February 24, 2016 / 4:41 PM / 4 years ago

Argentina trade chief says weaker peso to keep imports flat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Argentina’s imports in 2016 are expected to be about unchanged from last year as a devalued peso offsets the lifting of most import restrictions imposed by the country’s previous leftist government, Buenos Aires’ top trade official said.

Argentina has removed currency controls, eliminated export taxes on a number of key commodities and done away with many import licensing measures since President Mauricio Macri took office in December on a pledge to jumpstart the economy and rekindle foreign investment.

“We expect imports to be at a comparable level with last year because there are countervailing forces,” Commerce Secretary Miguel Braun told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday at Argentina’s embassy in Washington.

“On the one hand, we’ve opened the economy significantly. But on the other hand, the exchange rate is now more competitive.”

Braun said Argentina’s current account deficit is likely to shrink this year due to higher exports and the boost from increased foreign investment into an economy that he said is once again open for business. Argentina could experience “spectacular growth” should neighboring Brazil’s economy recover from a deep recession and prices of commodities rebound, he said.

Braun declined to offer specific forecasts for imports or the current account, but added that he did not expect any balance-of-payments problems for the next year.

Argentina, a top exporter of soy and grains, posted an international trade deficit of $3.035 billion for 2015, the new government’s revamped statistics agency said last week. The figure sharply differed from the surpluses reported by former President Cristina Fernandez’s government through last year. Import licensing restrictions imposed in 2012 to shield local industries prompted shortages of goods ranging from tampons to automotive and electronics parts, while alienating the United States and other trading partners. The World Trade Organization had ruled against the restrictions, ordering Argentina to revise its trade laws, but the changes were not made until Macri’s government took power.

Argentina posted a trade deficit of $740 million ARTBAL=ECI in November and a deficit of $1.1 billion in December, the revised government statistics showed. In dollar terms, exports fell 17 percent last year compared to 2014, while imports fell 8 percent. Braun said a lack of imported components would no longer be a constraint on Argentina’s manufacturing sector, but added that a rebound in global demand was needed for it to grow again.

Argentina should still manage “reasonable” economic growth in 2016 and “strong” growth in 2017 as foreign investors return to the country after years of being scared away by Fernandez’s policies.

Macri’s government has won praise from investors for offering to settle with creditors suing Argentina over defaulted bonds, a festering 14-year legal battle that transformed the country into a pariah on financial markets.

A lawyer for lead holdout creditors Elliott Management and Aurelius Capital Management said on Wednesday a $5 billion agreement to settle the dispute had been reached, though he added that the parties needed more time to complete the deal.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Burin in Buenos Aires and Nate Raymond and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Paul Simao

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