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Cablegate: Argentina Economic and Financial Review, March 17

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PP RUEHCD RUEHGA RUEHGD RUEHHA RUEHHO RUEHMC RUEHQU RUEHTM RUEHVC
DE RUEHBU #0433/01 0981844
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 071844Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0653
INFO RUCNMRC/WESTERN HEMISPHERIC AFFAIRS DIPL POSTS PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 BUENOS AIRES 000433

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EFIN ECON EINV ETRD ELAB EAIR AR
SUBJECT: ARGENTINA ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL REVIEW, MARCH 17
- APRIL 4, 2008


1. (U) Provided below is Embassy Buenos Aires' Economic and
Financial Review covering the period March 17 - April 4,
2008. The unclassified email version of this report includes
tables and charts tracking Argentine economic developments.
Contact Econoff Chris Landberg at landbergca@state.gov to be
included on the email distribution list. This document is
sensitive but unclassified. It should not be disseminated
outside of USG channels or in any public forum without the
written concurrence of the originator. It should not be
posted on the internet.

----------
Highlights
----------
-- Economic Impact of Agricultural Sector Strike
-- GoA soon to issue ARP 1-2 billion of peso denominated debt
-- GoA considers debt exchange to alleviate 2009-2011 debt
service payments
-- Who holds GoA defaulted debt?
-- What is going on with the Real Exchange Rate in Argentina?
-- FIEL criticizes quality of GoA primary fiscal surplus

Economic Impact of Agricultural Sector Strike
---------------------------------------------
2. (SBU) Many local observers considered the farming sector
strike that began March 13 -- in response to the GoA's
unanticipated March 11 decree to increase export taxes on
Argentina's major agricultural export crops --to be the worst
crisis of the Kirchner era (since 2003). It was also seen as
a major challenge to the Kirchner's Peronist economic model
of taxing the most-productive sectors of the economy (mainly
Agriculture) to support less efficient industry and create a
social safety net for the roughly 25% of the population that
lives below the poverty line.

3. (SBU) Post has sent in extensive front-channel reporting
on the ongoing crisis -- which ended April 2 when farmers
agreed to a 30-day truce -- with a particular focus on the
political repercussions of the dispute. (See BA 368, 376,
398, 408 and 415). The impact of the 20-day strike on
Argentina's economy and the GoA's budget is less clear at
this time, but there is much to worry about. Local media is
speculating that the cost of the strike so far -- on
industry, transport, and commerce -- is as high as US$ 1.5bn,
in the range of 0.5% of GDP (more than the US$1.2 billion in
expected revenues from the March 11 tax increase). As a
consequence, many analysts are considering lowering their
forecasts for real GDP growth in 2008 (most current forecasts
range from 6-7%).

4. (SBU) While the strike's blockade of the nation's
transport infrastructure had a direct effect on a number of
industrial and commercial sectors, of equal concern to
analysts are the measures the GoA announced March 31 to
alleviate the impact of the higher taxes on small and
medium-size farms. The worry is that these mostly fiscal
incentives could adversely impact the GoA's finances, leading
to further uncertainties about the GoA's financing needs,
interest rates, and stability of the peso. (Export tax
revenues account for over 80% of the primary fiscal surplus.)


5. (SBU) Higher subsidies, reduced tax collection due to the
cessation of cereals and grains exports, and the overall
adverse impact of the strike on the economy (and on tax
collection), have led many private analysts to reduce
forecasts for the GoA's primary fiscal surplus for 2008,
after having just increased them following the March 11 tax
increase. Early reports on March tax collection show that it
was much lower than expected, due in large part to the double
blow the GoA received on soy export taxes: soybean prices
have fallen significantly (nearly 25%) off their high, and
because of the protests only about 5% of Argentine soybeans
have been harvested, compared to about 20% standard for this
point in the harvest season.

6. (SBU) Also of increasing concern is the possible spike in
inflation due to strike-related food price increases, with
some estimates for year-end inflation as high as 40%
(although most are in the 25-30% range). Analysts are also
closely watching the peso, which has depreciated slightly
against the dollar (during a period when it usually
appreciates due to large FX inflows from Ag exports). There
is worry that the GoA may consider offsetting lost tax
revenues with a depreciation of the peso. This scenario
could provoke capital outflows, leading to interest rate
hikes, decelerating consumption and imports, lower tax

BUENOS AIR 00000433 002 OF 004


revenues, and increasing uncertainties about the GoA's
finances. No doubt due to the increased pessimism resulting
from these added uncertainties, Argentina's country risk
rating, as measured by JPMorgan's EMBI plus reached 581 basis
points, near the post-default high, its Credit Default Swaps
rate jumped up to a record 594 basis points, and local think
tank Ecolatina's "Financial Risk Index" (which also measures
peso bonds) closed at a new record of 785 basis points.

7. (SBU) The question is whether this strike is a political
and economic turning point. Whether or not the GoA reacts by
improving its political and economic decision-making, this
strike may still result in a weakened government and economy,
leaving Argentina more vulnerable to and unprepared for a
sharp downturn in global commodity prices.

GoA issues ARP 867 million peso bonds at a yield of 13.30%
--------------------------------------------
8. (SBU) In an April 3 auction, the GoA issued ARP 867
million of Bonar 2013 (Bono de la Nacion) at a yield of
13.30%, below market expectations of 13.5%-14%. This is a
peso-denominated, variable rate, 5-year bullet bond, maturing
in 2013, with an interest rate of BADLAR plus 350 basis
points. (The Badlar, currently at 8.5%, is the wholesale
interest rate for deposits of more than ARP 1 million
(approx. $320,000).) The GoA last issued a 5-year,
eso-denominated, fixed rate bullet bond in June 2007
(without inflation adjustment) at a yield of 11.70%.

9. (SBU) The GoA is authorized to issue up to ARP 5 billion
($1.6bn) of this bond. It received bids for ARP 1.8 billion,
resulting in a bid cover ratio of 2.1, and raised ARP 827
million cash value (as the bond was issued at a discount).
Local media had speculated that the success of this first
issue was guaranteed, despite international market
turbulence, because of strong appetite from local investors,
especially pension funds, banks, and insurance companies.
The pension funds' high liquidity positions are due to: a)
the increase from 7% to 11% in employee wage deductions for
pension contributions; and b) the GoA regulation, issued
October 2007, forcing Argentine pension funds to repatriate
their investments from Mercosur countries (primarily Brazil).
However, when analyzing the bids for the auction, it is
clear that the success of this issue was due to Banco la
Nacion's strong participation, as it purchased 42% (or ARP
365 million) of the issue. According to local traders,
without Banco Nacion's participation, the bond yield would
have exceeded 14%. Ambito Financiero speculated that if the
GoA had issued a fixed rate bond, similar to the one issued
June 2007, it would be paying a 16% fixed interest rate.

10. (SBU) For reference, November 2007 was the last time the
GoA was able to issue bonds at public auction, and it issued
$500 million of the Bonar X (ten-year, dollar denominated
bond, maturing April 2017, with a 7% fixed interest coupon,
at a yield of 10.5%). Thereafter, the GoA completed its 2007
financial needs by issuing debt directly to public sector
agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, the
Argentine tax collection agency (AFIP), and the Federal
Lottery. GoA financial needs in 2008 are estimated at $6
billion, and the GoA hints that it intends to raise $4
billion from public sector agencies (and possibly from the
Venezuelan government) and $2 billion through local auctions,
taking advantage of the strong local liquidity. So far this
year, the GoA has issued ARP 1.9 billion of short-term debt
(with a maturity of 6 to 12 months), exclusively to public
sector agencies.

GoA considers debt exchange to alleviate 2009-2011 debt
service payments
--------------------------------------------
11. (SBU) On March 12, Cronista Comercial reported that the
GoA is analyzing the launch of a debt exchange to lower GoA
debt principal and interest payments over the next four years
(especially 2009-2011, during which GoA debt obligations
peak). The secondary motive is to extend the GoA debt yield
curve. Cronista reports that the GoA would like to complete
the mini-exchange during the first half of the year, if
market conditions allow it. Although GoA officials declined
to confirm this transaction to Cronista, Economy Ministry
officials have confirmed on numerous occasions to Post's
EconOffs that the GoA wants and needs to do this by mid-year.
Details of the transaction:

-- Eligible bonds: mainly Guaranteed Loans with large
maturities (both interest and principal) concentrated in
2009-2011 and totaling $8.6 billion. (Note: Payment is

BUENOS AIR 00000433 003 OF 004


guaranteed by tax collection. The GoA issued them in
November 2001 as part of a "voluntary" debt exchange,
intended to extend maturities and reduce interest payments.
These loans continued making interest and principal payments
despite the 2001 default. Originally dollar-denominated,
these bonds were pesified and linked to inflation in January
2002.) Also, the GoA may include dollar-denominated Bodens
maturing in 2012 and 2013, with total debt service payments
of $8.8 billion due between 2009 and 2011. (Note: Bodens
were originally issued after the 2001 default in a swap for
reprogrammed bank deposits trapped by the corralito or
corralon, and to banks in compensation for asymmetrical
pesification. However, afterwards, the GoA continued issuing
Bodens for financing purposes.)

-- New bonds: Local media speculate that the new
dollar-denominated bonds (presumably to be exchanged for the
USD Bodens) would have a maturity of 5-10 years, while the
peso-denominated bonds (to be exchanged for the guaranteed
loans) would have a variable interest rate (based on the
Badlar rate, currently at 8.5%) and no inflation adjustment.
Many investors may find the exchange of guaranteed loans
attractive since it would enable them to exchange an illiquid
(not tradable) instrument for a tradable one.

Who holds GoA defaulted debt?
-----------------------------
12. (SBU) Determining who holds the $28 billion in so-called
"holdout" debt -- GoA defaulted debt that was not tendered in
the 2005 GoA debt restructuring -- is more art than science,
since defaulted debt is still being traded. Currently, most
of the untendered debt quotes at 32-35 cents on the dollar.
It is interesting to note that:

-- As of the third quarter of 2007, GoA untendered debt
totaled $28 billion, of which 29% ($8.3 billion) has not yet
matured. Of the remaining 71% ($19.8 billion) that has
already matured, there is $11.7 billion in principal arrears
and $8.0 billion in interest arrears.

-- Most holdout debt is in foreign currency (98% of total, or
$27.4 billion) and issued under international law (also 98%
of total). Peso and Argentine law holdout debt (with and
without CER ) CPI linked index) totals only about $650
million. See below detailed table with the split between
arrears and unmatured debt.

-- Of the $27.4 billion holdout debt denominated in foreign
currency (non-ARP), 38% ($10.4 billion) is USD denominated
and 61% ($16.7 billion) is in EUR denominated. The remaining
1% ($176 million) is JPY denominated. There is a negligible
amount denominated in Swiss Franks (CHF) and British Pounds
(GPB).

-- According to American Task Force Argentina (AFTA),
Americans hold $3.0 billion, or 11% of GoA holdout debt and
almost 30% of dollar-denominated holdout debt.

What is going on with the Real Exchange Rate in Argentina?
--------------------------------------------- -------------
13. (SBU) A depreciated Real Exchange Rate (RER) has been a
key element of GoA economic policy since the 2002 crisis and
devaluation, and, the GoA asserts, a foundation of
Argentina's high export growth in recent years. In
Argentina, the RER was relatively "low" during the 1990s,
undermining the manufacturing sector. In contrast, the 2002
devaluation fueled domestic production of industrial goods
and commodities. In particular, in the case of agricultural
commodities, the devaluation was complemented by: 1)
Argentina's comparative advantages in these goods; 2)
record-high international demand; and 3) the resulting run-up
in global commodity prices. Although the exchange regime is
officially "flexible," since April 2003 the GoA and Central
Bank's exchange rate policy objective has been to prevent the
nominal appreciation of the peso, in order to protect
domestic industry.

14. (SBU) Local media reports that on March 11
representatives of UIA (Argentine Industrial Association),
the country's leading industrial association, met with
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Economic
Minister Martin Lousteau to discuss the energy crisis and the
loss of local industry's competitiveness as a result of a
declining RER (i.e., a real appreciation of the peso). UIA
said their competitiveness in international markets was being
undermined by the relatively stable nominal exchange rate (at
around 3.15 ARP/USD), coupled with increasing domestic

BUENOS AIR 00000433 004 OF 004


industrial salaries and higher costs in general (due to the
annual inflation of approximately 20%). The press speculated
that the UIA was pushing the GoA to devalue the peso.

15. (SBU) With actual inflation of over 20% (compared to
official inflation of 8.5% in 2007), the Central Bank's
informally fixed peg to the dollar is resulting in a real
appreciation of the peso. Although the RER against the
dollar (i.e., the purchasing power of the pesos needed to buy
one dollar in Argentina) is relatively stable when using
official inflation numbers, when using independent measures
of inflation, the RER would have been falling (i.e., the peso
appreciating). However, this gives an incomplete picture,
since Argentina has a diversified export profile and trades
with many countries in the world. Brazil represented 19% of
Argentine exports in 2007, followed by the EU (18%), China
(9%), Chile (7%), and the U.S. (7%). So, from a trading
perspective, the roles of the Euro and the Real are more
relevant than the role of the dollar. Since most of
Argentina's trading partners' currencies have appreciated
significantly against the dollar in recent years, Argentina's
multilateral RER has stayed relatively stable, despite high
inflation. The Central Bank's estimate of the multilateral
RER for Argentina's main trading partners, using the official
inflation rate, shows the peso depreciating. Even using much
higher independent inflation estimates, the multilateral RER
is relatively stable or appreciating slightly.

FIEL criticizes quality of GoA primary fiscal surplus
--------------------------------------------- --------
16. (SBU) Buenos Aires-based Latin American Economic
Foundation -- FIEL -- reports that Argentina's fiscal primary
surpluses in recent years have arisen from extraordinary
circumstances, with the implication that the GoA would not
enjoy such sound finances were it to follow more traditional
tax policies and global commodity prices were closer to their
long-term averages. (Note: FIEL is a highly regarded,
independent Argentine think tank devoted to economic and
social research on Argentina and Latin America.)

17. (SBU) FIEL contrasts the GoA's conventional fiscal
primary with its estimated "structural" primary surplus,
which estimates revenues based on three-year moving averages
for international commodity prices and local export taxes, a
financial transaction tax following the traditional Brazilian
rate of 0.38%, rather than the Argentine tax of 1.2%, and
also eliminates one-off transfers such as the $2.5 billion
transferred from the private pension funds system to the GoA
in 2007. FIEL analysis delivers a fiscal primary deficit of
around 0.5% of GDP for 2007 and 0.6% for 2008, even
considering that public expenditure growth has slowed to a
nominal annual rate of 36% so far in 2008, compared to the
over 50% expenditure growth rate in 2007. (Note: the actual
primary surplus was 3.2% of GDP in 2007 including one-off
transfers, or 2.2% excluding them, and private estimates for
2008 range from 3.5 to 4% of GDP, depending on revenue
collection from export taxes.)
WAYNE

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