Economic Debacle In Argentina: The IMF Strikes Again

In the midst of their fourth year of recession, with the official unemployment rate approaching 20%, and with increasing cutbacks of social programs, Argentinians took to the streets in the days before Christmas. Sparked by the government’s latest economic policies, which restricted the amount of money people could withdraw from their bank accounts, political demonstrations and the looting of grocery stores spread across the country. First the government declared a state of siege, but with the police often standing by watching the looting “with their hands behind their backs,” there was little the government could do. Within a day after the demonstrations began, the principal economic minister had resigned; a few days later came the president’s resignation.

A hastily assembled interim government immediately defaulted on $155 billion of Argentina’s foreign debt, the largest debt default in history. The new government then promised a public works jobs program and announced it would issue a new currency, the argentino, that would circulate as a “third currency,” along side the old pesos and U.S. dollars. Argentinians, however, seemed to have little hope for the new currency, and, fearing a severe devaluation, they continued to line up outside of banks hoping to get dollars from their accounts. As for the new programs, they did little to confront the fact that per capita income has already fallen by 14% in this recession. As economic instability deepened, the new government proved unable to win the popular support it needed, and it quickly dissolved.

At the opening of 2002, Argentina faced widespread political and economic uncertainty. The main question seemed to be whether the short run would bring more unemployment, severe inflation, or both. As to the stability of Argentina’s currency, virtually everyone expects a sharp devaluation fairly soon.

Argentina’s experience leading into the current debacle provides one more lesson regarding the perils of free market ideology and of the economic policies pushed on governments around the globe by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In Argentina and elsewhere, these policies have been embraced by local elites, who see their fortunes (both real and metaphoric) tied to the deregulation of commerce and the reduction of social programs. Yet the claims that these free market policies would bring economic growth and widespread well being have been thoroughly discredited. (In spite of the economic collapse and political turmoil in Buenos Aires, the wealthy appear to have protected themselves by having moved their money out of the country.)

From Good to Bad to Ugly

Not long ago, Argentina was the poster-child for the conservative economic policies pushed by the IMF. The Buenos Aires government privatized state enterprises, liberalized foreign trade and investment, and tightened government fiscal and monetary policy. During the 1990s the country’s economy seemed to do well. The good times of the mid-1990s, however, were built on weak foundations. Economic growth in that period, while substantial, appears to have been in large part the result of an increasing accumulation of international debt, fortuitous expansion of foreign markets, and short-term injections of government revenues from the sales of state enterprises. Before the end of the decade, things began to fall apart.

Argentina’s current problems are all the more severe because, in the name of fighting inflation, in the early 1990s the government created a “currency board,” charged with regulating the country’s currency so that the Argentine peso would exchange one-to-one for the U.S. dollar. To assure this fixed exchange rate, the currency board maintained dollar reserves, and could not expand the supply of pesos without an equivalent increase in the dollars that it held. The currency board system appeared attractive because of absurd rates of inflation in the 1980s, with price increases of up to 200% a month.

By the mid-1990s, inflation in Argentina had been virtually eliminated–but flexibility in monetary policy had also been eliminated. When the current recession began to develop, the government could not expand the money supply as a means of stimulating economic activity. Worse yet, as the economy continued downward, the inflow of dollars slowed, restricting the country’s money supply even further (by the one-to-one rule). And still worse, in the late 1990s, the U.S. dollar appreciated against other currencies, which meant (again, the one-to-one rule) that the peso also appreciated; the result was a further weakening in world demand for Argentine exports.

During 2001 the Argentine recession grew rapidly deeper. Although the IMF pumped in additional funds, it provided these funds on the condition that the Argentine government would entirely eliminate its budget deficit. With the economy in a nose-dive and tax revenues plummeting, the only way to balance the budget was to drastically cut government spending. Yet, in doing so, the government was both eviscerating social programs and reducing overall demand. In mid-December, the government announced that it would cut the salaries of public employees by 20% and reduce pension payments. At the same time, as the worsening crisis raised fears that the peso would be devalued, the government moved to prevent people from trading their pesos for dollars; it promulgated a regulation limiting bank withdrawals. These steps were the final straws, and in the week before Christmas, all hell broke loose.

Failure under the Direction of the IMF

Economic policies in Argentina during the past 15 years have had substantial support among the country’s business elite, especially from those whose incomes derive from the financial sector and primary product exports. These groups have gained substantially, and officials in the Argentine government have been active in formulating and executing the policies that have led to the current debacle.

At the same time, the country’s economic policies during the 1990s were developed under the direction of the IMF. From the late 1980s onward, a series of loans gave the IMF the leverage to guide Argentine policymakers as they increasingly adopted the Fund’s conservative economic agenda. As the country entered into the lasting downturn of the current period, the IMF continued, unwavering, in its support. The IMF provided Argentina with “small” loans, such as the $3 billion made available in early 1998, when the country’s economic difficulties began to appear. As the Argentine crisis deepened, the IMF increased its support, supplying a loan of $13.7 billion and arranging $26 billion more from other sources at the end of 2000. As things worsened still further in 2001, the IMF pledged another $8 billion.

The IMF coupled its largess with the condition that the Argentine government maintain its severe monetary policy and continue to tighten its fiscal policy. Deficit reduction–which according to the IMF is the key to macroeconomic stability (which in turn is supposed to be the key to economic growth)–was undertaken with a vengeance. In early July 2001, on the eve of a major government bond offering, Argentine officials announced budget cuts of $1.6 billion (about 3% of the federal budget), hoping that these cuts would reassure investors and allow interest rates to fall. Apparently, however, investors saw the cuts as another sign that the country’s crisis was worsening, and the bonds could only be sold at sharply higher interest rates (14% as compared to the 9% that similar bonds had commanded in mid-June). By December, the effort to balance the budget required far more severe expenditure cuts, and the government announced a drastic reduction of $9.2 billion in its spending, about 18% of its entire budget.

Argentina is now providing one more example of the failure of IMF policies to establish the bases for long-term economic growth in low-income countries. Numerous other countries demonstrate similar sets of problems: much of sub-Saharan Africa; Mexico, and several other countries in Latin America; Thailand, and other parts of East Asia hit by the 1997 crisis; and Turkey, along with Argentina in 2001. IMF policies do often succeed in curtailing inflation; sharp cuts in government spending and restrictions of the money supply will usually yield reduced price increases. Also, IMF programs can provide large influxes of foreign loans–from the Fund itself and the World Bank, from the U.S. government and the governments of other high-income countries, and, once the approval of the IMF has been attained, from internationally operating banks. But nowhere has the IMF policy package led to stable, sustained economic expansion. Also, as in Argentina, it often generates growing inequality.

The IMF’s mania for reductions of government spending in times of crisis has been rationalized by the claim that balanced budgets are the foundation of long-term economic stability and growth. The IMF officially laments the fact that these policies have a severe negative impact on low-income groups (because they both generate high rates of unemployment and eviscerate social programs). Yet, Fund officials claim these policies are necessary to assure long-term stability. Nonsense. In recessions, moderate government deficits (like those of recent years in Argentina) are a desirable counter-cyclical policy, and balanced budgets only exacerbate down-turns. Also, curtailing social spending–on education, health care, physical infrastructure projects–cuts the legs out from under long-term economic progress.

Why Does the IMF Stick to Failed Policies?

Yet the IMF sticks to its policies, probably because those policies serve important and powerful interests in the U.S. and world economies. The IMF, after all, is not an institution controlled by either the people or the governments of low-income countries. It is not even like UN agencies, where governments have formally equal voice with one another. Instead, the IMF is controlled by the governments of high-income countries that provide the funds for its operations. The U.S. government has by far the greatest influence at the IMF. With over 18% of the voting shares in the Fund, the U.S. government has de facto control. Indeed, over the years, the IMF has operated largely as a branch of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, attempting to create a context that assures the well-being of U.S. interests–which is to say the interests of U.S.-based internationally operating firms. (The same context serves the interests of firms based in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere; so the U.S. generally has the support of its allied governments in directing the IMF.)

Most important, the IMF tells governments that a key to economic growth lies in providing unrestricted access for imports and foreign investment. Virtually all experience, however, suggests the opposite–that extensive regulation of foreign commerce by a country’s government has been an essential foundation for successful economic growth. Britain, the U.S., Japan, countries of Western Europe, Taiwan, South Korea–all built the foundations for development not on “free trade” but on government regulation of trade. The IMF gets around the inconvenient facts of history by conflating free trade with extensive engagement in the international economy. But the two are not the same. Yes, successful development has always been accompanied by extensive international engagement, but through regulated commerce and not free trade.

The dramatic experience with financial capital demonstrates a similar disconnect between IMF proclamations and reality. Through the period of its increasing influence in the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF pushed governments in low-income countries to liberalize their capital markets. Capital controls were, claimed the IMF, anathema to development. Then came 1997, when the open capital markets of East Asian countries were instruments of disaster. In the aftermath of 1997, it seemed clear that the real winners from open capital markets were financial firms based in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

These same financial firms are also the winners from another component in the IMF policy package. Fiscal responsibility, according to the IMF, means that governments must give the highest priority to repayment of their international debts. In fact, the immediate justification of new IMF loans is often that this influx of capital is necessary to assure prompt payments of past loans. While there is no doubt that banks operating out of New York and other financial centers gain from this policy, experience does not support the contention that when governments fail to pay foreign debts they bring on financial disaster. Instead, experience suggests that, at times, defaulting on foreign debt can be an effective, positive policy option. (Also, as has been frequently noted, as long as the IMF provides the funds to assure payment of loans made by the internationally operating banks, those banks will have no incentive to assure that they are making sound loans.)

IMF advocacy of privatization is one more example of its effort to open the world economy more fully for U.S.-based firms. When state enterprises in low-income countries are sold, large internationally operating firms are often the buyers, able to move in quickly with their huge supply of capital. Of course, in Argentina and elsewhere, local business groups have often been the direct beneficiaries of privatization, sometimes on their own and sometimes as junior partners of firms based abroad. Either way, whether the buyers of state enterprises are national or foreign, this enlargement of the private sphere of operation works to the benefit of the private firms. The problem here is not that privatization is always inappropriate, but simply that, contrary to IMF nostrums, it is not always appropriate.

Privatization is especially problematic when it only replaces an inefficient government monopoly with a private monopoly yielding huge profits for its owners. Moreover, the record from Mexico City to Moscow demonstrates that privatization is often a hugely corrupt process.

A Growing Popular Opposition

The policies of the IMF and those of the World Bank have generated a great deal of popular opposition in low-income countries as well as in the U.S. and Europe. During recent years, that opposition has become increasingly strident, staging major demonstrations at meetings of the IMF and the Bank, as well as at other gatherings of the government officials guiding globalization. This opposition has been dubbed the “anti-globalization movement.” The title is misleading because most of the activists are not opposed to the growing international economic and cultural connections among peoples, but are opposed to the way those connections are being structured, benefiting large firms, while creating hardship and instability for many, many people. Policies like those of the IMF in Argentina typify the problem. Also, the recent political upheaval in Argentina lends new strength to the argument of the opposition movement that the IMF adjustment policies not only fail to bolster economic development but also lead to social and political disintegration.

Pressure from this movement has had some impacts. The IMF’s contribution to the Asian financial crisis in 1997 unleashed a torrent of criticism that the movement both built upon and contributed to. While no major policy changes have ensued, the Fund has responded rhetorically, renaming its “Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility” as the “Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility.” Over a longer period, the World Bank has also adjusted at least the appearance of its policies, focusing more attention on the issue of poverty and starting to examine the role of gender in economic development. The World Bank, in addition, has backed off from some of its large-scale water control projects in low-income countries as a result of pressure from local organizations and international environmental groups. These changes have not basically altered the programs of the international financial institutions, and the IMF has been especially resistant to change. Yet these adjustments do suggest that opposition has begun to have an impact.

The lesson is that the movement for change should increase its pressure on these institutions that are playing such central roles in shaping globalization. While the movement has emerged largely in response to the hardships and inequality that have grown–even while IMF-type policies generated some economic growth–this opposition will gain greater legitimacy as growth is replaced by crisis, as in Argentina. The appeal of alternative policies will be even greater as the IMF and local elites can no longer claim that economic growth will eventually solve all problems.

Beyond Denunciation: Alternative Strategies

There is, however, a need and an opportunity for the opposition movement to go beyond denunciation of the IMF’s conservative policies and to articulate alternative strategies, strategies that would support a democratic, egalitarian form of economic development. Such strategies would promote structural adjustment in low-income countries, but a very different and more fundamental structural adjustment than has been advocated by the IMF. A democratic development strategy could begin with a focus on the expansion of social programs, a greater investment in schooling, health care, and other public services that would establish a social foundation for long-run economic expansion.

A democratic strategy would not ignore macroeconomic stability, but instead of seeking that stability in government cutbacks, it would pursue expanding the government revenues (raising taxes) as a means to provide fiscal balance. Also, a democratic strategy could not ignore the private sector, but it would recognize the problems of allowing the private sector to be guided simply by private profits in an unregulated market. It would, for example, push the private sector toward high-technology activity instead of production based on low wages, and it would seek to provide support for local farmers to maintain their livelihoods and community stability.

The first problem in implementing an alternative development program in Argentina and elsewhere is to overcome the power of elite groups that have directed the existing system. In spite of the current difficulties, the policies that the Argentine government has followed in recent years, and the similar policies pursued by the governments of many low-income countries, have delivered substantial benefits to local elites. Those policies have allowed them to strengthen their positions in their own economies and secure their roles as junior partners with U.S.-based and other internationally operating firms. Changing policies will therefore require changing the balance of power. Shifting the balance of power in a country is never easy, but the emergence of an international movement for change and the growing economic crisis present some substantial opportunities.

If people in low-income countries are to move in an alternative direction, they must find ways to deal with the oppressive burden of foreign debt. Not only is the debt itself a problem, creating a growing drain on countries’ resources, but also the need to continually seek new debt in order to repay old debt forces governments to accept the IMF conditions that perpetuate the problem.

Here, those forces that want change can take a lesson from the high-income countries. As the governments of high-income countries work together in pursuing their economic relations with the low-income countries, low-income debtor countries have a common set of interests that could provide the foundation for common action. Working as a bloc, they would have a greater chance of gaining better terms, greater leeway in the conditions that come with foreign finance, and the freedom to pursue the meaningful structural adjustment of a democratic strategy.

Ultimately, the power of such a bloc would depend on the willingness of member countries to repudiate their foreign debts. Such repudiation would have legitimacy because of the coercive practices that have given rise to this debt, and repudiation would have wide popular support.

But would debt repudiation invite economic disaster? In Argentina, quite to the contrary, it was a refusal to repudiate the debt that led into the December debacle. The new government has now defaulted, but not in a controlled manner that might yield the greatest advantage, but as an act of desperation. Also, debt defaults in the past have generally not generated disaster, certainly nothing worse than the current Argentine situation. In any case, if forces in debtor countries could make the threat real, actual repudiation would probably not be necessary. The power that the high-income countries have in the threat to cut off new loans would be matched by the power that low-income countries would have from their threat to cut off the flow of repayments.

There are substantial political barriers to the emergence of democratic development strategies in low-income countries and to joint action by debtor countries. At the end of December, as a new spate of rioting broke out in Buenos Aires, U.S. President Bush told the Argentine government to seek guidance from the IMF and “to work closely with” the IMF to develop its economic plans. And the policies of the IMF are unlikely to change in any significant way. Indeed, as Argentinians went to the streets in response to their long suffering under the aegis of the IMF, the IMF disclaimed all responsibility. “The economic program of Argentina was designed by the government of Argentina and the objective of eliminating the budget deficit was approved by the Congress of Argentina,” declared the IMF’s spokesperson on December 21.

This continued pressure from the U.S. government and the persistence of the IMF in pursuing its discredited policies make progressive change difficult. Also, powerful elites in Argentina and other low-income countries re-enforce the barriers to change. Yet the economic case for change is overwhelming, and one way or another a political route to this change needs to be found.