Default deja vu belies fear that Argentina's options are shrinking

Below the often tranquil surface in Buenos Aires, cracks are beginning to appear

People listen as Axel Kicillof, economy minister for Argentina, not pictured, speaks about the country’s missed bond payment.   Photograph: Diego Levy/Bloomberg

People listen as Axel Kicillof, economy minister for Argentina, not pictured, speaks about the country’s missed bond payment. Photograph: Diego Levy/Bloomberg


For most Argentines the really shocking news this week was the sudden death of Julio Grondona, the 82-year-old boss of the Argentine FA, who died on the same day that the country defaulted on its debts.

In charge of the national game since 1979 he seemed an eternal presence to many of his fellow countrymen. A consummate politician who expertly navigated the South American country’s treacherous politics, “Don Julio” was loathed by many for his corruption and Machiavellian scheming that saw him rise to become the number two at Fifa while overseeing a long decline in the domestic game.

But such was the longevity of his 35-year reign his passing felt momentous.

In contrast the simultaneous coverage of Wednesday’s default seemed almost routine, perhaps not surprising as the country has been here before. This was Argentina’s eighth default since independence from Spain in 1810, the second since the millennium.

For a country as used as Argentina is to not paying its debts this week’s crisis will have seemed reassuringly underwhelming. After all, what markets witnessed on Wednesday was a default within a default.

When a country fails to meet its financial obligations the first thing that normally happens is it finds itself denied access to global capital markets, typically a brutal shock to the system. But Argentina has been shut out from these anyway since 2001.

Back then default was the culmination of a wild month that saw the country’s financial system implode, supermarkets looted, dozens of protesters shot dead and a president forced to flee office in a helicopter.

In marked contrast this week the banks in Buenos Aires’s financial district are going about their business normally. None now require the hoarding that used to protect them from saucepan-wielding savers demanding their money back.

The shops are all open and many porteños seem distinctly uninterested in the fight in a New York courtroom between their government and a group of US creditors.

“I couldn’t care less about this default. What does this one matter after the last one?” asks Nilda Caseres as she makes her way to work. “The last time it was hell but this time we just have our daily struggles to get on with and they are hard enough. It all seems to be a dispute between the government and the vultures and if it stays that way and does not affect us then that is enough.”

President Cristina Kirchner denies that the country has defaulted again. She correctly points out that it deposited the funds to meet an interest payment due on Wednesday.

The problem is her government is only willing to service the bonds of those who participated in a 2005 restructuring of the country’s debt.

But a group of US hedge funds who refused to take part in it won a ruling in the US that prevents Argentina servicing the restructured debt unless they receive $1.5 billion (€1.12 billion) in full payment for their paper as well.

The government’s refusal to do so caused the default, or as Kirchner’s supporters call it, Grifault, after the US judge Thomas Griesa who rulings gave the hedge funds the upper hand in negotiations on a solution.

Many in the country support her position that the hedge funds led by billionaire Paul Singer are “vultures” who having bought up the country’s defaulted bonds at pennies on the dollar now want to make a killing.

“Whatever about the financial aspects of this there is the moral question of speculators who are messing around with an entire country,” says Nicholas Gil Michel, an economics student who works at the Debt Museum in the economics faculty of the University of Buenos Aires, where the country’s troubled history with foreign creditors is retold.

But among the customers filing in and out of the banks downtown not everyone is reassured by claims it is business as usual.

“We are like frogs in a pot of water that is slowly being brought to the boil,” says Daniel Parussini, a worker in the financial district. “Things don’t seem as bad as in 2001 but we don’t realise we are being cooked alive.”

Like most Argentines he is increasingly worried by rampant inflation, now running somewhere north of 30 per cent a year. The signs of the impact of this are also everywhere. Strike notices are everywhere.

Industrial action is now a regular feature of daily life as workers across the country desperately seek to preserve their purchasing power with salary hikes to keep up with price rises.

Part of the problem is the country’s inability since the 2001 default to tap foreign capital markets. This means the government must print more pesos to finance itself. It is doing so at a time when its foreign reserves are under pressure as, unable to borrow, it must pay hard cash for such vital items as fuel imports.

The result is a run on the peso that the latest default has now intensified with no return to markets in sight.

The black market money dealers operating along Calle Florida, the pedestrianised shopping street downtown, say that despite the apparent calm demand among locals for black market dollars has spiked since Wednesday.

“No one wants to hold pesos anymore as it is increasingly worthless,” says one, who asked not to be named as his business in illegal. “So there was already strong demand for dollars. But after this week people are afraid they’ll become even scarcer. It is the uncertainty.”

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