Academic journal article Global Governance

Pathways through Financial Crisis: Argentina

Academic journal article Global Governance

Pathways through Financial Crisis: Argentina

Article excerpt

By the end of 2001, Argentina faced economic recession, a collapse in its banking system, and an external sovereign debt crisis. While preemptive action earlier in the year might have made one or more of these crises less severe, preemption was a political orphan at home and abroad. The country's long-standing relationship with the International Monetary Fund brought with it a mutual dependence: the IMF had come to embrace Argentina as a symbol of the success of its policy advice, and Argentina had come to rely on the IMF's endorsement and occasional financial support to navigate the choppy international markets. That relationship deepened along with Argentina's growing difficulties in the run-up to default. IMF support was used to put off a correction of the overvalued currency and to postpone a major debt restructuring. A new Argentine policy regime--and a new, more adversarial relationship with the IMF--emerged only after devaluation and default. KEYWORDS: Argentina, financial crises, banking crises, debt restructuring, International Monetary Fund.

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Argentina's relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been remarkably long-standing and intense. For fourteen of the twenty years preceding Argentina's crisis in 2000, its economic policy operated within an IMF program. Even after the initial success of its currency board arrangement and debt restructuring in the early 1990s, Argentina relied on the IMF's endorsement and occasional financing to navigate choppy international markets. As the IMF came under criticism for its handling of Asia's financial crisis, it set aside early doubts about Argentina's currency board arrangement and embraced the country as a symbol of the success of IMF policy advice. When external shocks left the Argentine peso overvalued at the end of the 1990s, neither Argentina's political system nor its relationship with the IMF could adjust successfully to a financial crisis that proved far deeper than either Argentina's elite or the IMF had recognized.

Between 1999 and 2001, Argentina's economic slump transformed into a deep financial crisis. Two theories for Argentina's malaise dominated the policy debate. One held that Argentina was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Another held that the crisis was mostly fiscal. Both theories were too simplistic. They ignored the central importance of an overvalued currency and the heavy use of the dollar in domestic financial contracts. They also failed to recognize the extent to which the "convertibility" system (Argentina's currency board arrangement) had become an organizing device for Argentina's politics--not just an anchor for monetary policy--and how access to external financing had provided the critical glue that held together the political economy of "convertibility." (1) Argentina's political system was unwilling to act preemptively to reduce the scale of what in many ways was an unavoidable crisis. At no time was there a political consensus to incur the costs of exiting convertibility immediately to avoid a bigger, deeper, and more costly exit later. Neither was there a consensus to shrink Argentina's economy and drive down wages and prices to abide by the constraints of a currency board, particularly once those constraints started to bite in the face of reduced capital inflows. Argentina's leaders preferred to hope that its difficulties were temporary: they drew on IMF financing, spent reserves, and then resorted to increasingly desperate attempts at financial engineering to postpone a payments crisis.

Default and devaluation did not immediately bring political consensus on how to allocate financial pain. A desire to avoid probable losses transformed into an inability to allocate losses already incurred and demands for compensation from all sides. All the major players initially hoped that someone else would get stuck with the bill. The denouement of Argentina's crisis turned out to be as protracted as its buildup. …

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