Move over Gemeva, Bonn, Abijan and Tokyo. Buenos Aires is on its way to becoming the Argentina's capital city already has overtaken the rest of the world in two important categories as it races for first place in the "most expensive" sweepstakes.
Inflation, which was a breathtaking 170 percent here last year, is doing even better so far this year. And there is a chance, based on January's official cost of living index, that Buenos Aires could achieve an overall increase of more than 320 percent during 1979, a record that no other city in the world will match.
Secondly, housing here already costs more than in any other world capital, according to official U.S. State Department comparative statistics.An American diplomat with a family is now allowed to spend up to $25,000 a year to rent a house, which works out to $2,125 a month.
Geneva (at $16,400 a year), Bonn (at $10,700) and Tokyo (at $9,500) are cheap by comparison.
"I came from Caracas," an American diplomat said recently, his voice reflecting his disbelief at what he has experienced since being reassigned to Buenos Aires a year ago. "Venezuela is supposed to be one of the most expensive countries in the world, but here the prices go up almost every day. "It's become even more expensive than it was there. Living in the states has become a bargain. This place just drives you crazy."
Contributing to the craziness, at least for Americans and other foreigners who receive their salaries in dollars, is the Argentine government's deliberate policy of devaluing the peso against the greeback, which lost 38 percent of its purchasing power last year, according to the U.S. Embassy.
In December, the government announced exchange rates for the dollar against the peso through August. On Jan. 1, the dollar bought exactly 1,000 pesos. By Aug. 31, the dollar will buy 1,418 pesos.
Although this will mean an increase in nominal terms of more than 40 percent, not a single economist here thinks inflation during that period won't not be at least 80 percent. At the rate things are going, it could be more than 200 percent.
Inflation here is so horrendous that the American Embassy in Buenos Aires has three senior officials who spend at least half their time doing nothing but measuring it. Instead of yearly cost-of-oiving surveys, which are the norm in other U.S. embassies around the world, the embassy here conducts its surveys every two months.
Based on a survey performed last July, the State Department officially recognized that Buenos Aires was more expensive than Washington last October when it awarded American diplomats here a 5 percent cost-of-living differential based on a comparision of prices in both cities.
In January, the State Department added another 5 percent differential, and the embassy, based on its most recent survey, is hoping for another 10 percent increase as soon as the computers in Foggy Bottom digest the latest horror stories sent up from Argentina.
"The problem is that the system up there just isn't geared to a situation like we have here," one diplomat said. "It takes two to three months for all the computer work to be done in Washington, and by then prices here have already skyrocketed 30 percent or 40 percent more."
Price statistics are usually boring, but those coming out of Argentina these days are so incredible that they should make Americans back home thankful for the double-digit inflation they worry so much about.
According to the U.S. Embassy here, just between Jan. 26 and Feb. 23, the price of a kilogram of coffee went from 7,800 to 8,600 pesos, an increase of 10.2 percent. During the same period, the price of a bottle of local beershot up from 620 pesos to 750 (69 cents), an increase of 20 percent.
A 100-watt light bulb went from 690 pesos to to 850 (70 cents), an increase of 23 percent), while a liter of apple juice cost 990 pesos (91 cents) compared with 850 pesos a month earlier, an increase of 16 percent.
A 12-ounce container of Glade air freshener cost $3.32 at the end of February, Johnson's Baby Shampoo cost $3.60 and a gallon of ice cream cost a rather astonighing $24.
There still are some things in Argentina that are cheaper than in the United States, such as public transportation. A subway ride from any part of Buenos Aires to aby other part costs only 13 cents. On the other hand, cars that would cost no more than $6,500 in the United States sell for double the price in Argentina.
Many Argentines say that about the only thing that is still cheap in Buenos Aires is the dollar, which is clearly undervalued. The clearest sign of that is that it is now cheaper to spend three weeks in Miami than in Mar Del Plata, Argentina's version of Atlantic City. As a result, a record number of Argentine tourists will vaction in the United States this year.
While the hyperinflation Argentina is experiencing has hurt Americnas living here, it has had an even greater impact on working-class Argentines, whose wages are adjusted upwards each month by 4 percent, which means in January they lost another 8 percent to inflation.
Economics Minister Jose Martinez de Hoz is under attack from almost every quarter although he still appears to have the confidence of the military junta that runs the country. Nonetheless, there is increasing speculation that if a significant improvement in the inflation rate is not evidnet by August, President Jorge Videla will fire Martinez de Hoz.
Last year, Martinez de Hoz put Argentina through a recession, hoping that manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers would decide to lower their prices in an effort to sell more goods. That idea didn't work because, as the economics minister has since scknowledged, businessmen here preferred to raise their prices and make larger profits on the fewer items they were able to sell.
So the economic team will try a different tack this year. Tariffs on imported goods will be lowered substantially, which, coupled with a relatively cheap dollar, should mean that Argentine manufacturers will have to keep their prices in line or lose substantial business to goods manufactured abroad.