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Argentina Didn't Fall on Its Own

"For Argentine citizens and for those investors who were willing to believe in [the government's] promises, the benefits are now becoming apparent," the Goldman report said. The nation's economy, which started to grow robustly in the early 1990s, expanded at an average 5.8 percent rate from 1996 through 1998.

As the report suggested, that success story translated into a compelling sales pitch for the Street.

The human scale of Argentina's crisis: People wait to search for food in garbage from a produce market outside Buenos Aires in May 2002. (File Photo/Diego Giudice -- AP)

_____Post Archive_____
Scrap by Scrap, Argentines Scratch Out a Meager Living (The Washington Post, Jun 7, 2003)
Gulf Between the Rich and the Poor Grows in Argentina (The Washington Post, May 16, 2003)
As Crime Soars, Argentines Alter Outgoing Ways (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2003)
Argentina Defaults On Debt Payment (The Washington Post, Nov 15, 2002)
Despair in Once-Proud Argentina (The Washington Post, Aug 6, 2002)
Argentina, Shortchanged: Former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz explains why the once-prosperous country is in economic meltdown: because it followed the advice of the International Monetary Fund.

Seeking to exploit a fevered atmosphere for emerging markets, firms such as Goldman, Morgan Stanley & Co. and Credit Suisse First Boston LLC built their presence in Argentina and neighboring countries by dispatching teams of economists and financial experts, many in their twenties and early thirties. They competed fiercely for "mandates" from governments to be lead managers of bond sales, especially in Argentina, whose government was the single largest emerging-market bond issuer. They found plenty of customers for the bonds in the United States and other wealthy countries among professional investors who managed hundreds of billions of dollars held in mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies and other large institutions.

"Every time we finished a meeting [with institutional investors], the orders would come," said Miguel Kiguel, who then was Argentina's finance secretary, recalling the demand for a $2 billion issue of 20-year bonds, managed in 1997 by J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch.

In the emerging-markets world, people "were making money hand over fist in those days," said Stewart Hobart, a recruiter working in the field. According to Hobart and other recruiters, strategists and senior economists at major banks typically earned $350,000 to $900,000 a year, including bonuses, while their bosses, the heads of emerging-markets research, were paid well more than $1 million.

Much was at stake for the firms in their Argentine business. Were it not for Argentina's prodigious bond sales, LatinFinance magazine reported in 1998, many emerging-market investment bankers "would probably have been twiddling their thumbs" that year, because crises in Asia and Russia caused capital flows to dry up to the markets they usually served.

One securities firm, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, reassured clients who were worried that Argentina would follow countries like Thailand and Indonesia into turmoil. "Argentina has come through the first phase of the Asian crisis with flying colors," the firm said in a June 1998 report, and it was "no coincidence. The economic fundamentals are considerably stronger than three and a half years ago."

Amid the ebullience, however, Argentina was laying the groundwork for its economic destruction.

Early Warning

In meetings with top Argentine policymakers in April 1998 to discuss the country's finances, a senior official of the International Monetary Fund, Teresa Ter-Minassian, sounded the alarm that the country might be headed for an Asian-style meltdown. "The Argentine economy contains a sort of Molotov cocktail," Ter-Minassian was quoted in Argentine media reports as saying.

Many economists' postmortems on the crisis agree: that was when Argentina went wrong, missing a crucial opportunity while the economy was going gangbusters to reduce its vulnerability to crisis.

In particular, the government had to shrink its budget deficit, because its constant borrowing was causing its debt load to increase, from 29 percent of gross domestic product in 1993 to 41 percent of GDP in 1998. Argentina had a special reason to exercise extraordinary prudence: the cherished convertibility system for the peso. If markets began to get jittery about the government's ability to repay its debts, they might well lose confidence in the currency, and overwhelm the system by dumping pesos for dollars.

Argentina's budget policy was "not all that bad" during the 1990s; "it just wasn't terrific at a time when terrific was needed," said Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development.

Globalization is supposed to keep problems like Argentina's from occurring. In theory, international financial markets reward sound economic policies by steering capital to countries that practice them. The influence of the capital inflow makes a government even more disciplined, because policymakers know that otherwise investors may yank their money out.

In practice, the gusher of foreign money lulled Argentina's government into complacency, acknowledged Rogelio Frigerio, who was secretary of economic policy in 1998. "If you get the money so easily as we did, it's very tough to tell the politicians, 'Don't spend more, be more prudent,' because the money was there, and they knew it," he said.

Argentina's best chance to put its economy on a sound footing was gone soon thereafter, as supercharged growth gave way to recession in 1999, mostly because of a financial crisis in neighboring Brazil. At that point, a vicious circle emerged: The slump caused tax revenue to fall, which widened the budget deficit, which aroused concern about the government's ability to service its debt, which caused markets to drop, which deepened the recession, and so on.

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