushes reform

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s new statistics chief battled outdated surveys, disgruntled employees, and even cancer as he raced to revamp the country’s notoriously unreliable inflation figures.

Jorge Todesca, Director of INDEC, the government's official statistics agency, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 22, 2016. Picture taken June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

His efforts led to the publication last week of what many analysts called Argentina’s first reliable consumer price report in nearly a decade, but Indec Director Jorge Todesca said his team still has a long road ahead to fully restore credibility.

Todesca, 69, was put in charge of revamping Indec in December when center-right President Mauricio Macri took over from Cristina Fernandez, who was widely accused of condoning unrealistically low inflation data during her eight-year rule.

“The team is consolidating, the government is supporting me and the reaction of society has been positive... but we’re not at a perfect 10 for sure,” Todesca said in an interview.

Indec employees are now working around the clock to develop growth and poverty data and convince the International Monetary Fund that the country’s data is reliable again.

The statistics overhaul was seen as a crucial first step in Macri’s efforts to open Argentina to investment, restore growth, and lower one of the world’s highest inflation rates after a long period of isolation from capital markets.

A few critics have said Todesca moved too fast to publish inflation data, though he disagreed.

“In a country where for years public data was simply drawn up, the anxiety to restore this service is very large,” Todesca said in his office in downtown Buenos Aires.

The revamp led Todesca to fire 30 out of 40 section directors in Indec in his first two months, a period he described as “a lot of friction.” At the same time, Todesca was undergoing treatment for lymphoma, and he said his dedication to reforming Indec helped him recover.

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Unions, loyal to the old government and resistant to changes at the agency, still have a large presence among Indec’s 1,500 employees, adding to the tension. “We will not tolerate any acts of violence and will challenge any efforts to disrupt daily work,” Todesca said.

Ideally, Todesca said, Indec would have developed completely new surveys to calculate inflation, but to save time opted to adapt spending surveys from 2004/05. Todesca said the ones used by the previous government were unreliable and a new survey will be ready to use in 2018.


May inflation for Buenos Aires and surrounding areas was 4.2 percent, above market expectations. Todesca’s team will unveil new economic growth data on June 29.

But he says the “statistics emergency” Macri declared in Argentina upon taking office will only end when his team produces poverty data, likely in September.

“You cannot say no one knew what inflation was in Argentina, we knew,” said Todesca, who Fernandez’s government tried to fine for publishing his own inflation data when he was a private sector economist. “What we do not know is the range of poverty.”

Todesca has been meeting this week with visitors from the International Monetary Fund, which censured Argentina for reporting unreliable data in 2013. He has been in constant contact with the IMF and hopes that status could be reversed early next year.

Next, Indec will work to re-establish a national inflation measure, starting with food and beverages. Todesca opted to publish inflation only from Buenos Aires and surrounding areas for May to save time, a decision that also drew some criticism.

While Todesca said his team calculated inflation for January through April while they were refining methodology, he said those numbers were not likely to be made public.

“We have to complete the statistical calendar for the rest of the year, and that is what we are gong to do,” he said.

Additional reporting by Jorge Otoala and Walter Bianchi; Editing by David Gregorio