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Doctored Data Cast Doubt on Argentina

In early 2007, several statisticians, data-entry clerks and field workers who collect consumer prices were replaced, the prosecutors' investigation has shown. The institute then began to report lower inflation figures, which are used to calculate poverty rates, economic growth and other statistics, according to documents at the attorney general's office.

"It's a maneuver that brought economic consequences and a lack of credibility in the information produced by the Argentine state," said Manuel Garrido, the former anti-corruption prosecutor who brought the case.

Economists say the official inflation rate of 8.5 percent in 2007 was really about 25 percent. In the 12 months ended this June, the INDEC put the rate at 5.3 percent, but economists say it might be three times higher. Argentina's vaunted economic growth this decade might have been exaggerated, too. Credit Suisse said the 7 percent expansion the government reported last year is likely 2 to 3 percent lower.

Political analysts and economists say the allegations have hurt the country's credibility with investors and its ability to access foreign credit, a market closed to Argentina after its 2001 default on $95 billion.

"It's very difficult to analyze the country as a result of statistics that can't be believed," said Fergus McCormick, senior vice president at DBRS, a New York credit-rating agency that tracks Argentina.

The controversy at the INDEC has cast a spotlight on a vital, if little understood, practice of economic planning -- the collection of socioeconomic data. Authorities use the data to set salaries and direct social services. Companies use the information to make long-term plans.

Government critics say officials in Néstor Kirchner's administration began fiddling with the INDEC figures as his wife's campaign to succeed him gathered momentum ahead of the October 2007 election.

Even so, by the spring of 2008, months after taking office, Fernández de Kirchner's popularity had plummeted after the country's powerful agricultural sector revolted against her economic policies. Analysts here say that disbelief over the INDEC figures -- polls showed that only one in 10 Argentines trusted official inflation figures -- further tarnished her image. In June, her ruling coalition was trounced in midterm congressional elections.

Raúl Cabral, who helps run the 120-year-old Progreso food market, said skepticism about the government's data has generated antipathy toward the Kirchners. "The inflation takes away their credibility," Cabral said. "They talk of inflation of 4 percent, and a liter of milk goes from one to two pesos."

What prosecutors call the illegal and arbitrary recording of economic data is said to have first taken place in January 2007. That was when a team headed by Graciela Bevacqua, a mathematician who oversaw the collection of consumer prices, tabulated that month's inflation at nearly 2 percent. Officials, though, released a 1.1 percent rate, said Bevacqua, whose account was backed up by the prosecutors' complaint.

"It was mathematically impossible," said Bevacqua, who no longer works at the institute.

Statisticians, mathematicians and survey-takers who still work at the INDEC described how managers stopped surveying products that had recorded steep price hikes. "If something went up more than 15 percent, they'd take it off the list," said Marcela Almeida, a mathematician and one of several workers deposed by prosecutors.

Almeida said managers would obsess about certain products, such as bread, urging surveyors to come back to the INDEC office with prices that remained low. If they were not low enough, Almeida said, "the person who received their forms would change this price."

The controversy has raised questions about the government's official poverty figure. The INDEC's calculation is 15.3 percent; the Catholic Church says it is closer to 40 percent. After Pope Benedict XVI called poverty in Argentina a "scandal" this month, the government acknowledged that as many as 23 percent of Argentines might be poor.

But economists, among them Juan Bour, of the Latin American Foundation for Economic Investigations, said they expect no major changes in the INDEC's data-gathering. "It would be a recognition of significant failure," Bour said.


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