February 11, 2019 / 2:14 PM / 11 days ago

In Argentina, 'Macri economics' plays whack-a-mole with crises

BUENOS AIRES(Reuters) - Argentine President Mauricio Macri is fighting economic fires on all fronts. Rein in inflation and cuts to utility subsidies threaten to rekindle it while also fueling public anger; get a tumbling peso in check by jacking up interest only to find industrial output has hit an almost two-decade low.

FILE PHOTO - Argentina's President Mauricio Macri holds a news conference at the final day of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Stapff

The center-right leader, on some fronts, is enjoying a rare period of calm: the peso has stabilized after losing half its value against the dollar last year, rampant inflation has stabilized.

Look elsewhere, though, and other problems are surfacing. Consumer confidence is at its lowest since a devastating financial crisis in 2001-2002; industrial output slid 15 percent in December and Macri’s popularity has tumbled.

GRAPHIC: Argentina's economic snapshot-peso and interest rates - tmsnrt.rs/2TOJcfW

GRAPHIC: Argentina's economic snapshot: inflation and output - tmsnrt.rs/2TLFrs0

“You can’t do everything at the same time,” said Nicolas Alonzo, Buenos Aires-based economic analyst at financial consultancy Orlando Ferreres & Asociados.

“In the world of economic policies it’s very hard to simultaneously meet multiple targets, which in Argentina’s case would be to bring down the inflation rate and expand economically at the same time.”

Whether "Macri economics" will succeed in stabilizing the $392-billion economy and restoring it to growth will be key for the outcome of elections in October and determine whether Argentina sticks with reforms backed by the International Monetary Fund or returns to leftist policies of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2tfkPMT)

A team for the IMF is expected in Buenos Aires on Monday as part of a third review of Macri’s progress under a $56.3 billion loan agreement with the international lender in which Argentina committed itself to stringent economic targets.

GRAPHIIC: Argentina's subsidy burden - tmsnrt.rs/2THlx1c

While a reduction in government subsidies, including those that have kept utility costs low, is part of that commitment, “tarifazos” - sharp hikes in households’ water, gas and electricity - are a major headache for Macri.

They not only threaten to add fuel to inflation, which has already severely reduced consumers’ spending power, but have also sparked regular street protests, energized political opposition and dented Macri’s popularity.

The president’s approval rate sits at around 41 percent and there is little he can do to shore up his popularity given his economic toolkit is limited by the fiscal and economic targets agreed with IMF, analysts say.

They note, however, that with a fragmented opposition and his predecessor Fernandez de Kirchner under a shadow of corruption charges, Macri may still have a shot at reelection.

GRAPHIC: Macri's government popularity ratings- tmsnrt.rs/2TOJ9AM

GRAPHIC: IMF lending to Argentina - tmsnrt.rs/2TOJkfq

GRAPHIC: Argentina's electricity subsidies - tmsnrt.rs/2TOJh3e

GRAPHIC: Argentina's water and transportation subsidies - tmsnrt.rs/2TG6GEc

Reporting by Maximilian Heath; Additional reporting by Gabriel Burin and Eliana Raszewski; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Tomasz Janowski

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