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Argentina Didn't Fall on Its Own

The index virtually forced big investors to lend vast sums to Argentina even if they feared that the country was likely to default in the long run, several money managers said. Although default would hurt their portfolios, they would still lose less than the index as long as they were a bit "underweight," meaning they held a smaller percentage of Argentine bonds than the index dictated.

They didn't dare be too far underweight. Money managers who shunned Argentine bonds were taking a huge risk, because their portfolios would almost certainly underperform the index in the event Argentine bonds rallied, as happened from time to time.

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.

So at investor gatherings, money managers who were asked their views and investment positions on Argentina would often say "negative" and "underweight," said Mohamed El-Erian, who manages emerging-market bonds at Pimco, the giant West Coast investment firm.

"The dreaded third question would come: 'How much underweight?'" El-Erian said. "They would say, 'It's 22 percent of the index. I can't possibly be more than 5 percent underweight.' So they'd have 17 percent of their money in Argentina."

Indexation survives for lack of a good alternative for measuring money managers' skills, but unhappiness over its flaws is widespread. Everyone knows that the system "can cause credit deterioration" by impelling more lending to borrowers with the most debt, said Michael Pettis, a professor at Columbia University Business School who was a managing director in the fixed income capital markets group at Bear Stearns.

It is like "a bizarre AA program in which you remove booze from the homes of people who are reducing the amount they drink and put it into the homes of people who are drinking more every day," Pettis said. "This is probably not the best way to reduce drunkenness."

Europe Bought In Big

Professional portfolio managers, of course, had a pretty good sense of the dicey game they were playing with Argentine bonds. The same could not be said of some others.

Felicia Migliorini, a divorcee who lives north of Rome, sank her life savings, about $135,000, into Argentine bonds in March 2001. About 400,000 fellow Italians did the same; together with other individuals, mostly in Europe, they now hold about $24 billion in claims on the bankrupt Argentina government.

Migliorini has been forced to put her apartment up for sale because she cannot afford the condominium fees and other expenses. Like thousands of other Italians, she blames her bank, which sold her the bonds. Lawsuits are flying; the banks contend that the purchasers were mostly wealthy, sophisticated people who surely realized what sort of risks they were taking. But Migliorini is outraged. "They told me [the bonds] were good, stable, guaranteed, and that since they were obligations they had to be paid back," she said.

European retail investors like Migliorini were an attractive market for the syndicates selling Argentine bonds. Professional money managers in the United States were often reluctant to buy at the yields the Argentine authorities were willing to pay. So the syndicates tailored a number of their offerings to Europe, in local currencies.

One attraction of the European market was that regulations protecting small investors are substantially less strict than in the United States.

"That's what kept Argentina going," said Tom White, who at the time was employed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. as an emerging-market bond manager. "Those poor suckers didn't have a clue as to what they were buying."

For Argentina, "keeping the country going" might sound beneficial. But a different conclusion could be reached as the recession dragged on and the government's debt neared 50 percent of gross domestic product in late 2000. The longer Argentina was kept going with infusions of cash, and the more the country delayed facing unpleasant realities about its plight, the more cataclysmic a crash it would suffer.

At a closed-door meeting at the Argentine Embassy in Washington in October 2000 to discuss the country's finances, Calomiris, the Columbia professor, urged that the government summarily reduce the amount of its debt payments by 20 to 30 percent. The country, he recalled saying, was ensnared in a trap: The markets were demanding increasingly high interest payments on the mountain of debt at rates far in excess of the economy's capacity to grow.

Foreign creditors were bound to conclude sooner or later that the debt was unpayable in full, Calomiris warned, and if Argentina continued trying to honor its obligations it would only build up more vulnerability to complete financial breakdown.

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