July 10, 2014


Sunday, December 29, 2013

WEEK 1 TO WEEK 9 - The agreement with Iran is an unexpected news splash in a generally quiet summer

The return of the frigate Libertad from credtior clutches in Ghana — billed as an epic milestone at the time, who remembers it today?
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor / Economic Outlook

The headline of this traditional annual round-up seems more appropriate than usual in the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking British television programme That Was The Week That Was and in the year of the death of its creator, David Frost. Anyway, without further ado, here goes.

WEEK 1 — City Hall under Mayor Mauricio Macri takes over the Subte underground on the first day of its centennial year, promptly closing “A” line for overhaul. On the third day of 2013, the usual ritual over the 180th anniversary of British control of the Malvinas but surely Vaca Muerta shale is the real oil story, not South Atlantic offshore. Talk of lifting the January court holiday and taxing judges (while Mothers of Plaza de Mayo leader Hebe de Bonafini threatens to storm the Supreme Court) seems to presage an advance against the judiciary but nothing happens yet. Justice Minister Julio Alak holds a tasteless barbecue at the former ESMA Navy Mechanics School (and concentration camp). Macri and Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli (both potential 2015 presidential rivals, both in the process of hiking taxes and both facing labour problems) meet over waste disposal. Economically, the year starts with optimism spurred by soy and Brazil but nominal growth (i.e. inflation) no longer guarantees real — the parallel dollars fetches seven pesos.

W2 — In mid-week just before starting on an Asian swing (aboard a chartered Chapman Freeborn and via Cuba to visit a dying Hugo Chávez), President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner welcomes home the naval training frigate Libertad after almost 10 weeks impounded in Ghana at the behest of Argentina’s creditors. Not quite the transformational milestone previously billed — partly because CFK prefers a partisan audience to a wider nationalistic public for safety’s sake. Nor does she want to overdo the economic nationalism and undermine the creditor doves in New York (the Gramercy Fund etc.) arguing that an Argentine courtroom defeat would complicate debt restructuring in Europe and elsewhere. Her speech includes the “i-word” (inflation), if only to rap Macri’s ABL property rate increases. Previously presidential tweets rap the judiciary, actor Ricardo Darín and Scioli (over his dollar account for treating his orthopedic arm). Meanwhile a nationalized YPF shows a taste for market over populist pricing.

W3 — Scant political news during Vice-President Amado Boudou’s first 2013 stint as acting president with CFK in Asia. Important economic perception gaps — the parallel exchange rates moves over 50 percent above the official and INDEC statistics bureau gives 2012 inflation as 10.8 percent as against 25.6 percent from independent sources. Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) president José Ignacio de Mendiguren fears a “Rodrigazo” (the 1975 inflationary explosion) but the government still sees inflation as a win-win situation — more consumer spending and more revenue. The currency curbs cripple the housing market while their success against capital flight simply means more pesos here to feed inflation. Regional economies are clearly hurting, laying the ground for anti-government voting outside the major urban districts later in the year. The government announces 6,900 new kilometres of railway track — a ploy against teamster Hugo Moyano (with road transport accounting for over 80 percent of freight), now a government foe? The collective bargaining season kicks off — Labour Minister Carlos Tomada proposes a 20 percent guideline for wage increases, pro-government trade union groupings seek a 25 percent increase and anti-government 48-50 percent while bank clerks settle for 24 percent. Macri proposes a 3.50-peso subway token.

W4 — The government seeks to bypass Scioli by directly funding mayors (a strategy which eventually backfires with Tigre’s Sergio Massa), a new slush fund to create dependence at a further level and undercut all governors. CFK is a long time coming home from Asia — the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and the potential food markets of Indonesia and Vietnam (South-East Asia with 7.6 percent of world Foreign Direct Investment is catching up on China with 8.1 percent). But her pitch to these countries is more the Non-Aligned Movement (born in Indonesia’s Bandung in 1955) than today’s globalization with scant bilateral feel and spending too much time responding to the press back home. On her return at the end of the week she calls for a consumer boycott of high prices — trade unionists are already complaining about the income tax trap of a low threshold. A third CFK term is refloated by Victory Front deputy Héctor Re(re?)calde. The mothballed (and cannibalized?) destroyer Santísima Trinidad sinks at its moorings near Bahía Blanca. A 12-billion-dollar trade surplus is posted for 2012 but also a 1.2 percent manufacturing decline (down from 18 to 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product since 2003 despite pro-industrial and protectionist policies).

W5 — Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman is the star of the week — signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran in Addis Ababa while shunning Kelpers on a London trip. The Iran agreement proposes a “truth commission” to grill in Tehran several high-ranking Iranian officials who are suspects from the 1994 AMIA Jewish community centre terrorist attack — more farce than Farsi. The benefits for an isolated Iran are clear but what’s in it for Argentina — to please a dying Chávez? Some see Iranian oil amid rising fuel imports as the motive but is it really needed with all the Vaca Muerta hype? And whither the Jewish vote in the upcoming elections? What a start for Argentina in its first month on the United Nations Security Council! The big foreign policy story should have been the European Union-ECLAC summit in Santiago (grouping 60 countries, 1.1 billion people and 22 trillion dollars) but South America is deadlocked between its open-minded Pacific countries and its closed Atlantic nations — Cuba’s Raúl Castro is also an odd choice to head a supposedly democratic ECLAC. CFK and domestic politics start the week in a starring role when she raises the income tax floor 20 percent in response to trade union pressures while hiking pensions 15 percent. Mónica López, a stalwart of dissident Peronist leader Francisco de Narváez, bolts to Massa — an early sign of the times. Atlantic coast tourism reports a 20 percent fall. Dutch Queen Beatrix announces her abdication, clearing the way for Máxima.

W6 — Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno issues a purely verbal two-month price freeze (the previous month’s consumer boycott appeal already forgotten) and bans supermarket advertising in newspapers as therefore needless while the International Monetary Fund gives Argentina a September deadline to place its statistics in order. The price freeze is seen as a bid to keep collective bargaining within a new 20 percent wage guideline (25 percent is posted as the average increase in 2012) but veteran power workers leader Oscar Lescano complains about runaway inflation. In other news, Timerman promises that the Malvinas will be restored to Argentine hands in 20 years after meeting anti-imperialist intellectuals in London; DAIA Jewish associations umbrella votes against the AMIA “truth commission” pact with Iran; Boudou and Deputy Economy Minister Axel Kicillof are jostled by hostile crowds in different contexts; former Paraguayan strongman Lino Oviedo perishes in an air crash.

W7 — The Iran agreement (defended by Timerman in the Senate) is the week’s big complication, overtaking the South Atlantic as the main diplomatic entanglement with mixed messages from Tehran as to whether questioning of their officials will be accepted. Critics ask why Kirchnerism is breaking with a decade of fearlessly confronting Iran in the UN over the AMIA terrorist atrocity, calling this pact a new Munich and speculating about possible commercial motives but Timerman insists that this is a new approach worth trying. The Schoklender brothers are finally arrested over misallocation of the “Shared Dreams” low-income housing funds. In Rome Benedict XVI decides to give up the Papacy for Lent — a more locally significant news item than realized at the time.

W8 —  The anniversary of the 51-death Once rail tragedy is marked with a big Plaza de Mayo demonstration protesting tripartite corruption (state, business management and trade unions) with calls for railway nationalization. The outcry is too strong for an attempt to block debate in a Senate more interested in passing the MOU with Iran (approved by a 39-31 vote). CFK turns 60 in the same week her mother-in-law dies in her 93rd year. While his teamsters picket supermarkets, Moyano pointedly starts negotiating with Macri’s City Hall Labour Ministry. Teachers block a 22 percent pay increase. Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino blocks further indebtedness for Buenos Aires province, thus prompting Scioli to renew vows of loyalty.

W9 — The Lower House approves the controversial Iran agreement by a 131-113 vote — almost the ultimate proof that CFK has Congress under control. Teacher strikes in most provinces.
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