Argentina has experienced slow economic growth since the 1940s. By the mid-1970s long-term growth declined noticeably, and in the last half of the 1980s the country suffered its longest period of stagnation in the century. Savings and investment rates fell precipitously from the mid-1970s until 1989. Argentines, responding to the unstable macroeconomic environment, increasingly saved and invested abroad. Labor productivity fell ang poverty worsened. This economic performance was tranceable to chronic public sector deficits and endemic inflation. Public sector deficits in the late 1970s ranged from 10 to 14 percent of GDP, and in the early 1980s surpassed IS percent of GDP. After the return to constitutional democracy in 1983, public demands to control inflation were translated into four successive stabilization programs. All failed to eradicate inflation, and each ended in a more virulent inflation than the one preceding it. The main reason for these failures was the inability of the stabilization programs to redress rapidly and permanently the public sector structural deficit. Structural deficits emerged from the post-war organization of the economy. Economic policy from the 1940s was used to propagate rules and transfers favoring the interests of private groups with access to power. By the early 1980s public expenditures approached 40 percent of GDP. Unionized labor benefitted from high wages, guaranteed employment, and rigid rules governing hiring and dismissals. Industry benefitted from highly protected markets, tax exemptions through special promotion regimes, subsidized credit-or effective grants, as many loans were not collected-subsidized inputs from public enterprises, and high prices on sales to public enterprises. Housing contractors and middleclass home buyers benefitted from enormous public transfers through earmarked taxes and effective grants through the Housing Bank. Tobacco growers, sugar growers, the merchant marine, and other small interest groups enjoyed special tax breaks. Consumers enjoyed below-cost tariffs from public enterprise and lax collectioll practices. Provincial governments could avail themselves of costless credit from the provincial banks, which the central bank reimbursed. The military enjoyed expanding budgets, especially over 1976-82, as well as management perquisites in state companies they controlled. By 1989 subsidies through the budget, tax exemptions, agriculcural regulations, public enterprise tariffs, and central bank rediscounts were estimated to amount to roughly 8 percent of GDP--the equivalent of some $8 billion. The growth of the state and concomitant rents and subsidies, along with the capital flight provoked by an inconsistent exchange rate policy, were financed during the late 1970s largely by external borrowing through the expanding Eurodollar market at low or even negative real international interest rates. This permitted the government to run large deficits and sustain a revalued exchange rate with relatively low levels of inflation in the second half of the 1970s. An abrupt end to voluntary foreign commercial credit in the early 1980s and the sudden rise in real international interest rates provoked a financial collapse and placed additional pressure on public finances. The situation was complicated by the South Atlantic War. The loss of external finance and lack of adjustment meant the treasury had to resort to increased inflationary finance through monetary creation. The private sector, in an effort to avoid the resulting inflation tax, gradually withdrew its resources from the financial system and reduced its real holdings of currency; this, together with the negative effects of inflation on real tax collections, made Argentina's economy progressively more unstable in the 1980s. Even though the deficit fell from near 20 percent of GDP in the early 1980s to an average of about 10 percent over 1987-89, the base for the inflation tax shrank even faster--efforts to reduce the deficit were not fast or permanent enough to convince the private sector that savings in domestic currency would not be eroded by inflation. Inflation became high and unpredictable, and the main impediment to the recovery of private savings and investment. The decade ended with two episodes of hyperinflation in 1989.
Post-1989 Structural Reforms
Tbe present administration took office in July 1989 during a traumatic hyperinflation--July inflation alone was 200 percent. This culminated a decade-long crisis in public finance. The new team inherited weak public institutions accustomed to deficit spending and with an institutionalized reliance on the inflation tax. In addition, claims on state revenues were far greater than its capacity to mobilize resources-in short, the Argentine state was insolvent. The government undertook stabilization programs in 1989 and 1990. Neither succeeded, principally because of the intractability of the fiscal deficit. The first terminated in a new hyperinflation at the end of 1989 and in early 1990. The second lasted from March 1990 to December 1990 and ended in a new inflationary outburst but, unlike the previous breakdowns, the economy did not spin into hyperinflation. Instead, a new fiscal package in February 1991 was sufficient to close the remaining fiscal gap. This was followed by the April 1, 1991 Law of Convertibility fixing the local currency to the dollar and effectively proscribing money creation other than to buy net foreign reserves. The convertibility program disciplines monetary policy and limits the power of the government to finance its deficit through inflation. The law markedly reduced the foreign exchange rate risk to investors and the inflation risk to business and labor--as long as the fiscal fundamentals are in place to support it. The February 1991 program was able to close the gap in large measure because the government's sustained structural reform efforts had progressively improved the foundations of public finance. The government had undertaken difficult to reverse reforms in the legal framework, institutions, and policies. These included institutional reforms of the federal government, public enterprises, and federal-provincial fiscal relations, and restructuring liabilities with domestic and foreign creditors to adjust them to serviceable levels. Other reforms have helped elicit efficient private investment, notably trade, deregulation, and financial sector reform.
The government undertook a major effort to improve revenues through the implementation of a much-broad- ened and uniform value added tax first to goods in February 1990, and later extended to services in Novem- ber 1990. The government also improved the efficiency of the tax administration in 1989, establishing a control system for the largest taxpayers that took effect in February 1991. The tax penalty law, adopted by Con- gress in 1990, provided much needed sanctions for tax non-compliance. The tax package of February 1991 improved the quality of revenue mobilization substan- tially because it eliminated export taxes, reduced pro- gressively during 1990 and early 1991, deducted higher taxes on financial transactions from the income/asset tax, and removed several minor taxes. In December 1992 subsidies to industrial promotion were substantially cut by replacing self-monitored tax deductions with a tax bond program. These efforts cumulatively produced dramatic rises in tax collections from the third quarter of 1991 on. The increase in value added tax collection allowed the government to eliminate inefficient taxes, such as the fuel tax and the stamp tax, in November 1992, and several specific sales taxes in May 1993. Federal employment decreased from 671,000 to 284,000, including 103,000 layoffs and 284,000 teachers and health workers transferred to provincial payrolls. This effort was based on a ministerial reorganization that focused federal activities on core objectives, and improvements in the civil service system through an improved salary structure and efficiency measures. The government was able to increase average salaries and partially restore salary differentials. The government took several measures to strengthen budgeting procedures and expenditure controls. By 1993 it had eliminated 105 of the 151 earmarked accounts extant in 1990, and reduced the coverage of earmarked taxes. The September 1992 Law of Public Financial Management will permit comprehensive budgeting, effective internal expenditure control, and provide for new external auditing The government has embarked on several reforms to separate the central bank from the nonfinancial public sector and establish it as an effective independent monetary authority. The elimination of the central bank's domestic short-term interest-bearing obligations by means of their conversion into external treasury bonds in January 1990 in effect was a first step toward recapitalizing the central bank. The Law of Convertibility established a money-creation rule that effectively limits monetary policy and central bank inflationary financing of public sector deficits. Since early 1991 the central bank has published financial statements that reveal its balance sheet; since April 1991 it has published its reserve position weekly so the public can monitor implementation of the Law of Convertibility. In September 1992 a new law strengthened the central bank's autonomy, and further restricted its ability to extend credit to the government and the banking system. This measure reinforces the convert- ibility law, and paves the way for an independent, disciplined, monetary authority. In addition, the cen- trai bank intends to complete the process of removing functions ancillary to the functions of a monetary authority by transferring legal authority for failed institutions to the courts.
The government has carried out one of the most impressive privatization programs in the Western Hemisphere. The objective was to reduce the budgetary burden of the enterprises, make the firms more competitive, and increase the volume and efficiency of new investment. The privatization program began in earnest in 1990 and gained credibility with the sale of national telecommunications company in November 1990. The program removed politics from price setting in the formerly vast segment of the economy covered by the state. The change in the institutional organization of these sectors cut off public subsidies to consumers and labor groups benefitting from high wages and excess staffing, and transfers for investment. The program also improved public finances: about $9 billion in capital receipts helped close fiscal accounts in 1991 and 1992 and external debt was reduced by $12 billion. Major privatizations included television stations, the telephone company, Aerolineas Argentinas, gas distribution and transmission, and the majority of the national oil company. It granted road and railroad concessions to the private sector, privatized long distance cargo lines, and sharply reduced the railway's work force. The government privatized other public enterprises, including defense industries, the nation's largest distributor of electricity, ports and maritime transport, reinsurance, and the entire power sector. Future privatization plans include the national airport system.
Fiscal Relationships with the Provinces
The government also sought to restructure fiscal relation ships with the provinces. The Coparticipation Law of 1988, fixed the share of federal revenues automatically transferred to the provinces at 58 percent. In August 1992 a portion of tax revenues was assigned to the social security system before computing revenue sharing. At the same time, the resources provincial governments could access were limited by progressively terminating central bank lending to provincial banks. The government also reduced extra-coparticipation transfers through the budget. To offset aggregate increases in resources as national tax collection improved, the government also transferred expenditures to provincial administrations, notably secondary education and hospitals, and to the social security system in August 1992.
The final step in dealing with the government's insolvency involved restructuring its debt obligations. The government had financed its deficit through borrowing from the financial system, suspending payment to external creditors, and accumulating arrears with pensioners and suppliers. Restructuring each of these required major initiatives. Although the government ended new rediscounts to the housing and industrial banks, and liberal rediscounts to provincial banks in 1988, the central bank continued money emission to finance the treasury and its own deficit. In late December 1989, faced with rising central bank deficits and the renewed threat of hyperinflation, the government took the drastic step of converting domestic, short-term (mainly seven-day), interest-bearing obligations of the central bank into $3.5 billion 10-year dollar-denominated treasury bonds. This virtually eliminated the central bank's quasifiscal deficit and the monetary emission necessary to finance it-at the cost of penalizing savers and reducing already low confidence in the financial system. In April 1988 the government suspended payment on its external debt to commercial creditors. By 1992 it had accumulated $8 billion in arrears as part of a $32 billion medium-term commercial bank debt. Public external debt was $61 billion. The government re-initiated partial payments in June 1990, and established a consistent record of paying about 25 percent of interest due. At the same time, it allowed external debt to be used in exchange for the sale of assets, which reduced the debt stock by $7 billion. The progressive improvement in fiscal fundamentals in 1990/91 allowed the government to begin negotiations with commercial banks on a debt reduction deal. An external debt agreement signed on April 7, 1993, reduced $28 billion in commercial bank debt by approximately 37 percent, and eliminated interest arrears. This debt deal is expected to improve Argentina's creditworthiness. The agreement formalized arrears in a 12-year uncollateralized bond at LIBOR plus 13/16 with a 3-year grace period, after a $700 million downpayment. Existing debt was exchanged for collateralized par bonds with a fixed interest rate, or collateralized discount bonds at 65 percent of face value paying LIBOR. The new collateralized bonds will have a 12-month rolling interest guarantee. For most of the last decade, the government has paid only about half the legally mandated pensions owed social security recipients. Arrearages were not recorded in the fiscal accounts, but are estimated to be as high as $7 to 10 billion. To stop the accumulation of arrears, the government modified coparticipation in tax revenues in favor of the social securiry system in August 1992. Since then, the social security system has run a small operating surplus. The government also accumulated arrears in 1990 with suppliers through formal suspension of payment on goods and services already provided, and the health funds have arrears with their service providers that will also result in new debt. Finally, the government, as part of its income tax reform, suspended poorly designed loss carry forward deductions for the corporate income tax, and agreed to issue compensatory bonds. To settle these claims, Congress authorized the government to issue consolidation bonds. The service of this debt will be capitalized until 1997, but payments on the order of $3 billion will be required in the last years of the decade. The federal government's share of the proceeds of the privatization of the state oil company is earmarked for repurchasing some of the consolidation bonds.
Social Security Reform
The government has moved towards replacing a failed public pension system. In mid-1992 it submitted a law introducing a combined state/private system: the state would supply a uniform basic pension financed on a pay as you go basis while the private sector would supply pension funds. Membership in both schemes would be mandatory. The lower house of the Argentine Congress passed the law-with significant modifications--in May 1993. The government expects the legislative process to be completed before the end of the year, allowing a new system to be established in mid-1994.
Trade, Deregulation and Financial Reforms
In 1991 the government accelerated and largely completed a trade liberalization program that began in laIe 1986, but had suffered temporary reversals in 1989. Virtually all export taxes and quantitative restrictionsexcept for automobiles--were eliminated. The maximum ad valorem tariff was reduced from 115 to 35 percent. The deterioration in the trade balance in 1992, a consequence of massive capital inflows motivated government to use commercial policy to achieve effective devaluation within the fixed exchange rate regime. Exporter rebates were raised from 8 to 13 percent. On the import side, the tariff band was narrowed to O to 20 percent. The government also increased a flat tariff surcharge, called a statistical tax, from 3 percent to 10 percent on a temporary basis. This led to an effective depreciation of about 5 percent. In May 1993 the government eliminated both tariffs and the statistical tax on capital goods imports, but in July it provided protection to some paper and textile products through temporary import quotas and tariff surcharges. A major domestic deregulation decree in October 1991 ended a series of market-impeding rules, dissolved several regulatory bodies, and unified pension and health insurance payments to reduce evasion. Subsequent decrees have deregulated pharmaceutical impons and ports. The industrial promotion program and subsidies to Tierra del Fuego were markedly reduced in November 1992. The publicly-owned housing and development banks, long subject to political influence and dependent on government financial support, are undergoing major restructuring. Branches of the National Development Bank and the National Housing Bank have been closed since March 1990 and their staffs have been reduced by almost 75 percent. The government is liquidating the development bank and closing the housing bank's retail functions. It has established a second tier bank to be managed, and ultimately owned, by the private sector to mobilize financing for its investment needs. In response to a short-lived run on the peso in mid-November 1992 the authorities strengthened their commitments to the fixed exchange rate regime by permitting reserve requirements to be met either in foreign or domestic currency, and equalizing reserve requirements on foreign and domestic currency-denominated checking accounts in domestic transactions. In February 1993 these measures were complemented by lowering reserve requirements and further deregulating commercial bank lending to the private sector. Term deposits under 30 days were eliminated to increase the average maturity of deposits in the domestic financial system and reduce the risks of a run on the banks. Finally, since April 1993, bank compliance with reserve requirements is based on a four-week moving average, which should reduce the volatility of short-term interest rates. Over the last six months Argentina has taken meas- ures to reduce interest rates and stimulate investment. In October 1992 it imposed a 2 percent per month ceiling on loans made by public banks, a measure also aimed at stimulating restructuring of these banks. In March 1993 it began auctioning subsidy credits to banks, with the winner of the subsidy being the bank that offers to charge the lowest rates to final medium- and small-scale industrial borrowers. In May 1993 the authorities an- nounced the extension of the Banco de Nacion's credit lines-the largest official bank--and a reduction in its lending rates from 1.8 percent to 1.6 percent per month. They also declared that the bank's credit policy will be oriented toward export-oriented activities as well as agriculture, industry, mining, and tourism.
Recent Macroeconomic Developments
In 1992 the authorities continued to adjust the economy, extending the recent good economic performance. GDP grew by 8.7 percent, and industrial production grew in the 12 percent range for the second year in a row. Employment rose by about 10 percent and investment expanded briskly in 1992, rising from 12.5 percent to 14.5 percent of GDP. The increased investment was financed by external savings, with gross national sav- ings declining moderately to 9.3 percent of GDP. Public savings rose by about 2 percentage points of GDP, while private savings fell. Fiscal performance has improved notably in the last two years. The overall balance moved into surplus in 1992 for the first time in decades with an operational primary surplus of 2.0 percent of GDP. Tax revenues increased from 13.5 percent of GDP in 1989 to nearly 24 percent between in 1992. In the same period, public expenditures fell as a percent of GDP. Capital spending and non-privatization receipts both declined slightly. The fiscal surplus also was improved by the drop in dollar interest rate, which cut accrued interest obligations by 1.3 percent of GDP. However, interest obligations still exceeded the operational primary surplus slightly in 1992. Inflation continues to decelerate. The annualized inflation rate in the last quarter of 1992 was about 9 percent, compared to over 20 percent a year earlier. Nonetheless, inflation still exceeds international rates, which is necessary to sustain the fixed exchange rate regime. During 1992 capital inflows, jointly with the economic expansion, contributed to an 84 percent increase in imports; exports rose by 1 percent. As a result, the current account deficit for 1992 reached 5.2 percent of GDP, up from 2 percent a year ago. Capital inflows of $12.0 billion, mostly private, more than offset the current account deficit, allowing a $3.4 billion accumulation of reserves. After signs of slowdown in economic activity during January and February 1993, industrial production recovered in March and April, with the first quarter of 1993 marking the eleventh consecutive month of economic expansion. Capital inflows recovered in the first quarter of 1993, further strengthening the level of international reserves. The monthly inflation rate between January and March 1993 averaged 0.7 percent, about the same as the last quarter of 1992.
The government projects real growth averaging 6.5 percent over 1992-95. Over this period its fiscal program for aims at generating a primary surplus sufficient to finance interest obligations, thus eliminating the need for the inflation tax. This involves efforts to raise the primary balance from about $3.3 billion in 1991 to about $4. 1 billion in 1995. The success of this program will largely depend on medium-term reforms to improve the structural underpinnings of public finance, such as social security legislation, labor reforms, and the evolution of the fiscal relationships with the provinces, given the increasing decentralization of power and responsibilities from the center to provincial governments. This scenario is attainable if the government continues to improve its fiscal position, and if private markets generate a smooth transition to a sustainable balance of payments and growth path. There are significant risks to this program. The probability of adverse events affecting the convertible peso declines, however, as the government progresses on reforms that improve the fundamentals of public finance. Past reforms in the public sector anchor stabilization and are unlikely to be reversed during any financial turbulence. Also, reserves are the highest in a decade and cover the monetary base (although not the deposit base), which would deter a speculative attack on the peso. Even if problems give rise to pressure to alter the policy framework, in all likelihood any emerging policy regime would of necessity focus on maintaining fiscal balance and policies conducive to private investment. Over the last few years Argentina has enacted serious and difficult structural reforms with considerable public support. The lack of alternatives to fiscal discipline and price stability, and memories of the hyperinflation of 1989/90, have made stability politically popular. These facts are powerful ballast that is likely to keep the ship of structural adjustment headed in the same direction, even in a financial storm.