From Poster Child to Basket Case

Courtesy Reuters


Several years ago, during the heyday of Argentina's market restructuring, a prominent local economist was interviewed about the country's long-term prospects. Despite a backdrop of rapidly expanding output and low inflation, he was surprisingly pessimistic. "Argentina has always been a country with mediocre growth, believing that spectacular growth and riches are right around the corner," he warned. "And when a good year comes, Argentines say, 'Ah, here comes the life we've been waiting for and so deserve.' "

The good life seems to have eluded Argentina once again. Unable to shake a deep recession triggered by Brazil's currency devaluation in January 1999, a country that once enjoyed emerging-market status is looking more like the same old underachiever. Three years of recession have led to an unemployment rate of nearly 17 percent, adding misery to a labor force already hard hit by deep economic adjustment in the early 1990s and rising joblessness after Mexico's 1994-95 currency crisis.

Despite bailouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- comprising a $40 billion package in December 2000 and an $8 billion package last August -- acute financial stress is the order of the day. An external debt of nearly $130 billion is looming, and the central bank's cash and gold reserves have fallen by 25 percent since June 2001. Although the worst of the crisis hit in July, when government-bond yields tripled, bond-rating services are still predicting a 30 percent chance of default. The resulting liquidity crisis has slammed the door on Argentines trying to secure new loans and prompted a new wave of desperation among pension-fund managers and investors with deposits in the country's banks.

Meanwhile, the political situation is chaotic. President Fernando de la Rœa has switched economics ministers and policy directives to little effect. Voters are increasingly angry over rising inequality, falling job prospects, and failed adjustments. Adding spice to the mix are tales of spectacular corruption. Most dramatic has been the case of former President Carlos Menem, now under house arrest for his role in

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